Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Existence of God 2/3: The Design Argument

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).
The cosmological argument is basically the answer to the question “why is there anything at all?” The next question is “why is the universe such that life can exist?”

Some claim science has removed any need for God as an explanation of the universe. The truth is actually the opposite: The more we learn about the universe, the more science points toward God.

There is no reason that the universe should be a hospitable place. In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking wrote, “The laws of science ... contain many fundamental numbers.... The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”

Dart in bullseye
The list of parameters that must be “finely adjusted” only seems to grow with time. One example is the cosmological constant which must be the same within 1 in 10120* (1). How do we even make sense of a number like that? “Let’s say you were way out in space and were going to throw a dart at random toward the Earth. It would be like successfully hitting a bull’s eye that’s one trillionth of a trillionth of an inch in diameter” (2).

The expansion rate of the universe must be tuned within 1 in 1055 (3) out of an infinite possible range (4). The energy of the excited state of a carbon-12 nucleus must be pretty much exactly what it is (5).

Some other examples include:

  • The gravitational coupling constant
  • The strong, weak, and electromagnetic force coupling constants
  • The ratio of electrons to protons
  • The ratio of the electron’s mass to the proton’s
  • The mass of the universe
  • The stability of protons
  • The velocity of light (6)
  • The ratio of the EM force relative to gravity (7)

There are dozens more. Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose gives the odds that the initial conditions of the universe might produce a universe in which we can live as 1 in 1010123. “Just to speak aloud those billions would require more time than the universe has existed” (8).

But it’s all just coincidence, right? Maybe there are countless universes in some kind of multiverse, and we’re just in the lucky one that can sustain life. Theoretical physicist Lee Smolin boiled it down to just the possibility of a universe in which stars can form. The odds of such a universe are 1 in 10229. “If every proton in the universe represented a universe, ... none of those universes would contain a star” (9). In other words, invoking a “multiverse” doesn’t get us a livable universe.

That’s why Stephen Hawking admitted, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us” (10).

Sir Arthur Eddington, who frankly found a beginning to the universe philosophically “repugnant,” said, “If we put a kettle of water on the fire there is a [1 in 1020] chance that the water will freeze. ... But it will not happen to me. ... I would much sooner believe in interference by a demon than in a coincidence of that kind coming off; and in doing so I shall be acting as a rational scientist” (11).

If the supernatural is the appropriate explanation for Eddington’s kettle freezing, what else can be the explanation for the mind boggling odds against our just-right universe?

And this is just the laws of physics as they apply to the universe at large. The design that goes into having a habitable planet and living organisms, as well as the origin of information, is equally staggering. When stacked together, it’s not surprising that this argument has convinced many scientists and philosophers that God must exist. God has left his fingerprints on the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. Whether it’s King David 3000 years ago or astronomers today, people who look at nature with an open mind can see that it declares the glory of God.

For more information, I recommend There Is A God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind by Anthony Flew.

* Click here for a quick refresher on scientific notation

(1) Steven Weinberg, “Life in the Universe,” Scientific American (Oct 94), p 44-49
(2) Robin Collins in Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p133-4
(3) Alan Guth, “Inflationary Universe,” Physical Review D 23 (1981), p 348
(4) George Gale, “The Anthropic Principle,” Scientific American (Dec 81), p154-71
(5) Weinberg, ibid
(6) Hugh Ross, The Fingerprint of God (Orange, Ca: Promise Publishing Co., 1991), p 119-128
(7) Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995), p 111-121
(8) quoted in Gerald L. Schroeder, The Science of God (New York: Broadway Books, 1997), p 186
(9) quoted in Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), p lxviii
(10) Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), p 125-127
(11) Sir Arthur Eddington, “The End of the World: from the Standpoint of Mathematical Physics,” Nature 127 (1931), p 447-53

Image credit: On Target by Vizzzual, used under Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Existence of God 1/3: The Cosmological Argument

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
Before we get into the theology, it’s best to stop and answer one of the biggest questions of our age: How can you believe in a deity? Over the centuries, Christians have formulated dozens of arguments to prove the existence of God. One of the oldest, and my favorite, has had a revival in modern times due to advancing scientific knowledge.

It’s called the cosmological argument. Written as a syllogism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything that began to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist. 
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.
For centuries the second statement was attacked. Many scientists took it as an object of faith that the universe was eternal. Then the 20th Century happened. Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity seemed to require that the universe was expanding. Then Hubble discovered that all the galaxies in the universe are moving apart from each other as if they were all the product of a massive explosion. The Big Bang theory was born. General Relativity and Big Bang cosmology have been bolstered by several discoveries since. Today, it is very difficult to deny that the universe began to exist, though there are scientists who try because of the religious implications. Even if someone doesn't believe in Big Bang cosmology, the second law of thermodynamics also requires the universe to have a finite beginning.

Since statement #2 is hard to deny,* people today will do something no one ever dreamed of before and attack statement #1. But that’s simply absurd. Nothing has ever been observed to come into existence without a cause, and there’s no reason to believe that there could be one massive exception in the universe itself.

It is important to get the first statement right. It is not “everything has a cause.” This is how atheists usually misrepresent the argument, and in that form the obvious rejoinder is “who created God?” But if only that which began to exist has a cause, there is room for something to be uncreated, eternal.

In fact, something must be eternal. If not, then something created the universe, and something else created that, and something else created that, and on forever. But an infinite progression like that is mathematically and logically impossible. So something has to be eternal, and the universe is not it.

But why does that eternal thing have to be God? Can’t it just be some kind of creative force? No. It must be a mind, a personal being.

Philosopher William Lane Craig, the man who revived the cosmological argument in the 20th Century, explains:

Ice cube
“If a cause is sufficient to produce its effect, then if the cause is there, the effect must be there, too. For example, water freezes when the temperature is below 0 degrees centigrade; the cause of the freezing is the temperature’s falling to 0 degrees. If the temperature has always been below 0 degrees, then any water around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for the water to begin to freeze just a finite time ago. Now the cause of the universe is permanently there, since it is timeless. So why isn’t the universe permanently there as well? Why did the universe come into being only 13.7 billion years ago? ... The answer to this problem must be that the cause is a personal being with freedom of the will. His act of creating the universe is a free act that is independent of any prior conditions. ... Thus, we’re brought not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe but to its Personal Creator.”

So modern science has joined together with ancient philosophy to demonstrate that a timeless, powerful, non-physical being created the universe because he decided to. God did not have to create us. God chose to create us. We should respond to that by choosing to get to know him.

For more detail on this topic, the best place to go is the man who (re-)started it all. William Lane Craig’s On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision has an excellent popular level explanation of the cosmological argument among other topics.

*The universe’s beginning to exist is only necessary for this argument. If the universe were eternal, that does not disprove the existence of God. Aquinas made many arguments for the existence of God assuming the universe was eternal because it was simply too easy to prove if the universe had a beginning.

Image credit: Deshaping by Daniel Frančišković, used under Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Rights and Responsibilities

People today are very concerned about making sure they get the rights they are due. That stems partly from how we got started:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Those words set the United States apart in 1776. People are born with rights. They are not privileges granted by government; they are granted by the Almighty, and a good government is the one that recognizes and protects those rights.

But there's a problem with the way many Americans — including many American Christians — think of their rights. It is an error to think that God only granted us rights. He also gave us duties:

"As God’s slaves, live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a way to conceal evil. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the Emperor" (1Pet 2:16-17 HCSB).

"Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" (Rom 13:7).

"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt 7:12).
Is that enough to make the point? God expects us to fear him, love our neighbor as ourselves, and respect our government leaders among other things. Even though we have rights, we are expected to behave as if other people have a claim on us.

Our society generally recognizes this. We have freedom of speech but a duty to tell the truth, and there are penalties for libel and slander. We have a freedom to assemble but most see a duty to do it in a way that is not a nuisance — and most see closing down highways during rush hour as a violation of that duty.

But when things don't go our way, we tend to focus on our rights to the exclusion of all else. We want our rights to be honored and, all too often, don't care about the affect on anyone else. Americans don't like this, but "my rights" are not the most important thing in the world. My duty to my neighbor may occasionally requires that I set aside some of my rights and privileges. My duty to the duly elected government may require that I do things I don't want to do.

This is something we have to keep in mind all of the time. We need to be mindful of our duties in traffic ("do to others what you would have them do to you"), during the several times a year we pay various taxes, and when we have unwanted trash in our hands and no convenient garbage can. We also need to keep this in mind when we're at the grocery stores and restaurants — the other customers and the staff matter to God. And occasionally the government has to remind us of this. Sometimes the government has to ask us, even tell us, to do things for the greater good.

That's not to say the government never goes too far, but if we are considering pressing for our rights, there are some questions that we should ask ourselves:
  • How will my actions affect my neighbor?
  • Is the government just flexing its muscles, or is it asking me to do something for the sake of my neighbor?
  • If everyone acted like this, what would the result be?
Don't be too quick to demand your rights. We are occasionally obliged to set aside our rights for the sake of our neighbors. If Paul was willing to give up meat (!) for the sake of another's conscience (1Cor 8:13), what might God ask you to tolerate?

To make sure I'm clear, I'm not saying everyone should be a doormat for the state. I'm saying "my rights" cannot be our first priority. Love of neighbor and obedience to God's word must take that place.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Introduction to Theology Proper

“Taste and see that the LORD is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
Now I get to write about God. I’ve been chomping at the bit, because this is a topic that makes my heart sing.

pastry assortment
Does that seem odd? As J. Gresham Machen wrote, "Many Christians today have a horror of theology; they suppose it must necessarily be a cold and lifeless thing.” Enjoying studying God would be odd if studying God were like memorizing logarithm tables. But what if it were like getting to know the most beautiful, clever, and fascinating person you’ve ever met? Would it be odd then? I don’t think most people would regard it so.

Theology can be made dry if it is treated like facts and figures, but when it is treated like the privilege of getting to know the maker of the universe it cannot be. God is an eternal, infinite being with the wisdom and power to make a universe, yet he condescends to disclose himself to us. There is an unimaginable beauty and glory that can only be experienced at his invitation, and he invites us to come. Though he is perpetually surrounded by adoring angels, he wants us to know him and has made a way for us to do so. How can we respond to this with anything less than enthusiasm?

Theology is not only exciting and beautiful, it is also life-giving. JI Packer wrote, “There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever.” CH Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century preacher said, “[N]othing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued, investigation of the great subject of the Deity.” The joy and peace that come from God cannot be found anywhere else. As St. Augustine put it, we are made for God, and our hearts will be restless until they find rest in him.

Theology is also intensely practical. Blogger Wendy Alsup wrote, “The reverential fear that comes from truly understanding God’s character sets us on a path of wisdom and understanding. Theology, simply put, IS practical. If our study of God hasn’t broken into the ins and outs of our busy daily lives, we may have not accessed real theology at all.” AW Tozer said, “A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well.”

Packer again (I’ll be quoting him a lot in this section): “Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.”

Come to the study of God like a child led to the dessert buffet. It is truly all you can eat, and I promise this will make you neither fat nor sick. God’s glory is on display in the world around us and in the pages of scripture, and we get to feast. Taste and see that the Lord is good!

One of the best ways to get an appreciation for God’s character is to examine how he acts toward us. I recommend Paradoxology: Why Christianity was Never Meant to be Simple by Krish Kandiah.

Photo credit: Welleschik, used under Creative Commons

Part of Christianity 101