Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross: a Review

Author

Hugh Ross is an astrophysicist with a PhD from the University of Toronto. He is also the founder and president of Reasons to Believe, a science/faith think tank. In the ongoing conversation between people of faith and those who are not over the philosophy of science, the phrase “god-of-the-gaps” is often tossed around as an accusation against those who hold to some view of divine design or creation. It is claimed that the view is “we don’t know how this came about, so God must have done it.” This dismissal ignores the fact that design proponents who are theists (and not all are) have many lines of argumentation that show the rationality of belief in God. When apparent design is cited as evidence of God’s existence, it is not for the purpose of filling a gap in knowledge, but inferring from what is known. Ross does this very well in his books Creator and the Cosmos, Origins of Life (with Fazale Rana) and Why the Universe Is the Way It Is. In each of these books, Ross addresses how the initial conditions of the universe, the fine tuning of the solar system, and the origin of life are quite consistent with intentional purpose. In Improbable Planet, Ross brings these arguments together to show the whole picture. This is his best work yet.

Using the analogy of a huge construction project, Ross catalogs the steps that must be followed, from producing the materials, to preparing the ground, to laying the foundation, etc, to argue that the universe bears the hallmarks of design for advanced, high-tech civilization.

 

Synopsis

The thesis of the book is that the universe as a whole, and earth in particular, was created for the purpose of redemption: a home for the human race which God would use to defeat evil once and for all. The book is laid out in eighteen chapters. Chapter one lays out point of raising this question. Chapter two describes the results of what the next thirteen chapters would describe. In chapter three, Ross describes how the Big Bang, and subsequent star formation and supernovae produced the necessary building materials. Chapter four shows how rare of a neighborhood a rare planet needs. (Location, location, location.) Chapter five describes the early development of the solar system and the earth-moon system, as well as how these particular conditions make earth a suitable home. Chapter six explains how the interaction of solar system bodies brought about bombardments of the earth that was vital for the life that would later occupy it.

Scientists are frequently announcing the discovery of extrasolar planets. Those who think life must exist elsewhere are looking for planets that could have liquid water on them. They recognize that this is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for life. In chapter seven, Ross notes eight “habitable zones” that must overlap for advanced life to be possible, as well as other conditions. Chapter eight discusses the early origin of life and how it lead to the development of land masses. Here begins the series of life forms that would appear in just the right kinds, and amounts that would prepare the planet for future life forms. Chapter nine through twelve examine how these life forms affected and were affected by the climate, and how they compensated for a changing luminosity of the sun. Chapter thirteen catalogs how the geological and biological history of earth bestowed abundant resources which would be needed for a high-tech civilization. Chapter fourteen walks us through the history of mass speciation and extinction events in earth’s history. Chapter fifteen explains how the ice age cycle has prepared the earth to be able to sustain a population of billions. Chapter sixteen brings us back to the big picture, the why question, and offers an explanation from the Christian worldview.

 

Analysis

As I stated above, I think this is Ross’ best work yet. It lays out his best arguments for design in the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, and the planet. His big picture-to-close up approach, using the construction analogy, is a comprehensive summary of why so many who study these things find confidence in their faith. This book also avoids a lot of unnecessary theological speculation. It can be a little technical for the average lay person, but I think it is worth the effort. I cannot recommend this book more enthusiastically. What readers who may be skeptical need to keep in mind, is that this is a “top down” approach to the question of design. If your starting point is that matter is all there is, you will come away unconvinced. I invite you to read this with an open mind.

 

Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told By Bradley R. E. Wright. A Review

Author

Bradley R. E. Wright has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Wright specializes in research on American Christianity.

 

Purpose/Thesis

In the author’s own words, “The thesis of this book is that Christians are exposed to many inaccurate statistics about our faith. To understand why this happens, we should look at how these statistics are produced and how they spread through the public.” (18) In light of recent headlines and popular books claiming a crisis of image for the American evangelical church, Wright explores the research behind the headlines, and notes a serious disconnect between the facts and the hype. But just in case you really need hype to motivate you, Wright provides it: “You should read this book because ‘there is a deeply disturbing trend of bad statistics that is sabotaging American Christianity and destroying the American way of life, and if you ignore it your entire body will soon be covered with boils. The good news, however, is that if you buy this book and read it carefully, you will avoid this calamity; plus you’ll live longer, have fresh breath, and your kitchen knives will always stay sharp.’”(24) You gotta love a sociologist with a sense of humor.

 

Synopsis

The book is arranged in nine chapters, each exploring an issue that often appears in the popular literature. Chapter one looks at the “if it bleeds, it leads” aspect of the issue. Chapter two tests the rumors of the demise of the American church. Chapter three looks at the alleged exodus of young people from the church. Chapter four analyses popular stereotypes of Christians. Chapter five examines the consistency of Christians’ beliefs and actions. Chapter six focuses on alleged bad behavior of professing Christians.  Chapter seven explores the level of love shown by the church. Chapter eight takes a closer look at how those outside the church see the church. Finally, chapter nine boils it all down to a report card. Several appendixes are included to explain methodology.

 

Analysis

As an apologist, especially one who has attempted campus ministry, I have heard all the claims of “75-80% of young people abandon their faith when they graduate high school.” I have worked with a major campus ministry that repeats (and I assume, genuinely believes) this figure. If Wright is not Wrong (rather than a slam on his name, I am actually trying to mimic Wright’s wonderful style of humor) the picture isn’t nearly so bleak. That being said, one Christian abandoning his faith because he doesn’t have good answers to the challenges he encounters is too many.

Some of the numbers cited make me wish more data was available to better support the inferences drawn. For example, Wright looks at the occurrence of certain sinful behaviors among Christians and non-Christians. It would really be helpful if data was available to show the change in frequency of these behaviors over time. If discipleship was genuine, we would expect the frequency to decrease with time. Questions like “Have you _____ at least once in the last year?” are of limited help. Maybe the respondent would answer yes, but the previous year they did so more often. Likewise, some actions, once done, cannot be undone. Divorce and abortion are examples explored. Wright points out in the case of divorce, it is not known if they happened before or after conversion. Even if it happened after, people grow in their faith and given a chance to do it over again would not.

Finally, Wright notes with disappointment how evangelicals feel about various people whom we are called to love. This is a fair point, but is it necessarily the case that this indicates a deficiency? Could it not be the case that someone would honestly report a less than warm feeling for some group, but be determined to let the love of God drive their behavior toward them rather than their feelings?

 

Recommendation

This book is accessible for anyone with a high school education, but is more suited to those in leadership roles, or interested in such. Wright displays a unique ability to make statistical analysis interesting and even entertaining.

 

Making Sense of God by Timothy Keller: a Review

Author 
 Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including The Reason for God. Making Sense of God is a prequel to The Reason for God.
Synopsis 

 The central premise of the book is that no one comes to their core beliefs by reason alone, or by emotion alone. Rather reason, emotions, experiences and intuitions have a role in forming our world views, regardless of which worldview we adopt.

 The book is divided into three parts. In part one, Keller argues that the rumors of the dearth of religion have been greatly exaggerated, and that the idea that religion deals with faith while secularism deals with facts is a non-fact that many have taken on faith. In part two, Keller shows how religion best serves the human need for meaning, freedom, identity and morality. In part three, Keller offers a rational case for the truth of the Christian religion.
Analysis 

 Keller is a rare combination of careful scholarship combined with pastoral compassion, and in this book, he exemplifies these qualities. He goes to great lengths to cite works by people who do no share his worldview, but recognize the truth of what he has to say on particular subjects. Keller shows no interest in building straw men, or simply echoing scholars with whom he agrees. Making Sense of God gently but firmly challenges the skeptic to reconsider the premises on which he has built his worldview. Moreover, the believer can benefit from this book not only as a resource for sharing her faith, but even thinking more carefully about it. Therefore, it is a book well suited for the skeptic and the believer alike. It is written for an educated reader, but a bright high schooler could manage it.

Podcasts You Should Know Part 5

Next up in this series is one of our “friends across the pond,” Justin Brierley, with his weekly radio show/ podcast Unbelievable?Unbelievable? Airs every Saturday in the U.K. and is then released as a podcast. Each week, Brierly brings together a Christian and a skeptic to have a dialogue on matters of faith. Sometimes the dialogue is among Christians discussing an area of disagreement in theology. What really stands out in these discussion is the level of civility that is (usually) maintained throughout the conversation. While Brierley makes no secret about where he stands, he is consistently recognized by listeners and guests as a very even-handed moderator of the discussions.

In addition to the show, Brierley has a blog, and serves as the senior editor of Premier Christianity magazine. Be sure to check this podcast out.

Says Who? Part Deux: How Do We Know?

In response to Says Who, byblacksheep had some thoughtful comments that, while missing the point of the original post, I thought they were worth addressing.

Byblacksheep (BBS from here out) said,

“…if we have morals from a perfect God (we know what is good because god said so) we would expect perfect morals from the beginning.”

 

As a Christian, I would affirm that we have morals from a perfect God. As I argued in part uno, God himself is the ground of goodness. However, I would not say “we know that is good because God said so.” What I mean here is that I know of no Christian theologian who would say God has revealed his moral will exhaustively. He has revealed some things, and from those we can infer other things. We obviously can be mistaken about those inferences, but we do not claim they have the same weight of authority as clear revelation. For example, Exodus 20:15 says, “Do not steal.” We can infer from this that there is such a thing as private property of some kind, and that certain rights follow from this. As such while I think what God has revealed of his moral will is perfect, it is not entirely spelled out, which brings me to the second half of the statement above. We would expect this IF we were claiming that the purpose of divine revelation is to give us an exhaustive book or rules by which we must live, and anything that was happening that was wrong was to be called out and condemned. However, that is not the purpose of Scripture. Its overarching narrative is where we came from, what our problem is, what the solution is, and how it will all be resolved.

BBS goes on to say,

            “But our knowledge and our understanding grows…And because of that you would expect the moral codes of earlier civilizations would be just totally wrong and gradually change and be refined over time, which is what we see, globally we have moved in a direction that increases human dignity for all people. Can I definitively say we’ve moved in a direction that is “better?” No I can’t, I will leave that to the philosophers, but what i can do however is look back at the holocaust and say “they got it wrong” I can look back at slavery in the U.S., and slavery across the globe and say “they got it wrong.”

I can agree with BBS that “they got it wrong” but I do so from a worldview that can make sense of that claim. If all we are is molecules in motion, all we can mean when we say “they got it wrong” is that the “molecules in me feel icky about that.” To say they were wrong is to say that they had an obligation to not do that. That implies authority of some kind. Where does that come from? I would argue that the best explanation is a transcendent source in whose image we are made, which is why there is such widespread agreement on big issues like this such that large groups only achieve things like the holocaust by armed force. We have an intuitive sense that such things are wrong. We are also quite capable of ignoring that intuition and/or rationalizing violating it.

BBS also says,

            “…consensus really isn’t how we decide what is moral or not moral. Sure it is how we collectively agree what codes, rules, and norms we are going to follow, but that isn’t necessarily WHY we follow them.”

Again, I would agree. In fact, the why is yet another question. Many people follow moral laws against murder and adultery for no reason other than fear of consequences. While that may make their behavior seem moral on the surface,   Jesus doubled down on the commandments when he said,

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21)

 

and…”

 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (verses 27-28)

 

I will end here for the sake of brevity. Keep an eye out for part drei coming up. (Yes I am using a different language for each sequel number just to be annoying.)

 

 

 

Says Who?

I was recently told that a militant atheist tweeted something to the effect of, “I believe humans are inherently good, and therefore do not need a God to save them.” It would be easy to get sucked into an argument about whether or not this assessment is accurate, but that would miss a greater irony. What does the atheist mean by “good?”

Let me tell you about myself. I am two legs tall, and weigh 100 water bottles. Does that tell you anything (other than that I have a strange way naming units of length and weight?) Can you tell exactly how tall I am or how much I weigh? One person would see me as five feet tall and another as five feet, eight inches. Which is right? One would see me as weighing 81 pounds, another as 211 pounds. Which is correct? Why is there disagreement? The one, who sees me as five feet tall, has a 30-inch leg. The one, who sees me as weighing 211 pounds, drinks from one-liter water bottles. You can see where I’m going with this. At this point you might ask, “Why don’t you just use standard measures like feet, inches, and pounds? Or, use meters and liters?” I suppose I could use these standard units, but why are they standard? Because a competent authority declared them to be so. If you are really dying to know some history of this, you can look here.

What does all this have to do with the tweet in question? The claim was that humans were “inherently good.” What does the atheist mean by “good?” As an atheist, he has rejected any competent authority who could give us a standard of goodness that is independent of our opinions. If God does not exist, then “good,” in the sense relevant to whether or not one needs a God to save them, does not exist. If “good” means “well suited for its intended purpose,” and there is no intended purpose for humans to exist, then good, in that sense, does not exist. If this is the case, good can only mean, “I like it,” or “We like it.” However, who says humans are inherently likeable? I think we all know some who are not. (If we are brutally honest, we can all think of times when we were not.) What if one person likes a group of people and another does not? Who’s to say who is right? On what basis? As Ravi Zacharias has said, “…in some cultures they love their neighbors; in others they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?”

Some, like Sam Harris, argue that morals and values refer to “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, however, I must ask, “Says who?” Why should the well-being of conscious creatures outweigh the well-being of creatures that have no consciousness? What about when the well-being of one (or one group of) conscious creature(s) is in conflict with that of another? Who decides?

Let’s go back to the claim. If we use Harris’ definitions, it would seem the claim is that humans inherently tend to consider the well-being of other conscious creatures. However, look around you. Look at the headlines on any given day. Racial tensions, terrorism, oppression all lead the 24-hour news cycle. Even by the atheist’s own definition (assuming he accepts the one above) it is clear that humans are anything but inherently good, and therefore without the need for a savior. However, for the atheist to claim anything is good in an objective way (independent of his own opinion) is a category error. It would be like me saying music does not exist because I have never tasted it.

Mitch Stokes would agree with many atheists in that “all value— and moral value in particular— is subjective in that all value depends on a valuer, a valuing subject. All morality is ultimately personal.”  However, if the “valuer” is merely a human being, we are right back to the original problem. However, if God exists, and he created humans for his purposes, we are valuable because he values us. Good, then, is grounded in what God values because he is the very embodiment of good. God is the competent authority from whom we can get a standard unit of goodness.

If theism is true, we can evaluate humanity in a meaningful way. What we see tells us human beings are deeply flawed and in need of help. Christian theism in particular makes sense of this, showing us that we are made in the image of God (which is why we are often capable of good behavior) but are deeply broken. Christianity offers the only remedy for this in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who made a way for us to be reconciled to God.

If the atheist’s tweet is true, atheism is false. If the tweet is false, atheism is still false, since both require a non-human valuer. If atheism is true, the tweet is meaningless.

 

 

Saving the Bible From Ourselves by Glenn R. Paauw A Review

 

Author

Glenn R. Paauw is a graduate of Calvin College and Calvin Seminary, where he studied Theology and Philosophy. He is the vice president, global Bible engagement, at Biblica and a senior fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading.

 

Thesis

Paauw was prompted to write Saving the Bible From Ourselves by research that showed while the average American household has four Bibles (and the average Christian home has ten) there is an increasing Biblical illiteracy. We have lots of Bibles, but no one seems to know what its message is. The cause of this seems to be a tendency toward isolated people reading

isolated verses. In this book, Paauw advocates a return to reading large passages in community.

 

Synopsis

The book is organized into 14 chapters, really seven couplets, in which Paauw describes an aspect of the problem, followed by a proposed solution.  In Chapters 1 and 2, we see the contrast between the “Complicated Bible” and the “Elegant Bible.” By complicated here, Paauw is referring to the manner in which the text on the page is cluttered and chopped with chapter and verse numbers, which have only been in use for the last 500 years, as well as chapter headings, cross references, and notes. An elegant Bible would simply have the text laid out to be read in a more natural reading. (I can tell you that for me, reading a Bible with all those notes and references is like a hound dog with ADD trying to heard squirrels.)

In chapters 3 and 4, Paauw addresses one of my pet peeves when he compares the Snacking Bible with the Feasting Bible. When we isolate verses, we tend to see them as bearing meaning in isolation. As a result, there is a whole cottage industry of putting verses on coffee cups and cross-stitched pillows, etc. There you can see verses like Jeremiah 29:11, “‘ For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Nice, right? So if verses are stand-alone ideas from the Word of God, why do we never see a coffee cup with Deuteronomy 28:65? “The LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart.” The point is that verse numbers were added to aid with research. They are not part of the text, and have caused some confusion. (Though I could imagine a bumper sticker with Numbers 21:16, “From there they continued on to Beer.”) As the author points out, using the Bible like this is like snacking on what Philip Yancy called, “Scripture McNuggets.” Rather, Paauw advocates reading large portions, whole books when possible. In this way, we feast, rather than snack. Moreover, such feasting leads to greater understanding of the text.

In chapters 5 and 6, Paauw argues that rather than seeing every single event in the Bible as a direct intervention from God, recognizing that the world is itself a direct intervention of God, and the realm in which he dwells with us and that the events are history that we need not look for the most outlandish understanding. An example he gives is how as a fourth-grader he was shocked to learn that the rainbow was probably not created after the Flood, but rather was already a thing, and God used that as a reminder of his covenant.

In chapters 7 and 8, Paauw challenges the idea that the Bible is a theological treatise, or a “how-to” manual. Rather it is an ongoing story, our story and His, and should be read as such. This is not to say that we cannot derive theology from it. We can and we should. However, when we lose the story, we lose the meaning. In chapter 9, we are encouraged to see how this would look in our lives.

In chapters 10 and 11, Paauw contrasts the “Otherworldly Bible” with the “Earthly Bible.” Here, he rejects the tendency to see Christianity as a means of escaping the evil physical realm to the heavenly one in favor of seeing our mission as redeeming the world God created.

In 12 and 13, he makes the case for reading in community by differentiating “My Private Bible” from the “Synagogue Bible.” Finally, in 14 and 15, the author laments the loss of beauty in the pages of the Bible where there once could be found bright, colorful illustrations, as well as beautiful script on high quality media.

 

Analysis

I find much of what Paauw says here compelling. As I mentioned above, the isolation of verses out of context, or “verse jacking,”[1] is a pet peeve of mine. I am a strong advocate of, as Greg Koukl teaches, “Never read a Bible verse.” That is, never read A Bible verse. The method of reading promoted here will avoid many of the pitfalls from isolating verses. Moreover, I have begun to read Books of the Bible, which is an edition of the NIV without chapter and verse numbers, as well as some other interesting features. I can tell you that my ADD is much less active in this text. I suppose it could be argue that Paauw’s book is a written infomercial for Books of the Bible, but that’s okay.

While I tend to agree with Paauw’s view that salvation entails far more involvement with the redemption of the created order than most Christians seem to think, I think that when he claims that the idea of gaining heaven or avoiding hell as a way to invoke urgency offers a false dichotomy. Scripture does seem to paint a clear picture of judgment. It seems reasonable to think in terms of both/and. We are saved to work for the redemption of the world and go to be with the Lord until the ultimate redemption, the resurrection.

 

Even if you find you don’t agree with all of Paauw’s conclusion, you will agree with me that the book is worth the read. It is accessible for readers at a high school level or higher.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The author cites, “The highly-descriptive and provocative term “verse jacking” was coined by my colleague John Dunham in “High Fructose Scripture,” Leadership Journal (online), June 5, 2007, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ le/ 2007/ june-online-only/ high-fructose-scripture.html.”