What’s In the Bible?

Note for blog: This is something I wrote up for some friends who were interested in what is in the Bible. Just my own take on it.

The Bible text is available for free in many versions (i.e. different translations from the original Hebrew and Greek writings) at  BibleGateway.com .   Many people find the New International Version to be the most helpful.


What Is in the Bible?                                                  By Scott Buchanan


The Big Picture

The Bible is long, and was written by many authors over the course of about a thousand years. It can be confusing if you just open it at random, but it does make sense if you know what the different sections are about.

The core message of the Bible is that we humans have a deep problem, but God has provided a solution. Here is the problem: even though God is wise and good and knows what is best for us, we do not respect and follow Him as we should. It is not just a matter of doing a few bad things here and there. No, our whole approach to life is to set ourselves up as little “gods”, doing what we want to do and then thinking up reasons to justify ourselves.

This makes us unfit for close, trusting friendship with God. Because God is perfect and holy, our selfishness and pride form a genuine barrier between us and Him. But God loves us so much that He did something surprising and costly to make a way for us to come back to Him.

God’s solution was to enter the human race in the form of a man named Jesus. He lived in this world and experienced the same joys and sorrows and sufferings that we all go through. Jesus demonstrated what God is really like and showed how humans should live. Furthermore, he took upon himself the consequences of our sin through his death on the cross.

If we feel the stirring of a desire for God, He will meet us more than half-way. If we honor Him enough to….

  • Acknowledge that we fall far short of God’s perfect will for us
  • Acknowledge that we need the help He offers us through Jesus Christ
  • Commit to obey Him the best we can

….then God will graciously apply Jesus’s righteousness to us. This gives us a fresh start with God, so we can experience Him on a daily basis as our heavenly Father. He will guide us each day if we will listen to what He speaks through the Bible and in our hearts.

This message of salvation through Jesus’s death and resurrection is presented clearly and explicitly in the New Testament, which is the last quarter of the Bible. Therefore, we will start here with describing the New Testament, even though it is towards the end of the Bible. In the Old Testament, the message of salvation is also present, but it is typically hidden, like buried treasure waiting to be discovered.



The Bible is organized into 66 books. The New Testament has 27 books total, in the following groupings:

  • Historical Books—The four “gospels” which each tell the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), plus the book of Acts.
  • Letters by Paul–Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon
  • Letters by other disciples of Jesus–Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation

Historical Books of the New Testament

  1. Matthew— There are a lot of similar sections among the first three Gospels, but they have slightly different emphases. Matthew highlights Jesus as the Messiah who fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
  2. Mark—Shortest Gospel, focusing more on the events of Jesus’s ministry.
  3. Luke–Presents Jesus as the Son of Man who came to seek and save the lost.
  4. John—Highlights Jesus’ divinity and his close connection to God the Father. The verse that most sums up the message of the whole Bible is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
  5. Acts–Historical account of the beginning of the Christian church: Jesus’s last message to his disciples, the Holy Spirit coming to fill believers with joy and power (Acts 2), early preaching by Peter, and the travels of Paul in his missionary journeys. Is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke, by the same author.

Letters by Paul – – Written by Paul to groups of Christians in particular cities (Rome, Corinth, etc.), or to some of his associates (e.g. Timothy, Titus). These letters by Paul and by other disciples typically combine teachings about God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) with advice on healthy behaviors among friends, family, and on the job.

  1. Romans–A systematic explanation of how people fall short of God’s standards and how we can identify with Jesus’s death and resurrection; we then participate in his righteousness and power and eternal life.
  2. 1 Corinthians—Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth of how he had first shared the gospel with them. This letter deals with quarreling and immorality, marriage, the operation of the supernatural power (“gifts”) of the Holy Spirit, and how we will eventually be resurrected from the dead.
  3. 2 Corinthians–Paul’s describes the joy he has in following Christ, even though he goes through some very tough times.
  4. Galatians—Paul teaches that the good news of Jesus is different from just following rules. God gives us the Holy Spirit to live in us and make us more like Himself.
  5. Ephesians—Believers are secure and connected with Christ. How to deal with spiritual struggles.
  6. Philippians–Paul speaks of his imprisonment and his love for the Philippians. If they focus on positive rather than negative things, they can experience inner peace.
  7. Colossians—Through Jesus Christ God created the world, and through Jesus Christ God is bringing the world back to Him.
  8. 1 Thessalonians–Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians.  Teachings on purity and on the return of Christ.
  9. 2 Thessalonians—More teachings on Christ’s Second Coming. Paul urges them to be responsible, not lazy.
  10. 1 Timothy—Letter to a young associate. Instructions on leadership in the church proper leadership and dealings with false teachers.
  11. 2 Timothy–A letter of encouragement to Timothy to be strong. God has given us the Bible (“Scriptures”) to tell us what we need to know about Him.
  12. Titus–Paul left Titus in Crete to care for the churches there. How leaders in the church should live.
  13. Philemon–a letter to the owner of a runaway slave, Onesimus.  Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus.

Non-Pauline Epistles:

  1. Hebrews—Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection fulfilled the hopes and promises of the Old Testament; the old system of laws and animal sacrifices was just a “shadow” of the real thing. He did what he did because he so wanted us to be able to experience his love: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2). We are his “joy”.
  2. James–A practical exhortation of believers to live a life which shows they are really following Jesus.  Treat poor people with the same respect you give rich people.
  3. 1 Peter–Peter wrote this letter to encourage Christians who are going through hard times.  As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we will also share in his glory.
  4. 2 Peter–Deals with the person on an inward level, warnings against false teachers, and mentions the Day of the Lord.
  5. 1 John–John describes true fellowship of the believers with other believers and with God. God as light and love.  Encourages a holy Christian walk before the Lord.  Much mention of Christian love.
  6. 2 John–Praise for walking in Christ and a reminder to walk in God’s love.
  7. 3 John—Letter to a man named Gaius, thanking him for his kindness to God’s people.
  8. Jude–Exposing false teachers and uses Old Testament allusions to demonstrate the judgment upon them. Contends for the faith.
  9. Revelation–A highly symbolic vision of the future rebellion, judgment, and fulfillment of all things. It is not always clear what the symbols stand for, but this is plain: No matter how dark things may seem now, in the end God wins. He will judge evil and reward His people. It concludes with a big, never-ending party.


OLD TESTAMENT:   The Law, Historical Books, Wisdom/Poetry, and the Prophets

“The Law” – – First Five Books

Genesis – – Creation and the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)

The creation story (Gen. 1-3) gives essentials that humans need to know about God and nature and humans, such as:

God is all-powerful, the physical world was created by Him, He has good, fruitful purposes for humans and wants them to have a trusting relationship with Him. However, humans tend to reject God and his wisdom and go their own way and get messed up; so God has a long-term plan to bring humans back to Himself. This plan was ultimately for God to come to earth in the form of a man, but this plan is only hinted at in Genesis. For instance, in Gen. 3:15 God promises that someday a man born of woman would crush the head of the serpent (representing Satan), even though the snake would wound his heel. This was fulfilled when Jesus, who was born of a woman, triumphed over Satan by coming to earth and letting himself get nailed to a cross with spikes through his wrists and his heels.

This creation story was given in a symbolic form which ancient people with their primitive views of science could relate to, like Jesus would later tell stories (parables) which were not literally, physically true but which illustrated deep spiritual truths. Therefore, it does not matter whether God created humans from dust in an instant, or whether He used evolution over millions of years to transform the elements of the earth into our human bodies.

Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the beginnings of nation of Israel. God calls Abraham (around 1700 B.C) out of paganism to follow the one true God. God has Abraham leave the land he grew up in (Mesopotamia, in what is now called Iraq) and migrate to the land of Israel. God makes promises to Abraham which foreshadow what He would do through Jesus many years later. Abraham has a son Isaac, who has a son Jacob. Jacob is renamed “Israel”, and his 12 sons founded the 12 tribes of Israel (e.g. Judah, Benjamin, Levi, etc.). One of Jacob’s youngest sons, Joseph, is hated by his older brothers and is sold as a slave, taken to Egypt, and eventually becomes an advisor to the Pharaoh. Later, because of a famine, Jacob’s whole family migrates to Egypt after being reconciled with Joseph.

Exodus – – After several hundred years, the people of Israel in Egypt have become numerous, and the Egyptians enslave them. After drama (threats, plagues, military pursuit, miraculous parting of the Sea), Israelites leave Egypt (the “Exodus”) and head for their old homeland. God gives Moses certain laws for the people to follow, including the Ten Commandments. The Exodus occurred around 1300-1400 B.C.

A foreshadowing of Christ shedding his blood to save us is depicted in the blood of the Passover lamb protecting Israelite households, and in animal sacrifices to (symbolically) atone for sins of people. Atonement means to do something obtain forgiveness from someone you have offended.

Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – – The Israelites disobey God, and so wander around in the desert for forty years, until the generation of adults who had grown up in Egyptian slavery were replaced by a new generation. More laws are given, to specify a detailed way of life. Some of these laws were ritualistic (like animal sacrifices and details of worship and periodic feasts), and other laws specified how people were supposed to treat each other (basically be honest and merciful). The totality of these regulations is called “The Law of Moses” or simply “The Law”.   The most key rules were the Ten Commandments, which are listed in Exodus 20:3-17. The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are also sometimes referred to as “The Law”. A brief summary of the Moses/Exodus/Law story is given in a speech by Stephen in Acts 7:2-47.


Historical Books of the Old Testament

Joshua, Judges, Ruth

1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

These books describe the history of the people of Israel from the time of entry into the land of Israel (displacing the Canaanites) around 1300-1400 B.C., through the time of the Judges (e.g. stories of Gideon and of Sampson), the rise of kings (Saul, David, and Solomon, around 1000 B.C.), and many more kings around 1000-600 B.C. As a boy, David killed the giant Goliath. Later David became king and wrote many of the Psalms. His son Solomon was famous for his wisdom. He built the Temple for God in Jerusalem, and may have written much of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

The tribes of Israel separated into the northern kingdom (called “Israel”), and a southern kingdom (“Judah”) about 900 B.C. Assyria eventually conquered Israel, and took most of the Israelite people away, never to return. The people in part of what used to be Israel were later called “Samaritans”. The Babylonians later conquered Judah, marching the people away as captives to Babylon around 600 B.C. However, many of the people of Judah were able to return and to rebuild Jerusalem starting about 500 B.C. (see Ezra and Nehemiah) after the Persians defeated the Babylonians.


Job – – Deals with the mystery of suffering. Horrible things happen to Job, and he struggles to understand why. He never gets an explicit explanation for his calamities, but at the end he has an encounter with God which brings personal resolution.

Psalms – – Raw, realistic emotional and spiritual outpourings to God, in poetic form. Expresses the full range of human experience, from abandonment and despair to ecstasy and vindication. Bill Johnson wrote, “If I am troubled by something, I go to the Psalms. Every emotion is well represented in that book. And I read until I find my voice in a psalm. Once I hear my heart’s cry, I know I have found the place for me to stop and feed.”

Some psalms (e.g. Ps. 16, 22, 110) foreshadow the Messiah who would be mocked and have his hands and feet pierced, but who would be raised from the dead and exalted.

Proverbs – – Many wise, useful sayings. Try opening up to this book and putting your finger down at random on a couple of verses and see how they relate to your experience.

Ecclesiastes – – Philosophical observations on life.

Song of Solomon – – A love song between a king and his beloved. May also symbolize aspects of the love between God and his people.


Major Prophets

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel

God speaks directly to and through the prophets. Much of what they write gives God’s perspective on events that are happening at their time. For instance, some of the prophets warn about the upcoming Babylonian captivity and then how to behave after it happens. They call leaders to live justly and righteously, not cheating poor and vulnerable people. God wants heartfelt devotion, not shallow ritual.

The prophets also foretell some events in the more distant future, including Jesus’s death and resurrection, and the final end of the world. For instance, the whole 53rd chapter of Isaiah is a detailed description of how a righteous Servant of God would be pierced and put to death to bear the sins of the people. Jesus was, of course, wounded and pierced for our sins. Here are just a few verses, but you should read the whole chapter:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;

and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.        (Isaiah 53:3-6)


Minor Prophets

Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi

These are twelve shorter books of prophets which end the Old Testament. As with the major prophets, they contain calls to justice, warnings of God’s judgements, and promises of redemption. These mainly speak to events of the prophet’s own day, but there are also promises of a future Messiah who will provide a more final answer to the problems of mankind (see e.g. Micah 5:2, Zech. 9:9-10). Jesus fulfilled these predictions.


Concluding thoughts on how to read the Bible: The text above gives some conceptual and historical context for the various books of the Bible. All that is important if you are using a passage as a basis for making a significant decision in your life, or for sorting out your doctrinal views. However, people often find that God also speaks to them spontaneously through reading some verse, independently of what that passage may have meant to its ancient readers. While I respect rigorous scholarship, I also recommend keeping a child-like expectation of a fresh encounter with God whenever you open up His word.

“Read until it speaks to you”


Acknowledgment: Some of this material was taken or modified from:

“New Testament Books”, by Matt Slick https://carm.org/new-testament-books

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Get Out and See the Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years (2.4×1019 km) from Earth. It contains some trillion stars, which is about 3 times more than our Milky Way galaxy.

Although it appears more than six times as wide as the full Moon when photographed through a larger telescope, only the brighter central region is visible to the naked eye or when viewed using binoculars or a small telescope.

Here is what this galaxy looks like through a large telescope:

All the regular stars we see are within our local Milky Way galaxy. Most of these visible stars are several hundred or several thousand light years away.

Now consider going outside to see the Andromeda galaxy in person, per directions below. First, prepare yourself that what you will actually be able to see is a small, faint glowing patch, like a tiny cloud of white mist.

Even though that appears unspectacular, I still am impressed every time I see the Andromeda galaxy that the light entering my eyes started on its way 2.5 million years ago. The first of the four major Pleistocene ice ages was starting about then. The main human ancestor that we know from that time was Homo habilus. His brain was about half the size of ours, and he was just figuring out how to chip stones into sharp tools.

Viewing the Andromeda galaxy

Here is a star chart, with two ways to hop to Andromeda galaxy from nearby constellations. The first method, using the constellation Cassiopeia (see yellow “(1)” and yellow arrows) is probably the easiest. Cassiopeia is shaped like a “W”, and is nearly overhead around 8:00 in Nov-Dec. The four corners of the big square of Pegasus (the stars Alpheratz, Scheat, Markab, and Algenib on the star map) are visible to the naked eye, as is Mirach and Almach. But I cannot see the other little stars labeled “…And” on this map.

The Andromeda galaxy itself is almost directly overhead in the early evening each year in November-December. Some people are able to spot it with their unaided eyes, though I cannot. It should work fine with binoculars, if you patiently scan around the correct area, and only expect to see a tiny fuzzy patch, not a giant spiral. You need a fairly clear night, without a bright moon, and away from bright lights. A suburban back yard can work. Now is a good time to try this, since the moon is in its dark phase for the next week.

You might want to lie down on your back or in a recliner for looking straight up. Younger children may not be able to handle and use binoculars well enough. Using a telescope takes more set-up than binoculars, but then the galaxy is locked in view. Low magnification power works better. I have introduced a number of neighborhood children to Andromeda this way, after showing them the glorious spiral image above, so they know what that fuzzy thing in the telescope really is.

Bonus viewing this month: Venus is visible, looking like a brilliant white star, after sunset near where the sun went down.

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Why are some Christians Young Earth Creationists?

I was alerted by Primates Progress  to the article linked below. It is written by a British Christian and geologist who notes, “When I first heard about [Young Earth] Creationism when I read a review of The Genesis Flood while working as an exploration geologist in the Namib desert, I simply burst out laughing and wondered how anyone could even suggest it.” However, he came to realize that YE creationism offers, for some Christians, an apparently scientific backing for a supposedly-biblical worldview, which “provides an all-embracing outlook on life and integrates every aspect of their lives.”

In this article, the author first defines the basic content of today’s YE creationism, which is at odds with the physical evidence. Illustrative graphics are included, such as the Noah cartoon shown below, and an information-rich “Creationist Bingo” card. He then lists various deeply–felt reasons for why people believe in YE creationism. The most important factor is a belief that the Atonement requires an absence of death before the Fall.

At the end of his article the author references the recent book, The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth, which refutes YEC assertions about the order of fossils in the rock layers, dinosaurs co-existing with humans, etc.

Comment on Adam, death, and the Fall, since this is such a hot-button topic: I have dealt with this issue here , including key passages in Romans 5 and I Cor. 15.  It is worth noting that Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam. In all the gospel proclamations to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin. The Fall is never explicitly mentioned in the sayings of Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy.  Thus, a Fall from a death-free original creation cannot be an essential part of the Christian gospel.

Some common YE creationist evidences for a young earth, e.g. folded rock layers, are debunked in Evidences for a Young Earth. The order of fossils in the rock layers is discussed in   Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism , which describes how the modern YE creationist movement began around 1961 with the publication of The Genesis Flood. Prior to that, very few twentieth-century  Christians, even among American fundamentalists, held to a recent (6000 years ago) creation.

And here is the start of the article, and a link to the rest of it:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

It baffles many people whether Christian or not why some Christians are Young Earth Creationist, with a belief in a 10,000 year old earth and rejection of evolution. It cannot be denied that Young Earth Creationism has caused bad relationships among Christians, influenced education and results in much mockery from some. A major reason for the friction is that YEC’s claim explicitly or implicitly that the majority of Christians who accept modern science with the vast age of the earth and evolution are at best naughty or heretical Christians.

With YEC making inroads into churches (including the Church of England) and trying to call the shots over education in all parts of the world, it is best to know what they believe and why they do as they go against all scientific teaching and what most churches actually believe.


As YEC attracted so much more heat than light, it is best to start with a general summary of YEC beliefs, though YEC is not monolithic.

  • The earth and universe are no more than 10,000 years old and this is supported by the best modern science.
  • Most of the fossiliferous strata from the Cambrian (550m.y.) to the Pleistocene (10,000yrs) were laid down in the Noachian Deluge. (There is some variation on this.) Below is flippant mocking of this

Noah bury corpses for Reblog

  • Dinosaurs lived alongside humans. The first [picture below] is an exhibit at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum and the other two from…

View whole article  




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Brain, Mind, Faith: 2016 American Scientific Affiliation Meeting

The 2016 annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) was held last week at Azusa Pacific University, near Pasadena, California. The program and abstracts of the talks are available on line.

A general theme of the meeting was “Brain, Mind, Faith.” Here I will describe in some detail a plenary talk by a Stanford neuroscientist, and also mention briefer takeaways from some other presentations related to the brain/mind area. At the end, I’ll provide links to videos of ASA 2016 talks on other, non-psychological topics.

Plenary Talk by William Newsome:  Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith

Bill Newsome is a professor of neurobiology at Stanford and director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, and co-chaired the U.S. Brain Initiative proposal. His research is aimed at understanding the neuronal processes that mediate visual perception and visually guided behavior. The abstract reads:

The “central dogma” of neuroscience is that all our behavior and mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self—is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain. Neuroscience “explanations,” therefore, tend to account for mental phenomena such as thought, emotion and belief in terms of the basic elements of cellular communication within the brain—action potentials, synapses and neuromodulation. Such mechanistic accounts, which appear increasingly powerful, have been cited as evidence that “folk psychological” explanations of behavior—including beliefs, values, and faith—will be replaced ultimately by deeper and more accurate neuroscientific explanations.

In contrast, I argue that the deepest and most accurate accounts of behavior necessarily involve multiple levels of explanation. Within neuroscience itself, the best explanations are inherently multilevel, appealing simultaneously to behavioral, circuit-level, cellular, and genetic insights. Outside the domain of neuroscience proper, human behavior depends additionally on multiple levels of social and cultural organization and insight. Each level of explanation complements and corrects, but does not replace, the others. More than ever in our world, beliefs, values and faith matter.

The video of the presentation can be downloaded. Start from the ASA home page  and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. Scroll down through the list of presentations to get to the “Newsome, Bill” entry. His actual talk starts about 33 minutes into that video, following various organizational announcements. The slides for this talk can also be downloaded.

The first part of Prof. Newsome’s presentation is a tour of some of the recent advances in neuroscience. The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons, with 100 trillion synapses connecting them. Our understanding of this circuitry is growing rapidly, but we have much to learn as to how cognition, emotion, memory, and action are generated by these circuits and networks.

A traditional technique for mapping the circuitry in, say, a mouse brain is to take thousands of very thin, physical slices, and examine them under a microscope, describe what is seen on each slice, then try to relate the trends from slice to slice. This is very laborious. The task of circuit mapping has been accelerated by at least an order of magnitude by the “CLARITY” technique from the Deisseroth lab at Stanford, published in Nature, 2013. In this approach the neurons are fixed in place with a gelling technique, then the opaque lipids in the brain are dissolved away. This leaves just the neurons visually exposed in all their interconnected glory. Different stains can be applied to highlight different classes of neurons. Prof. Newsome showed a brief but impressive video clip (which is displayed in the video link for this presentation), optically scanning in and through a whole mouse brain, zooming in and out on the bundles of neurons. Here is a screen shot of a zoomed-in view of a brain section:

Screen shot of “CLARITY” visualization video of neural connections in mouse brain. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. From http://network.asa3.org/

Screen shot of “CLARITY” visualization video of neural connections in mouse brain. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. From http://network.asa3.org/

Another intriguing video clip he showed was the neuronal activity in a zebrafish brain (Ahrens, et al., 2013). The fish had been genetically manipulated to modify the neurons, such that they each emitted a brief fluorescent flash from calcium when they fired. We could see flashes here and there, and occasional big waves of activity moving through the brain and down the spinal cord. A static image of that brain fluorescence in a relatively quiescent state is shown below. The faint blue outline is the fish’s head. The brain shows as gray. The spinal cord goes off to the right.

Slide 15 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 15 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Another new technique is “optogenetics”. This was also developed, in part, in the Deisseroth lab at Stanford. Here, light-sensitive molecules are introduced to specific types of brain tissues. An optical fiber can then be inserted into a spot in the animal’s brain, allowing stimulation of these sets of neurons. This can be done with a more or less freely-moving animal, so we can observe the effects of neuronal stimulation on behavior. An optically-rigged mouse is shown in the slide below.

Slide 16, showing mouse with optic fiber for stimulation of specific neurons. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Mouse with optic fiber for stimulation of specific neurons. From William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Prof. Newsome showed a video clip of an experiment in the Anderson lab at Caltech (from Cell, 2015) in which a male mouse was rigged to optically stimulate certain cells in the medial amygdala. These cells are hypothesized to be involved in aggressive behavior. This mouse was behaving in a friendly fashion towards another mouse in his cage. When the light stimulation was switched on, he suddenly started attacking the other mouse. When the light was switched off, he immediately went back to being friendly.

Prof. Newsome noted that when he showed this video to a group of non-neurologists at Stanford, one of them remarked that this was “the most disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life”, since it showed so dramatically the raw neural substrate of behavior.

Deep brain implants of electrodes to stimulate specific human brain areas have been reported to give some improvement or relief for a variety of maladies, such as Parkinson’s, chronic pain, and severe depression.

Slide 19 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 19 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

In some brain surgeries, the patients are kept awake so that the doctors can judge from their responses exactly where the surgical probing or tissue removal is taking place. The slide below derives from a study of these phenomena. The purple region towards the front is the premotor cortex, and the yellow and orange areas towards the back are parietal motor regions. When patients were electrically stimulated in the purple region, their limb would twitch or move, but the patients would deny having moved their limb. If the patients were shown that their limb was moving, they would say something like “I am not doing that – you guys are making that happen.” Conversely, when the orange or yellow regions were stimulated, the patient would report “I feel the urge to move my hand”, or even “I did move my hand”, even though they had not in fact moved their hand. Somewhere between these two regions of the brain may lie the secret of voluntary motion, and Prof. Newsome is optimistic that these functions will be mapped in the not too distant future.

Slide 20 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

Slide 20 from William Newsome presentation “Of Two Minds: A Neuroscientist Balances Science and Faith” at American Scientific Affiliation 2016 meeting. http://www.asa3.org/slides/ASA2016Newsome.pdf

This all leads to consideration of the “central dogma” of neuroscience, which can be stated as: “All of our behavior and all of our mental life—including our sense of a conscious, continuing self— is inextricably linked to the biology of the brain”. This dogma is the working assumption of essentially all practicing neuroscientists, but it naturally raises a number of concerns, such as the freedom of the will. The second part of the presentation focused on these issues.

Prof. Newsome discussed several different treatments of freedom and the brain. A common view among his colleagues might be termed “bottom-up determinism”. This is the notion that all behavior emanates from the grinding of neuronal gears deep in the brain, and our conscious explanations of our behavior are merely rationalizations. Some thinkers, such as John Polkinghorne, propose that quantum processes in the brain, with their inherent indeterminacy, create space for freedom of thought. (In the Q&A session, however, Prof. Newsome noted that neurologically relevant molecules are too big for such quantum effects to be significant).   Another view, common among laymen, is that freedom of choice means that my choice is uncaused, i.e. it cannot not be dependent on a biological process. He rejects all of these approaches, for reasons that he fleshes out later in the talk.

The view he favors is “self-determination” or “autonomy”. By that he means, “My behavior is caused, at least in part, by my beliefs, values, memories, goals and aspirations. Conscious, rational thought plays a causal role in my behavior.” He conceded that most of his behavior is likely due to influences of which he is not aware. However, he does not think that is the whole story. A key issue is, what counts as a “cause”?

The discussion then delved into philosophical definitions of causation and of reductionism. There is a tendency to view “lower” or more “fundamental” explanatory levels as being truer and more real and more causal. Chemists view biology as just applied chemistry, physicists see chemistry as merely applied physics, etc. However, the higher-level conceptualizations are just as valid, and are meaningful in ways that are not captured by the lower-level explanations. The most fundamental level of description of, say, his presentation that evening, might be to define a quantum wave function for all the atoms comprising him and the room full of people. But someone examining that wave function would know nothing of meetings or people or presentations.

To think of human behavior completely in terms of neuronal circuits, to the exclusion of conscious impressions, beliefs, and values, is an impoverished and incomplete approach. It does not work in real life, and does not describe what neuroscientists actually do. Bottom-up causes are important, but explanatory relevance runs both upward and downward.

Neuroscientists find it useful to work at multiple levels of explanation, and to relate those levels as appropriate. They often work in terms of “systems”, where the parts of a system are organized together to exhibit the phenomenon under investigation. From Carl Craver (2007): “Systems explanations involve showing how something works rather than showing that its behavior can be derived from more fundamental laws.”

One example of bi-directional causality comes from the study of long-term spatial memory, e.g. how a mouse remembers its way around a maze. Such memories seem associated with the hippocampus region of the brain. Changing the maze, and thus the mouse’s experience of the maze, leads to physical changes in the neurons of the hippocampus (top-down causality), while physically damaging the hippocampus affects the spatial memory (bottom-up).

Another example of bi-directionality is cognitive behavioral therapy. This involves changing a patient’s beliefs and patterns of interactions. This top-down approach has been found to be about as effective in treating depression as prescribing pills which modify neurotransmitters and receptors (bottom-up). The best approach is for doctors to combine these two treatment modalities. Thus, beliefs, aspirations, values and other high-level mental states do matter.

Some of the most important questions in life depend on beliefs and values, and are not susceptible to scientific proofs. For instance, someone in declining health may face the question: is it better to live or to die?

Another common question is: Should I marry this particular person? You can rationally think about this from various angles, but in the end you have to make a faith-based decision and take the plunge or not.

Prof. Newsome closed by noting that the religious quest bears similarities to the marriage example. There are various sources of evidence that one can draw on, including one’s direct experiences and the testimonies of other seekers through the ages, but the evidence is not compelling in a scientific sense:

Faith, accompanied by commitment is essential. Risks are high. Simply put, this is the human condition. It is life, and our most consequential decisions in life have little or nothing to do with science.

For everyone, the real question is: Is there an ultimate source of meaning and value in the universe? If so, what is it?

Simon Peter addressed Jesus with these words, “And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) While Peter had some initial grounds to respect and follow Jesus, the cognitive order here indicates that fuller understanding only came after faith. In a similar vein, C. S. Lewis wrote of how his faith perspective made better sense out of his observations of life:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen – not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else. (The Weight of Glory, 1942).


Plenary Talk by Justin Barrett:  Contemporary Trends in the Science of Religion: Adaptationist and Byproduct Theories and Their Implications

An experimental psychologist, Justin Barrett taught for five years at Oxford, and is now with Fuller Theological Seminary. He has authored several books on the psychology of religion. The psychology of religion was the broad topic of his presentation, which can be downloaded from the ASA site as described above, i.e. start from the ASA home page and click through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings.

He discussed, for instance, how children and adults come to believe (both rightly and wrongly) that “agents” are active or are lurking nearby. Having a mental “agency detection system” can be an asset for alerting oneself to, for instance, a crouching tiger or a hidden enemy. This same type of thinking can lead to belief in unseen spirits. Thus, some psychologists view religion as a byproduct of such agency detection systems. Another view of religion is that it serves an evolutionarily useful adaptive function, such as signaling commitment to a group and commitment to not cheating on social contracts.

Some have viewed these proposals (that the human mind has a natural disposition to believe in God or gods) as somehow discrediting religion. Prof. Barrett devoted the second half of his talk discussing why this is not the case. First, as pointed out long ago by William James, all of our states of mind have some sort of basis in the physical processes of our brains. This is as true for atheism as it is for theism. Second, as noted by Plantinga, it is quite possible that God allowed an innate propensity for religious belief to develop in human beings in order to facilitate such theistic believing. Finally, the belief-forming faculties at work in forming religious beliefs are fundamentally the same as the belief-forming faculties involved in forming non-religious beliefs. A wholesale attack on such faculties leaves no ground for trusting the accuracy of any belief on any subject.

Takeaways from Other Talks on Brain/Mind/Faith

I will summarize a few other presentations on this topic from my notes. There were other talks on brain/mind subjects which I did not attend, and of course these presentations did not purport to resolve all the philosophical questions of consciousness and responsible agency.

Theological Implications of the Gut-Brain Axis, by Clayton D. Carlson

There are about ten times as many non-human cells living on and inside of us (mainly in the large intestine or gut) as there are cells in our body. The mass of these microbiota is about three pounds, or about as much as your brain. Studies have shown that the nature of human microbiota can exert significant effects on digestive, cardiovascular, and even psychological health. Thus, we should view ourselves not as just having an individual body, but as a community of organisms.

A study in mice showed that germ-free mice, raised to have no bacteria in their guts, exhibited abnormal social behavior (avoidance, excessive self-grooming), which normalized after microbiota were introduced to them. (I recall hearing elsewhere about various other studies in humans that seemed to show some dramatic improvements for depression and for autism upon altering the client’s gut microflora, but I do not find these in my notes here).

There are several plausible pathways by which gut microbiota can impact psychological health. The vagus nerve transmits sensations from the gut to the brain. Presumably sensations, even subtle ones, of intestinal distress or bliss can impact one’s mental state. Also, the microbiota release a variety of chemicals which are taken up by the bloodstream and make their way to the brain. Some of these can affect the levels of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, and so has implications for helping with depression. Short-chain fatty acids are also made by the microbiota, and can affect the blood-brain barrier membrane.

While caesarian section births, infant formula, and antibiotics can be very beneficial, it should be recognized that they can disrupt normal transmission and flourishing of gut microbiota. The speaker opined that most over-the-counter “probiotic” capsules contained a rather limited set of bacteria. VSL-3 probiotic apparently has a broader, more effective mix of bacteria [1].

Diet can affect the microbiota. One study showed that when elderly patients were put on a low-meat diet, their brain volume increased and mental functioning improved (I could not tell from my notes if these brain changes were definitively linked to changes in gut flora). When queried as to his personal practice, the speaker said that he eats a banana every day, to provide extra amounts of inulin. This is a type of sugar that supports the growth of a certain type of desirable bacteria in the gut.


Nondeterminism and Plasticity: The Role of Bidirectional Brain-Behavior Relationships in Sanctification, by Nahanni Freeman

The first two paragraphs of the Abstract for this talk read:

Theoretical models of sanctification imply behavioral, affective, cognitive, and relational flexibility, and appear inconsistent with deterministic views of mind-body relationships.

New evidences from epigenetics, psychoneuroimmunology, and studies of placebo effects, as well as traditional findings regarding neuroendocrine, dendritic, and neurotransmitter modifications in response to psychological variables, highlight the malleability of the central nervous system in response to both internal and external environmental change agents.

A number of examples were given of how various experiences or practices resulted in measurable changes in brain cells. These could be positive or negative experiences. A study with deprivation of maternal contact led to permanent changes in the hippocampus of lab rats. In human subjects, meditation increased gray matter in the brain, and an 8-week course in lovingkindness meditation resulted in increased antibody production in the immune system.

Studies ( e.g. Sorenson et al, 2011; Koenig, 2008) showed that religiosity was associated with positive health factors such as reduced heart rate, reduced strokes, better immune system outcomes, and 7-14 year longer lifespans. Religious beliefs and practices may provide an enhanced sense of unity and coherence, which can reduce anxiety and mitigate chronic stress responses.

Positive health effects, including psychological health, can be observed from the administration of placebos. This again demonstrates the plasticity of the brain in response to experience and suggestion. Placebos are more effective with symptoms which a patient is consciously aware of, such as pain, rather than with more purely physical issues like blood sugar.

The Abstract suggests that these observations of top-down or bidirectional effects may “weaken neural identity theory and material monism, yielding intriguing compromises between mind-body interactionism and emergentism.”  More complete notes and references for this talk are available from the speaker at nfreeman@ccu.edu.


Mirror Neurons, Empathy, Intersubjectivity and the Second-Person Perspective with Implications for the Problem of Consciousness, by Mihretu P. Guta

Studies show that “mirror neurons” in human and other primate brains fire when an individual performs an action like reaching for an object in a goal-oriented manner, and likewise fire when he or she sees someone else performing that same action. Some neuroscientists have taken this to mean that mirror neurons are the seat of “action understanding” or of empathy or of inferring the intentions of others. But other scientists have thrown cold water on these grandiose claims, on a number of grounds.

In any event, neurons are not consciousness. The speaker cautioned against falling into the “mereological fallacy”, of confusing the properties of the parts (the neurons or the brain) with the properties of the whole (e.g. the conscious human being). [2]


Computational Neuroscience and Neuroplasticity: Implications for Christian Belief, by Daniel Dorman

Computational neuroscience covers a wide range of specific subjects, ranging from modeling the biochemistry of signaling between specific cells to simulating high-level cognitive processes such as decision-making. The speaker described several recent advances in neural modeling.

The “Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network (Spaun)” model by researchers at Waterloo was published in 2012. An accessible description, with videos, is given here.

Spaun comprises about 2.5 million virtual neurons, organized similar to brain neurons, and is attached to a camera for visual input and a robotic arm for behavioral output. This is a top-down, functional approach to brain modeling.

The Blue Brain Project is more of a bottom-up approach. It seeks to model, in a biologically realistic fashion, the specific neural structure of part of a rat brain. This project by Swiss researchers using supercomputers has been in play since 2005, with the size and complexity of the model growing with time.

Some futurists have claimed that, since mental activity is just a big set of calculations, one could conduct the same set of calculations in a digital computer and obtain the same effect; thus we could create fully-conscious computers or have our conscious life continue after physical death by transferring our thought processes to a supercomputer.

The speaker cautioned that these schemes overlook the fact that human mental functioning is physically embodied, in a brain which is part of a body. It is not at all clear that having a giant digital or analog model of 100 million neurons firing would actually create consciousness. Interestingly, the Christian view of our ultimate destiny is not be a ghostly spirit, but to have our intelligence to be re-embodied in a resurrection body.

Other Presentations Available On-Line

As previously noted, the currently-available talks from this 2016 meeting can be accessed for downloading by starting from the ASA home page and clicking through Annual Meeting – – – Annual Meeting 2016 – – – ASA 2016 Recordings. To give an idea of the diversity of presentations, I’ll paste below a screen shot of the first two dozen or so presentations listed. This list may change as more items are added. The symbols show whether video and/or audio and/or slides are available. [3]

List some talks ASA2016

There are many fine presentations here, but I will just call out the three plenaries which I have not already discussed. Roger C. Wiens of Los Alamos, in Exploring Mars with Curiosity: A Scientific and Spiritual Journey, described the science and the technical and political drama behind the successful implementation of a remote chemical measuring device which was part of the “Curiosity” Mars rover which landed on the surface of Mars in 2012. Roger also shared some personal crises that arose along the way and how he resolved them. There are great slides showing parts of the rover and aspects of the hair-raising landing. The ChemCam instrument developed by Roger’s team, which shoots a laser beam at rocks to discern their chemical content, shows as the circular opening in the box atop the mast which sticks up above the Curiosity rover in this self-portrait on Mars.

Self-Portrait of Curiosity Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

Self-Portrait of Curiosity Mars rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems


Ted Davis, a historian of science at Messiah College, described the people, the decisions, and the larger societal forces in play during the formative years of the American Scientific Affiliation, in The Creation and Evolution of the ASA in Historical Context. The founders of the ASA aimed at forming an organization of evangelical scientists who would bring the best science to bear on matters relating to Christian faith, in order to advise ministers and other Christian workers. In general, the ASA does not take official stands on controversial issues, preferring instead to be a forum where Christians can present different views and respectfully discuss these issues. I could see this policy in play in this 2016 meeting – while (I believe) the leadership of ASA generally accepts human evolution from other primates, two talks at the meeting were by representatives of the Reasons to Believe   organization, which accepts an old earth but rejects human evolution.

In Imag(in)ing a Brighter Future for Healthcare, Audrey Bowden shared her personal journey which eventually landed her at Stanford as an assistant professor of electrical engineering. She also described some of the work she does in developing techniques to obtain high-resolution visual images of what lies several millimeters below the surface of the skin or the external surface of organs within the body. Sophisticated sensors and computations take information from the back-scattering of light from subcutaneous layers and process it to form an image of what lies beneath the surface. This technique holds promise for better diagnosis of skin and other cancers, along with applications in ophthalmology, dentistry, and art preservation. She is bold and articulate about her faith. While she works hard and prays for wisdom in her scientific work to improve human health and extend lifespan, she notes that Christians have an even brighter personal future for healthcare, which is to be ultimately in the presence of God with no more tears, pain, or sorrow.


[1] Some anecdotal reports I saw on VSL-3, e.g. comments on Amazon, indicate perceived relief for conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome. They also note that it needs refrigeration to maintain potency (so it must be shipped with cold packs), and dosage should start small.

[2] Mereology is the study of parts and the wholes they form. In neurology “the mereological fallacy consists in attributing to the parts of an animal the psychological predicates that correspond to the living acting human or animal as a whole. Therefore, attributing psychological predicates to the brain [e.g. “The brain perceives…”] involves falling into the mereological fallacy.” (Baldara Rosas, 2014)

Another discussion of the mereological fallacy is found in this book review .

[3] See here for my write-up of last year’s ASA conference. One talk summarized there which dealt deeply with mind/brain issues Jennifer Gruenke’s   “Christian Faith, Biological Reductionism, and Consciousness”.

Posted in American Scientific Affliliation, Brain | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A New Resource for Creationism: “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth”

A helpful book has just been published. I ordered The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? from Amazon, and it arrived a few days ago. The book delves into the geological features of the Grand Canyon, and compares how these features are explained by conventional geology and by the Flood geology of young earth creationism. The title of the book positions it as a response to the earlier Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe by young earth creationist Stephen Austin.

The authors and editors are professionals in geology or related sciences, so they know their facts. They are also evangelical Christians. They understand the good intentions of young earth creationists, but they correctly point out that young earth creationism is based on a particular literalistic interpretation of the Bible. The book gives a brief history of conservative Protestant views of geology over the past several hundred years, noting that nearly all Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including a number of authors of “The Fundamentals” (~1910-1915) which defined fundamentalist beliefs at the time, were comfortable with an old earth.

Here are the bios of the four editors, as shown on Amazon:

Carol Hill is the author of scientific articles on the Grand Canyon published in Science, Journal of Hydrology, Geosphere, and other journals, as well as Christian apologetics articles for Perspectives in Science and Christian Faith. She has been featured both on NOVA and National Geographic’s Naked Science.

Gregg Davidson is the Chair of Geology & Geological Engineering at the University of Mississippi. He has written a number of articles and the book When Faith and Science Collide. Davidson is an active national speaker on the subject of faith and science with Solid Rock Lectures.

Wayne Ranney is a former park ranger, geologic speaker and tour guide, and author of several books, including Carving Grand Canyon.

Tim Helble worked as a hydrologist in the National Weather Service (NWS) for twenty-seven years. Before his NWS career, he held a half-year seasonal position at Grand Canyon National Park, helping to develop a water resources plan for the Park.

These four, plus seven additional authors, wrote the twenty chapters of the book. The chapters are grouped in five parts. The first part provides an overview of modern geology and of Flood geology. The book then provides an accessible explanation of how rocks and rock layers have formed over time. Roughly half the volume is devoted to this tutorial which is understandable by practically anyone who can read. This is one of the best introductions to geology I have ever seen. This section alone would make this book a worthwhile purchase, even if one had little interest in creationism. Topics here include:

– Sedimentary rock types (sandstone, shale, limestone) and how they form

– Inferring the original depositional environment of sedimentary rocks. For instance, the presence of raindrop prints in a sandstone rock layer shows that the surface of the moist sand at that spot was above the water level when the raindrops fell.

– Inferring the relative dates of various rock layers. For instance, in most cases if rock layer B overlies layer A over a wide area, it is likely that layer A was deposited first, and then B was deposited on top of A. If a thin vertical slab of granite or other igneous rock is found protruding through both layers, it is likely that this resulted from a later intrusion of magma. Slippage of rock layers along faults can complicate the analysis, but can also furnish additional clues as to the geological history of a region

– Radioactive dating of rocks; plate tectonics; fracturing and bending of rocks

– Various fossils found in the Grand Canyon, including pollen and spores and preserved footprints of animals

Finally, this book compares how conventional geology and how the Flood geology of young earth creationists explain the specific features found in the Grand Canyon. Some of these features include the sequences of different fossils, erosional surfaces between some rock layers, the formation of caves within rock layers, the overall topography of the Canyon, and evidence that one major rock layer was deposited as desert sand dunes. It is concluded that the approach of mainstream science, involving known physical processes operating over many millions of years, provides a better explanation than a single, year-long global Flood.

A Visual Feast

Besides superb textual content, the book is a visual feast. Lush pictures appear on nearly every page — panoramas of the canyon, tighter shots of individual formations, and zoomed-in photos of details of rocks and of fossils. I found it downright fun to just leaf through it. Besides nice photos, there are many professional-quality diagrams and tables to illustrate geological principles.

I cannot adequately convey the visual quality of the book here, but to give the flavor I snapped a photo of part of the front cover, and then opened at random to a page and took another picture. Here they are:

Part of cover of "The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth"

Part of cover of “The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth”

(Top half of front cover above; a random page below. Click on pictures for a more detailed view.)

Part of page 71 of "Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth"

Part of page 71 of “Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth”

In trying to reach hearts and minds, this visual appeal is important. Often the young earth creationist publications have large, compelling photos of interesting animals or rock formations, which unfortunately seem to give authority to the accompanying text.

Concluding Thoughts

The Grand Canyon is an engaging spectacle, which also displays the effects of geological processes over millions of years. One of the first articles I wrote for my blog here,  Grand Canyon Creation , dealt with this subject. I found that the diversity of large, visible geological features gave useful handles for discussing the representations of young earth creationists.

The authors of The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth cover the most essential issues with an economy of words. They address the specific claims made by young earth creationists regarding various features of the Canyon, in enough detail to clearly demonstrate the inadequacies of Flood geology. By first laying a strong foundation of basic geology, the book enables the reader to assess the more controversial questions.

My experience, and the experience of others, indicates that no amount of physical evidence will change the mind of a dedicated young earth creationist. His position is based on a religious commitment, which is the lens through which he views everything. This is not particularly unusual or pathological – we can see the same psychology of bias confirmation at work in hard-core political liberals or conservatives, and in some fans of a failing sports team, where a person will emphasize the facts which support their views, and deny or spin away the rest of reality.  (An article by Paul Braterman gives some helpful discussion in this regard).

Thus, it is not realistic to hope that the facts presented in this book will have an effect on someone who has already bought into Flood geology. However, there are many evangelical Christians who have not firmly made up their minds, and who genuinely want to be on the side of truth. This book might well be appreciated by them. Also,  this book could be influential with high school and college students, even from conservative backgrounds .

Although the notion of a changing set of organisms over time in the fossil record (faunal succession) is clearly presented, there is little or no mention of evolution in the book. That word does not even appear in the index. There seems to a deliberate policy of sticking to the most incontrovertible evidence for an ancient earth, without bringing up the more controversial topic of biological evolution. I think that is wise. To accept full evolution, including the development of humans from some primate common ancestor, may be just too much for many folks to take in one step. If someone sees the truth of an old earth and the faunal succession in the rock layers, however, that creates an opening for them to perhaps accept evolution somewhere down the road. That was the way it worked for me.

The bottom line: This is an ideal book to make available to someone who is trying to evaluate the validity of young earth creationism or to home schooling parents. It might also get students excited about geology, even if they have no particular interest in the creationism controversy.

Posted in Age of Earth, Fossils, Grand Canyon Geology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

The Regularity of Nature

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

   The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

No Justice in This Life: The Same Things Happen to Good and to Bad People

Implications of “No Signs” and “No Justice” for Creationism and for Apologetics

   No Evidence of a Young Earth or of Special Creation of Humans

   Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

   Beyond This World

Flourishing in an Unjust World

Consider the Lilies of the Field


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

There are a number of Bible passages which are typically cited as giving perspective on what we might conclude about the Creator from observations of his creation.  These include Psalm 19 (“…The heavens declare the glory of God…”), Psalm 104 (“…How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures…”) , Acts 17 (Paul’s sermon at Athens), and Romans 1 (“…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”).

In an earlier article,   A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology , I reviewed these well-known passages. They teach that we can deduce that the Creator is very powerful (since the universe is enormous) and is very smart, as evinced by the complex functionality of the physical world. We cannot conclude much, however about the moral character of the Creator from physical observations alone:  while we can appreciate beauty and acts of kindness and the fact of existence itself, there is (as the Scriptures frankly acknowledge) also much suffering and injustice in this world.

To learn about the nuanced relational character of God himself, we turn to verbalized revelation as recorded in the Scriptures. The acceptance of this special revelation is a sort of character test for the reader, requiring a degree of reverence to push past some of the offensive aspects of the partial revelation in the Old Testament and into the clearer revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  Both the Old and the New Testaments were spoken into their particular cultural contacts, which must be taken into account as we evaluate these texts today.

One thing that struck me in examining these classic passages on natural theology is that no sayings of Jesus were included among them. This made me curious about what Jesus had to say about these matters. Therefore, I read through the Gospels and marked out some relevant sections, which will be discussed here. For the purposes of this article I will take the four canonical Gospels at face value, not speculating on authorship or dates of composition.

The Regularity of Nature

Although folks in New Testament times were more ready to believe in miracles than we are today, they still understood that the norm was for regularity in physical processes. When Joseph first learned that his fiancé Mary was pregnant, he assumed that her pregnancy was due to natural cause (sleeping with another man) and decided to divorce her.

For most of his life Jesus worked as a carpenter. He would have learned by experience in the workshop that certain actions produced certain results with physical objects. Living in a largely agricultural economy, he had opportunity to observe the cycle of sowing and reaping, and the effects of insufficient rain.

The regularity of natural processes is assumed in Jesus’s teachings. His signature teaching device was to tell some short story (“parable”) dealing with nature or with human behavior, and then to draw analogies between that story and the spiritual or ethical realm. The parables dealing with natural phenomena like crops and birds are basically realistic, displaying a worldview of reliable cause and effect rather than random chaos. This comes across, for instance, in the parable of the sower, where he described the natural results of seeds falling on different kinds of soil (which he likened to the responses of different kinds of people to the message of the gospel):

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.   He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said:   “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.    As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.   Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.   But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.   Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.  Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”       Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:1-9)

God is seen as the ultimate sustainer of this regular universe; it is he who “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mat. 5:45) and who “clothes the grass of the field” with beautiful flowers (Mat 6:30).

Jesus told the men of his day, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Mat. 12:2-3).  Jesus endorsed their keen grasp on the physical regularity of weather patterns, contrasting that with their dullness in spiritual matters.

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

Numerous miracles at the hands of Jesus are recorded in the Gospels. At first that would seem to reflect a superstitious or magical mindset, where anything might happen. A closer look at the nature of these miracles indicates that they were exceptions to the general rule of normal cause and effect. It was precisely the background of natural regularity which allowed these miracles to stand out as “signs”.

These miracles did not occur randomly. Typically they involved a personal connection, where someone approached Jesus in faith. Jesus did not perform miracles just to prove his powers, like magic tricks. His miracles always met some human need (healing, food, etc.), and were typically understated. He sometimes deliberately healed people in private, and he often asked people, after they were healed, to refrain from going around telling everyone that he had healed them. When Jesus wanted to provide food for a crowd of five thousand people, he did not cause a giant pile of bread loaves to dramatically appear before their eyes. Instead, he had his disciples start passing out the existing stock of food, and somehow that food just did not run out. A skeptic in that crowd could have explained the whole thing away.

There were some in that crowd who were so enthused by these signs of healing and provision that they wanted to make Jesus a king by force. But Jesus did not want people to follow him because of flashy miracles or for physical benefits. When they requested more signs, he refused, and set about preaching clearly that people should seek “the food that endures to eternal life” (i.e. Jesus himself) more than physical bread (John 6:27). He managed to offend and drive away everyone except his little band of disciples who valued Jesus for himself as the Son of God, who had “words of eternal life (John 6:68).

Jesus made it absolutely clear that no visible miracle, no “sign” would be given to unbelievers in general. Skeptics will normally be allowed to see what they want to see, i.e. unbroken natural cause and effect. In various situations where his credentials were challenged, he refused to perform any miracles on demand.

Jesus explained to his disciples the meaning behind the parable of the sower, which was cited above. This explanation reads in part:

Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.  But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:12-15)

He indicated that the varied response of people to the word of God is primarily a function of their individual receptivity. The folks who retained the word and persevered were those who had a “noble and good heart”. There is no implication that they had been shown more compelling evidence than the others, or indeed that any miraculous signs were provided.

Such signs are not necessary, because “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). On the other hand, if someone does not heed the light that they have been given, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b).

Miraculous signs (“works”) will not bring about faith in someone who does not want to follow Jesus. Those who are his “sheep”, on the other hand, will listen to his voice:

The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:25b-28)

When Jesus threw the money-changers out of the Temple, the outraged religious authorities demanded of him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” To this question Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:18-19). The authorities spluttered and fumed, thinking he was speaking of the destruction and reconstruction of the Temple building itself, but in fact (as his disciples later realized) Jesus was referring to his own death and resurrection.

The only general sign for unbelievers was to be Jesus’s death, burial in a tomb, and subsequent resurrection. Jesus dubbed this “the sign of Jonah”, since it was analogous to the story of the prophet Jonah, where he was swallowed up by a great fish, given up for dead, and then disgorged alive:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.  (Mat. 12:38-41)

The Ninevites had not actually witnessed Jonah being spit out on the beach, but had to rely on Jonah’s testimony of that event. Likewise, people in general are not confronted with the spectacle of Jesus’s resurrection with their own eyes, but instead hear of it through the testimony of his followers who had encountered the risen Christ.

The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

This appeal to the witnesses of the Resurrection appears in the ministry of the apostle Paul, a few decades after the end of Jesus’s life on earth. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth around 55 A.D. with various exhortations. In that letter, known as First Corinthians, he reminded them of how he had first presented the gospel to them about five years earlier:

 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  (I Cor. 15:1-7)

Paul elsewhere (Galatians 1:18-2:10) described how he had travelled to Jerusalem and met with Peter, and Jesus’s brother James, and others of the original disciples of Jesus, within about ten years of the crucifixion. These had all told Paul of their encounters with the risen Christ. Paul, in turn, passed their eyewitness testimony along to the Corinthians. There is no serious dispute that Paul penned I Corinthians and Galatians, and it is not credible that Paul was making all this up. The contexts of these passages in I Corinthians and Galatians give no reason to doubt Paul’s sincerity, and there was enough travel and communication in the Mediterranean world of that time that someone would have caught Paul if he were lying about these well-known, still-living leaders in the church.

Therefore, we have a solid basis for believing that a number of Jesus’s disciples, and also his brother James (who, according to the Gospels, had been a skeptic during Jesus’s lifetime) claimed to have had diverse encounters with the risen Lord. These encounters were so compelling that these men dedicated the rest of their lives to proclaiming, at great personal cost, the message of the crucified and resurrected Christ. People are known to die for a cause they believe to be true, but generally not for something they know to be a fraud. Thus, there are reasonable grounds to believe in the resurrection, but not overwhelming, absolute proof. This leaves humans positioned to freely choose to follow Jesus or not.

It is worth noting that we all believe or follow a number of propositions or norms for which there is no proof. For instance, we typically act on the assumption that the laws of nature which have held in our experience up till today will continue to do so tomorrow. As the skeptical philosopher David Hume pointed out, there is no possible proof that the physical laws of the universe will not suddenly change in the near future. Most educated, secular people in the West believe strongly that is it morally wrong to discriminate against a man because of his race. Yet that moral judgement is merely an emotionally-based preference; while it can be argued that non-discrimination makes for a more pleasant society, there is no physical observation which can prove the rightness or wrongness of any action. Some folks hold that there is no God, but they can produce no empirical demonstration of that assertion. Thus, there is nothing unusual or inferior about core Christian beliefs which are not physically demonstrable.

Elsewhere in that letter to the Corinthians, Paul further commented on how he had proclaimed the gospel to them:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor 1:17-18, 21-24)

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. (I Cor. 2:1-5)

It is clear that Paul was not trying to offer intellectually compelling proofs (“human wisdom”), or to perform miraculous signs on demand. Rather, he simply presented the message that God had acted in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, in his crucifixion and resurrection, to bring forgiveness of sins, a clean life-style, and the hope of eternal life. Some people received Paul’s message and some did not; Paul accepted that outcome, trusting that God would grant enlightenment to at least some of his hearers. Without that enlightenment, his message would seem like “foolishness”. To those who did receive Paul’s teaching, that same message was “the wisdom of God.”

A record of Paul’s encounter with the philosophers of Athens appears in Acts 17:16-34. In his speech at the Areopagus council, Paul began by noting that the Athenians were very religious, having made various objects of worship, including an altar to “An Unknown God”. Paul then proposed to teach about that God which was thus far unknown by them. The rest of his address goes like this:

24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:24-31)

From his starting point of a Creator God, Paul built a reasonable case as to how this God should be worshipped. As James Barr noted in his 1991 Gifford Lecture, Paul used “the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of stone or wood, and the transcendent deity, creator of the world” to discredit idolatrous worship. If “we are his offspring”, then God is in some sense our father, and so his nature must be at least as elevated as man’s; hence, we should approach God as one would approach an intelligent, personal being. This is another argument against reverencing an idol.

The transcendent God, who needs nothing from human hands and who graciously “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” is also accessible. God has arranged that people should seek Him, with the possibility of actually finding Him. Paul quoted two of the Greeks’ own philosophers or poets to establish God’s accessibility: “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and “We are his offspring.”

For the conclusion of his speech, Paul transitioned from talking about God in general, to the particulars of Christ, the Resurrection, repentance, and final judgment. In order to justify belief in these Christian particulars, Paul claimed that God “has given proof of this to everyone by raising him [Christ] from the dead.” Paul’s usage of the Resurrection here endorses it as the main “sign” given for the world at large.

Acts 1:3 describes the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, referring to them as “infallible proofs” (Greek techmerion) as far as those disciples were concerned. In speaking to the Greeks in Acts 17:31, however, Paul uses a milder word (pistis) for “proof”, which is often here translated as “assurance”. This connotes reasonable ground for belief, not necessarily an airtight Euclidian deduction. Paul does not try to explain in detail to these foreigners about all the early Jewish witnesses to the Resurrection. Nonetheless, he does offer this objective historical event (not merely his own opinion) to authenticate Jesus as the standard of final judgment.

This level of evidence is consistent with the call for faith which permeates the Bible. Without getting too deep into the topics of theodicy or the hiddenness of God, it seems that humans in this life have been granted the opportunity to honor God by trusting him in the midst of the wrenching ambiguity of this world. There could be no opportunity for faith if irrefutable evidence for the supernatural and for divine order were generally visible.

God could, of course, compel some measure of cringing obedience if he appeared as a flaming pillar in every national capital, and if everyone who failed to follow his rules were instantly seized with intolerable pains. However, it seems that God values sincere love far more than outer conformity. Even within the Old Testament, especially in the Prophets, this divine pleasure in genuine goodness is evident. When he was criticized for not operating according legalistic expectations, Jesus on more than one occasion (Mat. 9:13; 12:7) responded by citing the word of God through the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”. Actually, according to the Exodus narrative, the pillar of fire gambit was tried already, and did not work out so well. The Israelites were awed, and obeyed after a fashion, but this spectacle did not transform their hearts.

After death, we are told, we shall see God and will understand all things clearly: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (I Cor 13:12, cf. I John 3:2). That will be the end of ambiguity, but also the end of courageous trusting of God.

No Justice in This Life: The Same Things Happen to Good and to Bad People

In first-century Palestine, a common belief was that if a man were good, God would reward him in this life with health and wealth. A bad man would get the opposite treatment. An obvious corollary was that if a man were blind or crippled, it must be God’s judgement on him. Thus, a physically handicapped person could suffer the extra burden of being judged and shunned by smug onlookers. This crude notion of karma shows up even today, often vague and divorced from a personal God, with some misfortune being superstitiously attributed to an earlier misdeed.

The Old Testament is ambiguous on this subject. Some passages seem to proclaim that the righteous person will always be delivered, and “will lack no good thing” (Ps. 34:10).  Job’s friends assumed that his suffering was a result of his sin, and urged him to confess and repent in order to be delivered from his misery. Other Old Testament passages, however, acknowledge that things often do not actually turn out that way. For instance, Psalm 73 laments how the wicked prosper, and get away with oppression and impiety. They have a successful, healthy life and an easy death. The Psalmist is deeply troubled by this, and only finds solace by contemplating that justice will be eventually be served in some future episode, perhaps after death.

The jaded philosopher of Ecclesiastes observed, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (8:14). In fact, human outcomes appear rather random: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.   Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come” (9:11-12a).

Jesus confronted this subject head-on, in the case of a man who had been blind since birth. His disciples, operating from a karma mind-set, assumed that this condition must be payback for some sin. They were not sure, however, of exactly whose sin was involved. Thus their question to Jesus was, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus cut through their superstition with his reply: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Instead of speculating who was to blame for this man’s condition, Jesus took action to alleviate the man’s suffering by healing him.

Jesus dealt further with the issue of justice in this life, in the following passage:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Apparently the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had killed some men from Galilee on the sacred grounds of the Temple. We don’t know the specific circumstances of this event, or the motivation of those who told Jesus the news. Presumably the crowd shared the common opinion that this sort of tragedy would only befall people who specially deserved it.

Jesus flatly contradicted that notion, with his response, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”  To make his point even more strongly, Jesus shifted from the political massacre to a plain natural accident: “…Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no!”

Thus, Jesus made as plain as it could possibly be that in this life the same tragedies befall all types of people. There is no magical protection for the warm-hearted or the young or for care-givers. The mortality rate for everyone is 100%. This impartiality of suffering and death is a logical outcome of all people inhabiting the same world of relentless, uniform cause and effect. [1]

While all humans experience pain and loss, they also experience various gifts and pleasures without regard to their moral merit. As noted above, Jesus observed that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”, and also that the beauties of nature like the “lilies of the field” are accessible to all.

Jesus held up God’s impartiality in bestowing blessings as an example to imitate, urging his disciples to likewise love both enemies as well as friends, in order to act like “children of your Father in heaven”:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:43-48)

Implications of “No Signs” and “No Justice” for Creationism and for Apologetics

No Evidence of a Young Earth or of Special Creation of Humans

These observations do not bode well for those hoping to find hard evidence for God in the natural world. My earlier survey of the classic Bible verses on natural theology (which did not include any sayings of Jesus) concluded, in part:

Finally, the expectation of discernable gaps in the natural order is not supported by our survey here of biblical natural theology. Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone everywhere, not requiring lengthy explication by Christian apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the universe, which demonstrates the power and skill and care of the Creator.

Some people respond to the gift of existence with gratitude to their Creator, while others shrug it off and focus on created things. Paul writes that God’s attributes are “plain” and “clearly seen” from the natural world. Nevertheless, Romans 1 emphasizes that unbelievers can and do dismiss this natural revelation. There are reasonable grounds for Christian faith, but the evidence is not of the type to compel assent by someone who does not choose to believe.

Here we have found that Jesus’s teachings are in accord with what is taught in the rest of the Bible: no physical sign will be given to the world at large. This precludes the existence of discernable gaps in the natural order.

Theists sometimes assert that the Big Bang origin of our universe is a formational gap which requires a purposeful creative being beyond the universe. There is some merit to this argument, but atheists can counter that, maybe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes which happen to pop into existence as part of an eternal multiverse which just happens to exist. The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms like us) is conveniently explained away: out of an infinite number of all possible universes, some will allow matter and have life, and we happen to live in one of those. This multiverse theory, however mathematically pleasing, is beyond hard empirical verification, and thus is every bit as faith-based as theism. So these cosmological arguments seem to end in a draw, which is what we should expect if no general physical sign of the supernatural is to be available. [2]

Young Earth (YE) creationists claim that physical observations, properly understood, point to a young earth, a worldwide Flood, and miraculous (not evolutionary) origin of humans, thus validating the Bible [3].  Intelligent Design (ID) proponents likewise aim to validate their theistic worldview by finding evidence that naturalistic evolution cannot explain the complexity observed in living things [4].

If there really were clear evidence (e.g. rock layers from a recent worldwide Flood) of supernatural intervention on a geologic scale, or clear evidence of the un-natural origin of the human species, that would constitute a widely-accessible miraculous “sign” for unbelievers. However, Jesus flatly declared that no such sign would be given. YE creationism and Intelligent Design are thus founded on premises which run counter to what Christ himself taught.

Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

Richard Dawkins observed in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” This passage is sometimes cited as a devastating critique of theism. That is nonsense.  In his physical observations Dawkins here is merely echoing Christ’s teaching two thousand years ago on the nature of the universe: no partiality, no justice in outcomes is evident in this life, and suffering is the lot of all. And of course the universe is indifferent – how could an expanse of matter and energy be anything but indifferent?

Dawkins takes the indifference of the universe to be evidence against a loving, purposeful creator. My purpose here is not to critique Dawkins’s worldview in detail, but it would appear that he is bringing in some unstated and un-demonstrable premises like “There is no eternal afterlife which could compensate for the suffering in this life” and “If I cannot conceive of satisfactory justification for the suffering in this life, there is no such justification.” If those premises could be proven true, then his atheistic conclusions would readily follow. However, these premises are unwarranted: Dawkins has no way of knowing that there is no afterlife, and it is foolish to hold that an infinite Mind which conceived and created the universe could not sustain worthy purposes which are beyond the ken of the three pounds of neurons lying between our ears.

Nearly all of us have or will experience deeply distressing griefs and losses affecting us or people we care about. Issues with unexplained suffering are a subset of the general “problem of evil”: How could a good and powerful God allow these horrifying events? I have dealt with the intellectual problem of evil elsewhere,  following Greg Bahnsen’s treatment. (This logical treatment is intended only to meet the intellectual challenge to theism posed by the existence of evil; it does not address at a pastoral level the trauma associated with suffering).

The bottom line is that it is eminently reasonable to infer that an all-good and all-powerful Creator has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. Thus, within theism there is no actual philosophical problem of evil. The unbeliever, however, finds this explanation offensive to his sensibilities. As Bahnsen notes, the problem of evil is not a valid intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. Rather, it is the expression or consequence of such a lack of faith:

What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God.

While it is plain that suffering and tragedy are widespread in human experience, so are pleasures and gratifying accomplishments and relationships. I have seen atheists parade distressing images such as babies with terrible birth defects to drive home how cruel the world is, as evidence against God. On the other hand, we can enjoy flowers and sunsets as evidence of an artistic Creator. And for every baby born in the U.S. with birth defects, thirty-two are born without them [5]. Healthy and unhealthy babies are both real. It is not realistic to focus on one side without appropriately acknowledging the other.

Most people, even those undergoing severe difficulties, choose to keep on living another day instead of ending their lives, indicating that they find continued existence in this imperfect world to be a net plus.   Most folks reading this article on their hi-tech tablets, phones, or computers have had opportunity for education, have enough to eat, and (hopefully) have some friends. The existence of each one of us, and of our loved ones, as distinct, unique individuals, is intertwined with the impartial physical processes of this particular universe we inhabit. We can choose to just complain about the bad, or to be grateful for all the good as well.

Beyond This World

Even with an appropriate acknowledgment of all the good in the world, some folks will still conclude that existence is a net negative. The apostle Paul would agree with that assessment, if one’s perspective is confined to this present physical universe. He described this viewpoint as being “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). He told the Corinthians that if their only hope was for things to go well for them in this life, they were “of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19). If the dead are not raised, then the Epicurean approach of just maximizing current pleasure would make sense: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (I Cor 15:32).

The second half of Paul’s own life was marked by toil, suffering, and disappointments. He was constantly being beaten and imprisoned. What kept Paul going was the hope of a future resurrection. This hope allowed Paul to put pain in this life into a larger perspective: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18); and “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

In the next life, we shall see clearly and “understand fully”. At present, however, we see only “dimly” and understand only “in part” (I Cor 13:11-12). This present life, with all its uncertainties and distress, is the arena where we can exercise courage, demonstrate trust in God’s character, and perform good works whose value will endure for eternity (I Cor. 3:12-15).

In the next life, all that is unworthy, even the vivid memory of shame and pain and injustice will vanish (the imagery is that they are consumed in a refining fire), while every act of faithful goodness will be celebrated forever. The grief at losing a child will be no more; all the joy of the child’s early days or years will remain, and the child herself will be present in the company of God’s people.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. [Rev. 21:1, 3-4]

A heavy emphasis on the next life could potentially lead to detached other-worldliness or to inhumane behavior such as crusades or jihadism. Not so for Paul. For him, the highest virtue was not coercion or abstract contemplation, but a positive and engaged love for God and for other people (I Cor 13:2-13).

In his long-term optimism Paul went so far as to say, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”(Rom 8:28), and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35, 38a, 39b).

He held that not only God’s people, but the whole creation would someday undergo transformation. He affirms that this present world is marked by suffering: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22). However, in God’s time, “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Besides his robust expectation of a better experience in the next life, Paul enjoyed the comfort of the Holy Spirit here and now: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”. (II Cor. 4:16). This Spirit confirms to believers’ hearts that they have been adopted as beloved children, which in turn acts as a guarantee or down-payment of the future redemption (II Cor. 5:5).

Jesus appreciated aspects of daily life such as flowers and children. When he turned water into wine, it was excellent wine. However, he directed his followers to not confine their hopes to this world: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25). After his friend Lazarus had died, he assured Lazarus’s grieving sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25 RSV). He told his disciples that he would “prepare a place” for them in his Father’s house, so that someday they “may also be where I am.” (John 14:3).  Once when his disciples returned from preaching and healing, glowing and excited over their prowess, he advised them to not get their identity from success in ministry, but  instead to “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

It can be discouraging when we try to do good, and then experience backlash instead of appreciation. Jesus gave spine-stiffening, future-oriented counsel for this sort of situation: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mat 5:11-12).

Justice will in the end be served, but it will be on God’s terms, not ours. Jesus told a number of parables illustrating the wisdom of living in the light of eternity. These stories often involved a master or landowner who set up a household or vineyard and then went away, leaving affairs under the stewardship of his servants or tenants. After some long, indeterminate time, they came face to face with the master, who evaluated whether they had been doing what they felt like doing as though they owned the place, or whether they had operated diligently with a clear sense of their responsibility to the master. To the servants who had, in the master’s absence, managed affairs in ways that brought credit to him, the master gave this commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Mat 25:23). There is, of course, a parallel to today’s humans who live in a universe created by, and thus owe their very existence to, a God who for now appears to be absent.

In this parable, the master did not reward the “good and faithful” servants with a few coins and an extra night off. Rather, their faithful service qualified them to step up closer to the master and his ways: “I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

The reward in eternity is not sitting passively on a cloud wearing a halo, but the joy of being in the presence of God and knowing him more fully and dynamically. That prospect may hold little attraction for those whose hearts are cold towards God. But for those who know God’s love, and love him in return, simply experiencing his presence will be completely fulfilling.

I doubt most people would object to experiencing exactly one second of excruciating pain, if that were the only pain they ever had to endure in their whole life. That pain would seem bearably brief. Unfortunately, the sufferings of this life may drag out for years of disability or pain. As we currently experience time, that seems long, far too long. Logically, however, the whole of a man’s or woman’s life is like the blink of an eye in comparison with eternity.

Thus, to focus entirely on the balance of pain and pleasure in this present physical world is to miss the larger reality. If a man cuts himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself.

Flourishing in an Unjust World

Although he keenly observed the evils in the world, and although he himself was often in physical danger, Jesus did not exhibit cynicism or anxiety. While he displayed appropriate anger and grief in some situations and suffered mental anguish at his hour of supreme crisis, he was basically a happy,  confident man. His teachings were laced with subtle humor. People wanted him at their parties. He lived in such joy and such peace that he offered to share it with his followers:

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11 RSV)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27)

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

In the last two verses above, Jesus differentiated the peace he offers from what “the world” can give. For most people, personal peace is largely synonymous with absence of external troubles. Jesus, however, offered inner peace and joy in the presence of these troubles which are part of life.

A key feature informing his thinking was the love relationship between him and God the Father. At the commencement of his public life the Father spoke to him, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11; cf. Mat 17:5).  Thus, even before he had done anything notable, Jesus’s ministry was defined by this love. His teachings cannot be understood apart from this dynamic, real-time, personal relationship. All his actions and ethics flowed from this source.

Jesus’s ministry was largely about bringing humanity to share in this love. His last recorded prayer for his followers concludes, “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17:26).  Jesus both displayed that love (“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”  John 13:1) and required it of others. To share in his joy involves receiving his love and passing it along to others:

 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:9-13)

When asked which was the greatest commandment in the Old Testament Law, Jesus (Mat 22:37-38) cited this command from Deuteronomy: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” adding, “This is the first and greatest commandment.”   He immediately followed up with another command from Leviticus, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mat 22:39-40). While thoroughgoing love for God is foremost, love for other people is just as essential.

Jesus maintained an ongoing personal communion with the Father. Sometimes he would spend a whole night in prayer. He positioned himself to be sensitive to the moment-by-moment will of God (John 5:19-20).

Flowing from this intimacy was a deep confidence in the Father’s goodness and presence, no matter the circumstance. He matter-of-factly told his disciples that they would abandon him: “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone.” But there was one who would stick with him: “Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32).

This was all put to the test at the end of his life on earth. Jesus knew that the Father always heard his prayers (John 11:41). However, as with our prayers today, not every request of his was granted. He was aware that the religious authorities were trying to arrest him, which would result in hours of mocking and beating, a devastating scourging, and finally being tortured to death through crucifixion. He prayed in anguish, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Mat 26:39).  Despite his plea, the cup of suffering was not taken from him. He entered thoroughly into the human experience of suffering and injustice.

This prayer expressed a normal desire to avoid this ghastly experience, but also his trust in the Father’s greater purposes (“Yet not as I will, but as you will”). Jesus endured the cross “for the joy set before him” (Heb 12:2). That again conveys Jesus’s trust in the Father’s goodness and ultimate purpose. That is what sustained him through this horrible time. And Jesus did enter into a joyful reward, following his obedient suffering.  We now follow his example: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (I Pet 4:19).

God is able to bring good out of the worst situations, as articulated by the patriarch Joseph. His brothers had treated him abominably, yet their selling him into slavery resulted in his family (and millions of others) surviving a long famine. Thus, he told his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive“ (Gen 50:20 RSV).

For most tragedies, no good purpose is revealed in this life. There are exceptions, however, when we can see a greater good being accomplished. Jesus’s death is one of these exceptions. In the moment, it seemed like pointless misery: a promising life cut short, his enemies gloating, his family and followers in despair. However, his death and resurrection opened the way for ordinary humans to enter into the same type of love relationship with the Father which Jesus enjoyed. That love relationship is the basis on which we can have the same confidence that he did in the Father’s good purposes, which in turn is our basis for peace and joy while living in an unjust world.

Consider the Lilies of the Field

Perhaps the best-known nature-related saying of Jesus is from chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mat 6:25-34).

In the classic King James version, verse 28b is worded, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

These words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount have been a source of comfort and peace to many believers. Jesus advised his disciples to focus on living today well, and to refrain from obsessing over tomorrow’s potential problems:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Mat 6:34)

That is basic, psychologically sound advice which most modern counselors could endorse. However, there is some risk of taking these statements as blanket promises that dedicated Christians will never lack food or clothing or other physical necessities. Christians do, however, sometimes starve to death. Also, skeptics can mock, “Yeah, God feeds the birds…until He doesn’t, and they die of starvation.”

Was Jesus being naively optimistic in this passage? Not at all. He deals explicitly with the perishing of both flowers and birds. The grass, with its pretty wildflowers, is depicted (v. 30) as living only a short time before it is cut down and burned. In a subsequent address, Jesus told his disciples:

21 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved…..26 So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

….. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Mat 10:21-22; 26-31; 38-39)

Here Jesus acknowledges that birds die. He teaches, however, that God cares about each little sparrow. Although they may not be not highly valued by humans, “not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care”. The Greek here is more literally translated as “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father”. This implies both knowledge and consent on God’s part regarding even the smallest workings of the natural world, including death. Some theologians believe that God in some sense suffers along with each of his creatures. The parallel verse in Luke 12:6 reads, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.”  Jesus teaches forcefully that God cares even more about us and our deaths, stating “you are worth more than many sparrows”, and that “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

Is this meant to convey that bad things will not happen to us? No, quite the opposite. This discussion about sparrows dying is part of an extended passage (Mat 10:5-42) where Jesus gives instructions to his closest twelve disciples just before sending them out for some short-term missionary work. He warns them that they will face hostility and even the possibility of being murdered because of sharing his message. Church tradition indicates that, out of the eleven faithful disciples, ten were in fact eventually killed for their witness, while the eleventh (John) spent years in exiled imprisonment.

A key object of this teaching was to help these disciples to “not be afraid” at this prospect. Death cannot be evaded indefinitely by man or beast, so cowardice is no long term solution. The wise man will live with a view toward pleasing God, who will have the final word. With his eternal future settled, the disciple can live fearlessly. He can be unimpressed by rulers and mobs who can “kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” God knows and cares intensely about him, so he can be confident that he will be called home to God only when it is the right time.

Circling back to the Sermon on the Mount passage in Matthew 6: the encouragement (v. 25) to “not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” follows the word “Therefore”. This indicates that Jesus’s admonition to “not worry” is not just a free-floating, feel-good maxim. Rather, it is the logical conclusion of the preceding discourse:

19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Mat 6:19-24)

As with so many of his teachings, Jesus here is urging his followers to take a long-term, big-picture perspective. Everything in this life is temporary and insecure, so to place our hope in our health and possessions is foolish. Giving  money and time to ministries and to the poor, and other deeds of faith and love, build up for us “treasures in heaven”, which are secure and eternal. The Greek words for “healthy” and “unhealthy” eyes also imply “generous” and “stingy”, respectively. This multi-layered metaphor indicates that a person who trusts God will have a generous attitude and an overall healthy outlook. Otherwise, they will be fearful of not having enough for themselves and thus will be stingy towards others and will become slaves to trying to acquire enough stuff or power or skills or friends to feel secure. Our attitude towards money and other provisions colors our entire approach to life.

In his teaching on not worrying, Jesus is not endorsing laziness or irresponsibility, or saying that nothing tragic or unpleasant will happen. His promise of provision is directed specifically at those who share his priorities. There may not be much solace here for those whose highest priority is their physical and emotional comfort. However, those who “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” can be assured that they will be provided with whatever resources are needed to accomplish God’s will in their lives. For those who love God and who desire to follow and please him, in their lives and in their deaths, Jesus’s promise of the Father’s care provides grounds for courage and peace.


Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New International Version.

[1] Whatever miracles of healing which still occur today would be exceptions to the general rule of the uniformity of nature. The mortality rate is still 100%.

That said, it seems to me that “no signs” does not preclude surprising or unlikely provisions or answers to prayers, or inexplicable insights or words of knowledge, as long as they don’t involve outright and public exceptions to normal physical laws.

[2]  While it cannot be empirically verified, and is subject to other critiques, the hypothesis of an eternally-existing multiverse is an honest alternative to the supernatural creation of our universe. What is not so honest is the claim by Lawrence Krauss that whole universes can pop out of nothing, such that no Creator is needed. It turns out that Krauss gets all his mileage by equivocating on the definition of “nothing.” We have known for many decades that a vacuum which is devoid of detectable particles is not really empty. There are always fluctuating quantum fields, leading to the appearance and rapid disappearance of pairs of virtual particles. The vacuum is also permeated with “dark energy”, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Even if it were reasonable to extrapolate from the appearance of pairs of particles to the production of a whole universe from the vacuum state, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing.” True “nothing” would involve the absence of the pre-existing quantum fields. This is pretty basic, and a number of scholars have taken Krauss to task here. Krauss also tries to appeal to the Wheeler-Dewitt equation to invoke an even deeper form of “nothing”, but this also fails: this equation deals with a whole collection of spaces, which again are not “nothing.”

[3] Here are some citations to support the assertion that “Young earth creationists claim that physical observations, properly understood, point to a young earth, a worldwide Flood, and miraculous (not evolutionary) origin of humans, thus validating the Bible”.

According to Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis:

When the creation is carefully observed and properly interpreted it will be seen to confirm what God’s Word has revealed….. And over the past 50 years, true science has been increasingly confirming Scripture. With more research by both evolutionists and creationists in the years ahead, we can fully expect that many questions that young-earth creationists cannot presently answer will later be answered and will be shown to confirm that God created the whole universe a few thousand years ago, then cursed His whole creation a few days later because of Adam’s sin and then destroyed it with a global, catastrophic, year-long flood at the time of Noah, just as the Bible clearly teaches.

Miche Maniguet of Creation Ministries International writes:

Any CE [Creation Evangelism] strategy to reach unbelievers should take advantage of the scientific evidence mounting against evolution as Christians attempt to persuade them of ‘the things concerning Jesus’.

[4] The excerpts below from the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Document” support our assertion that  “Intelligent Design (ID) proponents likewise aim to validate their theistic worldview by finding evidence that naturalistic evolution cannot explain the complexity observed in living things”.

This document,  titled “The Wedge” by its authors, was prepared by the Discovery Institute in 1998. It describes the strategy by which the newly-formed Center for Renewal of Science and Culture was to promote Intelligent Design. The plan was to discover and expose inadequacies in naturalistic evolution as a means to overthrow “scientific materialism” and to “replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”:

Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art. The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating.

…. Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

… If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a “wedge” that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the “thin edge of the wedge,” was Phillip ]ohnson’s critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe’s highly successful Darwin’s Black Box followed Johnson’s work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

…[Proposed activities for the Institute include] Front line research funding at the “pressure points” (e.g., Paul Chien’s Chengjiang Cambrian Fossil Find in paleontology, and Doug Axe’s research laboratory in molecular biology).

[5] From the Centers for Disease Control: “Birth defects affect one in every 33 babies (about 3% of all babies) born in the United States each year”

Posted in Bible Interpretation, Intelligent Design, Natural Theology, Suffering | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

“Big Daddy” Chick Tract: The Most Widely-Distributed Anti-Evolution Publication


The Best-Seller

Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species

The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils

“Big Daddy”: Fruits, Roots, and Responses

* *   *   *   *    *   *   *   *    *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Best-Seller

There are two living authors whose works have sold over half a billion copies. One is American novelist Danielle Steel. The other is Christian pamphleteer Jack Chick. Now 91 years old, the reclusive Chick has reportedly sold a staggering 750 million copies of his illustrated tracts and comic books since 1960. His works have been translated into over 100 languages and are widely distributed by missionaries and other Christian workers.  Many of his publications are consistent with mainstream evangelicalism, stressing man’s accountability to God and the necessity of personal integrity and of following Christ. Some of his tracts, however, vehemently attack modern secularism and also religious views (especially Roman Catholicism) that Chick disagrees with.

I recall being handed a copy of his anti-evolution cartoon tract, “Big Daddy”, many years ago. This pamphlet, which first appeared in 1972, is reportedly “the most widely distributed anti-evolution booklet in history“.   A recent article by Paul Braterman on the Primates Progress blog ,” How to lie about radiometric dating, evolution, and even nuclear physics “,  brought this Chick tract back to my attention. This pamphlet continues to be sold in bulk at 16 cents apiece, and stands as an example of the arguments brought against evolution by some Christians. The complete tract is shown on the Chick Publications web site. I will display some representative panels here, and comment on the accuracy of their scientific claims.

Big Daddy cover

The cartoons start off with a professor, flanked by a portrait of a banana-eating ape titled “Our Father”, asking:

Prof who believes

The whole class calls out “We do, sir!” One courageous Christian student dissents, and battle is joined:

I will shred

In the cartoons, the student shoots down all the pro-evolution evidences put forth by the increasingly-desperate professor. By the end the professor becomes convinced that evolution is wrong. He decides he can no longer teach it, and naively hopes that the university administration will tolerate his change of view:

Prof quits

It would be tedious to analyze the whole tract, panel by panel. The Primate’s Progress article  does an excellent job critiquing many of these items, and discusses the psychology that lies behind such authorship. A briefer rebuttal of each panel in “Big Daddy” is given by Robert Stovold.

Fossil Evidence for Intermediate Human-Primate Species

A core concern of “Big Daddy” is the plausibility of potential human ancestors. I’ll start by recapping the current state of fossil evidence, then discuss how the tract treats the subject.

A large number of fossils have been found which represent species with mixed ape and human characteristics. The earliest of these species are more ape-like, but with time, more-human features appear. The “Prominent Hominid Fossils” page on the TalkOrigins site provides an accessible treatment of this subject. Over 60 fossil finds are briefly discussed, usually with photos provided, representing about a dozen species of hominids. Also, the Wikipedia “List of human evolution fossils“ article has a table with dozens of entries, listed in order of age. Most of these entries have photos of an actual skull and links to further articles.

I’ll comment on some of the more significant of these ancient species:

Australopithecus afarensis – – This hominid lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Its brain size was about 380–430 cm3, roughly the same as modern chimpanzees. The Wikipedia article lists at least eight major fossil specimens of this species, so it is well-established. The most famous specimen is “Lucy”, a female partial skeleton found in 1974. It had a mixture of ape-like and human-like features: while features of Lucy’s arms and hands resemble those of apes, “in overall anatomy, the pelvis is far more human-like than ape-like. The iliac blades are short and wide, the sacrum is wide and positioned directly behind the hip joint, and evidence of a strong attachment for the knee extensors is clear.”

Young earth creationists sometimes try to dismiss the significance of Australopithecus afarensis fossils like Lucy by saying these were merely chimpanzees. This assertion is so straightforward to disprove that one professor developed a classroom exercise for biology teachers, which shows students the fossil evidence and let them draw their own conclusions. In the main figure of that exercise, chimpanzee bones and teeth are shown on the left, human bones are on the right, and “Lucy” remains are shown in the middle. Anatomical traits numbered, and numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Below is a portion of that figure dealing with just the lower jaw and teeth. It is obvious that some Lucy features are more closely resemble chimps, and some more closely resemble humans, just as expected for a species which is intermediate between humans and other primates.

Lucy jaw bones

Skeletons of chimpanzee (left), the australopithecine specimen AL 288-1 (“Lucy”) (middle), and a modern human (right), with anatomical traits numbered according to Table 1. Numbers that represent humanlike states are underlined. Source: Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes? A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, by Prof. Phil Senter (Fayetteville State University, NC)http://www.nabt.org/websites/institution/File/pdfs/american_biology_teacher/2010/February%202010/FebABTonline.pdf

Homo habilis – – At least five major fossil specimens are known. This species lived 1.5 to 2.8 million years ago. Its brain size of 550 cm3 to 687 cm3 was about 50% larger than that of the australopithecines, but still much less than modern humans (typically 1350 to 1450 cm³). This is one of the earliest species that used flaked stone tools.

Homo erectus  – –  The fossil evidence for Homo erectus (“Upright man”) extends from 1.9 million years ago to 70,000 years ago. Dozens of fossils have been found, on three continents. H. erectus starts to look fairly human, but with some significant differences. Large brow ridges and large teeth remain, and the brain size (750-1250 cm3) was generally smaller than modern man. Several groupings of fossils are subsumed under this species classification. There was a trend toward larger brain size and overall more resemblance to modern humans for some of the more recent Homo erectus fossils, indicating evolution within this species. These folks made fairly sophisticated stone hand-axes, and might have mastered the use of fire. Both Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have evolved from some branch of Homo erectus. Here is a Homo erectus skull dated about 1.6 million years ago, with a brain size of 850 cm3:

KNM-ER 3733, Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster). Discovered at Koobi Fora in Kenya and thought to be female. The whole skull is similar to some of the Peking Man fossils.  Source: TalkOrigins      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/3733.html

KNM-ER 3733, Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster). Discovered at Koobi Fora in Kenya and thought to be female. The whole skull is similar to some of the Peking Man fossils.                      Source: TalkOrigins http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/homs/3733.html

Homo heidelbergensis – – Because it shares features with both Homo erectus and modern humans, this species is sometimes viewed as a late, advanced Homo erectus or an archaic Homo sapiens. At any rate, it is the sort of intermediate fossil that evolutionary theory predicts. Individuals lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago.

Homo neanderthalensis –  –  The bones of about 400 individuals have been found ranging from about 30,000 to 300,000 years old. Despite many similarities, Neanderthals had stouter limbs, a wider, barrel-shaped rib cage, a reduced chin and a much larger nose than modern humans. Their typical brain volume (1600 cm3) was slightly higher than modern humans, and their skulls were more elongated, with a “bun” at the back (see figure below). Although they were very similar to Homo sapiens, DNA evidence shows they were a separate species which split off from the lineage of Homo sapiens around 400,000 years ago.  There are indications that some interbreeding with modern humans took place much later in Europe or Asia.

Anatomical comparison of skulls of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right)   , in Cleveland Museum of Natural History.   Features compared are the braincase shape, forehead, browridge, nasal bone, projection, cheek bone angulation, chin, and occipital contour.   Source: Wikipedia article “Anatomically modern human”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomically_modern_human

Anatomical comparison of skulls of Homo sapiens (left) and Homo neanderthalensis (right) , in Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Features compared are the braincase shape, forehead, browridge, nasal bone, projection, cheek bone angulation, chin, and occipital contour. Source: Wikipedia article “Anatomically modern human”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomically_modern_human

Homo sapiens – – Anatomically modern humans appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Evidence indicates that about 70,000 years ago some of them left Africa and eventually spread all over the world. There has been some evolution within this species over the millennia. Some of earliest Homo sapiens fossils such as Skhul/Qafzeh people displayed brow ridges. Somewhat later Homo sapiens, such as the Cro-Magnon people living in Europe 30,000-40,000 years ago, had more robust skeletons and larger brains on average than today’s humans.

Nick Matzke has plotted the brain size and age of many individual fossil representatives of the species discussed above. It can be seen that there are many fossils of increasingly human-like species over the past 3 million years, which is consistent with modern humans evolving from earlier primates.

Ages and cranial capacity data: C. De Miguel and M. Henneberg (2001). "Variation in hominid brain size: How much is due to method?" Homo 52(1), pp. 3-58. Cranial capacity of modern humans: McHenry et al. (1994). "Tempo and mode in human evolution." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91:6780-6. Graphic by Nick Matzke, National Center for Science Education.    Source:   “Transitional Fossils Are Not Rare”, NCSE on line. September 25th, 2008. http://ncse.com/creationism/analysis/transitional-fossils-are-not-rare

Ages and cranial capacity data: C. De Miguel and M. Henneberg (2001). “Variation in hominid brain size: How much is due to method?” Homo 52(1), pp. 3-58. Cranial capacity of modern humans: McHenry et al. (1994). “Tempo and mode in human evolution.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 91:6780-6. Graphic by Nick Matzke, National Center for Science Education. Source: “Transitional Fossils Are Not Rare”, NCSE on line. September 25th, 2008. http://ncse.com/creationism/analysis/transitional-fossils-are-not-rare

Although not every little transition is filled in here, this is an impressive array of fossils which supports the notion that today’s humans evolved from earlier species. Some general principles for assessing fossil intermediates are given in Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils . (It is worth noting that even more powerful than the fossil evidence is the modern genetic evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates, as discussed in Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates. )

The Chick Tract Treatment of Anthropoid Fossils

The relevant cartoons in “Big Daddy” are shown below:

Main cartoons from Big Daddy

Cartoon of ape-men

I’ll discuss nine claims made in these cartoons:

(1) “Richard Leakey found a normal human skull under a layer of rock dated at 212 million years”

This statement is false. TalkOrigins explains:

What Richard Leakey actually found was an early, primitive skull in a layer of rock that dates a little more recently than 2 million years. The physical characteristics and date of the skull are quite consistent with human evolution.

  • The skull in question, KNM-ER 1470, is not that of a normal human. Among other things, the skull capacity (750cc) is far below that of an average modern human and the face is much more robust. Nearly all anthropologists agree that this skull is either a very early member of the homo genus (Homo rudolfensis) or a member of another hominin genus entirely (e.g., Australopithecus or Kenyanthropus).
  • The original dating of the rock at over 200 Ma was false due to contamination of the sample with older volcanic rock. Subsequent dating methods converged on a range of dates between about 2.9 and 1.8 Ma, and in the early 80s, the discrepancy was finally resolved at 1.8 Ma.

(2) “Lucy was only an unusual chimpanzee”, and “Nearly all experts agree that Lucy was just a 3 foot tall chimpanzee.” This is blatantly false. See discussion of Lucy above, under “Australopithecus afarensis”, showing many features closer to humans than to chimps.

(3) “HEIDELBERG MAN Built from a jaw bone that was conceded by many to be quite human”.

This statement implies that “Heidelberg Man” is a shaky concept (based only on a single jawbone), and that this was essentially a modern human. This is false.

While the first fossil of Homo heidelbergensis   (“Heidelberg Man”) was indeed a jaw bone, found in 1907 near Heidelberg, Germany, other fossils of this species have been recovered in Ethiopia, Namibia and South Africa.  Many high-quality fossils have been found in caves in Spain.  These fossils are not of modern humans. Below is shown a skull from one of those caves. It is closer to modern humans than to apes, but clearly has the brow ridges and low forehead of a pre-modern species. It is thus an example of the type of intermediate species predicted by evolution.

"Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5" was discovered in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain).        Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atapuerca_Mountains

“Homo heidelbergensis Cranium 5” was discovered in the Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca (Spain). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atapuerca_Mountains

(4) “NEBRASKA MAN   Scientifically built up from one tooth, later found to be the tooth of an extinct pig”.

An examiner of this tooth, Henry Osborn, believed it to be the tooth of an anthropoid ape, and published this conclusion in Science in 1922.  Further work at the field site uncovered more bones, which showed that the original tooth came from an extinct peccary, not an ape. Science published a retraction in 1927.

Here we have an honest mistake in the 1920’s, which was caught and corrected within five years. This is an example of the self-correcting nature of real science: after a hypothesis is proposed, it must sustain testing by colleagues in open debate.

Chick’s description here is largely correct (except that the “build-up” was mainly journalist, not “scientific”), but it is misleading to reach way back to a mistake (which was quickly corrected) nearly a hundred years ago as though that is representative of the anthropoid fossil record as a whole.

(5) “PILTDOWN MAN  The jawbone turned out to belong to a modern ape”.

Robert Stovold comments:

Piltdown Man was a hoax exposed in the 1950’s. The modern ape’s jaw had been filed down to make it look more human-like, making the fraud harder to spot than it would otherwise have been… The hoax was exposed by scientists, showing how science can correct its errors.

One hoax cannot indicate the inferiority of conventional archaeology, because creationists have several hoaxes of their own, including Paluxy footprints [supposedly human and dinosaur tracks in the same rock layer], the Calaveras skull, Moab and Malachite Man, and others. More telling is how people deal with these hoaxes. When Piltdown was exposed, it stopped being used as evidence. The creationist hoaxes, however, can still be found cited as if they were real.

( 6) “PEKING MAN    Supposedly 500,000 years old, but all the evidence has disappeared”.

This statement gives the impression that the notion of “Peking Man” is unsubstantiated. This, again, is a falsehood. The Wikipedia article notes that some 15 skulls and 11 jaws were found near Beijing (“Peking”) between 1929 and 1937 and were carefully studied. While the original fossils were lost as a result of the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, we have detailed descriptions and casts which were made of these fossils, and we also still have some teeth which can be dated. So it is not true that “all evidence has disappeared.”  Also, these fossils were representatives of Homo erectus, for which dozens of other fossils have been found, as noted above.

( 7) “NEANDERTHAL MAN     At the Int’l Congress of Zoology (1958) Dr. A.J.E. Cave said his examination showed this famous skeleton found in France over 50 years ago is that of an old man who suffered from arthritis.”

The wording here (“this famous skeleton found in France”) implies that that particular skeleton is the key evidence for Neanderthals, and also implies that a scholar opined that this was the skeleton of a regular (modern) man who happened to be elderly and arthritic. These points are both false.

As noted above, fossils of some 400 Neanderthals have been found at sites across Europe, the Middle East and central Asia which establish them as a separate species from Homo sapiens, with distinctive physical features. None of that is negated if one of these skeletons showed signs of arthritis. Also, the scholar here (Dr. Cave)  called attention to features like robust bones and musculature that differentiated it from today’s Homo sapiens.

(8) “NEW GUINEA MAN   Dates way back to 1970. This species has been found in the region just north of Australia”.

This is just a deceitful distractor. No textbook or other scientific publication refers to “New Guinea Man” (whatever that is supposed to be) as a link in human evolution. It seems that some young earth creationist just made this up.

(9) “CRO-MAGNON MAN    One of the earliest and best established fossils is at best equal in physique and brain capacity to modern man … so what’s the difference?”

This is yet another misleading distractor. This statement implies that scientists consider Cro-Magnons as a link in the evolution of modern humans, but scientists do no such thing. Since Cro-Magnons were fully modern humans, they cannot be considered as ancestors of modern humans. That Cro-Magnons had “physique and brain capacity” equal to modern man has no bearing on the evolutionary origins of Homo sapiens.

The tract put this statement in the mouth of the professor:

Cartoon list fossils

The tract attempted to discredit this declaration, but ironically it is the probably most valid science-related statement in the whole pamphlet. The fossils (which are far, far more than just a few fragments) do indeed display a progression from mixed ape/human features in Australopithecus afarensis, to gradually more human-like characteristics in Homo habilis and then Homo erectus (and other intermediate species as well), in full support of evolutionary expectations.

 “Big Daddy”:  Fruits, Roots, and Responses

The claims in the Chick tract regarding fossil evidence of human evolution were found to be deceitful, and are often outright falsehoods. It is not clear that Chick himself is educated enough to appreciate how wrong his pamphlet is. Young earth creationist popularizer Ken Hovind was involved in revising the tract in 1992. Hovind has read enough scientific literature that he should know better, but apparently he gleans from his reading only that which fits his worldview. Hovind’s creationist views are so extreme and irresponsible that other young earth creationist groups like Answers in Genesis have publically criticized him for continuing to use creationist arguments which have been discredited.

Whatever the inner thoughts of Jack Chick, his anti-evolution tract continues to be distributed by young earth creationists, and is considered by many to provide accurate information on human evolution. As an example, the Missing Links page of the Discovery News website directly or indirectly quotes a number of the statements in the Chick tract, such as the nonsense about “New Guinea Man”:

On the basis of such findings, that website assures its readers:

The fact is, the fossil record has not produced one piece of evidence that man has evolved from another species. Millions and millions of fossils have been unearthed, and not one of them substantiates the philosophy that man evolved from apes, monkeys, or any other animal.            If the theory of evolution were true, surely by now at least one credible piece of fossil evidence would have been unearthed.

Responsible citizens, and especially science educators, are rightly dismayed by this sort of teaching which motivates students from religious backgrounds to reject large realms of modern science. (It’s fine to question evolution, but it is not fine to mindlessly reject the reasonable answers which scientists provide to questions about evolution).

As a Christian, I am further dismayed by the bad witness entailed here. Long ago, Augustine warned against this sort of thing. He noted that if Christians claim that the Bible teaches something about the physical world which unbelievers know to be incorrect, they will be disinclined to give the more crucial teachings of the Bible a fair hearing:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?  – St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (408 A.D) Book 1, ch.19.

Many of my friends are young earth creationists, and I was in that camp myself at one time (see here for my story) , so I am acquainted with their motives. They are on the whole trying to do the right thing. The core problem is their conviction that the Genesis creation story (six-day creation, a few thousand years ago) must be taken as literally true. That conviction acts to filter out all the pro-evolution facts and reasoning presented by secular teachers. This willful blindness seems deplorable, but this sort of confirmation bias is common human behavior. Passionate political conservatives and liberals, for instance, can summarily dismiss any allegation that their side is in the wrong.

An ongoing stream of books, on-line articles, and videos published by young earth creationist organizations (and also by Intelligent Design proponents) serves to refute, in the minds of the faithful, the evidence presented by the “Darwinists”. The staff of those young earth organizations, such Answers in Genesis, the Institute for Creation Research, and the Creation Research Society bear the primary responsibility for the ongoing popularity of young earth creationism. Doing a Google search on a controversial evolutionary topic can uncover a breathtaking number of conservative Christian sites actively retailing the anti-evolution teachings from these organizations.

The secular sites and organizations which refute the misinformation of the anti-evolutionists are helpful in combatting this problem. I believe it is also important to address the theological error (i.e. the necessity of a literal interpretation of Genesis) that is at the root of young earth creationism. Believers should know that there are alternative, old-earth interpretations which are held by committed Christians, and which take into account the world-view of the people to whom the Scriptures were first given. Many of today’s Christians are not aware that the mainstream conservative Christian view on creation from about 1860 to 1960 was of an old earth. As discussed here,  it was only after John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over the view of a discredited Seventh Day Adventist promoter of Flood geology and repackaged it in their 1961 volume, The Genesis Flood, that young earth creationism became fashionable in conservative Protestantism.

My approach to biblical interpretation which allows for honest interaction with modern science is described here.  The New Testament treatment of the Fall  is a controversial topic, which is discussed in Adam, the Fall, and Evolution.  Another, more structured resource is this Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?”, which includes a number of links to further testimonies and articles.

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