Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Lessons from Lava

Recently, the residents of “The Big Island” of Hawaii have watched with a mixture of resignation and dread, as a gray and orange, 2,000-degree, river of molten rock has carved a path of fiery destruction across the landscape. Each passing hour, lava from Kilauea Volcano has been inching closer to their homes in the small town of Pahoa.

As you might imagine the lava flow is no respecter of persons or property. Dispassionately, the dark ooze has swallowed up fences, flowed over a cemetery and enveloped major roads. In some places the lava flow is chest high and advances at the rate of 8 to 11 yards per hour. Reports say that about 950 people have been displaced by the creeping liquid.

Another inherent problem from the lava flow is the noxious methane gas emitted from the cooling rock. As vegetation is scorched by the lava, thick plumes of smoke reduce visibility and make breathing dangerous for those downwind.[1]

What is so tortuous for those in the way of this natural disaster is the sense of helplessness as they slowly watch their homes being overtaken. There is no man-made solution to stopping flowing lava and because the flow could change direction at will, any community in the vicinity of Kilauea is in danger. Of course, the pragmatist might say, “This is what happens when you decide to build a subdivision on the side of the world’s most active volcano.”

Monitoring the slow creep of the lava flow from relative safety reminded me of an apocalyptic passage in 2 Peter 3:10-13. The Message Bible offers this paraphrase:

But when the Day of God’s Judgment does come, it will be unannounced, like a thief. The sky will collapse with a thunderous bang, everything disintegrating in a huge conflagration, earth and all its works exposed to the scrutiny of Judgment. Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life? Daily expect the Day of God, eager for its arrival. The galaxies will burn up and the elements melt down that day—but we’ll hardly notice. We’ll be looking the other way, ready for the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness.

What Peter is talking about here is the renovation of earth by fire. You’ll remember that God already wiped the earth clean with a deluge in Noah’s time. The rainbow covenant promised that God would never again destroy the world by water, but it didn’t say anything in the fine print about fire.

When will this great inferno be lit? Biblical prophecy places this event at the end of the Millennial Reign of Christ (Rev. 21:1). The earth is going to be redeemed from the curse of sin, just like you and I. That’s when God will restore the Earth to a pristine condition, as it was before the fall of man (Gen. 1:31). Paradise lost will be paradise regained.

As I see it, there are many parallels between God’s judgment and the Hawaiian lava flow we’ve heard about in the news. Both are slow moving. The lava creeps along at a steady, but sure pace, and in the same way the Bible tells us that God is slow to anger (Num. 14:18) and it patient with unrepentant mankind (2 Peter 3:9).

Both are inevitable. Anything in the path of the lava flow will certainly be burned up. Just so, anyone who has not repented of their sin and trusted in Christ will face the inevitable judgment of God. The destruction of earth has already been planned in God’s prophetic calendar and no matter how much we’d like to disbelieve it, no amount of mental gymnastics or scripture twisting can change the sovereign will of God.

Both can be avoided. The residents of Hawaii have watched the lava inching toward their homes for weeks. They have had ample time to prepare and make an escape route. In the same way, God’s eventual wrath can be avoided. There is still time to repent of sin and help others get ready to make an escape from our doomed planet.

When Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill he explained man’s situation like this, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). -DM          

[1] Ralph Ellis, Paul Vercammen and Martin Savidge, “Lava Flow Inches Closer to Homes in Hawaiian Community,” CNN, 28 October 2014 <http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/28/us/hawaii-volcano/index.html>

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Abandoning Atheism

In 2013 Thomas Nagel, a leading atheistic philosopher from NYU, was branded a heretic by many of his academic colleagues for his public dissent from Darwinism. In his controversial book, Mind and Cosmos, Nagel comes “out of the closet” and admits he has serious misgivings about the theory of evolution to explain the origin of life.

Nagel argues that evolution’s main failing is that it cannot explain how the random process of matter rearranging itself could ever give rise to consciousness. The raw elements of the universe do not have the mind or will to choose to create themselves into more complex life-forms. In short, matter cannot produce mind.

Nagel said, “For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe, including the standard version of how the evolutionary process works . . . Believing, as Darwinists do, life arose first from accidental chemical reactions in the primordial ooze, and, once established, progressed via the mechanism of natural selection to create all the wonders of human consciousness, flies in the face of common sense.”[1]

As you might imagine Nagel received harsh criticism from others in the camp of unbelief. Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at MIT called Nagel’s work, “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.” Nagel has not abandoned his atheism just yet, but at least he is intellectually honest to concede that Darwin’s theory is seriously flawed.    

What is interesting is that Nagel is not alone. In fact, in recent times there have been many outspoken atheists who have jumped from their ivory towers of scientific skepticism. Here are just a few other examples:

Antony Flew was one of the world’s most popular and published atheists, boasting over thirty books on his godless worldview. However, in 2004 at the age of 81, Flew announced that his atheism was no longer intellectually tenable. An Associated Press story carried the news, “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half-century has changed his mind. He now believes in God.”[2] Flew was adamant that he had not become a Christian, but rather a deist like Thomas Jefferson.

Flew gave his reasoning for adopting faith in a Creator, “What I think the discovery of DNA has done is show that intelligence must have been involved in getting these extraordinary diverse elements together. It could be a person in the sense of a being that has intelligence and a purpose.”[3]
Simply changing from “no God” to “God” was enough to send shock waves through the ranks of atheism. The cover of his 2007 book tells the whole story. The title, reads, There Is No A God. One review described the book as “a most uncomfortable jolt to those who were once his fellow atheists.”[4]       

Francis Collins grew up an avowed atheist. He enrolled in Yale University as a young man and there his studies in science further confirmed his disbelief in God. He concluded that religion and faith was a carryover from an earlier, irrational time, and now that science had begun to figure out how things really work, and so we didn’t need the crutch of God anymore.

Midway through his scientific career, Collins changed courses and became a doctor. He was not prepared for how the medical profession would challenge his airtight worldview. What changed his thinking was how his patients handled death. Many had terrible diseases from which they were probably not going to escape, and yet instead of railing at God, they seemed to lean on their faith as a source of great comfort and reassurance. This was interesting and unsettling to Dr. Collins.

Dr. Collins said, “As I began to ask a few questions of those people, I realized something very fundamental: I had made a decision to reject any faith view of the world without ever really knowing what it was that I had rejected. And that worried me. As a scientist, you're not supposed to make decisions without the data. It was pretty clear I hadn't done any data collecting here about what these faiths stood for.”[5] Collins started talking to a local Methodist minister who answered his questions about God. 

Then he started reading C.S. Lewis’ classic work, Mere Christianity. Collins long held atheism began to crack. “I didn't want this conclusion,” speaking of God’s existence. “I was very happy with the idea that God didn't exist, and had no interest in me. And yet at the same time, I could not turn away. I had to keep turning those pages. I had to keep trying to understand this. I had to see where it led. But I still didn't want to make that decision to believe.”

Collins ended up giving his life to Christ at the age of twenty-seven. In 1993 he was given one of the most prestigious jobs in all of science. He became the director of The Human Genome Project whose mission was to map out and decode the genetic code found in DNA.
In one of his books Collins wrote, “I do not believe that the God who created all the universe, and who communes with His people through prayer and spiritual insight, would expect us to deny the obvious truths of the natural world that science has revealed to us, in order to prove our love for Him . . . The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or the laboratory.”[6]

Whether an atheist by choice or by callousness, it takes a lot of energy to maintain atheism. It takes energy to surpass evidence that is abundantly available. In Romans 1:18-20 Paul wrote about those who suppress the truth, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

We have overwhelming evidence for God, but that evidence can only lead us so far. Often times people stop at the edge of reason and the beginning of faith and insist on another piece of evidence before they take that step. However, we must come to point where we say, “God there is no way I can know everything, but I believe there is enough evidence to place my trust in what you have said about Your Son being the way to eternal life.” 

[1] Joseph Brean, “’What Has Gotten into Thomas Nagel?’: Leading Atheist Branded a ‘Heretic’ for Daring to Question Darwinism,” National Post, 23 March 2013  <http://life.nationalpost.com/2013/03/23/what-has-gotten-into-thomas-nagel-leading-atheist-branded-a-heretic-for-daring-to-question-darwinism/> 
[2] Richard Ostling, “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God,” The Associated Press, 9 December 2004 <http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=315976>
[3] Ibid.
[4] A.N. Wilson, “Can You Love God and Agree with Darwin?” New Statesman, 2 April 2009
[5] Francis Collins, “The Question of God,” PBS 2004
[6] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 220-211.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lost at Sea

By age twenty-four Debbie Kiley was already a seasoned sailor with one circumnavigation of the globe under her belt. In the fall of 1982 she and three others boarded her 58-foot sailing yacht Trashman with hopes of traveling south from Maine to Florida, where she planned on spending the winter. 

After a stopover in Annapolis, Maryland, the weather quickly worsened—60-knot winds whipping up 40-foot waves. That’s when disaster struck. Off the coast of North Carolina, they encountered gale winds and mountainous seas that sank their boat. The shipwrecked crew had to endure four grueling days at sea without food or fresh water, as they clung to a rubber dinghy in shark-infested waters. 

Debbie recounted the horrific scene to a National Geographic reporter, “For 18 hours we treaded water and held on to the Zodiac. Every so often a big wave or a big gust of wind would blow the raft over. I looked under the water only to see sharks everywhere. Once we got into the Zodiac, sharks surfaced around us. Why they didn't attack before, I don't know. From that moment on they stayed with us. We saw a couple of ships pass, but they couldn't see us. By the third day things were bad, and the crew was starting to fall apart. Meg was dying of blood poisoning; Mark was belligerent. Delusions were setting in because of dehydration and hypothermia. On the night of the third day, Mark and John drank saltwater, so by the fourth day they were raging nuts.”

In his delirious stupefaction, Mark began shouting curses at God for their dilemma. Despite her fatigue, Debbie silently recited The Lord’s Prayer and asked God to teach her through this crisis. What happened next still haunts Debbie to this day. She explained, “Delirious and railing against God, Mark thought he saw land. We were more than 100 miles offshore. Then, Mark jumped into the water and swam out a few yards. We heard a loud scream and he disappeared. We felt a thud against the Zodiac, and then there was a frenzy under the boat—it was Mark being eaten by the sharks.”[1]

After what seemed to be an endless nightmare lost at sea, Debbie and another survivor were rescued by a Russian freighter. When I first heard of this story I was reminded how each of us responds in different ways to a crisis. Using Debbie’s experience we can see how she clung to her threadbare faith, while another cursed God.

Centuries ago, Job was hit by one wave of bad news after another. He was the epitome of misery. Job didn’t know it but he was a pawn in a cosmic wager between Satan and God. Satan was allowed to take everything from Job, except his life. In a matter of days, Job lost his fitness, flocks, family and fortune, but not his faith. At one point Mrs. Job told him to curse God and die. Job’s response was profound: “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10).

Every time we suffer we are presented with a choice—bless God or curse God. Job’s perspective was based on his theology. Job realized that for most of his life he had been the recipient of many underserved blessing and therefore had no room to rail against God. In short, he knew that God owed him nothing. What Job teaches us is that suffering leaves us with a choice to get bitter or better. We can either allow adversity to break our back or bend our knee in humility.    

[1] Kate Cheney and Deborah Kiley, “Lost at Sea” Adventure Magazine (November/December 2001)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The War Within

Fritz Haber is probably one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century you've never heard of. He was a Jewish chemist who lived in Germany and started to make his mark just prior to World War I. Before the war, in the midst of a looming food shortage in Germany, Haber discovered a way to separate nitrogen out of the air, which produced an ammonia drip. This ammonia could be put into fertilizer. Fritz Haber is the one of the main reasons that the world today can support almost seven billion people through fertilizer. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his groundbreaking work in 1918.

If this is all you know about Fritz Haber's life you might think, “This was a good man because he made a tremendous difference in the world.” But there's more to Fritz Haber's life. He was also a very loyal German who signed up to fight in World War I. As the war progressed, he developed an ammonia gas that could kill enemy soldiers.

In 1915 at Ypres, Belgium, Haber turned on his gas machine, and a great green cloud emerged. The soldiers on the other side could see it coming across no-man's land. As it approached, every living thing in its path dried up and died. Then it hit the Allied soldiers on the frontlines, and it killed every last soldier. The lingering gas even hurt innocent civilians. Haber thought this was a grand success. The German officials agreed.

So Haber went back home to visit his wife, Clara, and when she was told about the destructive force of his new invention, she expressed outrage at his gas machine. The very thing that he had used to save lives was now an instrument of death. Clara confronted him, but he did not want to listen to her. So in the middle of the night, she took his service revolver, walked out into their garden, and shot herself in the heart. The next morning Haber put on his uniform and went back to the frontlines to unleash more of his deadly gas.

After the war. Haber tried to help Germany pay the tremendous war reparations by devising a process to distill gold from seawater. But when Hitler rose to power, he decreed that all the Jews who worked for Haber had to be fired. Haber resigned in protest and left Germany, but no one would receive him. He died alone and bitter of sudden heart attack in 1934. In the cruelest of ironies, his work was developed by the Nazis to create the Zyklon gas which used to murder millions in the Holocaust—including his relatives. Albert Einstein concluded, “Haber's life was the tragedy of the German Jew—the tragedy of unrequited love.”[1]

Is the world better or worse because Fritz Haber lived? How do we categorize Haber’s legacy and influence since he caused life and death to millions. Was he more Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? I think it’s safe to say he was both. Yet, you and I are no different from a moral standpoint than Fritz Haber. We, like every human on the planet, have the capacity for evil or good. The fallen nature doesn’t every totally disappear, even after we’ve converted to Christ and received the Holy Spirit.

The apostle Paul understood the civil war that rages inside each believer. He wrote in Romans 7:14-17, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”

Every Christian has two natures. Frist, there is the old Adamic nature that we all receive at birth. We all come into this world depraved and fallen as David said in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” However, when we are born again (John 3:3), God creates in us a new nature that does not desire sin (1 John 3:9). These two natures—the flesh and the Spirit—are incompatible and irreconcilable. “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal. 5:17).  

This explains why the Christian life is not for push-overs. Everyday our feet hit the floor our sinful flesh raises up and declares war against the Spirit of God dwelling within us. The battle is fought on all fronts—the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Imagine a tug-of-war contest going on inside your heart everyday—on one-side is the world, the flesh and the Devil, meanwhile the Spirit of God is on the other. Each side competes for your allegiance.

C.S. Lewis wrote of this struggle, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good . . . Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down . . . We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means.”[2]

As difficult as this battle is we can experience victory. We must hate, starve and outsmart the flesh. Years ago a simple poem expressed a winning strategy: Two passions beat within my chest, the one is foul, the other blessed. The one I love, the other I hate; the one I feed will dominate. Regular worship, Bible study, prayer and fellowship with God’s people fuel spiritual growth. If you want to win the war within then don’t give the flesh a beachhead to launch an invasion. -DM   

[1] Chris Bowlby, “Fritz Haber: Jewish Chemist Whose Work Led to Zyklon B” BBC News, 11 April 2011
[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1952), 142.