Comparison of Composting Toilets: Towards a Global Commode

SUMMARY

Three leading brands of self-contained composting toilets are Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet. These claim to convert human waste (with peat moss/wood shavings added) to a product resembling dirt, suitable for putting on a compost pile or even to be used directly on flower beds or trees. A comparison of the mechanics of these three toilets, along with on-line user feedback, indicates that Sun-Mar toilets are more likely to perform as expected. The Sun-Mar rotating drum seems to give better control of liquid contents than seen with Envirolet and Biolet devices. Non-electric versions of these toilets often cannot keep up with liquid evaporation, so a functioning liquid overflow tube is essential.

Highest user satisfaction seemed highest with “urine-diverting” toilets, such as Nature’s Head, Air Head, C-Head, and Separett. Urine is directed to a storage container or a grey-water drain. Solids drop into a bucket where they are typically covered with peat moss. Disposing of the relatively dry solids perhaps once a month is straightforward. This type of toilet may be useful in regions of the world that cannot afford plumbing and sewage systems: urine is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus and is nearly sterile, and thus could be used directly as fertilizer, while disposal of the solids alone is easier than dealing with combined liquid and solids.

CONTENTS

Fully-Composting Small Toilets

– Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet

Customer Experiences with Biolet, Envirolet, and Sun-Mar Self-Contained Composting Toilets

Urine-Diverting Toilets

– Nature’s Head, Air Head, C-Head, and Separett

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

Bucket/Compost System: Loveable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

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

A key discovery of nineteenth century science was that diseases can be transmitted via pathogens in human waste.  In regions of high population density, this can lead to epidemics if adequate sanitation facilities are not available. A milestone in epidemiology was the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. A physician named John Snow analyzed the incidence of the disease and concluded that the Broad Street public water pump was the source of infection. Even though he had no explanation in terms of germ theory at that time, he persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of that pump. This stopped the cholera epidemic. The well from which this pump drew had been dug a few feet away from an infected cesspool. A replica of this pump still stands in London:

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho. http://toilet-guru.com/cholera-pump.php

The replica Broad Street Pump in Soho. http://toilet-guru.com/cholera-pump.php

Improved sanitation in the West and in prosperous areas of the rest of the world led to a dramatic decrease in deaths by disease, especially among children. Using water to sluice wastes to a septic tank or to a central treatment plant has proven an effective means to handle these wastes, for single homes and for vast urban population centers.   However, an estimated 2.5 billion people, about a third of the world’s population, still lack access to basic sanitation. Those living in rural settings may cope by relieving themselves in the woods or fields, but many live in crowded urban slums and are too poor to install flush toilets with their requisite water supply and sewage piping and treatment facilities. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has attempted to address this problem. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has initiated the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, to support the development of a “next-generation” toilet which:

  • Removes germs from human waste and recovers valuable resources such as energy, clean water, and nutrients.
  • Operates “off the grid” without connections to water, sewer, or electrical lines.
  • Costs less than US$.05 cents per user per day.
  • Promotes sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services and businesses that operate in poor, urban settings.
  • Is a truly aspirational next-generation product that everyone will want to use—in developed as well as developing nations.

These are lofty goals for the humble commode. Some of the technologies put forward to meet this challenge involve high cost or high tech components whose maintenance could be problematic. For instance, here is one of the prototype sanitation units developed in response to the Gates challenge:

While I salute the enterprise and ingenuity embodied in this device, my guess is that any viable sanitation solution for the masses will likely involve some much lower-tech approach. Here we examine a suite of small composting toilets whose descriptions are available on the internet. In North America these devices are sold primarily for use in vacation homes or on boats. We will evaluate them for these purposes, based mainly on online comments. From an engineering point of view, we will examine the key materials-handling aspects of these different models, and attempt to predict which features might be most useful in a “global toilet”.

Fully-Composting Small Toilets

There are a number of composting toilets sold where the compositing unit is located on a floor below the actual throne. These “remote” composting toilets include the venerable Clivus Multrum and the newer Phoenix. These are large and fairly expensive (typically over $5000) units, sometimes servicing commercial establishments. Sun-Mar, Envirolet and EcoTech offer remote composting toilets for around $2500-3000 for full-time family use. (All prices here are approximate).

Several manufacturers offer compact or “self-contained” composting toilets where the composting chamber is built into the toilet itself. These toilets are the focus of this review. These units typically include apparatus for stirring the wastes to promote aeration. The higher-capacity models use electric heating and air flow to evaporate urine. To handle excess liquid accumulation, an emergency liquid overflow tube leads to some outside drainage spot such as a gravel-filled hole. These liquids are fecal-contaminated “black-water”, so they require careful disposition.

Forced-air ventilation to the outside serves to promote urine evaporation and mitigate odors. Final composted product is removed from a tray or drawer situated below the main chamber. This may or may not require further composting.

Some models are aimed at sites with only solar electricity. These toilets would have 12-volt motors for the ventilation fan, and no electric heating of the main toilet. Non-electric models are also made. These rely on natural convection up a vent stack to move air through the toilet.

Three leading manufacturers of these devices are Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and Biolet (Mulltoa). We will describe the workings of these devices, and note the positive and negative comments and reviews from the internet.

Sun-Mar Self-Contained Toilets ($1850 for Excel model)

The signature hardware feature of Sun-Mar units is their drum-shaped composting chamber, as shown in the figures below. Shown on the left is the Excel, which is their most popular model. This is claimed to service up to four people full-time. Like the other manufacturers, Sun-Mar makes units of varied sizes and capacities.

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet. http://toilet-composting.com/what-are-composting-toilets/

Exterior and innards of Sun-Mar composting toilet. http://toilet-composting.com/what-are-composting-toilets/

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source: http://sun-mar.com/tech_our.html

Components of Sun-Mar composting toilet. Source: http://sun-mar.com/tech_our.html

Waste drops into the drum through an inlet port on the top side. A bulking peat moss/ wood shaving mixture is also added daily. Liquid drains from the drum through a screen down to the evaporation tray, which can be electrically heated. Every few days the user turns a crank to rotate the drum, to aerate and distribute the contents. The unit is designed to maintain the optimal moisture content (40-60%) for composting. The door over the inlet port is automatically closed during rotation. Every few months, depending on usage, it is time to drop some material from the drum to the finishing tray. This is done by releasing a locking switch and rotating the drum backwards. The material then sits on the finishing tray for at least a month to finish composting and to dry off. If all goes well, the final product is dry and ready to be strewn upon flower beds:

Envirolet Self-Contained Toilets (e.g. MS-10 $2400)

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet. http://www.envirolet.com/scienbehen.html

Cutaway view of Envirolet composting toilet. http://www.envirolet.com/scienbehen.html

Envirolet claims their main AC-powered MS-10 model can handle six full-time users. Their 12-volt and non-electric models have lower capacity, since they cannot evaporate liquids as fast.

With the Envirolet self-contained toilet, the user opens a trap door, does his business, and closes the trap. The waste drops onto a perforated holding tray. Warm air is blown across this tray to evaporate liquids. Peat moss (daily) and Compost Accelerator (weekly) are added to aid composting. About once a week the upper handle on the front is pulled back and forth to move “mulcherator” metal blades through the contents in the holding tray, for distribution and aeration. The contents are emptied several times a year. From the operation manual, the procedure for emptying is as follows: (a) Don’t use the toilet for 2-3 days. If contents still look wet, add dry peat moss and stir and wait. (b) Remove the bottom panel in front. (c) Work the lower handle (Rake Bar) back and forth a few inches to get material to drop down from the bottom of the main chamber to the emptying tray. Keep checking that the tray is not getting overfilled. (d) You may need to remove more than one tray-full. Ideally the product is dry and finished, similar to the Sun-Mar product. The material can be left for several weeks on the emptying tray within the toilet to dry further, as long as the material in the main chamber is not so wet that liquids drip onto the emptying tray below.

Biolet Composting Toilets ( $1800 for Biolet 10 [3 users],   $2800 for Biolet 65 [4 users] )

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual. http://www.biolet.com/support/articles/BioLet-10-Standard-20-Deluxe-Manual.pdf

Figure of Biolet 10 or 20 toilet from owner’s manual. http://www.biolet.com/support/articles/BioLet-10-Standard-20-Deluxe-Manual.pdf

The Swedish Mulltoa toilets are sold as Biolet in the U.S. and Ecoethic in Canada. Waste drops into a main compost chamber. Warmed air is circulated across the top of the chamber to evaporate liquids. Mixing arms attached to a central shaft distribute and aerate the contents. The trapdoor sealing the opening down into this chamber is normally closed, but opens mechanically when the user sits down on the seat. Thus, the user typically does not see the contents of the chamber. The toilet is initially loaded with several gallons of a special mulch mixture sold by Biolet, and another half-cup is added after every fecal use. The user manual gives a recipe if you want to make your own mulch. It is mainly fine (peat moss) and coarse (wood shaving) fibrous material, plus a little soil, molasses, perlite, and grain hulls.

After each use of the toilet, the mixing shaft is rotated, by hand or automatically by electric power. With each mixing event, some material filters down through holes in the bottom of the composting chamber and onto the humus tray below. Excess liquid will also accumulate with the solid material on that tray. The user needs to monitor the dampness of the material in the chamber, and adjust the heater thermostat accordingly. If the heat setting is too low, the material will be too wet to compost well and be hard to stir, and fecal-contaminated liquids will make a sloppy mess on the bottom humus tray and possibly overflow the tray into the base of the toilet. If the heat setting is too high, the material will dry out and become too hard to turn the mixer.

Every six months, or sooner if needed, the humus tray is emptied. It is recommended to first spread out a plastic sheet on the floor. If the liquid level inside is high, the humus on the tray is likely to be wet, and it may be necessary to carry the toilet outside to empty it. Wet or merely moist, this product should be placed in a compost pile for further stabilizing.

Biolet also offers the BTS 33 ($1200), which seems to be the essentially the same as the EZ-Loo Air and the Biolet 30 NE. This has few moving parts, and is aimed at sites with no electricity. The human waste is deposited in a bin in the toilet. Mulch is added regularly. The bin is changed out or emptied when it gets full. Air is drawn through the unit and up a vent pipe by natural convection. Liquids that overflow the bin are drained through a drain nipple.

Customer Experiences with Biolet, Envirolet, and Sun-Mar Self-Contained Composting Toilets

The vendor websites provide plenty of testimonies from satisfied customers, so these devices do work for some people. However, there are a number of complaints to be found on more neutral sites like Amazon. (I will assume these comments are genuine, although they could be the work of trolls or shills).

A serious problem is that the liquid overflow drains are prone to plugging with goo and fine mulch material, which can lead to fecal liquids dripping out onto the floor: “When the drain clogs you never know it till you walk in the bathroom and the floor is covered with brown stinking pee/crap soup. Its horrible”.  The user might need to regularly reach deep inside the unit to proactively keep the entrance to the drain cleared. Also, it is important to ensure the drain tube is sloped downhill over its entire length.

Biolet and Envirolet products seem to come in for the most criticism. There are many passionate and seemingly well-grounded complaints about these units, e.g. at Compare The Brands , at The Poop Report , and (regarding the Biolet 30 NE)  at Amazon.  For instance, a commenter at The Poop Report wrote:

I also have an envirolet self-contained electric model. Two of my neighbors do as well. We all have frustrations with these units. Just as poop’n steve mentioned, you need to use a stick to move the poop around. The mulcherator doesn’t work well. The unit needs to be emptied frequently, and because it’s a continuous composter, you always get fresh, uncomposted poop mixed in with the stuff you’re trying to get rid of. Flies get in, but if you screen the vent to keep flies out, the unit leaks water back inside and makes a mess. The rake bar usually gets stuck, so you can’t use the nifty emptying tray, and instead you need to empty the unit with a trowel, mixing fresh poop in with your composted poop. I have a PhD in ecology, and I’ve been composting out in the garden for 20 years. But I still find this toilet incredibly fussy. Either it gets too dry, and the poop turns into rocks and stops composting, or else it gets too wet, and turns anaerobic. Toilet paper doesn’t break down. On and on. Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for composting toilets. But get a remote model! And get a batch model, so that your poop can compost separately before you empty the unit. Continuous, compact models don’t work.

Liquids management seems to be a key challenge. It may be that the users are not following all the instructions carefully. Just pulling out a product tray without taking care and time (up to several days of avoiding toilet use) will likely result in wet, nasty product. However, the design of the Envirolet and Biolet toilets allows liquids to easily get out of balance. These systems rely on warm air circulation to evaporate moisture from the solids. Perhaps these vendors should devise an electronic sensor for the moisture level in the compost in the chamber, which would then automatically adjust the heater to maintain the desired moisture.  Another problem seems to be unrealistically high claims for the number of full-time users; probably these units cannot actually evaporate the liquid fast enough for four to six people, even with electric power. The capacity of the non-electric versions will be even lower, especially in humid regions where liquids will not naturally evaporate well. These versions will be especially dependent on functioning overflow drains.

User satisfaction seems higher for Sun-Mar toilets than for the other two vendors. The drum design gives good aeration without trying to force mixer blades though the solids, and allows excess liquids to immediately drain away from the solids. Having a tray dedicated to liquid evaporation allows its heater setting to be automatically controlled. The isolated product tray allows material to sit there for weeks while finishing and drying out. Also, Sun-Mar seems to rate the capacity of its units more realistically. Nevertheless, even Sun-Mar units require attention and adjustments, are subject to occasional mechanical failures and insect infestations, and have a few deeply-dissatisfied customers (especially for the 12V or non-electric models).

A remote composting toilet allows a much bigger waste-handling unit to be located on a floor below. Most of these remote units have similar moving parts as the compact versions, but with greater capacity to evaporate liquids. Ecotech offers a batch “Carousel” model, which has four separate compartments into which the waste drops. When a compartment is filled, it is rotated away to quietly compost for several months, and a new compartment is positioned beneath the throne.

Regarding the compact units in general, Toilet-Composting.com  opines:

Because of their small size, self-contained composting units only have a limited capacity. If there are more than two individuals using the toilet year round, a self-contained composting toilet system is not for you. In fact, even two individuals may overburden many models, and you need to choose your model carefully if for more than one individual. Self-contained composting toilets are probably most ideal for occasional usage in cottages or seasonal and vacation homes, or for year around usage by a single individual.

Urine-Diverting Toilets

Another class of small waterless toilets solves the problem of liquids by separating them at the source. Part of the waste opening is occupied by an inclined tray which directs the urine to a different destination than the solids. The solids typically drop into a mulch-filled container, which is stirred with a crank to mix the solids with the mulch. Four such toilets are discussed here. The first three units were initially developed for use on boats, so they are compact.

Nature’s Head ($950)

Two views of the Nature’s Head toilet are shown above. The lower chamber is initially filled with 2 gallons (1 U.S. gallon= 3.8 liters) of composting material, such as dampened peat moss or similar material. Urine runs to the front of the toilet, and drains into the liquid waste vessel. Reportedly, the urine-diverting feature is not hard for users (men or women) to get used to. Some mindfulness is required regarding one’s positioning.

The trap door is opened with a lever for solids deposition into the lower chamber. After use, the crank is turned several times to mix the solids into the peat. The unit comes with an electric exhaust fan installed. The user runs the vent line to the outside as part of the installation. Air flow through the unit flow prevents smells, and provides fresh air for the composting process. Below is a view down into the lower chamber, showing the agitator which is turned with the crank.

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture. http://natureshead.net/user_guide.html

View down into lower half of Nature’s Head, showing agitator and the composting mixture. http://natureshead.net/user_guide.html

For two people with full-time use, the liquid waste vessel (2.2 gallon capacity) is emptied about every two days and the solid waste needs to be emptied every 1-2 months. As feces dry down and decompose, their volume decreases considerably. After waiting at least 6 hours from the latest use of the toilet for solids, the top half of the toilet is removed and set aside. The bottom half is carried outside and emptied by inverting with a plastic bag over it. In use, the agitator mashes the solid waste in with the peat moss, so it is aerated, partly dried, and gets a good start on the composting process. The material inside the lower half of the unit appears much like plain peat moss, with an “earthy” smell. It should be dumped into an outdoors composting bin to finish it. On a boat, the product can be stored until landfall, then thrown in a dumpster, as one might dispose of soiled diapers. After emptying, the toilet is put back in its place (no need to specially clean it) and refilled with peat moss.

Air Head Toilet ($1000)

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet http://airheadtoilet.com/

Air Head Urine-Diverting Toilet http://airheadtoilet.com/

The Air Head toilet is very similar to Nature’s Head. The urine container is easier to remove. To prevent soiling the toilet bowl, many users put down a disk of paper (shaped like a coffee filter but flimsier material), make their solids deposit on that, and then open the trap door to let it all drop into the lower compartment.   A comparison of Air Head and Nature’s Head features appears on the Wooden Boat Forum . There is an Air Head vs. Nature’s Head vs. C-Head discussion at Cruiser Forums.

C-Head Toilet (About $600)

The C-Head has operational similarities to Nature’s Head and Air Head, but is constructed differently. It looks more like a piece of furniture and less like a marine head, and comes in several versions. Pictures of the C-Head are shown below. The black crank handle shown lying on the floor is inserted through the hole at the back of the toilet seat to rotate the compost agitator.

C-Head Urine-Diverting Toilet. Photos by Sandy Graves.

C-Head Urine-Diverting Toilet. Photos by Sandy Graves.

Urine is collected in a standard one-gallon plastic jug. Solids go into a 5-gallon bucket, partly filled with peat moss or similar material. The C-head is stirred after use, but the agitator action is different from the other two toilets. The agitator is a small, single-bladed sloped paddle rotating on a vertically-oriented shaft. Rather than mashing the feces, this agitator mainly stirs the peat moss and turns it over, coating the feces and forming them into 2-3 inch spheres whose surface quickly dries out to minimize odors. This form-factor of the solid waste can be advantageous in disposal. Unlike any of the other composting toilets discussed here, the C-Head does not need a ventilation hose hook-up. Thus, it can be easily moved around.

The liquid capacity is about half that of Nature’s Head or Air Head toilets, so for two people it may need emptying every day. This involves raising the top of the unit and lifting out the one-gallon jug. Filled jugs can be stored or emptied as appropriate. An external urine diverter can be installed to drain the urine to an external tank or to a gravel-filled pit, obviating the need to swap out jugs. For emptying the solids, the internal 5-gallon bucket is removed and dumped into a composting area or into a longer-term storage bucket.

Separett ($1400)

The Swedish-made Separett sends the urine to a drain tube. Forced ventilation of the toilet is required to eliminate smells and to aid solids drying, using AC or 12-volt power.

Normally a trap door covers the opening to the solid waste container, so the user is spared the sight of its contents. When the user sits down on the seat, this flap is automatically opened and the solid waste container below is incrementally rotated so it fills evenly. The user experience is like using a conventional toilet. There is no regular mulch addition and no working of levers before, or stirring of contents afterward.

The solid waste container is a bucket, lined with a biodegradable plastic bag. After perhaps two months (for two full-time users), the toilet is opened and the waste container is lifted out. It is taken outdoors, some dirt is added on top of the waste, and it sits for six months with a loose lid on it to inactivate any human pathogens. Then it can be added to a mulch pile for final composting or discarded elsewhere. Thus, there will always be several containers aging in the back yard.

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it. http://www.separett.eu/villa-9000-en

Left: Looking down at Separatt. Liquid drain hole is in front. Blue trap door covers solid waste opening. Right: Removing solid waste container, after installing lid on it. http://www.separett.eu/villa-9000-en

User Experiences with Urine-Diverting Toilets

In on-line forums and reviews, user reports on all four of these devices have been overwhelmingly positive. They perform exactly as they claim. The handling of a clear liquid stream and of a fairly dry mulch/solids accumulation is straightforward. These toilets can handle visits from a beer-swilling crowd, as long as the host keeps up with emptying the urine collection vessel. For a fixed application like a vacation home, the chore of emptying the urine can be eliminated by installing a drain tube for the liquids. Because this stream is clear liquid with few pathogens, it can be hooked up to a gray-water drain system, or drained to a small gravel-filled pit. A heater for the outside portion of the drain line might be needed to prevent freezing in winter.

A fold-up urine-diverting toilet is available for camping or emergencies. With this Rescue Kit, liquids go into a tube which can drain into a jug or a hole in the ground, while solids go into compostable bags. A do-it-yourself kit is also available:

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita. http://www.ecovita.net/products.html

Rescue Kit folding urine-diverting toilet ($129) and Separett Privy Kit ($129) from Ecovita. http://www.ecovita.net/products.html

Urine-diverting toilets are also made for use in a squatting position, which is common in southeast Asia.

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urine-diverting_dry_toilet

2-hole (pink) and 3-hole (blue) urine diversion ceramic squatting pan from Indian NGO EEDS. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urine-diverting_dry_toilet

Bucket/Compost System: Loveable Loo ($50 – $300)

The “Loveable Loo” has a following among the ecologically conscious. Popularized by “humanure” apostle Joseph Jenkins, it consists of a wooden box with a toilet seat on top, and a large (e.g. five-gallon) plastic bucket within. There is a bin of sawdust nearby, with a scoop in it. After you do your business, you throw a scoop of sawdust on top of it. There is reportedly almost no odor, if sufficient sawdust is used. The use of peat moss is frowned upon, since that is not a sustainable material (peat is cut from bogs far faster than it can regrow).

About once a week, a new bucket is swapped in. The full bucket is covered with a lid and carried to an on-site composting station. A typical composting station might occupy about 4 feet by 13 feet, consisting of two composting bins (one for this year’s waste, the other digesting last year’s waste) with a roofed sawdust pile in the middle. The bucket’s contents are dumped on the active pile, and more sawdust is added on top. The bucket is then rinsed out. After sitting for a year, the humanure is transformed to clean, fertile compost.

For $299, including shipping, all this can be yours:

Many users make their own toilet box, and just purchase a toilet seat and some buckets. Most user comments for this toilet are enthusiastic. The folks who install this system are typically self-reliant and are proud of living out a commitment to sustainability. The danger of spreading infections is low if humanure compost is used only on one’s own family garden.

However, the carrying and emptying of the filled buckets is not a task that a small or frail person can do comfortably and safely. Many people are averse to handling the waste of non-family members. A writer at Toilet-Composting.com recounts his experience with this system in an eco-village in Missouri:

A rotational system was put in place whereby each member had a shift for emptying and cleaning the five gallon buckets into the humanure compost bins. It is probably no surprise that this rotation was not very popular in the village. Many members came up with often quite elaborate excuses to get out of the humanure rotation when their turn came up, and it was a source of considerable tension in the village…During the hot summer months, the compost buckets became quite foul smelling and also very liquid in nature, so it was difficult to empty them into the bins without having quite a bit of fecal matter splashing onto your clothes and body.

The basic bucket can be used with an even smaller footprint, by placing a toilet seat directly atop it. For short-term use, the Luggable Loo  (about $30) gets favorable reviews. Users typically line it with a plastic bag and add material which absorbs essentially all the liquids. The used bags are often thrown in the trash, although they could be emptied onto a compost heap. This is not meant for extended use by large families.

Luggable Loo

Luggable Loo

Some Global Takeaways

Even gadget-savvy North Americans can be challenged to make in-situ composting toilets work for them. This suggests that these devices would not translate well to more traditional cultures. It remains to be seen whether a novel, more fool-proof small device can be developed which economically performs desired transformations on human waste within a user’s home. Positive results for Latin America are claimed for larger, remote-type composting toilets built to serve large families or small neighborhoods, and serviced by professionals.

Collection of combined (liquid and solid) waste by low-wage workers, and careful composting at central locations by highly-trained workers, seems like a viable model for sanitation in very low-income areas. To kill off all pathogens in human waste requires certain combinations of temperature and time for the compost, and care to not mix fresh waste in with aged material. Because of the high nitrogen content of urine, additional cellulosic mulch must be added to achieve the optimal carbon:nitrogen ratio for composting.

If the users can adapt to them, urine-diverting toilets offer some advantages. This Wikipedia article describes projects using urine-diverting toilets in Haiti, South Africa, and elsewhere. The urine is typically directed to a pit, leaving a greatly reduced volume of the solid waste to deal with. The solids are collected to be composted, or to be dried down to kill pathogens.

The major nutrients in plant fertilizer components are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Urine contains most of the nitrogen and potassium, and about half of the phosphorus, produced in human waste. Urine is relatively sterile, although this is not guaranteed. With proper precautions, the separated urine can be directly applied as fertilizer, as described in Scientific American (“Gee Whiz: Human Urine Is Shown to Be an Effective Agricultural Fertilizer”). This usage would accomplish at least some of the goals set out in the Gates Toilet Challenge.

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“Soft Tissue” Found in Dinosaur Bones

For fossils as old as dinosaurs (over 65 million years), the conventional wisdom has been that no original organic material could remain. If the delicate structure of soft body parts is discernable, that is only because these parts were converted to some type of inorganic mineral in the fossilization process. However, over the past two decades, paleontologist Mary Schweitzer has rocked our world by presenting visual evidence of soft tissues recovered from the interior of dinosaur bones, and biochemical evidence indicating that these are in fact the remnants of the original cells and structures from within the dinosaur bone pores. For instance, here is a network of blood vessels, containing little round red things that look like red blood cells:

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952 [6].

High magnification of dinosaur vessels shows branching pattern (arrows) and round, red microstructures in the vessels. Source: Schweitzer, et al., “Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex”, Science, 307 (2005) 1952 [6].

Young earth creationists have widely cited these findings as evidence that dinosaur fossils cannot really be millions of years old, and so the rock layers (radioactively dated to more than 65 million years of age) cannot really be millions of years old – – and so the whole old-earth dating edifice collapses. There have been some responses to these young earth claims by mainstream scientists, but many of these responses are sketchy or outdated. I read through most of Schweitzer’s papers on this topic, and reviewed the key findings from them in a 25-page article, which I posted as “Dinosaur Soft Tissue”, along with other long essays at the top of this blog window.  If you want lots of facts and literature references, that is the place to go. For those who do not want to wade through all that information, here are some key takeaways:

TISSUES AND PROTEINS IDENTIFIED IN DINOSAUR BONES

These remarks pertain mainly to thighbones from two dinosaur specimens, a T. rex (approx. 68 million years old) and a duckbill hadrosaur (approx. 80 million years old). In both cases, the fossils had been buried in sandstone (which may help wick away destructive enzymes from the corpse) and the fossils were analyzed within a relatively short time after excavation, which minimized degradation from sudden exposure to a new set of environmental conditions.

After dissolving away the mineral portion of the bone with weak acid, various types of flexible structures have been recovered. They conform to the microscopic pores of the bone in which they had resided, so they are mainly viewed under a microscope. These structures include transparent, branching hollow vessels corresponding to the blood vessels found in modern animals (e.g. ostriches), and also what look like modern osteocyte cells. Various biochemical tests have indicated that these structures are composed of animal protein, showing that they derive from the original dinosaur tissue, as opposed to being merely biofilms produced by microbes which invaded the bone pores.

What look like red blood cells in the dinosaur blood vessels under the microscope are not cells at all. They are little clusters of iron oxide.

The proteins which have been identified include collagen, actin, and tubulin. These are known to have structures which are resistant to degradation, especially when they are crosslinked. Tests indicate that these proteins from the dinosaur bones are indeed highly crosslinked, which appears to be a key aspect of their longevity.

Iron from blood hemoglobin can be highly effective in promoting this crosslinking and in general passivating the reactive groups on the proteins. Schweitzer’s group performed a dramatic experiment to demonstrate this effect, using modern ostrich blood vessels: the blood vessels which were incubated in a solution of hemoglobin (extracted from the red blood cells of chicken and ostrich) showed no signs of degradation for more than two years. In contrast, the ostrich vessels in plain water showed significant degradation within three days, which is more than 240 times faster degradation than with the hemoglobin. The osteocyte cell remnants from dinosaur fossils are essentially coated with iron-rich nanoparticles.

Beside the effect of iron, being in contact with the mineral walls of the pores, and being sealed in tiny pores, away from the enzymes and other body chemicals, can act to preserve remnants of the original proteins. Also, if soft tissue is initially dried out before it decays, it undergoes changes that make it more stable even if it is later rehydrated. Thus,  several plausible mechanisms are known to help explain the preservation of these flexible tissues, and there are likely other factors yet to be discovered.

WIDE VARIATIONS IN TISSUE DECAY RATES

There are plenty of other examples of wide difference in the rates of tissue degradation, besides the ostrich blood vessels cited above. For instance, raw meat may spoil in a few days at room temperature, but will keep for weeks in a refrigerator, and for years if it is frozen or (in the case of country hams) if it is treated with salt and smoke. All the flesh can decay off a human face within a month if a body is left outside. However, this chap found in a Danish peat bog looks pretty fresh after more than 2200 years, demonstrating a difference of more than 25,000 (1 month versus 2200 years) in decay rates:

Tollund bog-man. Source: Wikipedia, “Tollund Man”

Tollund bog-man. Source: Wikipedia, “Tollund Man”

Thus, protein and soft tissue decomposition rates vary enormously, depending on the conditions. Some academics have done lab studies of protein degradation using accelerated conditions of high temperature and high acidity, but it is not valid to extrapolate those results to proteins locked in the pores of dinosaur bones. The reality is that we don’t know, with any precision, how fast proteins degrade under the conditions found in dinosaur fossil bones. So it is incorrect to claim that we know that it is impossible for soft tissue to survive in any form for 80 million years. And so the whole young earth case here falls apart.

In contrast, the rates of nuclear decomposition of elements have been measured over and over again, and found to be essentially invariant. As discussed in the main article there are a few conditions where nuclear decay can be accelerated, but these conditions are known and predictable, and do not apply to the rock layers in Montana where these dinosaur fossils were found.

Thus, it is absurd and insupportable to set aside the radioactive dating of these rock layers because some partly degraded soft tissue has been found in dinosaur fossils from those layers. That is probably the key conclusion from that long article on soft tissue in dinosaur fossils.

Some other topics covered there include the dinosaur-bird connection, the significance of trace indications of DNA, and Mary Schweitzer’s views on this controversy. She happens to be a devout evangelical Christian, who weathers defamatory emails from her young-earth brethren. She seems to handle that with grace, and finds that her view of the Creator has been enriched, not diminished, as she learns more about the complexities of the natural world.

The main driver for folks to hold to a young earth perspective is that they have been taught that this is the only faithful way to handle the Bible creation story. However, that is not the case:   the Reasons to Believe site here lists about 40 well-known, impeccably conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield. Billy Graham wrote, I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” A hermeneutical case for an old earth interpretation of Genesis is made by Reasons to Believe, and by the Christian geologists at Old Earth Ministries.

Posted in Age of Earth, Dinosaurs, Fossils | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Evidences for a Young Earth

Mainstream science holds the earth to be about 4.5 billion years old, with a surface sculpted by geologic processes such as plate tectonics and erosion and sediment deposition operating over many millions of years. In contrast, Young Earth (YE) creationism holds the earth to have been created only about 6,000 years ago, as indicated by a literal interpretation of Genesis. The worldwide Noahic Flood was responsible for laying down most of the earth’s sedimentary rock layers in the span about of one year.

Those who believe the earth to be very old can present observations such as 50,000 annual layers in lake sediments and in glacier ice cores, which appear to be incompatible with a young earth, as we  described earlier in “ Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth “.

Young Earth creationist organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research counter by presenting various evidences for a young earth. These evidences take the form of observations which, it is claimed, cannot be reconciled with long ages.

As an example of these young earth evidences, here is a slide shown by Ken Ham as part of his debate with Bill Nye in February, 2014:

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

Ken Ham slide from Bill Nye Debate Feb 2014

The claim is that the physical evidences for the processes listed in this slide are not consistent with a very old earth.   For instance, item #1 in this list refers to the claim that helium is accumulating so fast in the atmosphere that if the earth were really billions of years old, the helium level would be much higher than we see today. Item #26 claims that the amount of uranium in the oceans, given the amount of uranium being washed in by rivers, is so low that the earth cannot be more than a few million years old.  We will examine these particular claims below.

Henry Morris’s Lists of “Uniformitarian Estimates” of the Age of the Earth

Where do YE creationists come up with their lists of evidence for a young earth? Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood (1961), is widely acknowledged as the father of the modern young earth creationist movement. In the 1970’s and 1980’s he published various versions of a table titled “Uniformitarian Estimates – Age of the Earth”. This table had typically 68 to 76 entries, each one purporting to represent a physical “Process” which yielded an “Estimated Age of the Earth”.

Before diving into this list, consider the following: Lake Erie is one of several large lakes lying between the U.S. and Canada. If you divide the volume of the lake by the volumetric flow of all the rivers entering it, you come up with 2.6 years as the average residence time of water in the lake. In other words, if Lake Erie was initially a big empty hole in the ground, and its tributaries suddenly began flowing into it, it would take 2.6 years to fill it to its present size. Does this mean that Lake Erie has only existed for 2.6 years? Of course not: there is an outlet (the Niagara River) that balances the water that is entering Lake Erie, so the lake has existed in its present form for thousands of years with the water at roughly the same level as today.  It would be absurd to ignore the outlet from the lake, and to insist that Lake Erie cannot not be more than 2.6 years old since it has not yet overflowed its basin. As we shall see, this type of absurd reasoning underlies many of the items in Morris’s table.

One version of the Henry Morris “Uniformitarian Estimates” table with 76 entries is here, as part of an article by Morris describing his methodology.   Another Morris table with 70 entries is here . Here are the first 17 and the last 11 entries from that table (we skip the middle entries for compactness):

Uniformitarian Est Age Earth Table Part 1 Uniformitarian Est Age Earth Table Part 2

Morris claims that these estimates of the maximum age of the earth all are much less than the 4.5 billion years posited by mainstream science, and thus the earth cannot be as old as the scientists say.

Misrepresenting Elements Dissolved in the Ocean

Nearly half of these “Uniformitarian Estimates” deal with influx of elements to the ocean. These “Estimates” are all utterly bogus. The numbers cited here are simply the amount of each element in the ocean divided by the current influx rate of that element, i.e. the residence time. As with the 2.6 year residence time of the water in Lake Erie, this says nothing about the age of the ocean. Morris is assuming that there is no mechanism of removal of these elements from the ocean, so that (for instance) the current level of strontium would build up (starting from zero) in a mere 19 million (not 4.5 billion) years. But this assumption of no removal of the elements is dead wrong.  The rates of removal of most of the elements from the ocean water by various types of deposition in the ocean sediments is in well-understood, and matches the rates of their influx via rivers within experimental accuracy. This can be seen easily with the 100-year residency of aluminum and the 140-year residency of iron (entry 60 in the table excerpt above). Clearly, there are processes by which iron and aluminum are being removed from the water column, since their seawater concentrations are NOT doubling every century. The figure below illustrates what Morris omitted:

Elements In Out Ocean Fig

The same is true for the other elements. For instance, in the case of uranium, a 2002 study of the Holocene oceans by Dunk, et al. quantified the specific processes involved with removal of uranium from seawater (removal to oxygen-depleted sediments, incorporation into biogenic carbonate,  crustal sequestration during hydrothermal alteration and seafloor weathering, etc.), and found that that “the input and output fluxes balance within the calculated errors.”

It is gross deception to present these residency times as estimates of the maximum age of the earth. It is obvious that there are removal processes which largely balance the addition of the elements to the ocean. This has been pointed out to YE creationists for decades, but they persist in referring to these Morris tables when they wish to pad their list of young earth evidences. For instance, if you inspect Ken Ham’s slide (“HUNDREDS OF PHYSICAL PROCESSES SET LIMITS ON THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE” – shown above) from his 2014 debate with Bill Nye, you will see many known-to-be-bogus items recycled from this old Henry Morris list, including “Uranium in Sea” and “Potassium in Sea”.

In 1990, YE creationists Steven Austin and Russell Humphreys updated the YE case regarding sodium in the oceans by listing processes that both add sodium and remove sodium. They chose their lists such that the sodium additions outpaced removals, allowing them to conclude that the oceans could be no more than 62 million years old.

In 1996 Glenn Morton (who had been a YE creationist until contact with geological data forced him to change his mind) wrote Austin and Humphreys an open letter, pointing out several key sodium removal processes which they had ignored or underestimated; when those processes were included, there was a reasonably close balance between sodium addition and removal, and thus the young earth case fails. In the regular scientific literature over the past two decades, there has been on-going progress in understanding the complex oceanic life-cycle of sodium. For instance, a 2005 study by Holland  found no long-term imbalance between sodium input and removal.

Nevertheless, in 2012 Andrew Snelling of Answers in Genesis recycled the 1990 YE claims on sodium in the ocean (“Very Little Salt in the Sea”) as one of the “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth”.  Snelling declined to correct the known errors in the 1990 article, as the Age of Rocks blog revealed in a series of three articles  here, here , and here .

Declining Magnetic Field and Helium in the Atmosphere

There are many other YE claims that the YE creationists continue to press, even after they have been shown to be false. For instance, measurements of the strength of the earth’s magnetic field show that it has been decaying for the last several hundred years.  If you assume a constant rate of decline and extrapolate backwards in time, these calculations give impossibly high values by say 10,000 years ago. The claim is therefore made that the earth must be younger than that.

The key, fatal flaw in this argument is the assumption of a constant rate of decline. There is no reason to believe that the rate of change in the magnetic field a thousand years ago or ten thousand years ago was the same as observed in the last two centuries. On the contrary, there is abundant evidence  that the strength of the earth’s magnetic field fluctuates up and down with time, and even completely reverses after thousands of years.

This is illustrated below, in the form of the symmetric stripes of reversed magnetic polarity which appear on either side of a mid-ocean ridge where liquid magma is injected from the mantle below. As the magma cools and solidifies to form solid sea-floor rock, it locks in the current orientation of the earth’s magnetic field. The newly-formed sea-floor moves away on either side of the ridge like a conveyer belt, showing the matching magnetic stripes on both sides. This all has been known since the 1960’s.

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis”    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vine%E2%80%93Matthews%E2%80%93Morley_hypothesis

Seafloor Magnetic Reversals. Source: Wikipedia article “Vine–Matthews–Morley hypothesis” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vine%E2%80%93Matthews%E2%80%93Morley_hypothesis

Therefore we would expect the magnetic field to be routinely increasing or decreasing in strength at any given time, and so the recent decline is not evidence for a young earth. Nevertheless, YE creationists erroneously continue to claim that it is (e.g. item 1 in the Morris table above, and item 10 in the Ham slide). In 2012, “Rapidly Decaying Magnetic Field“  was listed by Answers in Genesis as one of the “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth”.

“Helium in the atmosphere” is item 1 in the Ham slide and item 4 in the Morris table.  A certain amount of helium enters the atmosphere every year as a product of the natural decay of uranium in crustal rocks.  If there were no mechanism for removal of helium from the atmosphere, helium would build up to very high levels over 4.5 billion years. Because the actual helium level is low, the YE creationists claim this shows the earth cannot be very old.  Again, denial of the facts is involved here. Helium is lost to outer space via ionization near the poles, and this loss balances (within experimental uncertainty) the input from uranium decay and explains the current low concentration of helium. This has been known at least since 1996 and has been forcefully pointed out to YE creationists, yet this item still appeared on Ken Ham’s list in 2014.

Out With the Old and In With the New

Although the majority of proven-to-be false arguments for a young earth are retained by YE creationists, in a few cases they have acknowledged that their arguments were incorrect and should no longer be employed. Starting in the 1950’s, YE creationists claimed that human footprints were found among dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy River valley, thus showing that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. After vigilant skeptics like Glen Kuban in the 1980’s demonstrated this to be incorrect, the Institute for Creation Research acknowledged in 1986 that the footprints there were likely not human.

Also, Answers in Genesis has advised abandoning the YE arguments that shrinkage of the sun, or the thinness of the dust layer on the moon, imply a young universe.  (This moon dust claim still resurfaces, however, among internet YE creationists). Creation Ministries International has posted a similar list of “Arguments we think creationists should NOT use“.

As I read these YE creationist retractions, it is clear that they are trying in their own minds to operate with integrity. They carefully sift the most recent evidence, and find that it does not support these particular arguments. Many of these YE authors have some scientific training, and all are devoted believers in a God who commands truthfulness in His followers. It is therefore bizarre that these authors can, in many other instances, promulgate obvious falsehoods. It appears that they are genuinely unable to perceive the vast array of evidence which militates against their young earth worldview. This is an example of the brain’s vigorous effort to avoid cognitive dissonance. This sort of confirmation bias is not a unique failing of YE creationists, but is widely observed in human behavior. As the Wikipedia article on Confirmation Bias notes,  “The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.”

(I might add that I was a YE creationist for some years, so I can honor their desire to be faithful to the Word of God despite all that the skeptics throw at them, and I sympathize with the anxiety aroused by considering that perhaps the familiar literal interpretation of Genesis is not correct. My own journey as an evangelical Christian towards finding a hermeneutical approach which comprehends the core teachings of the New Testament and also what science reveals about the history of the physical world is described here: Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 2  . )

Even as some YE evidences are formally renounced or just quietly abandoned, new YE arguments are periodically brought forth. As science marches on, there are always some observations at the leading edge of discovery which cannot immediately be accounted for within existing scientific models. YE creationists scan the academic literature and seize on such opportunities to proclaim the failure of old earth science. In most cases, however, it doesn’t take long for scientists to discern how these new discoveries fit seamlessly into the web of natural laws which have been operating for billions of years. Then the YE creationists have the option of deceitfully continuing to claim there is a problem, or abandoning that claim and moving on to some other new, unexplained observation.

Polonium Halos and Folded Rocks

Polonium Halos

For instance, in the late 1970’s YE creationist Robert Gentry claimed that “polonium halos” were inexplicable within an old earth framework. Polonium halos are tiny concentric spheres of coloration in rocks, which seem to result from the radioactive decay of a bit of polonium which was concentrated in that spot. These halos are often found in granite. The apparent dilemma for an old earth is this: in conventional scientific understanding, it takes granite many thousands of years to crystalize from liquid magma. But polonium decays so rapidly that it is essentially gone in a few years. So if there was some polonium in the magma, it would be gone long before the granite solidified enough to register the effects of the polonium decay in the form of halos. Gentry elaborated his views in his 1986 book Creation’s Tiny Mystery, claiming that these halos proved that solid Precambrian granite was formed instantaneously by God on the first Day of creation, with little bits of polonium which decayed in place in a few days or months.

Polonium halos actually did have scientists flummoxed for a few years, and of course the YE creationists were jubilant. In 1988, however, it was noted that some of the granites in which Gentry found polonium halos were formed from magma intrusions into sedimentary rocks. Sedimentary rocks result from processes of erosion and deposition which could only take place after the original Creation. This means that these intrusive granites which contained the halos could not possibly be “primordial creation rocks”. In YE creationist geology, these particular granites must be younger than the Flood.

More recent studies have explained these halos in terms of conventional science by noting that polonium and other radioactive decay intermediates are continually produced from the slow decay of uranium in granite, and so radioactive precursor elements can migrate along microscopic cracks in solidified rocks, and accumulate in one spot long enough for the decay process to produce a halo. Although Gentry himself has never recanted, this evidence has been conclusive enough that most YE creationists have backed away from Gentry’s claims for polonium halos.

Folded Rocks

Another one of Answers in Genesis’s “10 Best Evidences From Science That Confirm a Young Earth” are “Bent Rock Layers”. In this article Andrew Snelling shows photos of bent sedimentary rock layers like this:

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon.  Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source: https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/2-bent-rock-layers/

Folded Tapeats Sandstone in Carbon Canyon. Photo by Andrew Snelling. Source: https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/2-bent-rock-layers/

Snelling states that these layers could only have been thus deformed if they were still in a soft, unconsolidated state immediately following their deposition during the Flood. As Snelling has stated elsewhere,“When solid, hard rock is bent (or folded) it invariably fractures and breaks because it is brittle. Rock will bend only if it is still soft and pliable”.

The uninformed layman may be impressed by this argument, but it is shameful for a PhD geologist like Snelling to make this claim. Obviously, solid rocks at atmospheric pressure and temperature will fracture if you try to bend them. But every geologist knows that since the 1960s geophysicists have been able to attain high temperatures and high pressures in the laboratory which mimic conditions several miles deep in the earth, and have demonstrated that at these conditions and with slow deformation, rocks can easily bend without major fracturing. Here is a picture of this sort of laboratory rock-deforming apparatus:

Rock Deform Apparatus -Pamela Burnley

Source: High Pressure Deformation Experiments   by Pamela C. Burnley

Sedimentary rocks like sandstone and limestone are not fully-densified ceramics, but retain microscopic porosity (this is why they can serve as petroleum reservoirs). These rocks consist of grains bound by tiny, imperfect crystals of materials like calcite or silica. With time, temperature, and the presence of water in the pores, the weaker cementing material can dissolve at pressure points and recrystallize, allowing the main grains to shift past each other during deformation. The high pressure deep in the earth suppresses the formation of major cracks as the rock deforms.  So these bent rock layers are no evidence of a young earth. Age of Rocks has two detailed articles on rock-bending, in 2011 and in 2014, in response to Snelling’s claims.

 On-Line Resources To Assess Young Earth Evidences

Hopefully the sampling above suffices to illustrate the quality of the evidence proffered on behalf of the young earth viewpoint. It would be tedious here to grind through all the hundred or so current YE evidences. Although every one of them can be shown to be false, it takes some time in each case to give the necessary background and then to do the debunking. Thus, in a debate format a YE advocate can spew forth dozens of these claims (e.g. with the Ken Ham debate slide above) much faster than a scientist can possibly refute them in the allotted time.

Lists of young earth evidence have been around for many decades. This has given old earth proponents ample time to respond, explaining why these arguments for a young earth are based on incomplete or false information.  The TalkOrigins Archive has been present on the internet since 1995, providing detailed answers to most of these young earth claims. You can use the Search facility within that site to locate answers to the majority of YE claims.

New articles on TalkOrigins  have tapered off since about 2008, but other web sites have continued providing current critical assessments of YE evidences. These include old-earth evangelical Christian sites such as  Old Earth Ministries  ,  Age of Rocks  ,  GodAndScience  ,  the American Scientific Affiliation  , and Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe  . The secular RationalWiki site has a section devoted to answering all 101 evidences for a young earth and universe presented by Don Batten of  Creation Ministries International.

The reader is encouraged to evaluate the old earth explanations given on these sites, as compared to the original young earth articles to which they refer.

Posted in Age of Earth | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution

On October 27, Pope Francis inaugurated a bronze bust in honor of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and gave a talk to the assembled members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. After saying some nice things about Benedict, Francis spoke about science and faith.

The sound bites that got picked up by the press were mainly these:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything. However, it was not like that.  He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive at their fullness of being.   He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all things.

And:

The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature is not opposed to the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

Pope Evol Speech Oct2014

These quotes by Francis were rightly taken as support of modern cosmology and of evolution. He also noted a distinction between humans and the rest of creation:

With regard to man, however, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy that is different from that of nature, which is freedom.

With privilege comes responsibility; on some level God holds man responsible for managing the rest of creation, so man is called to use his faculties to do good science in the service of all humanity:

…this makes him responsible for creation, so that he might steward it in order to develop it until the end of time.   Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature.   But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator.       Then, although limited, man’s action participates in the power of God and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons.  This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity.

A less polished English version of his whole speech is given here.  You can watch about a minute of this talk (in Italian, with English subtitles) here.

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century

This speech was not a radical departure from previous Catholic teachings. The Roman Catholic church has cautiously endorsed Big Bang cosmology and evolution for many decades. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical of 1950, Humani Generis, took a neutral position on human evolution:

The Church does not forbid that … research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.

However, an individual Adam was stipulated as the progenitor of the whole human race. This is not really compatible with normal evolution, which operates on whole populations.   We know from the study of human genomes that there was never a time in the lineage of Homo sapiens when it bottlenecked down to just one man and one woman.

Pope John Paul II gave a more robust endorsement of evolution. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, he referred to developments in science in the decades since Pope Pius’s encyclical:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

While acknowledging the weight of evidence (“more than a hypothesis”) in favor of the physical evolution of living beings, John Paul critiqued the reductionistic view of humans which flows from purely materialistic world-views:

The theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

John Paul distinguished among different approaches in the study of what it means to be human. While acknowledging the value of detailed physical observations, he noted that philosophical reflection is needed to analyze the bigger questions:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

Of Catholics and Protestants

The Roman Catholic church got off to a bad start at the dawn of the scientific era with burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 (mainly for dodgy theology, but that was partly tied to his scientific view of an infinite universe containing other worlds), and then with forcing Galileo to abjure the heliocentric system under threat of imprisonment or worse. The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma.

In the 1500’s, the reformer John Calvin wrote that, in the Genesis creation narrative, God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on Biblical pronouncements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.

Four centuries later, the tables have turned: the Roman Catholic magisterium is fully cognizant of the physical evidence for the long history of life and of the universe, while the most fervent Protestants are mired in denial of reality, in the forms of young earth creationism and anti-evolution Intelligent Design.

Posted in Evolution, Natural Theology | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Biology Professor Brags About Bullying Religious Students

An Astrophysicist Declaims on Religion

In the opening lecture for his course in cosmology, Professor Gordon Smalley at Mooretown State University routinely includes the following speech:

And now, it is time to share with you The Talk about how atheism and astrophysics get along. More to the point, how they don’t. Some folks believe that religious beliefs and science can be maintained as separate spheres, as “non-overlapping magisteria.” However, these magisteria are not nearly as non-overlapping as some of you might wish.

Theism is comfortable with the sudden creation of the universe. However, a pillar of atheism for centuries has been the notion that the material universe has always existed – – that the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there will ever be. This belief dates back at least to 400 B.C. with the atomistic theory of Democritus, and was carried forward by other classical philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it did appear that the universe was a closed mechanical system which had been going on forever. The discoveries of the twentieth century, however, smashed that static picture and sent atheists reeling. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1916, implied that the universe was not static and eternal, but either  expanding or collapsing. To try to maintain an eternally-old universe, Einstein added an arbitrary cosmological constant, which he later admitted to be his “biggest blunder.”

In the 1920’s, Edwin Hubble observed that the light from more-distant galaxies was “red-shifted” to longer wavelengths, indicating that galaxies are all moving away from each other. Georges Lemaitre took these findings as evidence that the universe was expanding from a tiny initial point, which came into being at a point in time some billions of years earlier. This was resoundingly confirmed by the discovery in 1964 of cosmic background radiation predicted by this “Big Bang” theory.

The sudden creation of our entire universe suggests the agency of a very powerful something or someone existing beyond our space-time world. Non-theists have been driven to varying degrees of desperation in order to maintain an eternal, uncreated cosmos. Fred Hoyle maintained a steady-state universe, long after the evidence had turned against it. Bondi and Gold proposed an infinitely-old expanding universe, with matter continually being created out of nothing. Several oscillating universe models have been proposed, involving an endless series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches.  These models all fail, for reasons we shall discuss. Stephen Hawking has tried to obviate a Creator by formulating the Beginning in imaginary numbers, in order to paper over the singularity there. This is merely sleight of hand, since in the real world, in real time, that embarrassing singularity remains.

A few of his students shift uncomfortably in their seats, but he continues:

Today’s atheists largely cling to the notion of an eternal “multiverse”, which burps out an infinite number of expanding universes. While this is consistent with some fashionable physics theories, these parallel universes are inherently undetectable, so believing in them is an act of raw faith.

Moving from desperation to prevarication, we have the spectacle of Lawrence Krauss on the book and lecture circuit, proclaiming 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.”

Although you atheists don’t have to discard your beliefs in order to inform yourselves about cosmology (or even to pass my course), if you insist on retaining and respecting both, you will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.

“Wait a minute!” you may say, “Is that a fair representation of atheist views of cosmology?”  Or, “Why is an astrophysics professor attacking students’ religious beliefs?” Or, “There must be some mistake; this abuse of professorial power does not really happen!” Or, “I’m going to call an advocacy group to put a stop to this!”

A Biologist Declaims on Religion

The example above is fictional, but the scenario below is not. University of Washington biology professor David Barash recently published an Op Ed in the New York Times, “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”, in which he describes how he bullies the religious students in his classes in the same manner as the contrived Professor Smalley above. Here are some excerpts:

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

…There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values… If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms …But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of [my students] might wish.

…As evolutionary science has progressed… it has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God…. A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on

Barash is annoyed that most of his academic colleagues, like Gould, believe that there is no fundamental conflict between science and religion. He fails to mention that far more eminent scientists than he, such as chemist Henry Schaefer and geneticist Francis Collins, are evangelical Christians. Perhaps the looniest paragraph in his essay is:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

The last sentence is completely delusional. What are the “mental gymnastic routines” which “science” is being asked to do here? Is Professor Gould asking that biologists withhold experimental data which might offend religious sensibilities? Are pastors coming to Professor Barash and asking him to do their thinking for them and provide a theodicy?

In a moment, I will note that his “demolitions” of religion are illusory. But a more basic issue is, why is Barash ranting on theological matters in a biology classroom? As a biologist, he has no special metaphysical insights. He is merely spouting his opinion and using his position of power to cram his religious views down the throats of his students. If they wanted to hear a professor hold forth on theodicy, they would have signed up for a philosophy or theology course.

Obviously there are some students who disagree with him, “shifting uncomfortably in their seats”, but they will not dare challenge the master blowhard in his domain. This is hardly the stuff of liberal education. Among his reviews at Rate My Professors we find this acknowledgement that he does indeed push an atheist agenda in class, from a student who seems to find it entertaining:

He is definitely an atheist and has an agenda to push, but he has some great points and is overall interesting.

Other students are less amused:

…Does not have any sympathy for any other beliefs and tries to throw dirt on those who believe in anything other than his “marvelous” theories.

and

He has a clear agenda to push, as he’s always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn’t exist and requires his books as reading but are useless.

University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne is an atheist who takes every legitimate opportunity to trash theism. However, even he recognizes that what Barash is doing is not legitimate. While Coyne agrees with the content of Barash’s talk, he writes:

…There’s one thing about his piece that bothers me: Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university….

But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?

The Crude Ideas blogger is more pointed in his critique:

My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.

Then David Barash should be fired.

 More than that: David Barash’s firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.

Both Coyne and Crude point out that if Barash is allowed to present his arguments against religion in science classrooms, then surely Intelligent Design proponents, or more credible theists, should be allowed to present their arguments for religion in those same science classrooms. However, if Intelligent Design or anthropic fine-tuning is discussed favorably by a college science instructor, a lawsuit is often filed against him, or he may face dismissal, denial of tenure, or other harassment. A number of cases could be cited here.  On the other hand, in recent years I am not aware of atheist professors being reined in from pushing their views on students. There appears to be a double standard in academe.

Assessing Barash’s Claims That Evolution Has Demolished Pillars of Faith

We now turn to the three devastating blows to traditional religion delivered by evolution to traditional religion, according to Barash.

(1) Defeat of the Argument from Complexity

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

(2) Dispelling the Illusion That Humans Are Not Part of the Natural World

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

These are examples of debating trickery, of putting up weak “straw man” versions of your opponent’s position and then knocking them down. Most scholarly theologians long ago forsook the God-of-the-gaps argument exemplified by Paley and by today’s Intelligent Design proponents. For example, while in a Nazi prison in 1944, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of “…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

The Roman Catholic Church, representing some 1.2 billion Christians, has been on board with evolution for decades. In Christian Belief in a Postmodern World Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen explained why inserting God into physical gaps is not only bad science, but bad theology: “This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.”

As we have learned more about the nature of the universe, our appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation has increased, not decreased. What seems like solid matter is found to be mainly empty space, a product of the interaction of probabilistic quantum fields. We now know that this universe had a creation point some 13 billion years ago, with exquisitely tailored physical constants that allow the existence of matter and life, including the intricate story of evolution. More glory for the Creator: A billiard player who can rack up the balls up at the start, give one mighty crack of the cue, and have all the balls ricochet around and then sink in order is far more impressive than the player who works by sinking the balls one at a time.

Barash claims this evolutionary process to be “undirected”, but his biology lab has no instruments for detecting “directedness”. That claim is metaphysical speculation, unconnected to physical science.

Dialing back to New Testament times, Jesus himself stated that “no miraculous sign” would be given to skeptics, apart from his resurrection. An implication of this statement is that the fabric of operations of the physical universe will appear to be seamless. Thus, thoughtful Christians would expect that the development of organisms will occur in conformance with natural regularities.

But Barash ignores this serious theistic position on creation, and instead bashes the uninformed type of design argument held by many lay folk who have been misinformed by the Young Earth creationist and Intelligent Design organizations. In this view, naturalistic processes cannot account for the development of today’s diverse life-forms from primeval cells, and so God (or a comparably capable Intelligent Agent) may be invoked to fill in this apparent gap. Barash is correct that the findings of evolutionary science show this argument to be untenable. But, as explained above, the God-of-the-gaps design argument is not a “potent pillar of religious faith” for most educated theists in the West.

Similarly, the finding of evolutionary science that humans are physically related to other species does nothing to threaten belief in God. All it threatens is the simplistic interpretation of the Genesis narrative which was known from geology by 1840 to be incorrect. Humans were categorized by classical philosophers and Christian scholastics as “animals”, long before modern science. The “image of God” in humans was not thought to be located in some alternate bodily metabolic pathway which could be discoverable by biologists. Human exceptionalism is alive and well, though of course its boundaries shift with time as our knowledge grows of humans and other animals. No other species, for instance, has been observed to write Times op-eds.

Barash’s announcement that, “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens” is just silly. Christians who reflect on the rationality of nature and on Jesus’ saying about “no signs” were not expecting some supernatural trait to be exhibited in humans. Even if some rare miracles did occur in the human body or brain, they would fall outside the sphere of detection of science, which is concerned with repeatable regularities.

(3) The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Barash’s third big blow against religion is:

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

This, too, is ridiculous. Theists have known about “predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death” for thousands of years before Darwin. Evolution adds nothing of significance here. Modern science tells us merely that this state of affairs has been going on for millions, not thousands of years.

So, how does a theist cope with the suffering that is “built into the nature of things”? On one level, it is elementary: From the propositions (a) that God is all-good and (b) that God is all-powerful, it is straightforward to infer that He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil and suffering that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. So the alleged “problem of evil” poses no logical challenge to theism at all.

Unbelievers may complain that God has not explained His purposes to their personal satisfaction, or they may try to embarrass theism by calling attention to particularly distressing instances of suffering, but that is emotional propaganda, not rational argument.

This intellectual resolution does not, of course, experientially remove our suffering and our distress over the pain of others. Pain still hurts. That said, for the believer it is comforting and centering to know that beneath all the random, scary, and painful events of life run the good purposes of Almighty God.

The extent to which God is revealed in the natural world is discussed at length in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology . Without trying to summarize that whole article, it is worth noting that in the New Testament perspective this physical world is indeed a place of seemingly unmerited suffering, where nice things and nasty things happen to good people and to evil people with about the same probability. However, all the experiences in this world, which press so heavily on our current perception, are like a blink of an eye or a puff of vapor compared to the intensity and duration of the afterlife.

Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity. If a man chooses to cut 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.

Posted in Evolution, Natural Theology | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth

The age of the earth is important in framing an interpretation of the early chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 describes the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the formation of earth’s life forms, in six “days”, which were demarcated by “evening and morning”.

Early Christian writers held various opinions on the length of these days. Some (e.g. Basil) believed them to be 24-hour days, some (e.g. Cyprian) held them to be 1000-year periods, others (e.g. Origen) to be allegorical only, while Augustine opined that it was difficult to be sure about what the “days” of Genesis actually were.

Today’s Young Earth (YE) creationists typically take them to be normal 24-hour days, and also take the genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible to be literal and exhaustive representations of post-creation chronology. This leads to a Creation about 6000 years ago, with nearly all the observed sedimentary rock layers deposited in a 1-year Flood about 4500 years ago (~2500 B.C.).

Bible literalists often claim that a recent creation and Fall of a literal, sinless Adam and Eve is essential for the Christian gospel. That assertion is not remotely true. Nowhere in Jesus’ teachings or in the apostolic preaching in Acts is the Fall ever mentioned, and Paul develops his doctrine of the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 quite apart from Adam. (See here for more on Adam and the Fall and evolution).

When young Christians are taught that a young earth is an essential part of Christianity, this can and does cause some of them to lose their faith when they later encounter the evidence for an old earth in geology or biology classes. Thus, we should be cautious about asserting that one Bible interpretation is the only valid approach.

Other Christian viewpoints are compatible with the ancient earth which science reveals. Old Earth (OE) creationists are willing to accept that the earth is billions of years old. They often take a flexible approach to interpreting the verses of Genesis 1-3, trying to identify the “days” with various epochs of geological history (“Day-Age” approach). Other Old Earth interpreters suggest that the six “days” of Genesis 1 are not 24-hours days when creation actually took place. Rather, they are six successive days when God showed visions to Adam or Moses of what happened long before in creation. Another suggestion is that these “days” reveal six groups of divine creation proclamations (“let…”), while the outworking of those proclamations occurred sometime later, possibly through natural means.

The Reasons to Believe site lists about 40 well-known, impeccably conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield. Ditto for John Piper.

Evolutionary creationists, sometimes called theistic evolutionists, believe the earth is old and also accept that God used macroevolution to bring about today’s living creatures. They recognize that in the Bible God often used stories which were not necessarily true to communicate spiritual truths.  Thus, the Genesis narrative may function much like the parables of Jesus, or the story that Nathan told David about the poor man’s lamb. Essentially all Roman Catholics, and nearly all evangelical Protestants who are practicing geologists or biologists, are evolutionary creationists.

Advocates on both sides of the age issue present long lists of physical evidence. Here I will mention a few that are relatively straightforward, not requiring scientific training to understand.

Angular Unconformities

There are many spots on earth where you can observe rock layers with this sort of pattern:

angular unconformity PNG

There is a lower set of rock layers, often steeply tilted, overlain by an upper set of layers which meet at a different angle. This is called an angular unconformity.  A classic example of an angular unconformity is at Siccar Point, in Scotland:

Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

This shows the erosional interface between steeply tilted layers of “greywacke” rock, topped by nearly horizontal layers of conglomerate and the distinctive Old Red Sandstone. By 1800, European geologists had realized that this sort of formation required the following sequence of events:

(1) Thousands of feet of sediment accumulated underwater to form what we now see as the greywacke. Even more sediment was laid down on top of that, to compress and cook it to form solid rock layers. Such sediments typically derive from the weathering of pre-existing rocks on land, so it would take many years to produce all the sediments we see in the rock layers around us.

(2) This whole assembly was tilted and raised above sea level.

(3) Hundreds of feet (meters) of solid rock were eroded away to form the top surface of the greywacke that we now see as the unconformity. We know the greywacke was solid (not just recent, soft flood deposits), because broken-off chunks of the greywacke are found in the conglomerate layer just above it.

(4) The greywacke then sank below the waters, and many more feet of sediment were deposited, starting with the conglomerate and the Old Red Sandstone, then more layers on top to lithify them.

(5) Finally, this formation was again lifted above sea level, and many feet of the overlying rock were eroded away to form the present land surface in that area of Scotland.

All of these events cannot be fitted into a one-year Flood, or any reasonable reconstruction of a 6000-year-old earth.

In some cases, there is an erosional surface between two rock layers (e.g. C and D, in the figure below) which are nearly horizontal:

NonAng Unconformity FIg

Because both all layers are flat, it may not be immediately obvious that there was a time gap between their depositions, so geologists have to look closer for more clues. Often, the presence of hard, loose pebbles of a lower layer (“Layer C”, here) embedded in valleys at the C-D interface demonstrates that the lower layer had hardened into solid rock and then was eroded prior to deposition of the upper layer. Thus, such a location must have gone through the same cycles of deposition/ lithification/ uplift/ erosion/ subsidence/ deposition/ lithification/ uplift/erosion as with an angular conformity.

In places, two or more unconformities are found among successive layers, making it extra clear that these layers were not laid down in a single, year-long Flood. For instance, in the Grand Canyon, at least three distinct disconformities are found among the main visible horizontal layers, along with a dramatic angular unconformity at the base of these layers. Unconformities in the Grand Canyon rock layers are treated more thoroughly here.

If you want to stop reading now, this above is all you really need to know about the evidence for the age of the earth. There just is no reasonable way to fit these observations into a young earth scenario. On the basis of evidence like this, essentially all practicing geologists, many of them evangelical Christians, had concluded by 1840 (long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) that the earth must be at least several million years old.

However, with passing decades, more observations have confirmed the great antiquity of the earth. Some of these observations are discussed below.

Fossil Soils and Animal Burrows in the Midst of Rock Layers

In Flood geology, the main sedimentary rock layers were all laid down in a one-year Flood. Where these layers are many thousands of feet deep, the rate of deposition must have been very high.  Arguably the sea level may have sloshed back and forth, occasionally exposing the surface of the sediments and leading to variable deposition rates, but something like a foot an hour would be a typical average rate for the Flood year in many areas of North America. That leaves no time for deep soils to build up from rock weathering in the middle of Flood deposits (i.e. in the middle of the Flood year), or for terrestrial animals to dig deep burrows in that soil.

Yet just such soils and burrows are found in the midst of thousands of feet of sedimentary rock layers (see here, here,  and here). Such ancient, buried soils are called “paleosols.”  Here is an example of a well-developed paleosol (the brownish layer across the middle of the photo) in the Morrison formation which dates to about 150 million years ago and is centered in Colorado and Wyoming.  In this layer are whitish fossilized burrows made by vertebrates. All this simply could not happen under the raging sea while many feet per day of sediment are raining down, and thus the existence of these paleosols and burrows invalidate the notion that the sedimentary rock layers were deposited during a recent worldwide Flood.

Source: Radiometric Dating, Paleosols and the Geologic Column: Three strikes against Young Earth Creationism”, by Joe Meert

Source: Radiometric Dating, Paleosols and the Geologic Column: Three strikes against Young Earth Creationism”, by Joe Meert

As with the unconformities described above, only a long sequence of events can account for this formation. Again, thousands of feet of sediments were deposited, covered by more sediments, to turn them into rock. Then this formation was lifted above sea level by plate tectonic motion (which we now know to be huge, over time), and the rocks eroded down. Erosion formed a layer of soil, and some animals lived there and dug burrows. Later this area got covered with water again, and more thousands of feet of sediment were deposited, and eventually turned to rock. Once again, this area was raised out of the sea and the solid rock eroded down to the present level.

Massive Salt Deposits in the Midst of Rock Layers

In many locations (see map below) there are huge salt deposits, hundreds or thousands of feet thick, laying under thousands of feet of sediment. These salt deposits were formed over many thousands of years, from the evaporation of shallow coastal lagoons or of vast inland seas. These evaporations occurred after the deposition of lower rock layers, and before the deposition of further rock layers above. This could not happen in the middle of a year-long Flood.

Map showing location and age of some of major basinwide evaporite deposits, from “Evaporite basins with emphasis on the Permian Zechstein” by Kristin Börner

Map showing location and age of some of major basinwide evaporite deposits, from “Evaporite basins with emphasis on the Permian Zechstein” by Kristin Börner

Thick Limestone Layers, Caves, and Fossil Reefs Among the Rock Layers

Limestones are deposited by the slow raining down of shelly organisms as they live and die, in a mainly clear body of water where sand and mud sediments are not being brought in to commingle with the animal shells. For instance, limestone formations are depositing in some areas of the Caribbean, where there are no major continental rivers dumping sand or silt into the ocean nearby. In many areas of the earth, in the midst of other rock layers, there are over a thousand feet of limestone deposits. These limestones would require many years to form, in relatively clear, calm waters. They could not have been deposited in the midst of a raging, worldwide Flood.

After the shelly remains have has been consolidated into limestone rock, and that rock has been raised by tectonic forces above sea level, slightly acidic (freshwater) rain from the atmosphere can seep into it and erode channels and large caves. Sometimes these caves reach up to the land surface, which then collapses into the cave to form a sinkhole. Such cave formations are found by geologists with hundreds of feet of sedimentary rock layers above and below them. This all takes many thousands of years to happen, and could not occur in middle of a year-long global Flood. For instance, Davis Young writes of the Redwall Limestone, which is near the middle of the Grand Canyon rock layers:

Still another indication that the Redwall was exposed to the atmosphere for a lengthy period of time – far more than a year – is the existence of caverns beneath, and of sinkholes in, its upper surface. The caverns and sinkholes are commonly filled with red shales from the overlying Supai Group or with angular blocks of fragmented Redwall.     [Davis A. Young, Portraits of Creation, ed. H.J. Van Till, et al., Wm. B. Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids (1990), pp.68-69.]

The sustained growth rate of a coral reef is about 8 mm or 0.3 inch per year. The Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific is over 1380 meters or 4600 feet ( =55, 000 inches) deep, so it is at least 180,000 years old, and probably much older. Its features show that this atoll is indeed grown-in-place coral, not (as argued by YE creationists) the result of some Flood deposition.

Geologists have discovered many fossilized reefs deep down among the sedimentary rock layers. The porous nature of these fossil reefs makes them important reservoir rock in oil fields.  Daniel Wonderly, after discussing the modern Eniwetok Atoll,  describes   a set of fossil reefs over 800 ft thick, which lie among thousands of feet of other sediments in a Canadian oil field. In the YE creation model, these reefs lie among sedimentary layers laid down by Noah’s Flood, but it is not possible for thick coral reefs to grow in the middle of year-long Flood.

Tens of Thousands of Annual Layers (“Varves”) in Lake Bed Sediments

In some lakes in northern latitudes, there are patterns of light and dark layers of sediment. Analyses of their composition (e.g. pollen from nearby terrestrial plants in bloom, and carbonate from tiny shelly organisms) establish that each pair of layers corresponds to the passage of the seasons of one year. In one lake near Interlaken in Switzerland, these layers can be traced back undisturbed at least 9,400 years.

Lake Suigetsu in Japan is an ideal locale for annual varves, being sheltered from storms and from gross river deposits. The varves in Lake Suigetsu have been counted to more than 60,000 years ago. As described by Natural Historian these varves have been cross-correlated with carbon-14 dating, and by dating of ash-falls from known, ancient volcanic eruptions, which confirm their yearly nature. The figure below is drawn by Davidson and Wolgemuth, and shows agreement between the carbon-14 dating of the varves sediments taken from two different lakes, and the carbon-14 dating of the annual growth rings in the trunks of ancient trees.  Their caption on this figure reads:

Tree-ring number (solid line) and varve number (circles) vs. measured  carbon-14. Varves less than 5000 are from Steel Lake, Minnesota; varves greater than 5000 are from Lake Suigetsu, Japan.

  “Measured carbon-14” is shown as the natural log of the carbon-14 activity. Vertical bars represent the magnitude of uncertainty in the measured value. Data comes from references in footnotes 6 and 7.

Source: Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, “Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood: Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology”, essay at Biologos.org.

Source: Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, “Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood:
Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology”, essay at Biologos.org.

The data from growth rings in tree trunks in this graph extends back more than 10,000 years, and serves as confirmation of the overall soundness of carbon-14 dating, and also as a means to estimate ancient atmospheric carbon-14 levels to make minor calibration corrections to the carbon-14 dating.

These varves were laid down in relatively undisturbed lakes, and thus invalidate the notion of a raging worldwide flood which occurred in 2500 B.C. YE advocates have no valid response to this. They attempt to point to examples of some other lakes where storms or other factors caused more than one pair of light/dark layers being deposited in a year, but this is irrelevant. Geologists are well able to distinguish annual layering from storm layers using a variety of tests, and the analyses of the layers in Interlaken and Lake Suigetsu clearly show them to be annual.

The figure below shows the difference between random storm varves (on left) from Lake Walensee in Switzerland, and the regular laminations seen in yearly varves from Lake Zurich.

Source: From A. Lambert and H. J. Hsu, Sedimentology, Volume 26, Issue 3,  pages 453–461, June 1979.  Posted on-line at http://glennmortonspages.wikispaces.com, “Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look”.

Source: From A. Lambert and H. J. Hsu, Sedimentology, Volume 26, Issue 3, pages 453–461, June 1979. Posted on-line at http://glennmortonspages.wikispaces.com, “Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look”.

Hundreds of Thousands of Annual Layers in Arctic and Antarctic Ice Cores

Cores of ice, hundreds of feet long, have been drilled out of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Summer/winter layering can be discerned in them. The GISP2 core from Greenland has been counted back at least 110,000 years, using the corroboration of two to three independent methods. Antarctic cores go back more than 400,000 years, quite undisturbed by any world-wide Flood. At least nine different methods were used to date the layers of the Antarctic cores.

Hugh Ross comments:

How do scientists confirm that these ice layers correspond to years of Earth’s past history? They can check for telltale markers, such as volcanic ash signatures. The Krakatoa eruption of 1883 and the Vesuvius eruption that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79 left their specific marks in exactly the annual layers anticipated. Climatic cycles also allow for testing. As it turns out, these cycles-caused by regular variations in the eccentricity or ellipticity of Earth’s orbit (period = 100,000 years) and the tilt of Earth’s orbit (period = 41,000 years)-correspond perfectly with what’s seen in those core layers. Finally, researchers have performed radiometric dating of minerals embedded in the ice to make sure their age corresponds with their annual layer, and in each case it does.

For example, at the right of this photograph of a 22-inch section of a Greenland ice core is a dark brown volcanic ash layer that occurs at about 55,000 years down according to annual ice layer counting. Analysis of its contents shows it to be the same as the “Z2″ ash layer which has been widely found in Atlantic ocean floor sediments and independently dated to 55,000 years.

Volcanic Ash Layer in Ice Core Cross-Dated to 55,000 Years Old.           Source: “Synchronization of ice cores using volcanic ash layers” from Centre for Ice and Climate   at University of Copenhagen  , http://www.iceandclimate.nbi.ku.dk/research/strat_dating/synch_ice_core_rec/vol_ash_layer/

Volcanic Ash Layer in Ice Core Cross-Dated to 55,000 Years Old. Source: “Synchronization of ice cores using volcanic ash layers” from Centre for Ice and Climate at University of Copenhagen , http://www.iceandclimate.nbi.ku.dk/research/strat_dating/synch_ice_core_rec/vol_ash_layer/

YE creationists argue that these are not really annual layers in the ice, but are due to a succession of storms within just a few years. The Western Geologist and Old Earth Ministries show why these arguments fail.

Some World War II era airplanes which landed on a Greenland glacier are now covered in many meters of ice. YE creationists note a discrepancy between that rate of ice accumulation, and the much slower (in terms of centimeters per year) ice accumulation in the Greenland cores. However, that difference in rates is expected: the airplanes landed near the coast, where snowfall in much higher and the glaciers flow more, whereas the cores were deliberately drilled near the center of Greenland, where the glacier does not move much and where the snowfall is lower.

Further Evidence for an Old Earth

I tried to pick out some observations above which would be clear for both scientists and non-scientists alike. There are yet other evidences that the earth is millions or billions of years old, which may require more thinking through. Some of these are described in the links below, listed roughly in order from shorter to longer articles.

How are the ages of the Earth and universe calculated?      [Biologos]   About two pages. Treats very diverse (geology and astronomy) methods to date the earth and the universe

How Do We Know the Earth is Old? (Infographic)            [Biologos]    This infogram packs brief descriptions of ten different dating methods , with lots of illustrations, into about two pages. Excellent for those who are new to this whole topic or who have short attention spans.

What evidence is there for the earth being billions of years old?  [by Russell Downs at BibleQ.net]  Brief discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, answering objections raised by YE creationists.

Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood: Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology – – Clear, illustrated discussion of salt deposits, ordering of rock layers and fossils, tree rings, and varves, by geologists Gregg  Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth of Solid Rock Lectures.

100 Reasons the Earth Is Old – – Short, clear discussions of 100 evidences for an old earth, with illustrations. On Christian geologist’s  Age of Rocks blog.

Scientific Evidence for an Old Earth   [Reasons to Believe]  Articles include:

Deep Core Tests for the Age of the Earth

Multiple Lines of Evidence Support an Ancient Earth

The Age(s) of the Continents

Helium Diffusion in Zircon: Evidence Supports an Old Earth, Part 2 (of 2)

Radiometric Dating  A Christian Perspective – – This is a classic, in-depth discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, on ASA website.

Evidence against a recent creation  [Rationalwiki] – – covers many topics, as listed below

RationalWiki Evidence Old Earth

Posted in Age of Earth | Tagged , , | 29 Comments

A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology

OUTLINE

Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The Teachings of Paul

   Paul and the Philosophers

   Wild Times at Lystra

   Paul’s Letter to the Romans

   A Case Study in Ingratitude

   Beyond This World

   The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

Concluding Thoughts

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

Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

The modern Intelligent Design movement attempts to identify gaps in our knowledge of how the features of the natural world can be explained by ordinary physical laws. This leads to the claim that an Intelligent Designer must be invoked to account for these features.

I have earlier criticized Intelligent Design on scientific grounds, pointing out where its advocates have exaggerated the magnitude of our knowledge gaps in areas such as the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, and human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities.

Intelligent Design is also subject to question on theological grounds.  Intelligent Design proponents are, for all practical purposes, practicing natural theology by claiming that the existence of an Intelligent Agent can be inferred from the features of the biological realm. This Intelligent Agent must be eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient, or nearly so, in order to have implemented the purported design features in the genomes of organisms over the past 3 billion years. Indeed, the majority of principals at the Discovery Institute are evangelical Christians, who see this Intelligent Designer as none other than the Judeo-Christian God. Intelligent Design is a modernized version of William Paley’s 1802 teleological argument that the existence of a complex, functional entity (such as a watch found lying on the ground) implies the existence of an intelligent “artificer” who designed and formed that entity.

Natural theology involves making inferences about the existence and nature of God using reason and observations of the physical world.  This contrasts with revealed religion, where God takes the initiative to make himself known by some more direct means, e.g. through direct epiphany or by communicating propositional truths to or through humans.

In modern thought, natural theology is a branch of philosophy. Natural theology has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Its history is described in detail in this article in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  This article concludes with a summary of the status of natural theology today:

Outside neo-Thomistic circles, natural theology was generally out of favor throughout the twentieth century. Due to neo-Kantian criticisms of metaphysics, an extreme confidence in contemporary science, a revival and elaboration of Humean empiricism in the form of logical positivism, as well as existentialism among Continental thinkers, metaphysics was thought to be forever eliminated as a way of knowing or understanding truth about God (or anything at all for that matter). Natural theology was thought to have suffered the same fate as being part of metaphysics. It is fair to say that in many places metaphysics and natural theology were even held in contempt. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, however, the tide began to turn – first in favor of the possibility of metaphysics and soon afterwards to a revival of natural theology.

Natural theology today is practiced with a degree of diversity and confidence unprecedented since the late Middle Ages. Natural theologians have revived and extended arguments like Anselm’s (the so-called “perfect being theology”). They have also re-cast arguments from nature in several forms – from neo-Thomistic presentations of Aquinas’s five ways to new teleological arguments drawing upon the results of contemporary cosmology. Arguments from the reality of an objective moral order to the existence of God are circulated and taken seriously. Ethical theories that define goodness in terms of divine command are considered live options among an array of ethical theories. Discussions of divine attributes abound in books and journals devoted exclusively to purely philosophical treatments of God, for example, the journal Faith and Philosophy. Debates rage over divine causality, the extent of God’s providence, and the reality of human free choice.

A number of modern Christian thinkers, such as Karl Barth, have rejected the notion that humans are capable of coming to a genuine knowledge of God apart from God’s particular self-revelation in Jesus Christ. A Reformed blogger, Michael Bauman, recently wrote along the same lines:

Knowing God is not a matter of arriving at this or that true statement about Him, however elemental or tautological that statement might be.  That is not Biblical knowing.  In order to have Biblical knowing, you cannot substitute for its methods and content your own definition of knowing, your own methods for knowing, your own ideas about God, and still think you have knowledge of Yahweh that meets Jesus’ criteria for knowing God.  Call it whatever you wish, but Jesus does not call what you have knowing God, even if you do.  Knowing God is about relating properly, well, and intimately to a Person, as Adam knew Eve and as Joseph knew Mary…To think you know Yahweh by independent personal cogitation apart from Christ is merely pagan metaphysics masquerading as Christian theology.  It arrogantly assumes that it can span the gap between us and the transcendent God all on our own, without Immanuel, without the transcendent God becoming immanent. 

I think most Christians would agree that the mere inference of some facts about God falls far short of a proper relationship with Him. That does not mean, however, that apprehending truths about God has no value at all. For many people, reading the well-reasoned works of C. S. Lewis has been a means of opening their hearts as well as their minds to Christ. James Barr devoted his 1991 Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, to refuting Barth’s viewpoint. Barr argued that the Bible not only endorses elements of natural theology, but is heavily dependent on natural theology both in its composition and for its responsible interpretation.

Natural theology in its most rarefied philosophical sense would be out of place in the Bible, which is, after all, a book of revealed spiritual truths. However, statements do appear in the Scripture concerning how God’s character and operations are displayed in the natural order. It may be appropriate to use the term “natural revelation” rather than “natural theology”.  “Natural revelation” implies initiative and positive agency on God’s part towards self-disclosure, whereas “natural theology” is more linked to man’s efforts to comprehend matters on his terms.

While much more can and has been said on this subject, my main interest here is to examine some key Bible texts that touch upon it. These passages include two of the Psalms, Paul’s speeches in Acts 14 and 17, and the first chapter of Romans. All citations are from the New International Version.

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

The most-quoted Old Testament passage on this subject is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.  [Psalm 19:1-6]

The thought in this Psalm moves smoothly from God’s general revelation in the natural order to the special communication in His law:

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.  [Psalm 19:7-8]

According to verses 1-4, some sort of declaration or revelation regarding God’s glory and creative craftsmanship is provided by the physical skies. This revelation is not in the form of verbalized propositions, but is mediated by optical observation of whatever is visible overhead. Presumably this includes the sun, clouds, and blue expanse by day, and the moon, stars, and planets set against the black night skies of the preindustrial age. This celestial proclamation is made to all people everywhere (not just to Israel), even as the sun shines on everything under the heavens.

It is not stated exactly how this revelation works. There is no effort to demonstrate, in Greek philosophical categories, that the observation of some specific feature in the sky proves that God exists. However, it is reasonable to infer from the vastness of the heavens and successful functioning of their moving parts that their Creator and Sustainer is immensely powerful and skillful. A common human response to the glory of the heavens is awe, which in a wise person is directed towards the Creator.

However, some people will take the position that the vast universe (or multiverse) just happens to exist, as a brute, unexplained, uncreated fact.  This atheistic alternative was known to the Psalmist, who put it this way: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ “ [Ps. 14:1].

As our knowledge of the vastness of the universe has grown, simple awe at the celestial spectacle can give way to despair over how small the earth and its inhabitants seem to be in a cold, lifeless expanse.   Astronomer Owen Gingerich notes:

We are no longer in ecstasy about the beauty of creation, but we are instead crushed down by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Rather than Psalm 19, we turn to Psalm 8:3-4a.

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained;     What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

Psalm 104 is also cited in discussions of natural revelation. Here are some representative excerpts:

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. [vv. 14-15]

He made the moon to mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening. [vv.19-23]

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. [vv.24-26]

All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. [vv. 27-29]

Again, the agency of a Creator is assumed. This Creator has devised a complex, well-functioning web of being, which is indicative of his “wisdom”. He is represented as involved in an ongoing way, in what later theologians would term “providence”, in the gracious provision of food for man and beast, and even for “wine that gladdens human hearts.” Also, he seems pleased with the natural order, which includes Leviathan (possibly the crocodile) which He formed to “frolic” in the vast and teeming sea.

This Psalm does not shy away from realistically describing the full circle of life: although a species or a phylum may endure for eons, any individual animal will die and its nutrients will “return to the dust”. The lions roar and seek their prey “from God”, as part of the natural order, which is not depicted as fallen or evil.

Will a hardboiled skeptic be convinced of God’s wisdom and beneficence by observation of the complex, effective interactions of the biosphere? Generally not, for at least two reasons. First, we now know, at least in outline, how this complexity has developed from the earliest single-celled organisms, and also how the earth itself developed from supernova detritus to become a suitable habitation for life.  This does not obviate the most basic question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it does push the key creation event back by at least 13 billion years,  to the formation of an expanding space-time continuum possessing  the finely-tuned properties that would allow the existence of matter. It could go even further back, to the formation of a quantum vacuum or a multiverse from which our local universe may have sprung. The further back and more obscure the creation becomes, the harder it is to see the hand of God in it.

Second, all is not sweetness and light in the biosphere. The prey of that roaring lion experiences pain, and probably terror, in the process of being hunted and killed. As Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species (6th ed., p. 49):

Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

Thus, the case for God’s beneficence here is nuanced. This issue will be revisited below.

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The book of Job is an epic poem concerning a man who was righteous, yet had his life ruined by losing his children, his health, and most of his belongings. As he is sitting in the ashes, scraping the boils on his body, three friends come to try to help him out. They work from the then-common assumption of retributive justice: in this life, God sees to it that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Thus, Job must be guilty of some huge, hidden transgression to merit this horrible fate. Job’s friends try, for his own good, to get him to acknowledge this and to confess and forsake his sin.  Job stoutly maintains his innocence, citing his honest and benevolent dealings with everybody. Like his friends, Job believes that justice should be expected in this life, and cries out for a hearing with God so he can prove that he really is a good man who deserves better treatment.

Job eventually gets a response from God, but it is not the sort of answer he had expected. God describes at length the powerful and providential care He exercises over all aspects of the creation, including providing food for the ravens and (as in Psalm 104) for the lions, and (also as in Psalm 104) making the formidable Leviathan. This discussion is framed in the limits of ancient physical understanding. (If God had a comparable dialog with a twenty-first century accuser, it might include questions like, “Do you know when a particular uranium nucleus will spontaneously split?”, or “Where were you when I created quantum fields?”)

Job is never given an explanation of why he experienced the suffering he did. The personal encounter with God apparently gave him renewed confidence in God’s general power, competence and care, such that he no longer required a justification of his particular circumstances.

The three friends of Job were rebuked for incorrectly speaking of God – – presumably their retributive justice theme was flat-out wrong. Although at the end Job himself was restored to health and wealth, no promise is given that justice will generally be displayed in the natural order.

There are many passages in the Old Testament that foster the expectation that only good things happen to good people, but other passages show an awareness that this is not always the case. Psalm 73, for instance, goes on at great length on 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 book of Ecclesiastes is concerned entirely with natural wisdom, as opposed to special revelation. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes relies on his own wits to try to understand what happens in this world (“I devoted myself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven”) and is agnostic about what happens after death. He advocates enjoying everyday life as best we can, and not worrying about what we cannot control or understand. His teaching [3:1-8] that there is a time and a place for everything in life was the basis for the 1965 #1 hit song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together…

The Teacher believes it will somehow go better for a reverent man (8:12), and God will eventually judge every deed (3:7), but justice is not always manifest in this life:

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. [7:15]

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. This too, I say, is meaningless.   [8:14]

In fact, the affairs of life seem rather random to the natural eye:

“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (KJV: “All is vanity”)  [1:2]

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]

Although this viewpoint (“time and chance happen to them all”), is realistic and is congenial to modern evolution, it militates against trying to conclude much about God from the observation of human affairs.  As in Job, the book of Ecclesiastes stresses the limits of human understanding. Although the Teacher “increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem” [1:16], he found that “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” [8:17]

In more recent times, the philosopher Immanuel Kant has noted that, while the human mind can do a good job thinking about physics, it is simply not well-equipped to process metaphysical categories. This argues for a degree of humility as we pursue our reasoning about God and nature.

The Teachings of Paul

Paul and the Philosophers

The clearest recorded encounter of the apostle Paul with classic Greek thought is in Acts 17. It describes how Paul addressed a meeting of officials and philosophers at the Areopagus court in Athens. He was brought to this council by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who wanted to call him to account for what he was preaching. This was a tough crowd; Paul had to chip away at a whole cluster of their existing beliefs in order to clarify and justify his message. Nevertheless, he did make a few converts, including at least one member of the Areopagus itself.

In his speech, Paul begins by seeking common ground with his hearers. He notes that the Athenians were very religious, having made various objects of worship, including an altar to “An Unknown God”. Paul then proposes to teach about that God which was heretofore 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.

Given his starting point of a Creator God, Paul proceeds to build a reasonable case as to how this God should be worshipped. Most of his learned hearers could agree with him that any god or God would not be confined to a temple building; they surely did not think Athena was cooped up in the Parthenon, any more than Yahweh was localized in the Jerusalem Temple. In arguing against idolatry, Paul does not say, “God forbids that in the Torah!” Rather, as Barr notes, Paul makes a rational argument, using “the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of stone or wood, and the transcendent deity, creator of the world” to discredit idolatrous worship.

Furthermore, if God is in some sense our father, 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 immanent. God has arranged that people should seek Him, with the possibility of actually finding Him.  Paul quotes 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.”

Paul probably had most of his audience with him to this point, at least provisionally. The Epicureans believed that God needed nothing from men, and the Stoics saw God as the source of life. However, neither school believed in life after death, or in accountability to a relational God. When Paul transitioned from talking about God in general, to the particulars of Christ, the Resurrection, repentance, and final judgment, his cordial reception at this meeting was over:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council. [Acts 17:32-33]

In order to justify belief in these Christian particulars, Paul claims that God “has given proof of this to everyone by raising [Christ] from the dead.” Acts 1:3, written by a Christian for Christians, describes in some detail the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, referring to them as “infallible proofs” (Greek techmerion). 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 grounds 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.

Wild Times at Lystra

Acts 14 tells the story of Paul’s misadventure at Lystra, in what is now Turkey. After he and his travelling companion Barnabas arrived at the city, Paul’s word of faith healed a man who had been crippled from birth. The crowd erupted in a religious frenzy, shouting “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called Paul “Hermes”, because he was the chief spokesman, which made Barnabas “Zeus”.  The local priest of Zeus geared up to offer a sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, honoring them as gods. This was certainly not the response Paul was aiming at, so he and Barnabas did some quick damage control:

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” [Acts 14:14-17]

This speech is similar to Paul’s later talk in Athens, using appeals from nature and logic. The Creator of heaven and earth must be far superior to any idol or local god. This God is gracious, overlooking their prior idolatry. He has demonstrated His kindness by giving rain and crops and food and general human happiness.

With this impassioned speech, Paul and Barnabas (barely) managed to prevent these excitable people from sacrificing to them, and presumably brought a degree of further enlightenment. However, all this required the apostles’ inspired teaching regarding God and nature. Left to themselves, with only natural revelation, the locals would have remained mired in pagan idolatry.

Stephen Spencer, a skeptic regarding natural theology, comments, “Though the people of Lystra had lived their entire lives surrounded by God’s witness to himself by his generous gifts, they did not seem to have profited from it. In their natural condition, surrounded by God’s witness in the natural environment as viewed naturally, i.e., apart from Scripture, they did not affirm and worship the true God. They even misunderstood the sign-miracles and message of the servants of the true God.”

(To finish the story here: Later, the crowd in Lystra turned against them, stoned Paul, and dragged him out of the city as dead. After he revived, he got up and went back into the city and encouraged his disciples. )

Paul’s Letter to the Romans

A key passage in the New Testament regarding natural revelation is found in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In this letter Paul develops his theology of salvation via faith in Jesus Christ, rather than by carrying out works of the law. Paul starts by noting the general culpability of humans before a holy God:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. … 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

Paul makes a far-reaching claim regarding what is revealed in nature: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” As we have noted earlier, the Creator of this world must be powerful and, in some sense, very wise.

Why doesn’t everyone then worship and serve the true God? It is not that the natural revelation is objectively insufficient, but rather that people subjectively do not want to accept it. In fact, they actively “suppress the truth”, according to Paul, in order to justify their unbelief. They do not want to be accountable to their Creator. They are not epistemologically neutral; at some level, many actually hate God (Rom 1:30).

This issue of confirmation bias characterizes how humans approach most issues which have emotional overtones. I have elsewhere noted that political liberals and conservatives see issues through their own narrow lenses, and that young earth creationists are literally incapable of perceiving the evidence that shows their view is incorrect.  Everybody thinks that they themselves are fair-minded, but only a conversion-like experience can open them to see the full sweep of reality. According to Paul, unbelievers are no exception to this common conceptual failing. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Prov. 16:2).

The primal sin here is not pride or lust, but ingratitude. Failure to honor and thank the Creator leads inevitably to futile thinking and darkened hearts and so on. Humans claim to be wise but are in fact foolish as they choose to exchange the truth for a lie, and set their hearts on created things rather than the Creator.

A Case Study in Ingratitude

As I was googling references on natural theology, I ran across a 2012 blog post by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne. Coyne’s article consisted of gratuitous sneering at some religious meditations on evolution offered on the Biologos website.  What interested me more than his article were the comments on his post. At the end of his article, Coyne posed to his readership the following question:

What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?

The responses to this question form an interesting case study on how folks can express their perspectives on God and nature. Let us first consider what a fair-minded response to this question from a typical non-believer in the West might entail. At one level, the reader might respond: I don’t see any evidence of God in nature and evolution – – things just roll along with natural regularity, with no outside intervention. Fair enough.

The reader who engages the question at a deeper level (i.e. assuming for the moment that there is a Creator who is responsible for the existence of our world) would have a range of considerations, such as:

Hmm, what kind of a world do we have here? As I look out my window here, it’s pretty impressive – – trees, birds, squirrels, functioning ecosystems, all produced by evolution.

On the other hand, there is a lot of death lurking in the background – – eventual death of every individual and extinction of every species. On the other hand, these individuals and species were granted the gift of life, at least for a season; and on a finite earth, if yet more individuals are to have their day in the sun, then others must disappear and contribute their nutrients to the circle of life. It is not reasonable to expect every seed to develop into an oak tree, or every tree to live forever.

Look at all the babies born with severe genetic defects; and look at the many more babies born healthy.

I am outraged by abuse and exploitation of children, animals, and the environment, and I am appalled at all the human and animal pain and tragedies for which I see no possible justification, such as cancer and tsunamis and the holocaust.   On the other hand, as a materialist, I recognize that my visceral responses to abuse and injustice are merely emotional phenomena in my brain; there is no objective standard “out there” on which I can base moral judgment. My feeling that there is way too much suffering is nothing more than a feeling, but for me it is a very strong feeling.

That said, I personally have much to be grateful for. I have been granted the privilege of existence. I don’t have to worry if I will be able to eat tomorrow. I have access to education and to the tablet or computer on which I am reading this right now. I am aware of courageous and compassionate deeds that are done by people every day in this world. I have meaningful friends and family; these individuals exist only because the evolutionary history of the world was exactly what it was.

Thus, a fair assessment of this world shaped by evolution would include appreciation of its good and beautiful aspects, and of one’s own privileges, along with the registry of unhappiness over the amount of apparently unjustified suffering. Darwin’s closing words in The Origin of Species struck that kind of balance:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

How do the comments on Coyne’s post stack up? In the first two days after this article was published (Oct 1-2), over a hundred comments were posted. Many of these were side comments, or mini-debates on other topics like mysticism. My estimate is that about 33 of these comments represented independent, more or less direct answers to the posed question (“What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?”).

Of these 33 comments, about a quarter were fairly neutral. These replies mainly focused on the lack of discernable divine interaction.  These responses included:

Absence

None   Random mutation. Natural selection (drift, gene transfer)  Chemistry. Physics.

The rest of the comments ranged from negative to very negative. These all pointed out the aspects of death and suffering in nature, with no balancing acknowledgement of the good. Some excerpted examples here:

[God] provides for his creatures in each moment… Except when he doesn’t and he leaves them to starve to death, or die of innumerable ghastly diseases..

My avatar on this site is a good example of God’s care for his creatures. It a fossil of a Pterosaur that died apparently because it got a plant jammed through it’s lower mouth and starved.

How does God deal with the conflicting interests of a parasite, like the organism causing malaria, and its host? If God is a provider, he is like an arms dealer who supplies both sides during a war that he himself instigated.

Callousness. I think that whenever I consider Antarctica, and of the lush ecosystems it used to host, only to be slowly killed off as the land drifted ever southward.

Epic bloodlust. The flipside of Evolution is a huge pyramid of pointless death. Countless gametes, embryos, eggs, young, adults that got infected or eaten.

Surely we can see the blessed mercy of our savior in his design of cancer cells. And the AIDS virus. And birth defects, Smallpox, the Black Plague, Polio, Malaria, etc.,etc.,etc.,   Can I get a big PRAISE JEEZZUSSSS!!????

Stendahl, French playright and general polymath in the early 19th C, stated it succinctly: ’God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist’.

The prime characteristic of God that I draw from studying nature and evolution is that God is a villain in an inexplicably popular anthology of really bad ancient faery tales.

Mind-boggling cruelty and an inordinate fondness for horrible people.

In all these comments, I was unable to detect the slightest glimmer of gratitude or appreciation for anything in this world. These commenters simply expressed their underlying contempt for God. This fits the pattern of biased ingratitude described by Paul in Romans 1.

As an aside, these issues with unexplained suffering are a subset of the general “problem of evil”: How could a good and powerful God allow these distressing events? I have dealt with the intellectual problem of evil elsewhere, following Greg Bahnsen’s treatment.

The bottom line is that it is eminently reasonable to infer that an all-good and all-powerful Creator would have 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.

This addresses the problem of evil at the level of cool logic. For a treatment which integrates the intellectual and personal aspects of suffering, see “How Not to Solve the Problem of Evil” on the site of philosopher Dan Herrick.

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. Interestingly, Paul would actually 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). It bears repeating that, while the Bible claims that God’s power and wisdom are displayed in the natural order, it never claims that divine justice is likewise displayed in nature.

The second half of his own life was marked by toil, suffering, and disappointments. We described above his experience at Lystra. That was pretty typical for Paul. He was constantly being imprisoned and beaten. He shared with his friends at Corinth:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. [II Cor. 11:24-28]

What kept Paul going was the hope of a future resurrection. 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.” (15:32).

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 inhumane behavior such as crusades, jihadism, or burning widows. 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:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13: 2, 4-7, 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).

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 happened with my father before he died. As we 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. Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity.

The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul rehearses how he presented the gospel to them. This, then, serves as a window into whether Paul routinely invoked natural theology in his teachings. From I Cor. 1:

17 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. 18 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.

21 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. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And from I Cor. 2:

1…When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

14 The person without the Spirit [lit. “the natural man”] does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Paul stresses that he presented the gospel to them in a straightforward manner, with no rhetoric or flattery (cf. II Cor. 2:17). He did not pander to demands for philosophical proofs or for miraculous signs, and did not alter his message to make it seem more appealing. Some people received his 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 “foolishness”.

Paul repeatedly distances himself from relying on natural reasoning to support his message to the Corinthians.  This would seem to rule out classic natural theology altogether. This seems quite different from his approach to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17. This may in part reflect a different audience. Paul consciously tailored his style to his hearers (I Cor. 9:22). Corinth was a bustling port city, where sailors and former courtesans would likely outnumber cultured aristocrats in his flock. Paul reminds them (I Cor. 1:26), “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”

At first blush this seems like raw fideism: “Don’t think or ask for reasons, just believe what I say!” However, Paul does allude to other grounds of faith for the Corinthians. In 2:4-5 he notes that his message came “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” This was not merely forceful preaching. From II Cor. 12:12 we learn that Paul demonstrated among them “the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.” He could not write thus to the Corinthians and maintain his credibility  unless they had in fact experienced notable miracles under his ministry.

In the accounts in Acts, healing miracles were a hallmark of Paul’s evangelistic method. Indeed, this sort of supernatural activity continued among the Corinthians even in Paul’s absence. Chapters 12 and 14 of I Corinthians are devoted to the regulation of spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing, and even “workings of miracles.” Paul notes in passing that the utterances of the prophets in the Corinthian church were so insightful that they could serve as evidence to unbelievers: “But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ “ (I Cor. 14:24-25).

Towards the end of this epistle Paul circles back to how he first shared the gospel with the Corinthians. In I Cor. 15:1-7 he writes:

 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, 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, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Here Paul is engaging in classic evidential apologetics, building a case for the Resurrection by citing the testimony of eyewitnesses, such as Peter (“Cephas”) and James, the brother of Jesus. We know from Gal. 1:18-19 that Peter met with these two apostles within just a few years of the Resurrection, so this would all be vivid and real in his mind as he shared his faith with others. For us, two thousand years later, the Resurrection is an event of ancient history, albeit an exceedingly well-documented event as ancient history goes.

Paul mentioned two main types of divine intervention in the physical world, namely, the appearance, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and healing miracles. These interactions have to do with particular people at particular times, not with general cosmological speculation. The Spirit’s inner confirmation of the truth of the gospel message is probably the most critical “intervention” for an individual to come to faith, but that would be considered supernatural, not natural revelation.

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

I have collected about ten pages of excerpts from some of the earliest (c. 100-200 A.D.) Christian authors here: Church Fathers.  As disciples of the disciples, these writers offer a valuable perspective on the interpretation and outworking of the canonical Scriptures. Here are a few passages from these fathers of the church which relate to issues raised above. From the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [c. 96 A.D.]:

…Let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions.

…The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded.

… For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works. For by His infinitely great power He established the heavens, and by His incomprehensible wisdom He adorned them.

According to Clement, the observed heavens display the power and wisdom of God. There is no contemplation here of unnatural gaps in the operation of the universe which require periodic miraculous intervention. Rather, the ongoing functioning of the world is entirely in accord with natural laws. Clement does not see that as evidence for God’s absence or redundancy. Instead, he presents this smooth, harmonious operation of the natural world as evidence for God’s peacefulness and good will, which in turn is a model for the Corinthians to follow (he is writing to urge them to stop their internal squabbling).

Aristides was a philosopher in Athens who became a Christian. Aristides came to faith in a Prime Mover by considering the orderly arrangement of the sun and moon. He wrote and presented his “Apology” (i.e. “Defense”) to the Emperor Hadrian when Hadrian visited Athens around 125 A.D. In the paragraph below, he describes the Christians’ way of life:

They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins.

Decades earlier, Paul had enjoined believers to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thes. 5:16-17). The Christians of Aristides’ day were practicing this radical gratitude, thanking God “every morning and every hour” for practically everything. This is the opposite of the pagan ingratitude discussed above.

Justin Martyr was another a philosopher who converted to Christianity. He retained his philosopher’s robes, and proclaimed Christianity to be the true philosophy. Justin, like most of the early prominent churchmen, was killed for his faith, hence the surname “Martyr”.  The passage below is excerpted from his First Apology, presented to the emperor Antonius Pius c. 155 A.D. Here he is addressing the accusation that Christians are “atheists”, since they do not worship the usual Greco-Roman gods with animal sacrifices:

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things with which we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honor that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by prayers and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.

Justin here contrasts pagan religious practice, which was to waste meat by burning it as a sacrifice, with the Christian approach, which was to give thanks for it and use it as food. Again, the Christians were distinguished by a lifestyle of gratitude for the natural world, giving thanks “for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons”.

Concluding Thoughts

Paul’s experience at Athens, where he got pushback as soon as he moved from a general God to the Christian particulars, illustrates an inherent limitation in natural theology: to a hearer who is open to the notion of a Creator, we can make reasonable arguments that the Creator must be very powerful and very smart, and in some sense beneficent. We can also make arguments from the common moral law within us that we all fall short of full goodness. However, it takes verbalized special revelation to move further, to the ultimate revealing of God’s purposes in Christ.

For today’s atheist, who holds that the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be, it is hard to see how classic natural theology would have any traction. The formational economy of the universe, as best we can tell from scientific study, shows no breaks in the natural order starting from the Big Bang, through primordial clouds of hydrogen and helium, their condensation into stars, the generation of heavier elements via supernovae explosions, the accretion of planets, and the evolution of life.  The main lacuna in the narrative here is how the first living cells arose, but, at a high level, most other knowledge gaps have been or are being filled.

Theists argue that the Big Bang itself is the granddaddy of all formational gaps. Atheists counter that, maybe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes which happen to pop into existence. The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms) is thus conveniently explained away: out of an infinite number of all possible universes, some will allow matter and have life, and we just 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.

There are other, more philosophically abstract, arguments for the existence of God which may be cogent, but they are apparently not persuasive to atheists.  The indirect, but self-vindicating quality of beauty in the world may be a more effective mediator of God-consciousness to the modern or post-modern mind than the direct arguments of cosmogony or ontogeny.

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents try to identify gaps in evolutionary history where they can invoke the necessity of an effectively supernatural Intelligent Agent. ID errs on several counts. First, it confuse gaps in our current understanding with genuine gaps in the natural order. Second, its advocates routinely misrepresent the actual state of our knowledge. As noted above, in areas such the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities, and the overall fossil record,  ID proponents suppress relevant evidence to make our knowledge gaps seem much bigger than they are. This dishonesty is contrary to biblical teaching, and gives outsiders the impression that the Christian faith is built on a foundation of lies.

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.

This lack of proof on our terms, of itself, does not justify unbelief. Our most important decisions in life are often made in the face of uncertainty. We routinely commit to marriage or to conceiving a child in the absence of complete information or guarantees as to how it will turn out. I would not think much of a suspicious fiancée who demanded proof of my whereabouts every hour.  Also, much of what we believe about the world (e.g. in realms such as world geography and nuclear physics) is not based on our personal observation and verification. Rather, we have faith in the truthfulness of those who communicated these concepts to us, though of course we test any new learning for consistency with our existing beliefs.

The net result is that the choice to trust and follow Jesus Christ is (in the absence of human manipulation) a free, uncoerced decision. This comports with the New Testament presentation of relationship with God being more of a love affair or familial relationship than a matter of giving cold intellectual assent or of following a set of rules: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  [Mat. 22:37-39]

Matt Rossano addressed the question, “Would Evidence for God Mean the End of Atheism and Christianity?” :

A complaint often voiced by scientific atheists is that there is simply no evidence for God and therefore belief in the old codger is thoroughly unjustified. Frightened witless by this snort, creationists (and I include intelligent design advocates here) scurry about frantically trying to provide just such evidence. But what would scientific evidence for God look like, and what implications would it hold?…

Imagine obviously intentionally engineered artifacts descending harmlessly from the sky (God doesn’t want to hurt anyone!) each with an engraved label saying “made by God.” Scientists are able to perform definitive tests on these artifacts and conclude beyond all doubt that they have been fashioned by an omniscient, all-powerful agent…..

[While being the end of atheism, this would also be] the end of Christianity… How so? A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will. It is no stretch to say that Christianity without free will is simply not Christianity anymore. The Christian God grants humans free will and will not interfere with its exercise. Humans are free to believe or not believe, free to follow God’s laws or free to sin and separate themselves from God…

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.

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