Take Up and Read: Knowing God

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

I am writing this ongoing blog series on Reflections to encourage Christians to read more vigorously and enrich their lives with Christian classics in such fields as theology, philosophy, and apologetics. Hopefully, a brief introduction to these important Christian texts will motivate today’s believers to, as St. Augustine was called in his dramatic conversion to Christianity, “take up and read” (Latin: Tolle lege) these excellent books.

blog__inline--take-up-and-read-knowing-godThis week’s book, Knowing God by evangelical Protestant theologian J. I. Packer, is a contemporary classic of Christian doctrine. Widely considered one of the most important evangelical theological works of the twentieth century, Packer’s magnum opus (greatest work) has sold more than one million copies in North America alone.

Why Is This Author Notable?

James Innell (better known as J. I.) Packer was born in 1926 in England. He was educated at Oxford University where he studied under C. S. Lewis. Packer is a latter-day Puritan in the Reformed or Calvinistic tradition of the conservative side of the Anglican Church. He has taught for many years and currently serves as Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Packer is considered one of the most important evangelical theologians of the second half of the twentieth century.

What Is This Book About?

Originally written as a series of articles for a magazine, Knowing God was first published as a book in 1973 and has become a standard evangelical work of doctrine and theology. Consisting of 22 chapters and divided into three parts, the work explores the knowledge and attributes of God and the enjoyment that Christians derive from knowing him intimately.

Part 1 is entitled “Know the Lord” and explains just how and why the believer knows the triune God of historic Christianity who is revealed in the incarnate person of Jesus Christ. Part 2 is titled “Behold Your God” and unpacks many of God’s attributes, such as his majesty, wisdom, goodness, and justice. Part 3 carries the title “If God Be for Us” and reveals the joy of knowing God in personal relationship through Christ.

Packer’s book takes doctrine and devotion seriously as he provides practical guidance to the reader both as a theologian and as a pastor. This influential book provides evidence that reading theology can be inspirational and enjoyable. Packer is well-known for saying that the believer should “turn theology into doxology.”1 In other words, the believer in Christ should turn the study of God into the praise of God.

In Knowing God, Packer warns of the dangers that can result when a person avoids the study of theology:

Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.2

Why Is This Book Worth Reading?

Knowing God is widely considered a contemporary masterpiece of evangelical theology and devotion. In 2006, Christianity Today magazine ranked the book number five on their list of “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals.”3 This is a book that many Christians can read and study over and over throughout their lives.

Resources

Knowing God by J. I. Packer (book)

Endnotes
  1. John G. Stackhouse Jr., “Doctrine That Actually Delights,” Christianity Today, December 9, 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/december-web-only/knowing-god-turns-40.html.
  2. “The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals,” Christianity Today, October 6, 2006, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/october/23.51.html.
  3. Wikipedia, s.v. “Knowing God,” last modified November 29, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowing_God.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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Why Would a Loving God Punish Us?

BY STEPHEN MCANDREW – MARCH 27, 2020

When I was five years old, Postman Pat was my favorite TV show. So, when I misbehaved my punishment included missing the show. I suffered, as only a five-year-old can, knowing that my siblings were watching while I was banished to my room.

Punishment involves suffering, be it big or small. Humans intuitively recognize that it is wrong to inflict suffering on someone, thus it follows that it is wrong to punish someone. So, why would an all-loving, all-good God make someone suffer by punishing them? Why would God send some people to suffer in hell as punishment?

 

Responsibility and Punishment

To address these questions, we will consider free will and how society rewards or punishes choices people make. In human society, we generally accept that it is morally justified to punish criminal behavior. When society punishes someone for committing a crime, it holds that person responsible for a free choice made. Likewise, when society praises someone for making a commendable choice, it holds that person responsible for praiseworthy behavior.

When society punishes a criminal, they are blaming that person appropriately for freely choosing to commit the crime. None of this is to say that there are not cases in the criminal justice system where we find that someone who committed a criminal act should not be held responsible because they suffer from a cognitive limitation. In these cases, we hold that the individual was not responsible for the act as they did not fully understand their actions.

Are We Humans or Animals?

Nevertheless, respecting free choice treats people as individuals who are rational and capable of exercising moral judgment. Yet some, like philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell, have argued that we should not punish criminals, but treat their criminal actions as symptoms of a disease.1 These groups often advocate for what they believe are more “compassionate” treatments. But a world that absolves criminals of responsibility for those crimes would be highly problematic. Christian writer and intellectual C. S. Lewis wrote:

To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason…and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better,” is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.2

I agree with Lewis. If we don’t punish people for wrong actions they chose to do, then we are really treating them like animals. Animals are not morally responsible for their actions. If my dog relieves himself on the carpet, I work to train my dog not to do that in the future. However, if a person commits a crime, we do not merely train them not to do it again. They cannot be trained, like an animal, not to do certain things; rather they must freely choose not to do those things in the future. We cannot override their free will through training. And most people have a deep sense that it is inappropriate to treat a person in the same way we would treat an animal.

Philosopher Herbert Morris pointed out further problems with no-punishment treatments. He argued that a world that treats criminals as suffering from a disease would permit preventive detention before any offense is committed, if someone is believed to have dangerous tendencies. He wrote:

In the punishment system, because we are dealing with deprivations, it is understandable that we should forbear from imposing them until we are quite sure of guilt. In the therapy system, dealing as it does with benefits, there is less reason for forbearance from treatment at an early stage.3

It would also not allow offenders to pay back their debt to society. If you did not earn a punishment, then how can you earn back the respect of society? Morris wrote:

Infliction of the prescribed punishment carries the implication…that one has “paid one’s debt” to society, for the punishment is the taking from the person of something commonly recognized as valuable…What is clear is that the conceptions of “paying a debt” or “having a debt forgiven” or pardoning have no place in a system of therapy.4

Respect and Mercy

Punishment respects our free choices and respects us as persons capable of making moral decisions. If God holds us responsible for our moral actions, then he treats us like rational people who are responsible for our choices. In punishing those who do wrong God is not being unfair or mean, but is treating us with respect. This is the same way the criminal justice system, when properly applied, respects offenders as persons by punishing them rather than treating their offenses as something they had no control over.

The good news is that God extends mercy—even though we deserve divine punishment due to our free choices to do moral wrongs. This is not to say that God takes our moral wrongs lightly and dismisses them easily. Rather, Jesus took the punishment that we deserved by suffering and dying in our place. His righteousness (moral goodness) is imputed to us if we choose to follow and obey Him. Moreover, as Morris and Lewis pointed out, mercy only makes sense if someone deserves to be punished and punishment is not carried out. Lewis wrote: “If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a humboil or a club foot?”5 Therefore, in order to be merciful, God must hold us responsible, and mercy is clearly an exercise of a loving God.6

 

Endnotes
  1. Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1919), 125.
  2. S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), 287–301.
  3. Herbert Morris, “Persons and Punishment,” The Monist 52, no. 4 (October 1, 1968): 475–501, https://doi.org/10.5840/monist196852436.
  4. Herbert Morris, “Persons and Punishment,” 484.
  5. Lewis, “Punishment,” 294.
  6. This is not to say that those to whom God extends mercy will not suffer in life, as suffering can develop character (Romans 5:5). Rather, believers in Christ will not suffer the eternal punishment they deserve for sin.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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Is the “Hand of God” Evident in Life’s Origin?

BY HUGH ROSS – MARCH 2, 2020

How did life on Earth begin? Does an experimenter’s intervention reveal the “hand” that made life?

Fuz Rana and I attended the 2002 International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) Conference held June 30–July 5 in Oaxaca, Mexico. There we heard the atheist/agnostic chemist Robert Shapiro publicly comment on the laboratory simulation of one of the more complex chemical reactions known to be critical for any origin-of-life model. Shapiro complemented the scientific team for their brilliant lecture and amazing achievement, but pointed out how much intelligent intervention and design were needed to produce their outcome. He added that if his peers could not produce chemical outcomes known to be vital for any conceivable origin-of-life model without far less experimenter interference then they simply were proving that the origin of life required an intelligent designer. Fuz and I heard a whole row of origin-of-life chemists behind us loudly whisper, “Heaven forbid.”

Sixteen years later chemist Clemens Richert published an article in Nature Communications in which he more fully articulated Shapiro’s point.1 He began by explaining that the reputed goal of experimental biochemists doing origin-of-life research is “to re-enact what may have happened when life arose from inanimate material.”2 Richert pointed out, though, that such reenactments are unrealistic if one or more human interventions are required.

Reproducibility and Intervention
One such intervention that inevitably occurs arises from the experimenters’ desires that their results be reproducible by other biochemists. If their results cannot be reproduced, there is little, if any, likelihood that they will be published in any reputable science journal. This need for reproducibility forces the biochemists to begin with known quantities of pure chemicals. However, such fixed, pure quantities are unrealistic in any conceivable natural prebiotic scenario. The second law of thermodynamics inevitably introduces mixtures of structurally related but chemically interfering molecular aggregates.

Furthermore, to be relevant to any conceivable natural origin-of-life scenario the experiment must not involve any human intervention after the start of a reaction. There cannot be any addition or subtraction of chemicals during the reaction. The reaction must be allowed to unfold and samples drawn only after the reaction is completely finished.

Even when these strictures are rigorously obeyed not-so-subtle human interferences can and do occur. For example, in the famous Miller-Urey experiment3 where researchers claimed to synthesize amino acids from sparking a mixture of water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen in an enclosed flask, the experiment was performed about 200 times. In only one of those 200 trials were five amino acids generated, at a total concentration of two percent where nearly all of that two percent was glycine, the simplest amino acid. Moreover, the starting conditions were irrelevant. In any natural scenario, there would either be oxygen or ultraviolet radiation present and either would have halted the reaction. Also, the concentration of ammonia in any natural scenario would be far lower than what was present in the flask and inevitably there would be many more chemicals present than just water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen.

The Miller-Urey experiment is a classic example of multiple human interventions where the experimenters thought there were none. Today, the Miller-Urey experiment and many others like it are widely recognized as irrelevant to the origin-of-life on Earth or on any other planetary body.

Intervention Required for Amino Acid Joining
For more complex reactions than the Miller-Urey experiment, such as the joining together of bioactive amino acids to construct short protein segments, repeated interventions by the experimentalists have proved necessary. Each step needs a specific chemical environment or set of conditions to occur at high yields. Often, a subtraction reaction needs to occur simultaneously with an addition reaction where both must occur at specified rates.

In the case of joining together amino acids, the amino acids must all be homochiral (all left-handed in their molecular configuration). In the naturally occurring random mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids no such joining together occurs. A similar chirality limitation occurs for joining together nucleobases to make short strands of RNA or DNA. To join nucleobases together requires ribose sugars as chemical bridges and the ribose sugars must all be right-handed in their configuration. Outside of laboratories and living systems or the decay products of living systems, ribose is extremely rare, almost always undetectable, and always results as random mixtures of left- and right-handed configurations.

In living cells, biochemical synthesis usually occurs through catalyzed reactions by different enzymes where each enzyme requires a distinct, specified microenvironment at its active site for the reaction to run. In simulating an enzyme-free prebiotic scenario, experimenters find that they must employ multiple, highly ordered chemical steps that involve precipitation, crystallization, purification, and drastic changes in the chemical conditions from one synthesis step to the next. Even then, success rarely occurs.

Toward the end of his article Richert takes to task the now popular experiments of unending cycles of hydration and dehydration and/or cooling and heating. Richert points out, for example, that for cooling and heating cycles to be productive requires repeated specified transitions in a single locale from arctic to volcanic conditions then back to arctic within just hours or a few days. Such requirements, he understates, seem unrealistic for natural scenarios.

Intervention and the Hand of God
In his article, Richert coined a phrase for the experimenter intervention. He called it “the Hand of God dilemma.” His point is that experimenter intervention is akin to claiming that God did it. In saying this, he admits that “most of us [origin-of-life researchers] are not comfortable with the idea of divine intervention in this context.”3

Richert, nevertheless, makes a strong appeal to his fellow origin-of-life researchers. So as not to deceive researchers in other disciplines, and especially the lay public, or to exaggerate their successes to their research peers, Richert recommends that his peers reveal the level of experimenter intervention. In their publications, they should state as accurately as possible how many times and exactly when and where in their experiments they commit the Hand of God dilemma.

Having been to several origin-of-life conferences and having read hundreds of origin-of-life research papers, I think if Richert and his peers followed through on his recommendation, the number count of how many times the Hand of God dilemma has been committed per published origin-of-life experiment easily would exceed an average of a dozen times. If that’s the case, then the lay public, scientists in other disciplines, and maybe even origin-of-life researchers themselves will recognize and acknowledge that God, not a set of unguided natural processes, created the first life on Earth.

Endnotes
  1. Clemens Richert, “Prebiotic Chemistry and Human Intervention,” Nature Communications 9 (December 12, 2018): id. 5177, doi:10.1038/241467-018-07219-5.
  2. Richert, “Prebiotic Chemistry,” 1.
  3. Stanley L. Miller, “A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions,” Science 117, no. 3046 (May 15, 1953): 528–29, doi:10.1126/science.117.3046.528.
  4. Richert, 2.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

Support Reasons to Believe

Your support helps more people find Christ through sharing how the latest scientific discoveries affirm our faith in the God of the Bible.

DONATE NOW


U.S. Mailing Address
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Covina, CA 91724
  • P (855) 732-7667
  • P (626) 335-1480
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Ancient DNA Indicates Modern Humans Are One-of-a-Kind

BY FAZALE RANA – FEBRUARY 19, 2020

The wonderful thing about tiggers
Is tiggers are wonderful things!
Their tops are made out of rubber
Their bottoms are made out of springs!
They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!
But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is
I’m the only one!1

With eight grandchildren and counting (number nine will be born toward the end of February), I have become reacquainted with children’s stories. Some of the stories my grandchildren want to hear are new, but many of them are classics. It is fun to see my grandchildren experiencing the same stories and characters I enjoyed as a little kid.

Perhaps my favorite children’s book of all time is A. A. Milne’s (1882–1956) Winnie-the-Pooh. And of all the characters that populated Pooh Corner, my favorite character is the ineffable Tigger—the self-declared one-of-a-kind.

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A. A. Milne. Credit: Wikipedia

For many people (such as me), human beings are like Tigger. We are one-of-a-kind among creation. As a Christian, I take the view that we are unique and exceptional because we alone have been created in God’s image.

For many others, the Christian perspective on human nature is unpopular and offensive. Who are we to claim some type of special status? They insist that humans aren’t truly unique and exceptional. We are not fundamentally different from other creatures. If anything, we differ only in degree, not kind. Naturalists and others assert that there is no evidence that human beings bear God’s image. In fact, some would go so far as to claim that creatures such as Neanderthals were quite a bit like us. They maintain that these hominins were “exceptional,” just like us. Accordingly, if we are one-of-a-kind it is because, like Tigger, we have arrogantly declared ourselves to be so, when in reality we are no different from any of the other characters who make their home at Pooh Corner.

Despite this pervasive and popular challenge to human exceptionalism (and the image-of-God concept), there is mounting evidence that human beings stand apart from all extant creatures (such as the great apes) and extinct creatures (such as Neanderthals). This growing evidence can be marshaled to make a scientific case that as human beings we, indeed, are image bearers.

As a case in point, many archeological studies affirm human uniqueness and exceptionalism. (See the Resources section for a sampling of some of this work.) These studies indicate that human beings alone possess a suite of characteristics that distinguish us from all other hominins. I regard these qualities as scientific descriptors of the image of God:

  • Capacity for symbolism
  • Ability for open-ended manipulation of symbols
  • Theory of mind
  • Capacity to form complex, hierarchical social structures

Other studies have identified key differences between the brains of modern humans and Neanderthals. (For a sample of this evidence see the Resources section.) One key difference relates to skull shape. Neanderthals (and other hominins) possessed an elongated skull. In contradistinction, our skull shape is globular. The globularity allows for the expansion of the parietal lobe. This is significant because an expanded parietal lobe explains a number of unique human characteristics:

  • Perception of stimuli
  • Sensorimotor transformation (which plays a role in planning)
  • Visuospatial integration (which provides hand-eye coordination)
  • Imagery
  • Self-awareness
  • Working and long-term memory

Again, I connect these scientific qualities to the image of God.

Now, two recent studies add to the case for human exceptionalism. They involve genetic comparisons of modern humans with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. Through the recovery and sequencing of ancient DNA, we have high quality genomes for these hominins that we can analyze and compare to the genomes of modern humans.

While the DNA sequences of protein-coding genes in modern human genomes and the genomes of these two extant hominins is quite similar, both studies demonstrate that the gene expression is dramatically different. That difference accounts for anatomical differences between humans and these two hominins and suggests that significant cognitive differences exist as well.

Differences in Gene Regulation

To characterize gene expression patterns in Neanderthals and Denisovans and compare them to modern humans, researchers from Vanderbilt University (VU) used statistical methods to develop a mathematical model that would predict gene expression profiles from the DNA sequences of genomes.2 They built their model using DNA sequences and gene expression data (measured from RNA produced by transcription) for a set of human genomes. To ensure that their model could be used to assess gene expression for Neanderthals and Denisovans, the researchers paid close attention to the gene expression pattern for genes in the human genome that were introduced when modern humans and Neanderthals presumably interbred and compared their expression to human genes that were not of Neanderthal origin.

blog__inline--ancient-dna-indicates-modern-humans-2
The Process of Gene Expression. Credit: Shutterstock

With their model in hand, the researchers analyzed the expression profile for nearly 17,000 genes from the Altai Neanderthal. Their model predicts that 766 genes in the Neanderthal genome had a different expression profile than the corresponding genes in modern humans. As it turns out, the differentially expressed genes in the Neanderthal genomes failed to be incorporated into the human genome after interbreeding took place, suggesting to the researchers that these genes are responsible for key anatomical and physiological differences between modern humans and Neanderthals.

The VU investigators determined that these 766 differentially expressed genes play roles in reproduction, forming skeletal structures, and the functioning of cardiovascular and immune systems.

Then, the researchers expanded their analysis to include two other Neanderthal genomes (from the Vindija and Croatian specimens) and the Denisovan genome. The researchers learned that the gene expression profiles of the three Neanderthal genomes were more similar to one another than they were to either the gene expression patterns of modern human and Denisovan genomes.

This study clearly demonstrates that significant differences existed in the regulation of gene expression in modern humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans and that these differences account for biological distinctives between the three hominin species.

Differences in DNA Methylation

In another study, researchers from Israel compared gene expression profiles in modern human genomes with those from and Neanderthals and Denisovans using a different technique. This method assesses DNA methylation.3 (Methylation of DNA downregulates gene expression, turning genes off.)

Methylation of DNA influences the degradation process for this biomolecule. Because of this influence, researchers can determine the DNA methylation pattern in ancient DNA by characterizing the damage to the DNA fragments isolated from fossil remains.

Using this technique, the researchers measured the methylation pattern for genomes of two Neanderthals (Altai and Vindija) and a Denisovan and compared these patterns with genomes recovered from the remains of three modern humans, dating to 45,000 years in age, 8,000 years in age, and 7,000 years in age, respectively. They discovered 588 genes in modern human genomes with a unique DNA methylation pattern, indicating that these genes are expressed differently in modern humans than in Neanderthals and Denisovans. Among the 588 genes, researchers discovered some that influence the structure of the pelvis, facial morphology, and the larynx.

The researchers think that differences in gene expression may explain the anatomical differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. They also think that this result indicates that Neanderthals lacked the capacity for speech.

What Is the Relationship between Modern Humans and Neanderthals?

These two genetic studies add to the extensive body of evidence from the fossil record, which indicates that Neanderthals are biologically distinct from modern humans. For a variety of reasons, some Christian apologists and Intelligent Design proponents classify Neanderthals and modern humans into a single group, arguing that the two are equivalent. But these two studies comparing gene regulation profiles make it difficult to maintain that perspective.

Modern Humans, Neanderthals, and the RTB Human Origins Model

RTB’s human origins model regards Neanderthals (and other hominins) as creatures made by God, without any evolutionary connection to modern humans. These extraordinary creatures walked erect and possessed some level of intelligence, which allowed them to cobble together tools and even adopt some level of “culture.” However, our model maintains that the hominins were not spiritual beings made in God’s image. RTB’s model reserves this status exclusively for modern humans.

Based on our view, we predict that biological similarities will exist among the hominins and modern humans to varying degrees. In this regard, we consider the biological similarities to reflect shared designs, not a shared evolutionary ancestry. We also expect biological differences because, according to our model, the hominins would belong to different biological groups from modern humans.

We also predict that significant cognitive differences would exist between modern humans and the other hominins. These differences would be reflected in brain anatomy and behavior (inferred from the archeological record). According to our model, these differences reflect the absence of God’s image in the hominins.

The results of these two studies affirm both sets of predictions that flow from the RTB human origins model. The differences in gene regulation between modern human and Neanderthals is precisely what our model predicts. These differences seem to account for the observed anatomical differences between Neanderthals and modern humans observed from fossil remains.

The difference in the regulation of genes affecting the larynx is also significant for our model and the idea of human exceptionalism. One of the controversies surrounding Neanderthals relates to their capacity for speech and language. Yet, it is difficult to ascertain from fossil remains if Neanderthals had the anatomical structures needed for the vocalization range required for speech. The differences in the expression profiles for genes that control the development and structure of the larynx in modern humans and Neanderthals suggests that Neanderthals lacked the capacity for speech. This result dovetails nicely with the differences in modern human and Neanderthal brain structure, which suggest that Neanderthals also lacked the neural capacity for language and speech. And, of course, it is significant that there is no conclusive evidence for Neanderthal symbolism in the archeological record.

With these two innovative genetic studies, the scientific support for human exceptionalism continues to mount. And the wonderful thing about this insight is that it supports the notion that as human beings we are the only ones who bear God’s image and can form a relationship with our Creator.

Resources

Behavioral Differences between Humans and Neanderthals

Biological Differences between Humans and Neanderthals

Endnotes
  1. Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, composers, “The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers” (song), released December 1968.
  2. Laura L. Colbran et al., “Inferred Divergent Gene Regulation in Archaic Hominins Reveals Potential Phenotypic Differences,” Nature Evolution and Ecology 3 (November 2019): 1598-606, doi:10.1038/s41559-019-0996-x.
  3. David Gokhman et al., “Reconstructing the DNA Methylation Maps of the Neandertal and the Denisovan,” Science 344, no. 6183 (May 2, 2014): 523–27, doi:1126/science.1250368; David Gokhman et al., “Extensive Regulatory Changes in Genes Affecting Vocal and Facial Anatomy Separate Modern from Archaic Humans,” bioRxiv, preprint (October 2017), doi:10.1101/106955.

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Doing Apologetics in a Scientific Context

BY STEPHEN CHUA – FEBRUARY 7, 2020

How can we share our evidence-based faith effectively? I have found that context is key. In my outreach efforts, I have invited nonbelievers to explore life and the Christian faith in a friendly, open, and informal environment and their responses have typically led to ongoing, fruitful discussions.

Skeptics of the Christian faith often lead with the premise that Christianity is “faith-based” while science is evidence-based and, hence, factual. How does a Christian who is science-educated share the good news effectively with an atheistic and potentially hostile postmodern intellectual who holds this view? For starters, I am eager to clarify what “faith-based” means.

As Christians educated in the sciences, we seek ways to share the evidence behind the faith we believe, which theologian Alan Padgett describes as “the interpretation of the results of the sciences into evidence for theology.”1 However, while providing information may be easy, creating a context for meaningful dialogue is not. Most people would rather avoid such discussions. Here I’ll share what has worked for me, with the hope that something similar can work for you as you reach out to science-educated non-Christians.

Creating an Environment for Engagement

At my church in Singapore, we have invited nonchurched members of the community to attend informal evening get-togethers. We provide an environment for meaningful dialogue centered around sharing a meal, listening to a video presentation, and engaging in facilitated discussions. During these sessions, we lay out the basics of Christianity and foster an atmosphere of safe questioning. We have about 200 people involved, including about 25 facilitators leading 15–20 groups. Facilitator training is key. I have a science background but have also benefitted from doctrinal training; thus, I’ve been able to help others prepare for inevitable science-based questions. Some facilitators might feel intimidated about addressing science-related topics, and in particular how to answer challenges about creation and the Bible, but help is available.

Obviously, RTB is well-equipped to educate people who might feel this way, and I highly recommend RTB’s many resources, including their online courses. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the importance of discerning what’s behind the question. For example, when asked a science-related question about God, the temptation is to flood the questioner with scientific knowledge and facts, when in reality that person may not necessarily be asking a scientific question.

Discerning a Person’s Real Need

I had an exchange with a highly intellectual young adult (let’s call him “Z”) who peppered me and others in our sessions with thoughtful, deep questions. One of his questions seemed cosmological on the surface. That is, he wondered whether there were other inhabited planets or alternate dimensions we know nothing about that negated the possibility of a God who specially created humans and cares for them personally. I met with Z separately to talk further about his questions.

At that meeting, I was prepared to provide scientific positions defending Christianity, but then I thought about it more. It dawned on me that “he’s not asking about science per se. He’s looking for reasons to believe in God!” I then realized Z was worried about putting his trust in a God that may not care for him personally. I changed tact midway and started asking him questions. Up to that point, my scientific background made me ignore a basic tenet of effective evangelism: answer the questioner, not the question.

 

Answering the Questioner

I tried to address Z’s “trust” concerns by emphasizing that God is Creator, but one who has left ample evidence in creation of his care for people. From there, we were able to discuss thought experiments, statements of logic, and other evidence. Z finally came to a familiar argumentative choice: If God is real and we believe, what happens? If God is not real and we believe, what happens? In the end, these questions helped move Z toward accepting a level of uncertainty in his prior conclusions. He came to believe that the gains of believing in God outweigh the risks of not believing. I’m happy to report that Z is now attending church regularly and growing in his faith! This experience showed me that in some cases, science-based walls are actually facades that people erect to hide their true emotional insecurities.

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Figure 1: This small group of students met regularly to discuss Christianity and ask questions. Three of these prebelievers are now attending church regularly. Credit: Stephen Chua (extreme right)

As an academic I have had many apologetics encounters with non-Christian peers and students. I remember using knowledge to combat knowledge while secretly praying in my heart. However, that approach did not lead to significant (spiritual) breakthroughs, usually ending only in their grudging assent to some new facts or information. But my interaction with Z impacted me deeply. Since then, I’ve created a set of materials aimed at equipping others with skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed to best present both the scientific evidence and the gospel to prebelievers. Here are a couple of practical points.

 

Posture of the Answerer

The first thing to note is our posture toward the questioner, which includes our attitude/tone/demeanor/choice of words. We must be:

  1. Nonjudgmental (not “holier than thou”)
  2. Nonadversarial (not “us vs. them”)
  3. Prepared and compassionate

People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. Winning their hearts, with gentleness and respect, should take precedence over winning an argument (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Process of the Answer

After demonstrating the proper posture, the process of systematically presenting the gospel could entail the following (3E model):

  1. Empathize – Walk with them; don’t talk against them (1 Corinthians 9:22b-23).
  2. Educate – Lay out the pertinent evidence succinctly (2 Corinthians 10:5).
  3. Evangelize – End the discussion with a clear presentation of the gospel (1 Timothy 2:3b-4).

 

Reaching People Where They Are

As people become more educated and knowledge becomes more freely accessible, some people perceive science and technology as the drivers of human progress. It is inevitable that people derive meaning and value from science and technology and will adopt ‘science-as-arbiter-of-truth’ mindsets. Thus, to win hearts and minds, especially those with a scientific inclination, an appropriate context is critical for better engagement. We seek not to debate, but rather to create an environment for allowing positive conversations between differing mindsets and worldviews.2 We must discern the differing worldviews, inner battles, and possible emotional baggage that underlie people’s questions.

In my part of the world, the veils people wear that obscure clear reception of the gospel often has an emotional or cultural root, but they will often use this “material” called science as a façade instead. But my situation is probably not much different from yours. Thus, I encourage you to create an environment that is people-focused, question-driven, and relationship-rooted. It helps us to discern what’s really on people’s hearts and minds, which is key to reaching them with truth.

Endnotes
  1. Alan G. Padgett, “Word of God or Dialog with Science? Overcoming a False Dilemma Through Missional Encounter,” Dialog 46, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 281–87, doi:10.1111/j.1540-6385.2007.00337.x.
  2. Willem B. Drees, “’Religion and Science’ as Advocacy of Science and as Religion versus Religion,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 40, no. 3 (September 2005): 545–54, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9744.2005.00686.x.

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God Created a Home for Us in a Sacred Place

BY DON OLSON – JANUARY 24, 2020

When I reflect on the first verse in the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1)what often comes to mind is a quote from one of my favorite theologians, R.C. Sproul, describing God’s creation as “a grand theater of divine revelation.”1 In Genesis 1, the almighty, loving God and his creative acts take center stage. We learn that he has the incredible power to create something out of nothing by simply speaking it into existence. And we see how he designed the heavens and the earth as a sacred space for his people where he would be in relationship with them. Within this sacred space where God is present and active, the earth is the center of interest—the place he created to dwell among his people.

 

Creating a Sacred Space

God’s creation unfolds in steps, beginning with the first verse of Genesis 1. Out of nothing, something. The heavens serve as the foundation of the earth, which at this stage is a primitive planet, like a ball of clay in a master potter’s hands. Verse 2 describes the earth from the perspective of someone (the Holy Spirit) present on the surface; it is dark, formless, covered with water, and void of life. It is black as a night without moon or starlight due to a thick layer of clouds cloaking the entire earth (Job 38:8–9) and blocking out all light from the heavens above (Jeremiah 4:23). In Genesis 1:2, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters. Some commentators, based on the Hebrew of this verse, picture the Spirit hovering over his infant earth like an eagle hovers over her chicks in the nest with utmost care.

As the creation narrative continues (Genesis 1:3–27), the passage describes God exercising great love and care to transform this primitive planet day by day into a beautiful home—one suitable for humans made in his image to dwell in, and where he would fulfill his plan for each and every one of us. When God was finished with his creation, he concluded that it was very good. And the angels in attendance at this grand theater shouted with joy (Job 38:7).

Science and Creation

The record of nature revealed by science is in remarkable agreement with the Genesis creation account. Geological studies of stones and sediments confirm that the early earth was a dark, cloud-covered, formless waterworld devoid of animal life. Studies of stones, bones, and other fossils further show that the order of events in the history of the earth matches the Genesis account (dark waterworld→continents→plants→clearing of the skies→marine life→land animals→humans).2 And finally, science has discovered that the universe and earth are so fine-tuned to support complex life on earth that, apart from God’s intervention, the probability of finding another planet like ours in the heavens is near zero (see www.reasons.org/finetuning).

 

A Home for Now

It appears that earth is indeed a unique part of God’s sacred space. He crafted this home for us, and we should therefore appreciate the care that went into it and endeavor to be good stewards of all of his creation.

If the angels shouted with joy upon witnessing the Creator’s work, we have even more reason to do so because this creation was made for us and is our home. As a scientist, I feel this joy whenever I learn about and reflect on a new scientific discovery that reveals another wonder of God’s creation. I hope you do too. It’s like having a front row seat in the “grand theater of divine revelation.”

 

Our Eternal Home

But this is not the end of the creation story. In John 14:2, Jesus tells us, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” Revelation 21:1 gives us a glimpse of what to expect: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” The new place will be our eternal home with unimaginable features and, best of all, God’s eternal presence with all who have received Jesus as their Lord and Savior. It will be an even greater sacred space!

 

Endnotes
  1. Matt Smethurst, “40 Quotes from R. C. Sproul (1939–2017),” The Gospel Coalition, December 14, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/40-quotes-rc-sproul/.
  2. Hugh Ross, “Five Best Scientific Evidences for the God of the Bible,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), June 4, 2018, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/todays-new-reason-to-believe/2018/06/04/five-best-scientific-evidences-for-the-god-of-the-bible.

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About Reasons to Believe

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Did Neanderthals Start Fires?

BY FAZALE RANA – DECEMBER 5, 2018

It is one of the most iconic Christmas songs of all time.

Written by Bob Wells and Mel Torme in the summer of 1945, “The Christmas Song” (subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) was crafted in less than an hour. As the story goes, Wells and Torme were trying to stay cool during the blistering summer heat by thinking cool thoughts and then jotting them down on paper. And, in the process, “The Christmas Song” was born.

Many of the song’s lyrics evoke images of winter, particularly around Christmastime. But none has come to exemplify the quiet peace of a Christmas evening more than the song’s first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire . . . ”

Gathering around the fire to stay warm, to cook food, and to share in a community has been an integral part of the human experience throughout history—including human prehistory. Most certainly our ability to master fire played a role in our survival as a species and in our ability as human beings to occupy and thrive in some of the world’s coldest, harshest climates.

But fire use is not limited only to modern humans. There is strong evidence that Neanderthals made use of fire. But, did these creatures have control over fire in the same way we do? In other words, did Neanderthals master fire? Or, did they merely make opportunistic use of natural fires? These questions are hotly debated by anthropologists today and they contribute to a broader discussion about the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals. Part of that discussion includes whether these creatures were cognitively inferior to us or whether they were our intellectual equals.

In an attempt to answer these questions, a team of researchers from the Netherlands and France characterized the microwear patterns on bifacial (having opposite sides that have been worked on to form an edge) tools made from flint recovered from Neanderthal sites, and concluded that the wear patterns suggest that these hominins used pyrite to repeatedly strike the flint. This process generates sparks that can be used to start fires.1 To put it another way, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals had mastery over fire because they knew how to start fires.

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Figure 1: Biface tools for cutting or scraping. Image credit: Shutterstock

However, a closer examination of the evidence along with results of other studies, including recent insight into the cause of Neanderthal extinction, raises significant doubts about this conclusion.

What Do the Microwear Patterns on Flint Say?

The investigators focused on the microwear patterns of flint bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites as a marker for fire mastery because of the well-known practice among hunter-gatherers and pastoralists of striking flint with pyrite (an iron disulfide mineral) to generate sparks to start fires. Presumably, the first modern humans also used this technique to start fires.

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Figure 2: Starting a fire with pyrite and flint. Image credit: Shutterstock

The research team reasoned that if Neanderthals started fires, they would use a similar tactic. Careful examination of the microwear patterns on the bifaces led the research team to conclude that these tools were repeatedly struck by hard materials, with the strikes all occurring in the same direction along the bifaces’ long axis.

The researchers then tried to experimentally recreate the microwear pattern in a laboratory setting. To do so, they struck biface replicas with a number of different types of materials, including pyrites, and concluded that the patterns produced by the pyrite strikes most closely matched the patterns on the bifaces recovered from Neanderthal sites. On this basis, the researchers claim that they have found evidence that Neanderthals deliberately started fires.

Did Neanderthals Master Fire?

While this conclusion is possible, at best this study provides circumstantial, not direct, evidence for Neanderthal mastery of fire. In fact, other evidence counts against this conclusion. For example, bifaces with the same type of microwear patterns have been found at other Neanderthal sites, locales that show no evidence of fire use. These bifaces would have had a range of usages, including butchery of the remains of dead animals. So, it is possible that these tools were never used to start fires—even at sites with evidence for fire usage.

Another challenge to the conclusion comes from the failure to detect any pyrite on the bifaces recovered from the Neanderthal sites. Flint recovered from modern human sites shows visible evidence of pyrite. And yet the research team failed to detect even trace amounts of pyrite on the Neanderthal bifaces during the course of their microanalysis.

This observation raises further doubt about whether the flint from the Neanderthal sites was used as a fire starter tool. Rather, it points to the possibility that Neanderthals struck the bifaces with materials other than pyrite for reasons not yet understood.

The conclusion that Neanderthals mastered fire also does not square with results from other studies. For example, a careful assessment of archaeological sites in southern France occupied by Neanderthals from about 100,000 to 40,000 years ago indicates that Neanderthals could not create fire. Instead, these hominins made opportunistic use of natural fire when it was available to them.2

These French sites do show clear evidence of Neanderthal fire use, but when researchers correlated the archaeological layers displaying evidence for fire use with the paleoclimate data, they found an unexpected pattern. Neanderthals used fire during warm climate conditions and failed to use fire during cold periods—the opposite of what would be predicted if Neanderthals had mastered fire.

Lightning strikes that would generate natural fires are much more likely to occur during warm periods. Instead of creating fire, Neanderthals most likely harnessed natural fire and cultivated it as long as they could before it extinguished.

Another study also raises questions about the ability of Neanderthals to start fires.3 This research indicates that cold climates triggered Neanderthal extinctions. By studying the chemical composition of stalagmites in two Romanian caves, an international research team concluded that there were two prolonged and extremely cold periods between 44,000 and 40,000 years ago. (The chemical composition of stalagmites varies with temperature.)

The researchers also noted that during these cold periods, the archaeological record for Neanderthals disappears. They interpret this disappearance to reflect a dramatic reduction in Neanderthal population numbers. Researchers speculate that when this population downturn took place during the first cold period, modern humans made their way into Europe. Being better suited for survival in the cold climate, modern human numbers increased. When the cold climate mitigated, Neanderthals were unable to recover their numbers because of the growing populations of modern humans in Europe. Presumably, after the second cold period, Neanderthal numbers dropped to the point that they couldn’t recover, and hence, became extinct.

But why would modern humans be more capable than Neanderthals of surviving under extremely cold conditions? It seems as if it should be the other way around. Neanderthals had a hyper-polar body design that made them ideally suited to withstand cold conditions. Neanderthal bodies were stout and compact, comprised of barrel-shaped torsos and shorter limbs, which helped them retain body heat. Their noses were long and sinus cavities extensive, which helped them warm the cold air they breathed before it reached their lungs. But, despite this advantage, Neanderthals died out and modern humans thrived.

Some anthropologists believe that the survival discrepancy could be due to dietary differences. Some data indicates that modern humans had a more varied diet than Neanderthals. Presumably, these creatures primarily consumed large herbivores—animals that disappeared when the climatic conditions turned cold, thereby threatening Neanderthal survival. On the other hand, modern humans were able to adjust to the cold conditions by shifting their diets.

But could there be a different explanation? Could it be that with their mastery of fire, modern humans were able to survive cold conditions? And did Neanderthals die out because they could not start fires?

Taken in its entirety, the data seems to indicate that Neanderthals lacked mastery of fire but could use it opportunistically. And, in a broader context, the data indicates that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans.

What Difference Does It Make?

One of the most important ideas taught in Scripture is that human beings uniquely bear God’s image. As such, every human being has immeasurable worth and value. And because we bear God’s image, we can enter into a relationship with our Maker.

However, if Neanderthals possessed advanced cognitive ability just like that of modern humans, then it becomes difficult to maintain the view that modern humans are unique and exceptional. If human beings aren’t exceptional, then it becomes a challenge to defend the idea that human beings are made in God’s image.

Yet, claims that Neanderthals are cognitive equals to modern humans fail to withstand scientific scrutiny, time and time, again. Now it’s time to light a fire in my fireplace and enjoy a few contemplative moments thinking about the real meaning of Christmas.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. A. C. Sorensen, E. Claud, and M. Soressi, “Neanderthal Fire-Making Technology Inferred from Microwear Analysis,” Scientific Reports 8 (July 19, 2018): 10065, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28342-9.
  2. Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108; Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012): 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neandertal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011): 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.
  3. Michael Staubwasser et al., “Impact of Climate Change on the Transition of Neanderthals to Modern Humans in Europe,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 115 (September 11, 2018): 9116–21, doi:10.1073/pnas.1808647115.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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