Signature in the Cell: The Definition of Life

“What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,
    made earth overflow with your wonderful creations. Oh, look—the deep, wide sea, brimming with fish past counting, sardines and sharks and salmon”

(Psalm 104:24-25, MSG).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

CHRISTIANS TODAY ARE FREQUENTLY looked upon with suspicion as a subculture that holds strange, old-fashioned, narrow-minded views on the origin of the universe, the nature of man, and the existence of a supreme being. In certain circles, especially politics and academia, there is a degree of condescension, suspicion, and contempt. The world sees Christians as “haters” or “bashers,” labeling us  elitist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, and delusional. Unfortunately, this is due in part to the words Christians use when taking on today’s culture. Still others say Christians are on the opposite side of science, believing in a fairy tale God, holding irrational beliefs as to the origin of life and the universe. Although Christians are called upon to be ready to defend the Gospel at any time, 1 Peter 3:15 provides a clear admonition that when doing so we are to show courtesy and respect.

Darwin Portrait

In Darwin’s time, few, if any biologists talked about biological or genetic information. Today, they routinely refer to DNA, RNA, and proteins: carriers or repositories of information. Biologists tell us that DNA stores and transmits “genetic information,” that it contains a genetic message, including instructions—a genetic blueprint or digital code—regarding how the life it “represents” should be assembled. Biology has recently entered its own information age. Scientists seeking to explain the origin of life have taken note. Life is not made up of mere matter and energy, but also information. Since matter and energy existed before life, this critical aspect of living organisms is now center stage. Inanimate matter cannot write the information necessary for life. At some point, biological information came into existence. Consequently, theories that claim to explain the origin of life must answer the genetics question.

It’s a Matter of Information

What exactly is “biological information?” Beginning in the 1940s, mathematicians and computer scientists began to define, study, measure, and quantify information. They made distinctions between several types of information. What kind of information does DNA contain? What kind of information must origin-of-life researchers explain the origin of? DNA contains specific information that deepens the mystery surrounding life. Most of us use the term information to describe some piece of knowledge. According to the standard definition, information holds two distinct meanings: (i) facts provided or learned about something or someone; and (ii) what is conveyed or represented by an arrangement or sequence of things. The second definition is on point regarding our discussion on the origin of biological or genetic information. It refers to genetically transmitted information. The specific “code” of life itself. It is a rather dubious claim to state that genetic information came from nothing; that it “wrote” itself. Moreover, information specific to the second definition equals an arrangement or string of characters that accomplishes a particular outcome or performs a function of communication.

Indeed, DNA contains alternative sequences of nucleotides that can produce some specific effect. This certainly indicates that DNA contains information or, if you prefer, instructions, regarding life. Neither DNA nor the cellular machinery that uses its information is conscious. As an appropriate comparison, neither does software “code” comprehend the existence of the software program itself. Yet clearly software contains a kind of information or instruction. Strikingly, its code is made up of some combination of zeros and ones: yes/no, left/right, this/that. How much more complex is the genetic code of a living organism?

Information theory was developed in the 1940s—81 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which he claimed explained the development of the rather complicated and sometimes messy process of speciation. In was in the 1940s that MIT engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon was studying an obscure branch of algebra. Few people were paying attention. He had taken nineteenth-century mathematician George Boole’s system of putting logical expressions in mathematical form and applied its categories of “true” and “false” to switches found in electronic circuits. I am reminded of my study of basic electronics and electrical systems in the 1970s as a high school student, wherein the movement of energy through a circuit was determined by whether a switch was “open” or “closed.” Shannon’s master’s thesis has been called “possibly the most important, and also the most famous, master’s thesis of the century.” It eventually became the foundation for digital-circuit and digital-computer theory. Today, structures exhibiting specified complexity in living organisms are completely unknown and unknowable apart from the DNA, RNA, and proteins that establish their genetic features.

Applying Information Theory to Life

Obviously, there is a tremendous amount of variation between species. Species—groups of similar organisms within a genus—are designated by biochemical and other phenotypic criteria and by DNA relatedness, based on their overall genetic similarity. You may recall from ninth-grade biology class that living organisms (whether animal or plant, zebra or zucchini) are divided into seven levels: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.

Classification System.png

There are five kingdoms, which are determined by how living organisms obtain their food, the types of cells that make up their body, and the number of cells they contain. Phylum gives us a grouping of physical similarities. Class designation narrows similarities even further. For example, the reason man is considered a mammal is because we too drink milk from our birth mothers. Order is based on taxonomy—a checklist of characteristics that determines how organisms are grouped together. Orders are then divided into families. Because they share much genetic information, organisms in a family are said to be related to each other. Genus is a way to describe the genetic name for an organism. Species is the most specific classification of living organisms, hence the word used to label the category. The root for this term comes from the Latin specificus meaning “constituting a kind or sort.” Accordingly, when we identify a subject in conversation, we are said to get specific.

Consider species with which we are familiar. We recognize zebras by their stripes, elephants by their trunks, giraffes by their long necks, bald eagles by the color of the feathers on their heads, and monarch butterflies by the patterns on their gossamer wings. Species are defined by their traits. This is true across all life. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, starfish, sea urchins, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, worms of all kinds, shellfish, octopi, snails, corals, jellyfish, sponges, mosses, ferns, grasses, orchids, fruit trees, fungi, algae, bacteria, and all the life forms on earth possess unique combinations of traits. The origin of species is a question of the origin of traits. If you want to know the origin of zebras, you need to discover the origin of stripes. The origin of plants is bound up in the origin of trunks. Giraffe origins are inextricable from the origin of long necks. The origin of any species is found in the origin of the traits that define them. Examination of traits must include microscopic observation.

Let’s Get Specific

Somatic cells (i.e., non-reproductive cells) divide through a process of cell division termed mitosis. In both animals and plants, before the nucleus breaks down, structures that look like flexible noodles (called chromosomes) appear during a period termed prophase. Through prometaphase, the membrane surrounding the nucleus breaks down. The process continues through a complicated sequence of events. Because the process of nuclear division is so complex, it suggests a functional role for chromosomes. If chromosomes were inert and irrelevant to heredity, why would cells take such care to pass them on via such a unique and detailed cycle?dna helixThe answer to the how of DNA function is intricately bound up in the structure of DNA. Any potential structure for DNA must show how it could carry complex hereditary information. The architecture cannot simply repeat unchanging units. Chemically, the structure of DNA would need to be stable over many generations in order to pass traits along to future generations. For example, elephants produce more elephants each generation, giraffes more giraffes, bald eagles more bald eagles, and so on. The stable framework of DNA is the only explanation for this phenomenon. In addition, DNA must suggest a method by which it can be replicated. Without consistent transformation of genetic information, hereditary traits would become diluted and, ultimately, extinguished. Theoretically, this would result in a gradual fading of features familiar between parent and offspring, and, consequently, between homo sapiens.

Biologists eventually discovered the double helix, the structural relationship between DNA and chromosomes. DNA doesn’t exist in chromosomes as a long, straight stretch of helix. Rather, chromosomes represent dense forms of DNA. This is accomplished by packaging of DNA—cells wrap these helices around proteins in progressively higher levels of concentration to form the familiar chromosome shape. When sperm and egg fuse, the chromosomes of the sperm join the same nuclear compartment as the chromosomes of the egg. Interestingly, these paternal and maternal chromosomes exist as individual entities, carrying coded information from each parent. In other words, since both the father and the mother provide an equal number of chromosomes, both parents make an equal contribution to the features of the newly conceived offspring. Given the intricate science of heredity, it is simply impossible for the DNA of a giraffe to morph into the DNA of a chimpanzee. An offspring mimics its parents, period.

Remarkably, the physical basis for heredity—the nature of the very code of life—was not uncovered until nearly 100 years after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species. This is indeed a significant bone of contention. Without this genetic information, Darwin could not have accurately argued for the origin of species. If he had no concept of how traits were written in a genetic code, he could not have identified the origin of any particular trait. In addition, he had no biogenetic knowledge that giraffes cannot become buffaloes. Moreover, reptiles cannot develop into mammals. It is simply not possible—not even through mutation. In other words, Darwin could not logically argue that through survival of the fittest a salamander became more adept at surviving in trees, leading them to eventually become birds, flying from tree to tree in the acquiring of food. This violates the very code of speciation.

What Are the Odds?

Carl Sagan Photo.jpg

The arguments presented by today’s New Atheists fly in the face of logic and probability. They espouse their theory on the origin of life amidst a vacuum of proof. Indeed, despite mathematical probability. I was a huge fan of Carl Sagan. My father and I used to watch his weekly television program on PBS. I loved hearing him utter those famous words, “…billions and billions.”  Sagan went to his grave viewing the universe as nothing more than molecules in motion. Granted, we and everything around us are comprised of molecules. Looking at the atom, we see a tiny universe unto itself—protons and neutrons orbiting a nucleus. Stepping back, we can see each atom orbiting other atoms in myriad combinations specific to the type of substance it is—air, water, carbon, hydrogen, grass, trees, the family dog, the food we eat, even the screen on which you are viewing these words. In fact, molecules of light are making it possible for you to see your computer screen.

BigBang

Sagan, and others, would have us believe this finely-tuned orchestra of atoms circling atoms, planets circling the sun, the Milky Way circling other universes, just “happened” at some indiscriminate point in the observable past, when the universe just burst forth from a singular point of extremely hot and extremely dense matter. Matter, incidentally, which they claim popped into existence out of nothing. They fail to explain why it is okay for their theory to violate the laws of thermodynamics. Something cannot come from nothing. Energy cannot create itself. Further, prior to the Big Bang (which, by the way, is a term that does adequately describe the point when the universe began) time, space, and matter simply did not exist.

Donald Page of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Science has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000124 which is a number that exceeds all imagination. Astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe found that the odds of the random formation of a single enzyme from amino acids anywhere on our planet’s surface are one in 1020 and, in addition, that there are about two thousand enzymes. The probability of these enzymes assembling randomly in a pattern that could define life is only one part in (1020 ) 20,000 or 1040,000. This is an outrageously small probability that could not be achieved even if the entire universe consisted of a dense organic soup. This is just one step in the formation of life. Nothing has yet been said about DNA and where it came from, or of the transcription of DNA to RNA, which scientists say cannot even be numerically computed.

Scientists have yet to thoroughly explain mitosis and meiosis. The first term mitosis refers to a cell dividing into two clones of itself, each with the same number of chromosomes. On the other hand, meiosis describes cell division that produces four cells (called gametes). These gametes are more commonly called sperm in males and eggs in females. Unlike in mitosis, the gametes produced by meiosis are not clones of the original cell, because each gamete has exactly half as many chromosomes as the original cell. A chromosome is a thread-like object (scientists literally called them threads or loops when they were first discovered) made of a material called chromatin.

dna

Chromatin is made of DNA and special structural proteins called histones. One way to think of a chromosome is as one very long strand of DNA, with a bunch of histone proteins stuck to it like beads on a string. Chromosomes are stored in the nuclei of cells. If you compare the diameter of a cell nucleus (between 2 and 10 microns) to the length of a chromosome (between 1 and 10 centimeters, when fully extended!), you can see that a chromosome must be scrunched up into a very small package in order to fit inside a nucleus. The average chromosome is about a thousand times longer than a cell nucleus is wide. The situation is a bit like how a very long snake can coil up into a tight ball. This process is known, but the mechanism is not understood.

Joey Lagarbo, a scientist who works in the field of genetics, stated, “I completely understand where [this] comes from but at the end of the day it will only confuse you more. There are 46 chromosomes in a diploid human cell or 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes. Each of these 46 chromosomes do replicate but are still attached to each other by a centromere (that’s how we get the prototypical X shape of a chromosome). Each replicated chromosome is composed of two sister chromatids that are attached at the hip by a centromere; they are NOT completely separated. In other words, we went from 46 ‘I’ shaped chromosomes to 46 ‘X’ shaped chromosomes.” Someone responded to Lagarbo’s explanation by saying, “I understand this, but if someone could explain [the] conceptual problem it would be very much appreciated.”

A Change of Worldview

Jean Paul Sarte.jpgI want to share something about Jean-Paul Sartre. He was a French atheist and existential philosopher, most noted for his 1943 Being and Nothingness. Sartre promoted an anti-deterministic philosophy. In other words, science not based on causality. That’s scary! This is a type of existentialism based on the “logic” that existence precedes essence, and that matter is only defined by what man thinks it is. Man, according to Sartre’s initial philosophy, first materializes into the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself. There is no “definition” of anything outside of man’s opinion as to what it means to him. This is an anti-materialistic worldview that stands at odds with the scientific basis of existence. He wrote, “The effect of any form of materialism is to treat all men—including oneself—as objects, which is to say as a set of predetermined reactions indistinguishable from the properties and phenomena that constitute, say, a table, a chair, or a stone.”

The problem is that man is said to be free to choose—to invent himself and the physical universe. There would therefore be no genetic code for anything, let alone ethics. No ontological proscription for how man should behave. This is the very essence of moral relativism: The view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to culture and the zeitgeist of each historical period. No standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Amazingly, Sartre underwent a deathbed conversion espousing the grace of God and the “creatureliness” of man. Reversing himself, he said, “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God” [emphasis mine].

Divine Design

The astronomical evidence for God must be strong when atheistic scientists admit that the universe exploded out of nothingness. Agnostic astronomers now claim that supernatural forces were at work in the beginning, leading them back to a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. But the scientific evidence for God does not end with the Cosmological Argument. For many, the precision with which the universe exploded into being provides even more persuasive evidence for the existence of God. This evidence, technically known as the Teleological Argument, derives its name from the Greek word telos, which means “design.”

The essence of the Teleological Argument is this:

  • Every design has a designer
  • The universe has a highly complex design
  • Therefore, the universe has a Designer

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) wrote, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” William Paley (1743-1805) made the now-famous argument by his commonsense assertion that every watch requires a watchmaker. Imagine you’re walking along in the woods and you find a diamond-studded Rolex on the ground. What do you conclude is the cause of that watch: The wind and the rain? Erosion? Perhaps some combination of natural forces? Not at all! There is absolutely no question in your mind that some intelligent being made that watch, and that some unfortunate individual must have accidentally dropped it in the woods.

Our universe is, in fact, even more complex than that watch—containing a planet with a myriad of improbable and independent life-supporting conditions that make it a tiny oasis in a vast and hostile universe. Odds noted above that Princeton’s Donald Page put forth, and which astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe added to some time later, support intelligent design. These highly precise and interdependent conditions (which are called “anthropic constants”) make up what is known as the “Anthropic Principle.” In essence, the Anthropic Principle states that the universe is extremely fine-tuned (designed) to support human life here on earth. But this concept is more than a mere supposition. It is dependent on particular conditions:

  1. Oxygen Level. On earth, oxygen comprises 21 percent of the atmosphere. That precise figure is an anthropic constant that makes life on earth possible. If the oxygen level was just a few percentage points higher, fires would erupt spontaneously; if it were a few percentage points lower, human beings would suffocate. We know this is true from numerous summits at Mount Everest that require climbers to gradually acclimate to lower levels of oxygen higher up the mountain. Typically, climbers must supplement their need with bottled oxygen or risk dying from high-altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema (HACE or HAPE).
  2. Atmospheric Transparency. The small window astronauts must hit reflects the exacting standards by which the universe has been designed. While the atmosphere presents a reentry problem for astronauts, its present qualities are absolutely essential for life here on earth. The degree of transparency of the atmosphere is an anthropic constant. If the atmosphere were less transparent, not enough solar energy would reach the surface. If it were more transparent, we could be bombarded with a lethal amount of solar energy. Moreover, the atmospheric composition of precise levels of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ozone are in themselves antropic constants. (This is why we’ve heard near-doomsday warnings about a thinning of or a hole in the ozone layer.)
  3. Moon-Earth Gravitational Interaction. If the gravitational interaction between the moon and the earth were greater than it currently is, tidal effects on the oceans, atmosphere, and rotational period would be too severe. If it were weaker, orbital changes would cause serious climate instability. In either event, life on earth would be impossible.
  4. Carbon Dioxide Level. Precisely the correct amount of carbon dioxide is maintained naturally in the earth’s atmosphere. In fact, forests play a critical role in the global carbon cycle by absorbing carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, storing carbon above and below ground, and producing oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Consider the danger of increased “carbon footprints” created by various forms of pollution, including transportation and manufacturing. The phrase  greenhouse gases is based on the increased “greening” of our trees, which is causing higher concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere.
  5. Gravity. The gravity that is pulling earth’s inhabitants to the surface is also an anthropic constant. Its strength may be frightening and mysterious, but it couldn’t be any different for life to exist. If the gravitational force were altered by 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000001 percent, our sun would not exist, and, therefore, neither would we. Now that’s precise design!

Typically, atheists respond to the concept of an Anthropic Principle in one of two ways. Some admit there’s some kind of Designer. Astronomer Fred Hoyle had his atheistic beliefs shaken, responding to this concept by agreeing that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and biology. Although he was vague, Hoyle recognized that the fine-tuning of the universe requires intelligence. Other atheists admit design but then claim there is no Designer. They say this precise tuning “happened by chance.” This flies in the face of basic logic. How can the universe be designed (indeed, finely-tuned) without a “tuner?” Pianos cannot possibly tune themselves. Nor could the universe have “designed” itself.

Concluding Remarks

John Glenn, on his return to space in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.” Nearly 2,000 years ago Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20, RSV). Evidence of a heavenly Designer is clear, but man often takes it for granted or, more typically, sets out to prove a negative: There is no God, therefore God did not create the universe. C.S. Lewis, in his iconic book The Screwtape Letters provides great insight into this tendency we have to take for granted the amazing world around us. It seems that in our empirical world we are too busy to slow down and contemplate the universe and our place in it.

All instruction, all teaching, all training, comes with intent. Someone who writes an instruction manual does so with purpose. Every cell in our bodies contains a very detailed instruction code, much like a miniature computer program. A computer program is written in the language of ones and zeros: 110010101011000. The way they are arranged tell the computer program what to do. The DNA in each of our cells is very similar. It’s made up of four chemicals: adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. When mapping genomes, scientists abbreviate these chemicals A, T, G, and C. These are arranged in the human cell similar to the following: CGTGTGACTCGCTCCTGAT. I find it remarkable that there are approximately three billion letters arranged in code for every cell in a living organism. The very function of each cell is determined by how the code is written.

We’re often told by “scientists” that God does not exist. They don’t leave it there. They also add that science cannot prove the presence of a metaphysical concept or an ephemeral being. Of course, the “logical” conclusion they come to is God is not real. The irony is not lost on me that they are trying to prove a negative by using the same science that actually points to several critical points: (i) the universe began as a very hot and very dense singularity; (ii) energy and matter cannot create itself; (iii) the universe is expanding, and will ultimately cease to exist due to entropy and chaos; (iv) all physical elements, from from the subatomic level to the the endless expanse of the universe, orbit each other in an extremely well-tuned dance; (v) the Anthropic Principle provides a critical examination of five major factors which, if altered even one tittle, would cause the extinction of all forms of life on earth.

The laws of physics, when applied uniformly and fairly, indicate that the universe could not have created itself. The scientific principle cause and effect fails to support the birth of our universe from nothing, as there is no known explanation for the cause of the singularity or the cause of the “explosion” that formed everything. Scientists who accept that the universe was formed from the Big Bang believe their assumptions are true. However, they too rely on “faith” to conclude that that the universe was born at the precise moment of the Big Bang from an infinitely small point of hot, dense matter for which they have no explanation of its original source. Simply stated, they have absolutely no theory for the original source of this matter and energy. William Paley’s logical conclusion was that every watch requires a watchmaker.

Evolution: Augmenting God?

Evolution must now be understood and explained at the molecular level.

Evolution is a rather malleable term. It can be used by me, for example, to mean something as simple as change over time. You might use it to mean the descent of all life forms from a common ancestor. In its full-on, biological sense, however, evolution means a process whereby life arose from non-living matter and ultimately culminated in an estimated 8.7 billion species on Earth. Approximately 1 to 2 million of those species are animals.

Not surprisingly, Darwinian evolution is being stretched to its limits by recent discoveries in biochemistry: the branch of science concerned with chemical and physiochemical processes and substances that occur within living organisms. This field looks at the molecules that make up our cells and tissues and those that catalyze the chemical reactions to digestion, photosynthesis, immunity, and more. Biochemists mainly study the structures and functions of enzymes, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, process of metabolism and the molecular basis of the action of genes.

EVOLUTION BY NATURAL SELECTION

When Darwin published On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859 he consciously avoided discussing the origin of life. It is assumed by many that Darwin was the first to theorize evolution, natural selection, and the development of species. However, scientists were kicking around the idea of evolution before Darwin. Darwin’s contribution was specific to natural selection—organisms vary, and sometimes these variations can better suit individuals to their environment, thus boosting their chances of passing down these traits to future generations. Even if we assume, for the sake of discussion, that life did begin as a single cell [of course, I’d be of the belief that God created that original single cell], the chief defect of Darwin’s theory is that it throws no light on the origin of that primitive organism. 

Darwin’s theory is basically quite simple. He observed variations among species: some are bigger or taller; some are slow while others are fast; some live under water and some live deep in the Amazon. He reasoned that since food supplies are limited, the ones whose chance variation gave them an advantage in the struggle for life would tend to survive and reproduce, beating out others of their species. His theory, as taught in high schools across the country for decades, is a biological “explanation” of how creatures have supposedly evolved or developed progressively through natural selection and variation (now known as mutation) over eons of time from a tiny cell to the largest creatures on earth today.

What is taught in classrooms is not mere micro evolution—small changes within a species—but macro evolution, the change from one type of creature to another quite distinct life form. And it is being taught in most schools as the only plausible explanation for the origin of life itself.

John M. Wynne wrote in The Fossil Record and the Fall of Darwin’s Last Icon,

“Given the historical consequences of Darwinism—namely, its foundational role in the ideologies leading to World War I, World War II, the spread of communism, the humanist takeover of public education and the judiciary, the legalization of abortion and the on-going culture of death, as well as much confused theology and various attacks on the family—continued belief in human evolution constitutes a tragedy of immeasurable proportions and is arguably the most harmful deception in the history of the world since the Fall of Adam and Eve.”

CHANCE—AN INTEGRAL PART

We can’t deny that chance is an integral part of the evolutionary process. Mutations—capable of leading to hereditary variations—often arise completely at random, independent of whether they are beneficial or harmful. This random process comes up against natural selection. Typically, the end result is preservation of those traits that prove useful and elimination of those that are harmful. There would be no evolution without mutation. Natural selection plays a key role in the mutation process—keeping things from becoming disorganized and out of hand, which can ultimately lead to mutations. Most mutations are disadvantageous. As a rule, they tend to degrade genetic material.

Chance variation did not originate with Darwin. William Paley (1809) argued in Natural Theology that living things and most everything about them are the products of design, not chance.

Paley wrote,

“What does chance ever do for us? In the human body, for instance, chance, i.e. the operation of causes without design, may produce a wen, a wart, a mole, a pimple, but never an eye. [Never was] an organized body of any kind, answering a valuable purpose by a complicated mechanism, the effect of chance. In no assignable instance hath such a thing existed without intention somewhere” (Paley, 1809, pp. 62-63).

Randomness remains the disturbing center of Darwin’s theory.

According to Curtis Johnson, political theorist at Lewis and Clark College, the central controversy in Darwin’s work is not the theory of natural selection itself, but Darwin’s staunch reliance on randomness to explain natural phenomena. Perhaps not wanting to “water down” his science, Darwin tried to cover up this issue by replacing the words “accident” and “chance” with terms like “spontaneous variation” in later editions of his work. Nevertheless, the change was a matter of semantics. Darwin would argue that chance stood in for unknown laws—consistent rules which were not yet known, but would [eventually] explain why individuals, both within and across species, were different. Amazingly, it is reported that in his more private and less guarded moments Darwin suggested that “the cause of at least some variations is unknowable, even in principle.”

Darwin put it this way,

“[Evolution by natural selection] absolutely depends on what we in our ignorance call spontaneous or accidental variation. Let an architect be compelled to build an edifice with uncut stones, fallen from a precipice. The shape of each fragment may be called accidental; yet the shape of each has been determined by the force of gravity, the nature of the rock, and the slope of the precipice—events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural laws; but there is no relation between these laws and the purpose for which each fragment is used by the builder. In the same manner the variations of each creature are determined by fixed and immutable laws; but these bear no relation to the living structure which is slowly built up through the power of selection, whether this be natural or artificial selection” (1875, 2:236).

Attributing variation to chance leads to a rather sticky theology. If God is all powerful, how can he roll the dice with each infant, doling out disadvantages and, at worst, crippling, painful, terminal birth defects? Please realize, I do not believe God is responsible for deformity, deficiency, weakness, flaw, or imperfection. I don’t hold the opinion that God gives birth defects to babies or causes the birth of albino deer or cats with two faces. Incidentally, Darwin had no answer for this issue, which led to his loss of faith in God. Some have suggested it is likely he kept his commitment to chance from his God-minded colleagues and the public. Eventually, Darwin adopted a full-blown materialistic determinism. Darwin concluded that because unknown laws of chance were responsible for individual character and appetites, there was no space left for free will. Matter determines.

There was a problem with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He had no idea how it worked. Offspring had a mix of their parents’ features, sure. But how? What was the mechanism at work at the exact moment of conception? This was a huge hole in Darwin’s theory.

WHAT DARWIN DIDN’T KNOW

New aspects of evolution have come to light with the introduction of advanced technologies that didn’t exist during Darwin’s era.

What would it take for the accidental spark of a single living cell? Before you respond, remember even the most elementary form of life is more complicated than any man-made thing on earth. The entire workings of New York City are less complicated than the makeup of the simplest microscopic cell. Scientists say the structure of a single cell is unbelievably intricate. The chance for a proper combination of molecules into amino acids, and then into proteins with the properties of life, is entirely unrealistic. Charles Eugene Guye, a Swiss mathematician, computed the odds against such an occurrence at merely one chance in 10 to the 160th. That means 10 multiplied by itself 160 times—a number too large even to articulate.

Frank Allen, PhD, Cornell University Professor of Biophysics, expressed it this way,

“The amount of matter to be shaken together to produce a single molecule of protein would be millions of times greater than in the whole universe. For it to occur on earth alone would require many, almost endless, billions of years” (The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe, p. 23).

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—which he tried to parlay into an explanation for the origin of all species—had been considered settled beyond challenge by the majority of biologists and other life scientists, as well as public school teachers and college professors, until recently. So what has changed?

Nathaniel T. Jeanson has claimed in Replacing Darwin: The New Origin of Species, “…the events of the last 130 years have rewritten the history of life on this planet” (pg. 9). Frankly, this was inevitable. We’ve come to see the substance of life as being made up of billions of interconnecting jigsaw puzzle pieces. I remember my first IMAX movie at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian. It was called The Power of 10. The premise of the documentary was a look inward (inner space) then outward (outer space) by units of ten for as far as technology allows us to see. I was struck by how the molecular level of all matter—whether living or not (air, water, or solid)—is tenaciously yet remarkably cohesive.

This is true across all life. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, starfish, sea urchins, crustaceans, arachnids, insects, worms of all sorts, shellfish, octopi, snails, corals, jellyfish, sponges, mosses, ferns, conifers, grasses, orchids, fruit trees, fungi, algae, bacteria, and all the other life forms on earth possess unique combinations of traits, which are stored at a molecular level. DNA is the code that allows us to read those combinations. Jeanson believes the question of the origin of species is rooted in the origin of traits. He writes, “If you want to know the origin of zebras, you need to discover the origin of stripes…” He says, for example, the origin of eagles goes hand in hand with the origin of white feathers. The origin of the rest of the species is found in the origin of the traits that define them.

It’s been said that since species are defined by their traits, the origin of traits constrains the picture of the origin of species. Any attempt to understand the origin of traits must include an explanation of how DNA controlled the behavior of traits. And if we got to the mystery of the how—if we cracked the code for the mechanism by which traits got coded or programmed—could we then learn to cause a complete shift in the program? Could we cause leopards to become whales, for instance? Is it possible to use CRISPR technology to create our own spotted whale? CRISPRs (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) are sections of DNA.

The point of all this conjecture is to spotlight the complexity of DNA and genetic traits. 

I Though Darwin Didn’t Know Genetics!

If Darwin had no background or understanding in genetics, how could he write a book he brazenly claimed to explain the origin of species? Moreover, if genetic data were absent from his thesis, then how could he have made any semblance of a scientific argument for the origin of species? It was agreed by most scientists of that time period that offspring did indeed get their physical characteristics from their parents, but how and in what ratios was unclear. This was one of the main arguments opponents of Darwin at the time had against his theory. He was unable to explain how inheritance happened. Sadly, because the field of genetics did not exist until the 1900s, scientists of Darwin’s time did not know to look for the molecule that carries genetic information from generation to generation.

Further, consider the weakness of the data available to him. Fossils don’t directly record genealogical relationships. What’s worse, fossils can only tell us about ancestry after a model of genetics has been assumed. Accordingly, any great insights into the question of traits and ancestry must follow the discovery of genetics. Of course, Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species before genetics was even a scientific field. Consequently, for Darwin fossils were unable to unilaterally answer the question of traits and ancestry, which he didn’t admit in his writings.

Darwin never addressed the concept of epigenetics: heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence. An epigenetic change can be caused by factors such as age, environment, lifestyle, or disease. Simply, epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.

Convergence

I am a proponent of the convergence of science and religion. Additionally, I am hoping to have an impact on aiding the integration of psychology and Christian theology. I believe truth is truth; further, all truth is God’s truth. We know truth—that which has been settled as verifiable fact—cannot contradict truth. Scientific and religious truths, by their very definition, are reconcilable. Moreover, science and faith can enrich each other. They tell the same story, albeit from different perspectives. This is not a problem. Believers and theologians need not adjust their thinking about God because of Darwin any more than they did after Copernicus disproved the church’s theory of a geocentric universe.

Interestingly, many Christians and followers of other religions have been enthusiastic about the advent of evolution. For example, immediately after On the Origin of Species was published, the learned Anglican priest and theologian Charles Kingsley publicly thanked Darwin for demonstrating how ingenious and creative evolution is, and how this exciting new picture of life had enlarged his understanding of the Creator. He said, “A God who can make a universe that can make itself by way of natural processes is much more impressive and worthy of worship than one who is always tinkering with the world or keeping it tied to divine puppet strings.” And where would the free will be in such a universe?

NATURAL SELECTION IS NOT EVOLUTION!

The fossil record gives no support to the idea of one species gradually changing into a completely distinct and other species. Ten times in the book of Genesis we read God’s decree concerning the reproduction of each of His creatures—”after its kind.” The word kind refers to species, or family. Each created family was to produce only its own kind. Natural selection cannot generate brand new genetic information. It simply doesn’t work that way. Instead, it filters information that already exists. Darwinian evolution holds the basic tenet that single-celled organisms gained new genetic information over millions and billions of years, and eventually arrived at higher life-forms such as man. For this whole “microbes-to-man” evolution to be true, evolutionists should be able to point to thousands of examples of information-gaining mutations, an uphill process, but they can’t.

Genetic variants may cause differences in survival, but that has nothing to do with explaining their design. What requires explanation is the origin of the biological apparatus with the ability to generate, save, and pass on variations in the first place. Darwin’s argument was circular: nature’s designer is nature itself. Attributing design to natural selection is also circular—but at a deeper level—making it harder to spot.

It is worth noting that God did not create all the varieties of dogs, cats, horses, insects, and other animals in the beginning. (Varieties of animals are different than kinds of animals.) For example, there were no Labradoodles in the Garden of Eden. There were male and female of each species, with many changes occurring over the centuries to produce a wide assortment of varieties within the family. But let’s be real: cats have always remained cats; dogs are still dogs; men are still men. Mutation has only been responsible for producing a new variety of the same species, but never originating a new species. In addition, selective breeding has brought tremendous improvements such as hornless cattle, white turkeys, adorable puppies, and seedless oranges. Regardless, all organisms continue to reproduce exactly as God decreed at Creation—after its kind.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I would be remiss if I did not admit that at the core of this argument between evolutionists and creationists lies a struggle between opposing worldviews. It’s not a matter of their facts versus ours. Actually, it has never been about the facts. As I’ve stated, all truth is God’s truth. All facts are available to scientists of both camps; all scientists have the same data available to them. The data is identical, but the “lens” through which it is viewed is not.

I agree with Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) that truth is absolute. If not, then nothing is true. They consider (p. 64), “If a worldview is true, we can expect to find at least some external corroborating evidence to support it. This does not mean that something is true because there is evidence for it, but rather evidence will be available because something is true.” [Italics mine.] It is critical to note that evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like eyeglasses. When you put on your eyeglasses for the first time the rims can be quite distracting. In a short time you lose your awareness of the rims and even the lenses. It’s as if you forget you’re wearing glasses. A worldview is like that.

Regardless of dueling worldviews, according to standard evolutionary theory today, evolutionists look to mutations as being the process responsible for generating the new genetic information evolution requires, which is then acted upon through natural selection. When pressed over the years, evolutionists have been unable to give specific evidence of mutations that increase the information in the genome. Natural selection is essentially an observation about genetic variants and how they play a role in survival and nothing more.

As a tool for explaining design, natural selection is completely worthless. Darwin seems to distort the design process by falsely attributing power to the environment to “select” traits. In fact, the ability to generate traits is a property of living things enabling them to diversify, multiply, and fill environments. Whether or not these traits fit an environment is what determines survival. Darwin further failed to explain how the ability to generate traits in living things—the real source of information for design—originated. He simply said this capacity is simply assimilated into nature.

References

Monsma, J. (1958). The Evidence of God in An Expanding Universe. New York, NY: Putnam.

Paley, W. (1809). Natural Theology. Philadelphia, PA: John Morgan Publishers.

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Wynne, J. (n.d.). The Fossil Record and the Fall of Darwin’s Last Icon. Retrieved from: http://kolbecenter.org/fossil-record-and-fall-of-darwins-last-icon/

 

 

 

 

The Angry Atheists

When Jerry Falwell died on May 15, 2007, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked the caustic atheist Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) for his reaction. Cooper said, “I’m not sure if you believe in heaven, but, if you do, do you think Jerry Falwell is in it?” Hitchens held nothing back. He took a deep breath, smirked, and said, “No. And I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” Cooper was taken aback. “What is it about him that brings up such vitriol?” Hitchens said, “The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend.” Hitchens told Cooper he thought Falwell was “…a bully and a fraud” who was essentially a Bible-thumping huckster.

I was introduced to Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza in my World Views class at Colorado Christian University. One of the weekly assignments included watching a debate between D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens. I was shocked at the amount of venomous, loaded, sarcastic language Hitchens kept throwing his opponent. Hitchens always came across as a bombastic bully better at delivering witty zingers than compelling arguments. D’Souza writes, “A group of prominent atheists—many of them evolutionary biologists—has launched a public attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular; they have no interest in being nice.” He notes a comment made by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion, displaying Dawkins’ anger at God:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infaticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

In a Christianity Today article dated March 13, 2008, Tony Snow writes, “There are two types of Christian apologetics. One makes the positive case for faith; the other responds to critics. Dinesh D’Souza’s delightful book, What’s So Great About Christianity, falls into the second category. It sets out to rebut recent exuberant atheist tracts, such as Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.” Snow notes that these so-called militant atheists tend to combine argument with large doses of bitter biography. Hitchens has gone so far as to state, “…religion poisons everything.”

Dr. David Jeremiah, in his book I Never Thought I’d See the Day!, said, “When I write of the anger of the atheists, I am not primarily referring to the classic atheists such as Bertrand Russel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. The atheists I am writing about are the ‘New Atheists.’ The term ‘new atheism’ was first used by Wired magazine in November 2006 to describe the atheism espoused in books like Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Lewis Wolpert’s Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Victor Stenger’s The Comprehensible Cosmos, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, and Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great.

WHY ALL THIS ANGER?

How can people  be so angry with God if they do not even believe He exists? Moreover, why would those most indignant about God feel such compulsion to literally preach their anti-God religion with the type of zeal we typically see from evangelists? Do they consider atheism to be their religion? Today’s front line atheists have truly ramped up the volume of their objections. They once held private their personal opinion that God does not exist. Today, they find it necessary to go on talk shows and lecture circuits announcing their belief in loud, shrill, militant voices.

The Pew Research Center (2019) published an article indicating that in the United States the ages 14–17 are very influential in terms of an individual adopting atheism. Of those who do embrace unbelief in the United States, many do so in their high school years. The average age group when most people decide they do not believe in God is 18-29 (40%). Theodore Beale declared, “”…the age at which most people become atheists indicates that it is almost never an intellectual decision, but and emotional one.” The Christian apologist Ken Ammi concurs in his essay The Argument for Atheism from Immaturity and writes, “It is widely known that some atheists rejected God in their childhood, based on child-like reasons, have not matured beyond these childish notions and thus, maintain childish emotional reactions toward the idea of God.” It is likely some great trauma or loss has caused the young atheist to not only reject God but to be filled with anger and resentment.

Men such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are known for taking a look-back-in-anger, take-no-prisoners type of atheism. They, and most other active but not-so-famous atheists, reject the term “militant,” and refuse to explain their anger. Antony Flew, atheist-turned-believer and apologist, said, “What was significant about these [men’s] books was not their level of argument—which was modest, to put it mildly—but the level of visibility they received both as best sellers and as a ‘new’ story discovered by the media. The ‘story’ was helped even further by the fact that the authors were as voluble and colorful as their books were fiery.” Their delivery sounds a lot like hellfire-and-brimstone preachers warning us of dire retribution, even of apocalypse.

It’s obvious that atheists in the West today have become more outspoken and militant. The “average” atheist balks at the term militant, claiming it has no place in non-belief; only in radical, violent extremists like the Christians of the Crusades and Islamic terrorists. Fine. Let’s take a look at the meaning of militant: “combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.” No, these new atheists do not seem to be violent, but you don’t have to be violent to be militant. They are surely combative and aggressive, often using rude, brutish, insulting confrontation in lieu of substantive comebacks. Dinesh D’Souza says what we are witnessing in America is atheist backlash. The atheists thought they were winning—after all, Western civilization has adopted pluralism and moral relativism—but now they realize that, far from dying quietly, Christianity is on the upswing. This is precisely why the new atheists are striking back, using all the vitriol they can command.

For example, consider the title of some of the books the new atheists have written:

  • The God Delusion—Richard Dawkins
  • The End of Faith—Sam Harris
  • God: The Failed Hypothesis—Victor Stenger
  • God is Not Great—Christopher Hitchens

SOMETHING IS LACKING IN THIS NEW ATHEISM

Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others refuse to engage the real issues involved in the question of whether God exists. None of them even address the central grounds for positing the reality of God. Flew notes Sam Harris makes absolutely no mention of whether it’s possible that God does exist. Moreover, these new atheists fail to address the pesky question Where did the matter come from that forms our universe? They don’t discuss rationality, consciousness, or conceptual thought. I’d love to know where they believe our intellectual capacity, as well as metacognition—thinking about thinking—and who we are and what life really means came from. Neither do they present a plausible  worldview that explains the existence of law-abiding, life-supporting, altruistic behavior. They have no plausible explanation for the development of ethics and truth.

Flew goes so far as to comment, “It would be fair to say that the ‘new atheism’ is nothing less than a regression to the logical positivist philosophy that was renounced by even its most ardent proponents. In fact, the ‘new atheists.” it might be said, do not even rise to logical positivism. Hold on. Let’s take a minute to look at positivism so we’re on the same page as Flew and his argument. Simply stated, it is a Western philosophy that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculation. It has also been known as empiricism and, later in the 20th century, analytic philosophy.

WHAT THEY WANT

For the militant atheists, the solution is to weaken the power of faith and religion worldwide and to drive religion completely from the public sphere so that it can no longer have an impact on academia or public policy. In their view, they believe a secular world would be a safer and more peaceful world without the concept of religious faith. D’Souza writes, “Philosopher Richard Rorty proclaimed religious belief ‘politically dangerous’ and declared atheism the only practical basis for a ‘pluralistic, democratic society.’ These ideas resonate quite broadly in Western culture today.”

Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?—Richard Dawkins

Dinesh D’Souza writes, “It seems that atheists are not content with committing cultural suicidethey want to take your children with them. The atheist strategy can be described in this way: let the religious people breed them, and we will educate them to despise their parents’ beliefs.” In other words, militant atheists are more concerned with indoctrinating our young students against their parents’ religious influence through promoting an anti-religious agenda. It’s been said that Darwinism has enemies mostly because it is not compatible with a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.

Christopher Hitchens, who was an ardent Darwinist, wrote, “How can we ever know how many children had their psychological and physical lives irreparably maimed by the compulsory inculcation of faith?” Hitchens accused religion of preying upon the uninformed and undefended minds of the young. He did not take kindly to Christian parochial schools. He boldly stated, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”  Sam Harris likened belief in Christianity to a form of slavery! Biologist E.O. Wilson recommended using science to eradicate religion by showing that the mind itself is a product of evolution and that free moral choice is an illusion.

Sam Harris goes further, saying atheism should be taught as a mere extension of science and logic. Harris says, “Atheism is not a philosophy. It is not even a view of the world. It is simply an admission of the obvious. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.” Dawkins believes faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to small pox virus but harder to eradicate. He writes in The God Delusion, “Religion is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” Sigmund Freud regarded religion as a illusion (rather than a delusion, which is a psychiatric term), but he was by no means militant, combatant or completely closed-minded on the subject. In fact, he often invited religious leaders to his home to discuss the merits of their faith. He at least seemed open-minded, albeit not convinced.

Philosopher Richard Rorty argued that secular professors in the universities are out to “arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.” It’s as if these atheist professors intend to discredit parents in the eyes of their children, trying to strip them of their fundamentalist beliefs, making such beliefs seem silly rather than worthy of discussion. D’Souza writes, “The conventions of academic life, almost universally, revolve around the assumption that religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

As children, we certainly spend a great amount of time in school. Basic psychology tells us early child development encompasses physical, socio-emotional, cognitive and motor development between birth and age 8. A continuum of care—from preconception through the formative years—is needed to safeguard and maximize children’s developmental outcomes. Indeed, the first five years of a child’s life effect who a child will turn out to be. The beliefs, emotions, and action-tendencies represent the accumulated experiences people have had while trying to get their needs met, which plays a key role in personality development. Accordingly, personality develops around our motivations (our needs and goals). Children of Christian parents who grow up in an environment that consistently presents and lives the Gospel enter public school with an understanding of Who and What God is. This is more pronounced if they attended a parochial school prior to entering college. Secular professors want to dismantle that belief system in the interest of empirical science and truth.

Militant atheists have come out of the shadows of private belief with the intention of attacking theism in general and Christianity in particular. They are no longer content with deciding for themselves that there is no God. They feel compelled to poison the minds of young college students, steering them away from their faith, by bombarding them with science, logical positivism, Darwinism, pluralism, and moral relativism and… well, whatever works. Just as long as they can convince the world that God is dead one college student at a time.

Praise God that He lives so that we may live.

References

Dawkins, R. (2006). The God Delusion. New York, NY: Bantam Press.

Jeremiah, D. (2011). I Never Thought I’d See the Day! New York, NY: FaithWords.

Pew Research Center. (2019). Age and Distribution Among Atheists. Retrieved from: http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-family/atheist/

Snow, T. (March 13, 2008). “New Atheists are Not So Great.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/march/25.79.html

Christians Under Attack: Persecution & Martyrdom Through the Centuries

FROM ITS ONSET THE Christian message impacted culture and society, and culture and society impacted Christianity. Sometimes culture—to include the governing authorities—pushed back with much force, often oppressive and violent in nature. Not surprisingly, Jewish religious leaders, having publicly rejected Christ and His message by betraying Him to the Roman Empire for torture and crucifixion, also pushed back violently against the early Christian church. In fact, the earliest persecution of Christians came from the Jews.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. No sooner had the Gospel reached the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter, modify or nullify it. Simon Magus founded the Gnostics. Although this was essentially a separate belief system, it began to infiltrate the Christian church. Gnostics believed in a great god that is good and perfect, but impersonal and unknowable. They thought the creator of the universe was actually a lesser deity—a cheap knock-off of the “one true God”—who wanted to create a flawless material universe but botched the job. Instead of having a utopia, we ended up with a world infected with pain, misery, and intellectual and spiritual blindness. The Gnostics did not believe man’s dilemma was based on the Fall. Instead, when this lesser deity created man, he accidentally imbued humanity with a spark of the “true” God’s spirit, making man an inherently good soul trapped in the confines of an evil, material body.

EARLY PERSECUTION

The early Christians were initially persecuted at the hands of Jewish leaders. These principles saw Christianity not as a “new religion,” but a sect within Judaism—a new heresy going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics. Fearing these apostates could once more bring the wrath of God upon the nation of Israel, Jewish leaders began persecuting Christians on a regular basis. Frankly, the Sadducees became jealous of the apostles as they performed healings and other signs and wonders. People began believing that Jesus was the Messiah. The Sadducees arrested the apostles and threw them into jail where they were severely beaten and told never to preach in the name of Jesus again.

King Herod arrested many early Christians on behalf of the Jewish leaders. Roman authorities systematically persecuted and murdered Christians beginning in 64 A.D. Paul and Peter were martyred in 65 A.D. by Emperor Nero. Roman general Titus (later Emperor) destroyed the temple at Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Emperor Domitian (younger brother of Titus) waged a campaign of persecution against Jews and Christians from 81 to 96 A.D. Polycarp was martyred in 155 A.D. Christians suffered widespread persecution under various emperors through 303 A.D.

The first wave of mass persecution began under Nero in A.D. 67. Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome and is remembered as the one who set Rome aflame and then blamed the Christians for the deaths and destruction caused by the fire. He had Christians sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs. Others were dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate the grounds. Remarkably, rather than diminish the spirit of Christianity, this persecution increased the devotion and commitment to Christianity.

A second wave of persecution occurred under Domitian circa A.D. 81. Any negative events that happened—famine, pestilence, earthquakes, drought—Domitian blamed on Christians and put them to death. A third outbreak of persecution occurred under Trajan in A.D. 108. During this wave, Christians were beaten, beheaded, and devoured by wild beasts. Nearly ten thousand were put to death. The fourth cycle of persecution took place under Marcus Aurelius Antoninas in A.D. 162, followed by a fifth wave credited to Severus in A.D. 192. Christians were burned at the stake, doused in hot tar, beheaded, placed in boiling water, and ravaged by wild beasts.

The sixth upsurge of persecution took place under Maximus in A.D. 235. At this time, numerous Christians were slain without trial and buried indiscriminately in heaps (mass graves), sometimes fifty or sixty cast into a pit together. The seventh surge of persecution happened under Decius in A.D. 249. At this time, the principle person martyred was Fabian, the bishop of Rome, who was beheaded on January 20, A.D. 250. The eighth wave of persecution occurred under Valerian in A.D. 257. The ninth wave of persecution occurred under Aurelian in A.D. 274 when Felix, bishop of Rome was martyred. A tenth flood of persecution took place under Diocletian in A.D. 303, commonly called the Era of the Martyr’s. The manner of persecutions included horrific methods such as racks, scourges, swords, daggers, crosses, poisons, and famine.

MARTYRDOM TIMELINE

Stephen was the first known martyr. He was stoned to death in 36 A.D. for preaching the Gospel. Stephen’s death sparked a rash of persecutions against all who professed belief in Christ as the Messiah.

The fate of the Apostles and close disciples followed in succession.

  • James the Great, the elder brother of John the Apostle, was beheaded in A.D. 44.
  • James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus, served the church in Jerusalem and wrote the book of James. He suffered martyrdom in 44 A.D. at the age of ninety-four by beheading and stoning at the hands of the Jews.
  • Philip, who served in Upper Asia, was scourged in Phrygia, thrown into prison and later crucified in A.D. 54.
  • Matthew the tax collector served the Lord in Parthia and Ethiopia where he was slain with an axe-like cutting blade in the city of Nadabah in A.D. 60.
  • Andrew, the brother of Peter, preached the gospel throughout Asia. He was crucified on a cross at Edessa in 60 A.D.
  • Peter was martyred by Nero in 64 A.D. He was crucified with his head down and his feet up, because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus Christ.
  • Simon the Zealot, who spread the Gospel throughout Africa and Britain, was crucified in 65 A.D.
  • Paul was subjected to persecution numerous times during his ministry, including scourging, stoning, and, finally, beheaded by Nero in 67 A.D.
  • Mark was martyred in 68 A.D. in Alexandria when his persecutors placed a rope around his neck and dragged him through the streets until he was dead.
  • Jude, the brother of James, commonly called Thaddeus, was crucified at Edessa in A.D. 72.
  • Bartholomew preached in several countries and translated the Gospel of Matthew into the language of India. He was cruelly beaten and crucified in 100 A.D.
  • Thomas, who seems to have riled the pagan priests with his preaching, was martyred in 72 A.D. by having a spear thrust into his abdomen.
  • Matthias, the man who was chosen to replace Judas as an apostle, was stoned and beheaded at Jerusalem in 80 A.D.
  • Luke was reported to have been hanged from an olive tree by the idolatrous priests of Greece in 84 A.D.

MODERN-DAY PERSECUTION

Persecution of Christians actually began at the dawn of Christianity and has persisted in various forms ever since. Stoning, burning at the stake, imprisonment, family estrangement, beheading, crucifixion, scourging, being dragged to the death, drowning, and more. History is stained with the blood of martyrs and is augmented by the testimony of those who’ve endured hardship for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Despite this being the 21st century, which should suggest we ought to be well beyond religious bigotry and cultural xenophobia, modern-day Christian persecution is still prevalent. The Bible says that Jesus has called believers out from among the world. We’re told in John 15:19, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” When Jesus sent His disciples into the world to preach the Gospel, He knew they would be attacked and persecuted for witnessing and sharing Jesus. In Mathew 10:16, Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Anti-Christian discrimination occurs in a variety of contexts throughout our culture, from the public sector to the private sector, in mainstream media and in Hollywood, in the public education system and in our universities. Often discrimination comes from activist judges misinterpreting the law (the hostility toward Christian religious freedom infects our judiciary as much as other aspects of society); other times it comes from entities misapplying the law. It also comes from what today is referred to as political correctness. Discrimination against Christians mostly stems from a hostility toward Christianity itself, and from rampant misinformation about what the First Amendment actually means regarding so-called “separation of church and state.”

Unfortunately, anti-Christian discrimination in America is becoming more blatant and more widespread every day. The cultural assumptions of our society can actually cause adverse impact in how the law is applied; culture is moving against public expression of Christian beliefs. To complicate matters, secularism and moral relativism have driven a wedge between Christian belief and public expression. Forces are at work whose sole intent is to outlaw the voicing of Christian beliefs in any public forum.

Christian expression is treated as profanity and worse in many public schools and certain federal courts across the nation. According to an article by Michael Gryboski on Christianpost.com, dated October 12, 2018, a middle school in Virginia has banned songs mentioning Jesus from its annual Christmas concert as part of an effort to be more sensitive toward the increasingly diverse population of its student body. The critical language of the First Amendment relative to religion—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—has been misinterpreted and misquoted in recent years. It is now being argued by many that the First Amendment grants freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion. More troublesome than that, it’s now being argued by liberals and atheists that American citizens have a First Amendment right to freedom from Christianity. All other religions are tolerated in the interest of pluralism and inclusion.

David Limbaugh, in his seminal book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity, states the following:

Ideally, the schools should strive for neutrality on matters of religion—at least in expressing a preference for one over the other. But, in reality, our children are often being inculcated with values and attitudes that conflict with or are hostile to Christianity… There has been a systematic sweeping away of all things Christian from our public schools, combined with a sweeping in of secularism (p. 4).

THE MEDIA AND HOLLYWOOD

Mainstream media and Hollywood play very major roles in bias against Christians and Christianity in our modern culture. We’re told that it is unthinkable to ridicule (almost any) political, religious, cultural, or ethnic group, yet liberals routinely disparage Christians and anything related to Christianity.  This anti-Christian proclivity typically manifests itself in unflattering portrayals of Christians in Hollywood films and television shows. Additionally, liberal news outlets tend to demonize Christian conservatives. Christians are presented as bigoted, narrow-minded, unreasonable, old-fashioned, exclusionary, and elitist. Remarkably, while the media are usually very careful not to offend or slight other religions—lately, especially Islam—Christianity receives far less deference.

OPEN DOORS USA

Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Unfortunately, Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world, including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheading, rape and even death as a result of their faith. Trends show that countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are intensifying persecution against Christians. It would seem the most vulnerable are Christian women , who often face double persecution—based on faith and gender. Every day there are new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family or life because of their profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Some Alarming Statistics

Every month:

  • 255 Christians are killed
  • 104 are abducted
  • 180 Christian women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage
  • 66 churches are attacked
  • 160 Christians are detained without trial and imprisoned

Every year, Open Doors USA releases the World Watch List—a global indicator of countries where human and religious rights are being violated, and those countries most vulnerable to societal unrest and destabilization. This is the 26thyear of the Watch List and it remains the only annual in-depth survey to rank the 50 most difficult countries in which to be a Christian. Today, 215 million Christians experience high levels of persecution in the countries on the World Watch List—essentially one in twelve Christians worldwide. North Korea is ranked #1 for the 17th consecutive year as the most dangerous country for Christians. During the 2018 World Watch List reporting period 3,066 Christians were killed, 1,252 were abducted, 1,020 were raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches were attacked. Islamic oppression fuels Christian persecution in 8 of the top 10 countries on the Watch List.

SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER

We have come to the point where the church sees liberalism and moral relativism for the threats they truly are. But where does that leave us? It seems that modern polarization into left and right—within both religion and politics—has been with us since after the period of the Enlightenment. It’s no secret that modernism and Protestant liberalism were shaken to their very foundation following the two world wars. The resulting postmodernism did nothing whatsoever to solve our dilemma. Christians wanted to share with the world their conviction that the Gospel was the answer to this quandary—that it was the absolute truth everyone had been looking for.

We are told in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NKJV). The Word of Christ is not merely a matter of doctrine; it is a way of authenticating life; it is morally regenerative spiritual power obtained through belief in Christ as the Messiah. It is life itself. This is why apologetics is vital. We are to preach the Good News to all nations. First Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (NIV) [Italics mine].

Changing someone’s mind isn’t the only goal of apologetics. In fact, that’s unlikely to happen in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should think of any apologetic encounter as planting a seed that will come to fruition later. Or, even more, perhaps we’re simply helping prepare the soil so that someone else can do the planting. I don’t mean to imply that God cannot do big things when we practice apologetics. Just remember this: We often don’t get to see firsthand the unfolding of those big moments.

It’s easy for us to get caught up in the idea of apologetics—the concepts and arguments. Apologetics, however, is actually a means to an end. It is a tool for helping us defend the Gospel, but it is not about getting defensive. Sometimes, talking about morality and religion can really get some people going—even to the point where you find it tough to get a word in edgewise. But allowing your skeptical friend to share their ideas or experiences is a key part of effectively navigating spiritual conversations. Unfortunately, some of us can get rather defensive and feel pressured to take on the weight of explaining the entirety of the Christian worldview when confronted with one simple objection to the faith.

Love the people you come into contact with. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Be gentle and humble.

Be like Jesus.

References

Limbaugh, D. (2004). Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

OpenDoors USA. (n.d.) Christian Persecution. Retrieved from: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/

 

 

Why We Know New Testament Writers Told the Truth

“Why would the apostles lie? If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got… was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!” —PETER KREEFT

I came to know Christ at a critical time in my life. I was just thirteen years old, in dire straits, always at odds with my father. You could say I had a difficult time with obedience, controlling my base impulses, telling the truth, and keeping my hands off other people’s property. The more my father tried to correct and redirect me, the more I rebelled. We were a church-going family. I thought the message from the pulpit made sense. I basically fell in love with Jesus. I responded to an alter call, accepting Him as Lord and Savior. I was baptized shortly after.

Unfortunately, my walk with Jesus was rather short. My family had a falling out with the church, and I strayed. By age eighteen I was smoking weed, drinking, and committing petty crimes. Before I could grasp what was happening to me, I got caught up in some serious felonies. I served three years in a state prison, followed by seven years on state parole. I had only been out of high school a year and a half before my whole world fell apart. Even after jail time, I continued to struggle with active addiction for over forty years before renewing my relationship with Jesus Christ. It was only through the power in the Name of Jesus that I was able to turn away from that life and break the chain of active addiction.

I have  completed my undergraduate degree in psychology at Colorado Christian University. In addition to classes in my major, I also took courses on worldviews, integration of Christian theology and psychology, Christian doctrine, church history, Pauline literature, and ethics. I developed a passion for apologetics and Christian doctrine. Many of my recent blog posts have focused on this topic. Although I remain focused on  my ministry counseling teens and young adults struggling with mental illness and addiction, I will always have a particular affection for Christian apologetics.

SOME RATHER POWERFUL EVIDENCE

We have seen very powerful evidence that the documents comprising the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses and their contemporaries within 15 to 40 years of the death of Jesus. Moreover, secular documents and archaeological evidence has established that the New Testament is based on historical fact. Yet many skeptics ask how we know the authors didn’t exaggerate or embellish what they say they saw?

Lee Strobel, in his seminal book The Case For Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, recounts his interview with Craig Blomberg, one of the country’s foremost authorities on the biographies of Jesus—which we know as the four gospels. Blomberg’s books include Jesus and the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, and How Wide the Divide? and a commentary on the gospel of Matthew. Blomberg told Strobel that Matthew (also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve disciples) was the author of the first gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s “beloved physician,” wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Blomberg said there are “no known competitors for these three gospels.”

According to Papias, a Christian writer from A.D. 125, early testimony is unanimous that John the apostle—the son of Zebedee—wrote the gospel of John. Blomberg also informed Strobel that Irenaeus, writing about A.D. 180, confirmed the authorship of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. He said Irenaeus wrote the following words,

Matthew published his own Gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter’s preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his Gospel while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

THE CONSISTENCY TEST

Skeptics of the gospels like to point out that they are hopelessly contradictory with each other. They say, “Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if so, then how can we trust them?” Strobel said Blomberg acknowledges these inconsistencies, ranging from very minor variations in wording to the most famous apparent contradictions. He said, “My own conviction is, once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier—of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission—the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.” Interestingly, Strobel admits if the gospels mirrored each other word-for-word, it would seem to hint at collusion, which would give us pause. Blomberg agreed.

historical-jesus.jpg

It’s important to note that each Gospel writer had a particular intention and focus. They set out to accentuate a unique aspect of the ministry of Jesus. Through their individual gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—they focused on particular elements of Christ’s ministry and message that they felt illuminated their narrative. Despite their varied focus, the gospels exhibit a remarkable and important cohesiveness. They all bear witness to Jesus and his ministry, but approach the story from an individual perspective. These four viewpoints take nothing away from our understanding of Jesus. Rather, they give us a richer, deeper, clearer look into the mystery of Christ.

There were a number of languages spoken during the 1st century when Christ walked the roads of the Holy Land spreading the Good News and calling on men to follow Him. You were likely to hear Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, which was thought to be the primary language spoken by most Jews throughout Palestine during this era. So when we consider the fact that the gospels were written in Greek, the fact that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic becomes quite significant. Most of his words had to be translated into Greek—making every quote an interpretation. Languages don’t necessarily have equivalent words or phrases to support transliteration. Each gospel writer had to interpret Jesus’ words and sayings in order to find equivalents in an entirely different language. In other words, translation is interpretation.

This is the basis for scholarly claims that we have the authentic voice (ipsissima vox) of Jesus but not necessarily his exact words. We can trust the essential meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels even though we never know precisely how He said what He said. The writers of the four gospels, as interpreters of Christ’s message, meant that their translation—paraphrase, if you will—would focus on the theology of the Gospel. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20), but Matthew records him saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now it could be Jesus said both of these things at different times, but it’s likely that Matthew felt it was extremely important to clearly communicate the spiritual significance of Jesus’ words.

RELIABILITY OF NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

It is paramount that we consider the historical reliability of the New Testament separate from its inspirational properties. Such reliability should be judged by the same criteria used to evaluate all historical documents. Because the Christian faith is intimately connected to very specific historical events, those who are determined to prove or disprove Christianity outside the realm of faith find the historical soundness of its documents is an appropriate starting point.

Stetzer (2012) writes in an article for Christianity Today titled “A Closer Look: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament,” that “…we have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts representing all, or part, of the N[ew] T[estament]. By examining these manuscripts, over 99 percent of the original text can be constructed beyond reasonable doubt.” Stetzer also remarks that the authors of the gospels and the Acts were in an excellent position to report reliable information. It is also important to note that these five books were written in the first century, within sixty or seventy years of Jesus’ death—most likely A.D. 30. The amount of time separating the historical events and the composition of the five books is very short as compared to most ancient historical and biographical accounts, where many centuries could intervene between events and the books that narrated them.

Other tests for historicity have been used to test the accuracy of the New Testament. For example, a document written as a personal letter has a high probability of reliability; it is also likely accurate if it is intended for small audiences, written in unpolished style, or contains trivia and lists of details. The absence of such features does not necessarily mean the document is unreliable; however, their presence makes the prima facie acceptance of the document stronger. Much of the New Testament, especially the apostolic letters and some of the sources behind the Gospels, is made up of personal letters originally intended for individuals and small groups. In addition, much of the New Testament is in unpolished style, containing examples of inconsequential detail in the Gospels. These considerations show when general tests for historicity are applied to the New Testament documents, they pass them quite well.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Strobel interviewed John McRay, author of Archaeology and the New Testament. McRay consulted on the National Geographic Network TV special Mysteries of the Bible. McRay studied at Hebrew University, Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. He has been a professor of New Testament archaeology  at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. McRay told Strobel, “Archaeology has made some important contributions, but it certainly can’t prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we’d find them, that shows that it’s history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn’t confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archeological discoveries.”

It’s Strobel’s contention that if an ancient historian’s incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked. Strobel asked McRay, “Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?” McRay quickly responded: “Oh, there’s no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced, just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event.” As an example, McRay recounted his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

There is an obvious allure to archaeology. It’s a discipline I’d considered as I neared the end of high school. I can see no better useful tool for uncovering and proving aspects of ancient civilizations, their origins, and their religions. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scribbled onto papyrus, pieces of broken pottery, old coins—these are clues for persistent scholars and investigators. Perhaps on of the most tantalizing clues of the biblical past are the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1947 in an obscure cave west of the Dead Sea, Bedouin shepherds discovered some scrolls carefully placed in ten tall jars. They did not know what they had come upon, but they sold the scrolls to a nearby dealer. This was the opening chapter to an astonishing archeological find; eventually some 800 different manuscripts would be found in eleven caves near the valley called Wadi Qumran. In all, some 60,000 fragments, portions, or complete scrolls of these 800 manuscripts were retrieved, covering many subjects.

Many of the documents contained biblical texts. Either fragments or complete copies were found of every book in the Old Testament except Esther. They had been placed in these caves around the middle of the first century A.D., and the amazing fact is that they had lain there undisturbed for 1900 years! But why are these Dead Sea Scrolls so important for us? The reason is that before this discovery the earliest manuscripts of biblical texts dated from the ninth century after Christ. They were copies of earlier copies which were long lost. The majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls are in Hebrew, with some fragments written in the ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet thought to have fallen out of use in the fifth century B.C. But others are in Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews—including, most likely, Jesus—between the sixth century B.C. and the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In addition, several texts feature translations of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, which some Jews used instead of or in addition to Hebrew at the time of the scrolls’ creation.

It has been said that it would be foolish to hold on to the illusion that the gospels are merely fictional stories like the legends of Hercules and Asclepius. The theologies in the New Testament are grounded on interpretation of real historical events, especially the crucifixion of Jesus, as a particular time and place. Beyond the manuscript evidence, archaeological evidence helps to authenticate the gospel narratives. Frankly, if the New Testament gospels were nothing more than fictions and fables about a man who never lived, one must wonder how it is they possess so much verisimilitude and why they talk so much about people we know lived and about so many things we know happened. After all, the gospels say Jesus was condemned to the cross by a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate. Not only is this man mentioned by historical sources outside the New Testament but there is an inscribed stone on which his name appears. Indeed, it appears archaeologists have found the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus, inscribed on a bone box. It seems these people were real.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Both Christian and secular scholars from a large cross section of theological schools have concluded that the evidence uncovered over the centuries provides an adequate basis to affirm with confidence that Jesus truly existed. It seems every single author who mentions Jesus—pagans, Christians, or Jewish—was fully convinced that He at least lived. Even the enemies of the Jesus movement thought so; among their many slurs against the religion, His non-existence is never one of them… Jesus certainly existed. And most historical scholars (Christian or not) find the attempt to explain away all apparent references to Jesus in Roman writings, much less New Testament espistles, to be an unconvincing tour de force that lapses into special pleading.

From the historical evidence, we can reject the critics charge that the gospels are mere legends about the life of Jesus Christ. There is an abundance of internal and external evidence that support an early date of the gospel writings. There are numerous archaeological and historical records corroborating the events of Jesus’ life. Finally, the manuscript evidence assures us that we have a copy accurate to the originals. Having established the historical and archaeological soundness of the gospels, we are now free to examine the theology of the Gospel.

Has the Gospel Changed?

THE GOSPEL STORY ITSELF has not changed, but culture and society has. As a result, the Gospel is viewed against the backdrop of current culture. Culture typically evolves over time—changes in demographics, attitudes toward moral issues, drastic advancements in technology. Accordingly, the method by which we present the Gospel today needs to be such that we do not offend non-believers or appear to be holier-than-thou. Only then will people be willing to listen. It has been suggested by modern-day evangelists that when sharing the Gospel we start where and when God did—in the beginning.

ENGAGING AN EVER-CHANGING CULTURE

It is imperative that we refrain from being dragged along by culture. One of the greatest problems that has frustrated the church is the relation between knowledge and piety—between culture and Christianity. In other words, we don’t want to share a watered-down message. We must always be concerned with proclaiming the Gospel—the entire Gospel. Given the audacity of today’s militant atheists, we should expect increasing objection to the Gospel and challenges to the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. By using apologetics to give solid answers, we can help people listen and learn about the most important historical document of all—the whole Bible.

The Gospel should point us toward a time when we can see others—all others—truly as God sees us: as one blood, one flesh, as brothers and sisters. Remember that God truly is the Father of us all; that in Christ the division and the divisiveness between men and women, between different national groups, between different economic circumstances are done away with; that all are alike unto Him; and that even those who do not know Him are known and loved by Him.

CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE

It is common for believers and non-believers to see religion in Western society as Christianity versus culture—two opposing forces of influence. The church stands on one side of the line and culture on the other. Americans are taking notice that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian, if not outright anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political, cultural, and academic elite.

The bubble of legalism can’t keep sin out of the church, and it hides one of God’s most useful tools—us. 

If we take a literal us versus them stance, we risk turning the church into a “safe haven” where people seek refuge from the quagmire of unbelief and pluralism. Believers tend to unwittingly perpetuate this “sanctuary city” concept by trying to find the balance between immersing themselves in the world and isolating themselves in a sterile “bubble.” Christians who support this approach have good intentions—they want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that believers need to hold fast to their faith. They understand that a great battle is being waged (Ephesians 6:11-18); a battle that plays out both visibly in the cultural realm and invisibly in the spiritual realm.

Here’s the thing: Taking this standoffish approach tends to externalize godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls. Godlessness, however, is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. Godlessness causes rotting from within. It is troublesome to realize that this mindset tends toward legalism, and it tries to restrict interactions between believers and society. In the immortal words of Dana Carvey’s SNL character Church Lady, “Who could be responsible for this? Is it… Satan?” While it is true that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by withdrawing from the world.

You can certainly find biblical support for a view that pits the church against culture. Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against that which is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12), resist the devil (James 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Be aware, however, that this mindset still falls short—it’s too easy to see ourselves fighting against people instead of sin. God uses the church in his plan to rescue people, not destroy them. This is only a small part of God’s plan for restoration. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not merely enemies of God; they are also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the spiritually sick.

But consider this angle instead. It is actually culture that is beating people up. Left to their own devices without God, people will take blow after blow—perhaps without even realizing that it’s culture delivering the pain. False promises, questionable social norms, distorted morality, and unchecked sin present in cultures across the globe can all appear good to people without God.

CHRISTIANITY OF CULTURE

I must admit that cultural changes occurring outside the scope and influence of the church are not necessarily bad. God has enabled all people—believer and non-believer alike—to make good and valuable contributions to society. The abolition of slavery and the human rights movement brought about monumental positive changes. And a thorough and honest search of the records of history will show there were Christians on both sides of these issues. Some Christians sought to preserve the status quo of “free” labor from slaves, while others fought for complete emancipation of black slaves. It’s appropriate to state that Christians who took up arms against Lincoln and the Union in order to preserve slavery were morally wrong.

I don’t believe that culture alone can set the stage and lead us in the right direction. Granted, not all cultural tenets are wrong. But culture is not always right either. Today, in a postmodern world, especially in America, pluralism is the norm. Behavior is often analyzed through the lens of moral relativism. The relativist believes that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective or universal moral truths. Instead, such individuals make moral decisions relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal perspectives. Under this tenet, truth is subjective. Bottom line: moral relativists believe that moral or ethical judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (e.g., a specific cultural or historical setting), and that no worldview is uniquely privileged over all others. Not even Christianity.

The Body of Christ cannot simply mirror every decision reached at the cultural level in the hope of winning others to Christ. For example, without God in the picture, culture raises up idols in His place—professional sports stars, actors, politicians, the wealthy and powerful. We must ask, Can the church embrace culture without also embracing its idols? Much of Christian doctrine is black-and-white, whereas culture often speaks in “gray” terms. Believers who subscribe to the Christianity of culture mindset rightly recognize that God created and ordered the world in such a way that left room for mankind to make culture, and that said culture exhibits real aspects of truth, generosity, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, indeed every nuance of culture, is corrupted and distorted due to human sin.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was the good for man… I was awakened from this confused state of mind by finding that the friends of culture seemed to me to be exaggerating. In my reaction against what seemed exaggerated I was driven to the other extreme, and began, in my own mind, to belittle the claims of culture.” Lewis added, “I naturally turned first to the New Testament. Here I found, in the first place, a demand that whatever is most highly valued on the natural level is to be held, as it were, merely on sufferance, and to be abandoned without mercy the moment it conflicts with the service of God.”

ANTI-CHRISTIAN BIAS IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Solomon (1996) wrote, “At the close of the twentieth century American evangelicals find themselves in a diverse, pluralistic culture. Many ideas vie for attention and allegiance. These ideas, philosophies, or worldviews are the products of philosophical and cultural changes. Such changes have come to define our culture.” This begs the question, How is a Christian supposed to respond to such conditions?

According to the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) standards, “[I]t is clear that the dominant social, economic, cultural and scientific trends that have defined the western world for five centuries are rapidly leading in new directions.” The dominant trends that defined Western civilization are of course the Judeo-Christian worldview. So what does this mean for social studies classes in public schools? The NCSS explains, “The United States and its democracy are constantly evolving and in continuous need of citizens who can adapt… to meet changing circumstances. Meeting that need is the mission of social studies.”

Can it be any clearer? Rather than teach America’s true history and founding principles for the preservation of American liberty and Western civilization, the new mission of social studies is to prepare our children to accept the transformation of America. In fact, the NCSS are missionaries of a new religion operating in the field of American education. Unlike Christians, these particular missionaries have government backing, free reign with captive children, and operate under the guise of “education.” This is pluralism at work. It is a systematic tearing down of the “old” in order to make room for the “new.” It is nothing less than indoctrination with one purpose—to convince our children to reject out-of-hand biblical Christianity and to adopt a secular worldview.

Fiorazo (2012) writes, “Christianity is not the thriving , influential power it once was in America. With a majority of people claiming the Christian tradition, why does our godless culture barely reflect the light of Jesus Christ.” We’re living in sad times when professing Christians know less about the Bible than ever before. We live in a country glutted with biblical material, Christian books, radio and television evangelism, but many Christians are not moving on to spiritual maturity. Additionally, there is a degree of biblical illiteracy in America today. Although surveys indicate that a majority of households report having a Bible, not even 50 percent of those who own Bibles read them regularly. Only 1 percent of young Christians read Scriptures on a daily basis.

There are many whose ultimate goal is to completely eliminate Christianity from public life in America. Militant atheists shout from their lecterns that Christian parents are brainwashing their children; teaching them the “so-called truth” of the Judeo-Christian doctrine. The late Christopher Hitchens said Christian parents are committing a form of child abuse by “indoctrinating” their children with biblical principles. He likened belief in the Virgin birth and the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a teacher at a public school who comes under fire for answering a student’s question about Jesus. When the teacher refuses to apologize, the school board votes to suspend her and threatens to revoke her teaching certificate. Forced to stand trial to save her career, she hires a lawyer to defend her in court.

We’re faced with sentiment such as this:

“The battle for mankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers who correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith…. The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and the new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism.” (John Dunphy, 1983)

CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK

Traditional American Christians have long been on the losing end of culture-war contests—on school prayer, same-sex marriage and other issues. But recent events, including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics and the mandate that employers provide access to contraception, have added to the sense that religious expression is under attack. According to recent Pew Research reports, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as religiously affiliated has shrunk while the percentage describing themselves as unaffiliated has grown from 2007 to 2014. The percentage who say they are “absolutely certain” God exists fell to 63% from 71% during the same time period.

A new vigorous secularism has catapulted mockery of Christianity and other forms of religious traditionalism into the mainstream and set a new low for what counts as civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs. In some precincts, the “faith of our fathers” is controversial as never before. Some of the faithful have paid unexpected prices for their beliefs lately: the teacher in New Jersey suspended for giving a student a Bible; the football coach in Washington placed on leave for saying a prayer on the field at the end of a game; the fire chief in Atlanta fired for self-publishing a book defending Christian moral teaching; the Marine court-martialed for pasting a Bible verse above her desk; and other examples of the new intolerance. Anti-Christian activists hurl smears like “bigot” and “hater” at Americans who hold traditional beliefs about marriage and accuse anti-abortion Christians of waging a supposed “war on women.”

Ravi Zacharias said, “The Bible is a controversial book that invokes both devotion and derision. It has inspired some of the greatest thinkers this world has ever known and attracted the hostility of others. It takes a central role in any study of Western civilization and touches the most unlikely of souls.” The current challenges to the Bible are for the most part launched from the postmodern worldview. By its very nature the postmodern worldview is difficult to define. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. Ostensibly, a postmodern theorist believes there are no truly truthful truths. Postmodernism rejects most approaches to art, science, literature, philosophy, and religion. This worldview is about discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. At the root of postmodernism is a strong denial of absolute authority. Ironically, the belief that there is no absolute truth cannot be true unless there is an absoluteness to the absence of absolute truth.

And we wonder why it’s so difficult to fight pluralism, moral relativism, and militant atheism.

References

Fiorazo, D. (2012). Eradicate: Blotting Out God in America. Abbotsford, WI: Life Sentence Publishing, Inc.

Lewis, C.S. (1940). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0040571X4004023702

Solomon, J. (1992). Christianity and Culture. Retrieved from: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/culture.html

 

 

Are Science and Christianity at Odds?

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This question has been the fuel for countless discussions, arguments, and debates for centuries. I spend several hours a week viewing YouTube documentaries on apologetics, postmodernism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, Islam, creationism, evolution, and atheism. Having undertaken a systematic study of worldviews, I’m reminded that nearly no one simply creates his or her own worldview. We inherit a great deal of our worldview from our parents, primary caregivers, school, and church. I must always keep my own worldview in mind—including biases, prejudices, presuppositions, and misconceptions. This is critical. Not only do we interpret information according to our worldview, it is our worldview that filters what we see or what we deem relevant.

“The conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science” (Sam Harris).

ORIGINS OF A CONFLICT

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Science is at war with religion. This conflict can be traced back to the Dark Ages during which the church quite vigorously forced its dogma and control on church members. Anyone who questioned church authority was summarily punished. Some of science’s forefathers—Galileo, Copernicus, and Bruno—were persecuted. What we miss, however, if we hold this “abridged” history of science versus religion are the numerous examples of Christianity and science getting along just fine, answering the many questions we have about us, our planet, and our universe.

If we refuse to have at least an open mind about a different paradigm or worldview, we’ll never have the opportunity to think for ourselves. Education is extremely important, but just how important is public education? Public schools teach that science and education are incompatible. Period. This wild and unverified conclusion is reckless. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) said, “All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.” Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, wrote, “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise… It subverts science and saps the intellect.”

Many believe science and Christianity are at odds, but the opposite is actually true. There is no underlying conflict between Christianity (currently the world’s largest religion at 2.4 billion believers) and science. Naturally, this does not mean that religious antagonism to science does not exist. Believers often take on science with a vengeance. But science history shows that such claims of antagonism are often exaggerated or unsubstantiated. Let’s remember that science (as a sustained and organized movement) emerged in Christian Europe. During the sixteenth century, people from every culture studied the natural world, and yet modern science appeared first in Europe among a civilization primarily shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview. To be blunt, Christianity provided the philosophical foundation and spiritual motivation for doing science. The Christian worldview—with its insistence on the orderliness of the universe, its emphasis on human reason, and its teaching that God is glorified as we seek to understand His creation—laid the foundation for the modern scientific revolution.

MOST SCIENTIFIC PIONEERS BELIEVED IN GOD

Most scientific pioneers were theists, including prominent figures such as Copernicus, Newton, Pascal, Kepler, Pasteur, and Planck. Many of these individuals intently pursued science because of their belief in the Christian God. Francis Bacon believed the natural world was full of mysteries that God means for us to explore. This is often referred to as God’s general revelation. Kepler wrote, “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order which has been imposed on it by God, and which He revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” Newton believed his scientific discoveries offered convincing evidence for the existence and creativity of God. He said, “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”

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This argument is lost on atheists like Christopher Hitchens, who discounts the religious convictions of these scientific giants. He said belief in God was the only option for a scientist at that time in history. But this puts Hitchens in a pickle. If religious believers get no credit for their positive contributions to society (e.g., shaping modern science) simply because “everyone was religious,” then why should their mistakes be used to discredit them? This is truly a double-standard. To make the case that religion “poisons everything,” Hitchens has to ignore much evidence to the contrary. Dawkins accepts that some early scientific pioneers may have been Christians, but he believes Christian scientists today are a rarity. He said, “Great scientists who profess religion become harder to find throughout the twentieth century.”

NATURALISM VERSUS THEISM

Naturalism is a scientifically oriented worldview that completely denies the existence of God and the soul. Rather, it holds that everything arises from natural properties and causes; supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted. The term seems to have no precise meaning today. Different philosophers over the centuries have proffered myriad definitions. But naturalists have always attempted to align philosophy more closely with science. Adherents to this philosophy assert that natural laws are, well, natural—that they govern the structure and behavior of the natural universe all on their own without input from a Creator or Intelligent Designer.

Theism holds that there is a personal creator and sustainer of the universe who is omnipotent, omniscient, essentially good, omnipresent, and eternal. Christianity believes that the Creator has revealed Himself to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ, a member of the trinity of God, who was resurrected from the dead in confirmation of His deity. Christians believe in the supernatural world, including the One True God, spirit, angels, and miracles. Here’s the deal! Naturalism and theism are at odds with each other, not science and Christianity. Naturalism is intrinsically atheistic because it sees nothing outside of the natural or physical world.

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Have you found yourself asking, Why does the natural world make any sense to begin with? Albert Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Einstein understood a basic truth about science—it relies upon certain philosophical assumptions about the natural world. These assumptions include the existence of an external world that is orderly and rational, and the trustworthiness  of our minds to grasp that world. Science cannot proceed apart from these assumptions, even though they cannot be independently proven. Oxford professor John C. Lennox makes a provocative statement: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.” Without this deep conviction science would not be possible.

In order to further expound on the complexity of explaining the universe, take a look at the following excerpt from Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time?

When most people believed in an essentially static and unchanging universe, the question of whether or not it had a beginning was really one of metaphysics or theology. One could account for what was observed equally well on the theory that the universe had existed forever or on the theory that it was set in motion at some finite time in such a manner as to look as though it had existed forever. But in 1929, Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving rapidly away from us. In other words, the universe is expanding. This means that at earlier times objects would have been closer together. In fact, it seemed that there was a time, about ten or twenty thousand million years ago, when they were all at exactly the same place and when, therefore, the density of the universe was infinite. This discovery finally brought the question of the beginning of the universe into the realm of science.

According to British physicist, broadcaster, and educator Paul Davies, the intelligibility of the universe points toward a rational foundation. He says science is based on the assumption that the universe is thoroughly rational and logical at all levels. Every single level! Atheists claim that the laws of nature exist without any basis in reason and that the universe is ultimately absurd. As a scientist, Davies said he found this position hard to accept. He said, “There must be an unchanging rational ground in which the logical, orderly nature of the universe is rooted.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

This brings us full-circle. It’s not Christianity that is at odds with science—it’s naturalism. Problem is, people like Richard Dawkins believe there is a conflict between science and religion because they think there is a conflict between evolution and theism. However, the conflict is between science and naturalism, not between science and a belief in God. It’s not simply that the order of the universe fits better with God in it. There is a much deeper link. An ordered, rational, logical universe is what we would expect from a God who created us in His image. Forming true beliefs about the world is one way we reflect the image imprinted in us by God.

Science depends on the assumption that the world is orderly and that our minds can access this reality. Even the most secular scientists presume that nature operates in a law-like fashion. This conviction  is best explained by the pioneers of the scientific revolution, who believed the cosmos is orderly because it was designed by the rational Creator of the universe who desires for us, as beings made in His image, to understand, enjoy, and explore His creation.