Jesus on Flourishing in This Physical World: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

The Regularity of Nature

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

   The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

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

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

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

   Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

   Beyond This World

Flourishing in an Unjust World

Consider the Lilies of the Field


Classic Bible Passages on Natural Theology

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

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

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

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

The Regularity of Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Sign Except the Sign of Jonah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sign of the Resurrection in the Ministry of Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Prevalence of Injustice and Suffering Evidence Against God?

Richard Dawkins observed in River Out of Eden, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

This passage is sometimes cited as a devastating critique of theism. That is nonsense.  In his physical observations Dawkins here is merely echoing Christ’s teaching two thousand years ago on the nature of the universe: no partiality or justice in natural outcomes is evident in this life, and suffering is the lot of all. And of course the universe is indifferent – how could an expanse of matter and energy be anything but indifferent?

Christian biologist Kenneth Miller points out that the harsh aspects of evolution like death and differential survival are (in the natural world we live in) essential to life and development.  Miller looks at the same phenomena that Dawkins does, but from a theistic perspective, and comes to an entirely different conclusion: “The [Darwinian] universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, the wisdom of a provident and purposeful God, intent upon a fruitful and dynamic world, and committed to a promise of human freedom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond This World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flourishing in an Unjust World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the Lilies of the Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis:

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

Miche Maniguet of Creation Ministries International writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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9 Responses to Jesus on Flourishing in This Physical World: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear

  1. JimV says:

    As usual, the only points I am impelled to respond to are those I most disagree with – which illustrates the process of evolution as it applies to human ideas.

    “The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms like us) …”

    I feel that this is another creationist argument that has been dealt with long ago, yet somehow keeps arising from the ashes. My own view on it, independently sensed by me but by no means original, is that it is a circular argument, based on the unstated assumption that carbon-based life in general and humans in particular are “special”. Then, since they are special and the universe is such that they can exist, the universe must be fine-tuned. And since the universe was fine-tuned to produce them by some “creator”, that proves that they are special, which proves that the universe was fine-tuned, etc.. One could make the same argument for any pebble, by assuming pebbles are special.

    Pebbles are not self-reproducing, and I will concede the popular view that self-reproducing organisms are more special than pebbles (although some days I wonder about this assumption also).

    Under the less arrogant view, that there might be an infinite number of other ways that self-reproducing organisms could exist under different physical laws and conditions, and that most or many of those evolutionary conditions could produce creatures as “special” or more so as humans, the fine-tuning argument disappears. In other words, it fails the test I call “Mario’s Sharp Rock” (to distinquish it from Occam’s Razor): among competing hypotheses, yada yada yada, always chose the most humble one.

    We only have a sample of one universe, whether or not other universes exist. Either other universes could exist or not. If no other universe could exist, then this universe is not fine-tuned. If other universes could exist, then they might have better or worse conditions for the formation of self-reproducing combinations of quarks (or other, unknown particles or forms of energy). No faith in the multiverse hypothesis is necessary, only faith in logic.

  2. JimV says:

    Re: “A Universe From Nothing”

    I’ll take a brief moment to agree that Dr. Krauss’s book and its thesis are over-hyped and falsely-advertised. I enjoyed it mainly for its compilation of evidence that this universe may consist of no net energy, which is to say, no net material, but this leaves unanswered the question of where its physical laws came from.

    However, the theological hypothesis is worse in this regard: it unexplains the origin of its “creator god”, an infinitely potent and thus infinitely complex “something”.

    I am assuming that a being which can create a universe and do things within that universe which are impossible according to our best scientific understanding of that universe is much more complex than the universe and its laws. This assumption seems to be shared by the OP, e.g., in the “good and evil” discussion.

  3. JimV says:

    Re: “The Problem of Evil”

    This is no problem to the theologically-inclined, because they assume it away, which I consider an unscientific procedure.


    1) Current theological interpretation of Judiasm and Christianity is monotheistic (although I understand that Judiasm was originally politheistic and that the Old Testament still contains unexpurged evidence of this). Yet according to Christianity, Jesus was the “son” of God and a god in his own right. Theological assumption: Jesus and God are the same person, although one of them sits at the right-hand of the other in Heaven. Mathematically, this sounds to me like assuming 1+1 = 1.

    2) Why does an all-good god allow evil? Theological assumption: what we think is evil is actually good.

    Clearly, with such assumptions anything can be explained – whether the explanation is correct and useful or not.

    Under science, we seek not to rationalize conflicting observations but to seek the explanation which seems most reasonable. We will often be wrong, but as long as we keep generating ideas and testing them we will evolve better theories which fit the data better (survival of the fittest). Hence Dr. Dawkins’ point: natural laws and the algorithm of evolution explains all the “good” and “evil” we see very well.

    The crux, it seems to me, is whether Christianity or some other religion explains things better than science, e.g., “the resurrection”. I am far from learned about this (despite attending Sunday School, Sunday Morning Church, Sunday Evening Youth Service, Daily Vacation Bible School, and Thursday-afternoon Release-Time (from public school) Religious Education for 19 years), but according to the OP it seems to hinge on the second-hand testimony of one man, in a book of “revelations” which was written, edited, and translated by humans,and selected by a council of humans from among many competing and in some cases discrepant writings, and yet still contains errors and discrepancies.

    • Hi Jim,
      I appreciate your comments. They are cogent as usual. I would agree with many of your points.

      The arguments, counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments on cosmology and God (or no-God) go round and round. If someone sees humans as no more significant than a pebble, that is their choice.
      The sudden origin of our universe 13 billion years ago had atheists in the twentieth century so worried that some of them (e.g. Bondi and Gold) were driven to propose proposed an infinitely-old expanding universe, with matter continually being created out of nothing, or else (e.g. Fred Hoyle) to deny the Big Bang altogether. Since universe did not come from “nothing”, one must posit some entity beyond the universe for its origin. The multiverse hypothesis offers such an entity while avoiding a personal Creator, and hence has been embraced by atheists despite the lack of any empirical verification.

      My main point above was that, if Jesus was correct on “no signs”, there should NOT be a particularly strong case for God based on cosmology, i.e. it should be not be too hard to devise an atheistic outlook on the universe. I think you would agree that that is the case.
      Best regards…

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