Monday, January 23, 2012

Assurance Amidst Breakdown

On November 17, 2011 I posted “System Breakdown,” detailing the idea that the breakdown of even one of the many hundreds of systems of our body could result in serious health problems. All our systems operate successfully most of the time. I implied that the breakdown of two or three systems at once could trigger a cascade resulting in complete system shutdown. When physical death occurs in a precious, close family member, we experience the acute pain of severed human bonds. In reality, those bonds depend on a rather fragile physical existence. The Book of James does not equivocate: “How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone" (James NLT).

With great sadness I must report the passing of my older brother, my only sibling, David Virkler, from this life to the next. He was gifted with the ability to speak with biblical authority on the reality of spiritual death through sin and the remedy for it in Jesus Christ. We had precious fellowship concerning this reality. During our times of sharing I would sometimes test him with scientific challenges of how the operation of the scientific Law of Decay connected with the biblical “law” of spiritual decay. For most of our lives the Law of Decay enables our temporal physical systems to function quite successfully. We have attempted to detail that success in our blog posts for the past two months.

Now we are called upon to report that the operation of the Law of Decay has claimed a precious family member. Our assurance that the Law of Decay supports the existence of nearly seven billion presently living human beings on this planet does not remove the grief we feel at the departure of our loved one. Even the sorrow we experience, however, is a testimony to the gifts of ministry David possessed and the privilege of his family and friends to share them.

Those who do not believe in God’s sovereignty may become angry with God, or they may doubt His goodness. On the Sunday morning of David’s last day on earth, our pastor’s sermon closed with some startlingly appropriate truths. I quote him: “But let me ask you…do you accept the sovereignty of God over ALL things? Is your view of God big enough…that He is even in control of the bad things that happen? Romans tells us that God is in control of ALL things! The good and the bad. And that through them all, God is working out His good purpose for His loved ones.

“Listen to Romans …And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. Now I know that many of you have been through some terrible things…unspeakable things. And it seems to be a very bitter pill to swallow that God is in control of even those things. And it IS a very bitter pill to swallow.

“But we need to embrace the sovereignty of God even over bad things…Because the alternative is that God is not aware of those things. Or that He couldn’t stop them. Or that He has no purpose in them. But God’s word tells us, and we can believe it by faith, that God is in control of ALL things. And that in all of them, he is working out his good purposes for His people.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Job's Water Cycle Tutorial

Historical Old Testament figure Job received fascinating lessons in meteorology from the youthful Elihu in Job 36-37. The lessons followed Elihu’s more serious commentary in earlier chapters on the deficiencies he perceived in Job’s lifestyle. Elihu was less harsh in his judgment than Job’s other three friends. The lessons in meteorology follow the spiritual advice he offered Job. Elihu may have felt that our responsibility to God consists not only of obedience and righteousness, but also of becoming aware of the Creator’s authorship of order and grandeur in nature. The lessons in Job 36-37 are majestic tutorials on events of the earth’s water cycle.

Earth is a planet teeming with life primarily because it has a plentiful supply of water. In particular, earth life depends on the ability of most of earth’s water to remain in liquid state. Water also exists in two other states--solid and gas. Earth’s life also depends on water’s ability to transition among these three states within the very narrow temperature ranges present on earth.

The water cycle, also termed the hydrologic cycle, is only one of hundreds of functioning cycles upon which earth life depends. Failure of any one of these cycles would preclude the possibility of life as we know it. One of the most readily observable and understandable cycles is the water cycle. Its operation is easily visible whenever rain falls followed by our observation that some rainwater evaporates back into the air. Precipitation, one step in the cycle, enables plant life to thrive. And in turn, animal life thrives on plant life. Nothing is more vital for life than the production of food supported by adequate rainfall.

Transition of water from liquid to vapor and from vapor back to liquid enables water to travel long distances from oceans and other water bodies to cropland locations. Atmospheric circulation quickly transports the water vapor from place to place. Some water infiltrates the soil, becomes groundwater, and eventually returns to streams and larger water bodies for use in irrigation or even re-evaporation back into the atmosphere. Superimposed on this process are many sub-cycles, some of which may be demonstrated in the laboratory by hands-on activities such as heating liquid water (evaporating) and cooling water vapor (condensing), or by freezing and melting experiments.

The weather imageries presented in Job 36-37 by Elihu, along with additional commentary by the Lord Himself in chapter 38 are vivid and stunning depictions of water cycle phenomena. The purpose of scripture is not to render a scientific account, but rather to offer accurate and insightful observations. One may imagine that Elihu understood the process of recycling: the same water is re-used repeatedly over long time frames.

The origin of a stable water cycle on earth was a phenomenon of the second creation day (Genesis 1:6-8). On the third creation day, the dry land burst forth with every sort of grass and seed-bearing plant, along with seed-bearing fruit. “The land was filled with seed-bearing plants and trees, and their seeds produced plants and trees of like kind. And God saw that it was good. This all happened on the third day” (Genesis -13 NLT). Therefore, the water cycle existed on earth long before the fifth day appearance of animal life.

Understanding the intricacies of the life sustaining operational water cycle is a cause for humble worship of the Creator. The more we understand earth’s cycles, the more we comprehend His greatness. I recommend a devotional study of Job 36-38. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Ubiquity of Cycles

As a science educator I was called upon, to the best of my ability, to make my subject matter accessible and interesting, even fascinating. Because of their curiosity, we are told children are natural-born scientists. That is true to a great extent. After children develop into teenagers and later morph into adults, some become more self-conscious about expressing wonder concerning the surrounding world. Their ever expanding social awareness and need for personal fulfillment sometimes dampens their science appreciation, not to mention their science literacy.

Suppose a teacher is called upon to teach the water cycle, a topic found in most earth science textbooks. Depending on the age of the students, it would first be appropriate to instruct them what a cycle is. A dictionary definition would be a definite conversation stopper, but the student may identify with examples of cycles from his everyday experience. For instance, night always follows day and day always follows night. The seasonal cycle of summer, autumn, winter, and spring repeats over and over. Their wake/sleep and work/rest cycles conform to day/night successions. Planting, harvest and dormancy repeat with the cycle of seasonal progression.

Our world functions continually within a bath of repeating cycles, some obvious, some not so obvious. Even young children understand and value the cycles of everyday occurrence. On a different level of experience, a young boy will see the advantage of constructing his toy vehicle tracks so the moving cars return to their starting point. A few similar examples will help answer the question, “What is a cycle?”

Further use of imagery and demonstration are necessary to teach the ubiquitous nature of cycles. Our world manifests thousands of interlocking cycles which maintain the balance and complex interactions between our physical planet and its many life forms. Because multiple cycles operate, the earth constantly renews itself. The renewing cycles operate and are superimposed and dependent upon the general tendency of things to “run downhill” according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, better known as the Law of Decay. Paradoxically, without conformance to the Law of Decay, the cycles of renewal could not operate.

A thoughtful study of the Romans phrase translated in many versions as the earth system’s “bondage to decay,” helps us appreciate the value of this tendency toward decay. Many wonderful Christians in my past experience have bemoaned this “bondage,” suggesting that even earth’s currently operating physical systems are corrupted by sin. Some imply that all death in our sphere of life is an outgrowth of sin and a cause for morbid pessimism. It is true that in the New Creation there will be no experience of death, but it is also true that other experiences in that new realm will be unimaginably different and superior.

The earth’s many cycles, including the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, the nitrogen cycle, biological life cycles, and multiple other natural cycles are all dependent on the Law of Decay for their successful functioning. We could call this dependency a form of “bondage,” without which none of earth’s many cycles could even begin to operate. Bondage in this context is clearly not a pejorative term of usage. Even the death of quadrillions of earth creatures since life was first created on earth 3.8 bya falls into the category of a beneficial, life-sustaining, life renewing cycle.

Ubiquitous cycles have been present on earth since the creation event. Our present earth is wonderfully sustained by hundreds of interlocking cycles. An understanding of these cycles helps us understand the proclamation of God after finishing His work of creating on Day 6: “Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was excellent in every way…” (Genesis New Living Translation)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Theology of Creation

What is the meaning of the Theology of Creation? A large body of literature exists on this topic. Creation and creationism is often conflated with a record of the creation event, dealing with the who, the when, and the how of origins of our world and the cosmos. The topic generates a great deal of interest across a broad age range from our young children’s early Sunday School lessons to our deeper discussions with adult friends who may or may not be believers in the reality of the Creator.

Taken alone, this view of creation falls short of a more satisfying and enriching concept of creation in the present tense.  Creation in a broader sense is the existing product of God who sustains its existence, structure, and order from moment to moment and maintains its operational processes with purpose and functional integrity. Too often discussions within our church circles and with skeptics become bogged down with inquiries concerning duration of the creation “days,” geological time scales, and related wrangling about death before the fall and the extent of Noah’s flood. Such discussions sometimes assume importance as a primary apologetic for the very existence of God or even a test for doctrinal purity. This understanding of the original acts of creation, important as it is, may have less value in affirming our own belief system or in witnessing to an unbelieving world than understanding the workings of creation in the present tense.   

There exists no set of “proofs” to convince a doubter of the reality of God or the claims of Christ. In Luke 16:31, Christ expressed the poignant truth that “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen even if one rises from the dead.” (NLT) This passage may affirm a previously existing strong state of unbelief on the part of the subjects of Christ’s statement, Lazarus’s five brothers. Nevertheless, we are called upon to present meaningful evidence pointing to the reality of God. There are many evidences of the handiwork of the Creator to substantiate His creative work. An oft-cited verse is the familiar Romans 1:20: “From the time the world was created people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God.”

The Romans passage refers to evidence we can submit to open minded truth seekers. The natural world manifests ubiquitous evidence of functional integrity difficult to attribute to mere chance. Many writers distinguish the process of creation from the product of creation. We are unable to observe the process of creation. Scripture tells us in concise, simple terms the identity of the Creator and the fact that He created. It does not, however, give extremely detailed accounts of the functioning product--how our planetary system works. In our present day, particularly in the past fifty years, the evidence for God’s reality in the created order has become overwhelming.

As a science teacher I did not find it difficult to share my enthusiasm for the natural world and the benefits it provides the human race. In retirement, my sense of wonder has increased even more. As a Christian it is not personally difficult to recognize an intelligently designed, orderly world operating with intricately functional, interrelated systems for a clear purpose, the benefit of its living residents, especially man. To perceive our world as naturalistically produced, particularly the forms of life inhabiting its physical systems, seems absurd. Understanding God’s relationship to the creation he produced and the purpose for which he created it, a rational grasp of its incredible operating systems, and reveling in the enjoyment of the creation we experience as God’s sentient beings--these all contribute to our understanding of the broader concept of the Theology of Creation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Speaking of the Weather

Light banter about the weather is a common sequel to our friendly greetings when we encounter a neighbor. In our region the light banter has become more detailed of late as my neighbors in Northern Illinois exult over a mild and virtually snow free December and January. Our frigid, snow covered landscapes and icy roads of early winter the last five years are a fading memory. Some days the bird songs have sounded almost spring-like.

“What is happening?” we all wonder. We are not to worry, our local weather experts instruct us. Global warming was not mentioned in the same breath as their less familiar explanation that the “Arctic Oscillation” (AO) is responsible. This phenomenon has been identified explicitly since 1998, even though it has affected our weather patterns as long as we have studied them.

Normally over Earth’s North Polar Region there is a large bubble of cold air in place. Sometimes the air pressure in that bubble becomes higher or lower than the normal mean pressure over a short or long period of time. There is no regular pattern of periodicity. Higher polar air pressure produces a negative AO and results in cold, snowy weather in mid-latitudes. Lower polar air pressure results in a positive AO such as we currently enjoy--abnormal warmth and lack of snow. Retailers complain their snow throwers and shovels are going unsold this winter, but many municipalities have saved tens of thousands of dollars on costs for road salting.

Researching the literature on the vagaries of the weather, one comes away with a sense of wonder concerning the complexity of interrelated factors affecting local and global weather, both short term and long term. Doxological statements exulting in the Creator’s mastery over this planet’s meteorological phenomena are found in Job 37-38. In our day its vivid descriptions are matched by knowledge discoveries not previously accessible.

The interrelated effects of complex air and sea circulation together with variable amounts of open sea from season to season have replaced some of the speculation that global warming (or cooling) is responsible for the variety of weather conditions. Stated simply, our globe is an exceedingly finely tuned, intricate system. The variety of weather conditions humans experience may be regarded as a gift from God.

Long ago the ancient writer of the Book of Job described our weather's range of wonders: You are sweltering in your clothes (37:17); He makes the skies reflect the heat like a giant mirror (37:18); Driving winds bring the cold (37:9); (He makes) the treasuries of the snow (38:22); Have you seen where hail is made and stored? (38:22); (He) sends the rain that satisfies the parched ground (38:27); Who created a channel for the torrents of rain? (38:25) God controls the storm and causes lightning to flash forth (37:15) Where does the dew come from? (38:28); Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens? (38:29); God’s breath sends the ice, freezing wide expanses of water (37:9).

“Nice day we’re having!” does not begin to tell the breathtaking story of our weather.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bedrock Tenets

The paradigm of “No Death before the Fall” of Adam and Eve has become one of the bedrock tenets of the belief in a young earth currently held by many millions of evangelical Christians. Young earth believers must adhere to this belief in order to preserve their fundamental doctrinal belief that at the introduction of sin into the creation--Adam and Eve’s sin--the occurrence of death also entered the creation for the very first time for all created animal life.

This belief provides a serious dilemma for two reasons. First, it is contrary to the information gained from the reading of several biblical creation passages which speak of the diet of certain forms of carnivorous animals. Second, it necessitates denial of the record of paleontology. Birds of prey were created on day five; carnivorous animals were created on day six. Both of these life forms were created prior to man no matter what creation time frame we accept.

Several scripture passages describe the wonder and awe inspired by our observation of certain birds and mammals, including predatory animals. In addition to Genesis 1-3 there are many other creation passages in the Bible offering detailed, specific information on the beauty of nature and the characteristics of the creation. In each passage God is credited with the majesty of creation events as well as the behavior of created beings. Job 38-39 and Psalm 104 present outstanding examples.

Both passages provide detail concerning the food supplied for these birds and mammals by God. Job 38 speaks of ravens, omnivorous birds which clearly rely on living matter for their dietary needs: “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41 ESV) In Psalms the message is even more specific: “The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.” (Psalm 104:21) Before the appearance of Adam and Eve, therefore, death was a reality. After the appearance of Adam and Eve, death remained a reality. The onset of death was not an outcome of the sin of Adam and Eve.

In 2003 I conducted an extensive letter exchange with a well-known young earth creationist. Among many other issues, I referenced a Discovery Channel program in living color portraying hundreds of different sea animals both large and very small using a unique lighting system. Wholesale death of those creatures existed all along the food chain up to its top. That entire ecosystem was an example of a predatory food chain hierarchy.

I challenged my young earth creationist brother to deny that a “recreation” of the pre-fall ecosystem would have been necessary had Adam’s sin initially ushered in mass predation and death of creatures in post-fall ecosystems. Supernaturally produced fundamental change of the anatomical, genetic, and behavioral characteristics of countless quadrillions of animals is difficult to imagine. Abundant fossil evidence exists of a complex predatory ecosystem during the Cambrian explosion. He responded: “Since this was not a natural event, but a supernatural divine act of judgment, it had to involve some major acts that I suppose could be called a ‘recreation’ (or better, ‘tweaking’ of the creation).” Genesis 2:1-3 proclaims “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. I urge my readers to investigate the complexities of this argument.

These arguments are not offered as proof for any point of view. Resolution of discussions of this sort often hinge on the meanings of words, the divergent interpretations of scripture passages, and variant understanding of evidence collected from the natural world. We must acknowledge the broad spectrum of meanings, interpretations, and understandings. Most important is the necessity to use correct exegesis--the critical explanation or interpretation of scripture texts. “No death before the fall” is not a tenet established firmly in scripture.

Less familiar to Bible students is the term eisegesis. It means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas.” Scripture is the special revelation of God’s truth given to man. God gives man the ability to search and discover the intentions of the inspired authors of scripture, understand the context of their writings, and comprehend the complexities of language they used. Many biblical scholars have risen to this challenge.

The record of nature is also the subject of interpretation by science researchers and scholars. Many disagreements on the meanings of scripture and the record of nature result from errant interpretations. Eisegesis applies primarily to Bible interpretation. But science scholars are guilty of a similar faulty interpretation of evidence they gather from the natural world. They see genetic commonality across living things and infer only common ancestry. In both scripture interpretation and interpretation of evidence from the natural world, substantive disagreements result from the interpreters’ tendency to impose their own personal interpretational preferences upon the evidence.

The professional science community is mostly governed by commitment to a naturalistic worldview. The young earth creationist community is governed by a commitment to a recent creation only several thousand years distant. In turn, this results in their confidence in a recent, globe-encircling flood and the paradigm of “No Death before the Fall.” In both cases we desire to put eisegesis aside and search humbly for answers to the question, “What really happened?”