Friday, November 28, 2008

In Memoriam: Liam Iwig-O' Byrne (1967-2008)

Liam Iwig-O'Byrne passed away on November 13, 2008 in an automobile accident in Forth Worth, Texas where he lived with his wife Cara and his children, Cian and Warren. From his obituary: "He was a pastor, teacher, and a true servant."

Liam was one of the first guys I met at Aldersgate College. I was a new Christian at the time, and I headed off to the foreign land of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to attend Bible College. Liam was my senior by a year in age and two years ahead of me at Aldersgate, and he made an immediate impression on me. He was a budding young theologian at the time. He was also a spiritual leader on the campus. Those of us guys who were there will never forget the prayer meetings that sometimes lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. Liam was a big part of that. He introduced me to the writings of Charles Finney, and constantly challenged me in my thinking as I developed my theology. It was a wild, wacky, formative period in my life.

I also attended seminary with Liam, starting a couple of years after he did. My first year I spent a lot of time at the trailer that he lived in, playing cards with his roommate and another friend of ours from Aldersgate. We had our share of theological differences, and had many long conversations. After seminary Liam moved away and I didn't keep up with him that much. Tricia and I did visit him and his wife, Cara, when they were living in Kansas many years ago and also last year when they were living in Texas.

Liam left a comment on this blog on the post from October 3, 2008 that can still be seen. He complimented me on my blog and gave me some encouraging words. It was the first time he had left a comment on my blog. Those are the last words I'll receive from Liam in this life. It's a sobering thought. Liam was forty-one years old when he died. Forty-one. That number really hits home for me. I just turned forty this year. Liam left behind a wife and two children.

It's times like these that remind me what are the really important things in life. The book of James speaks to this.

Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that."
James 4:13-15

It's so important that we live our lives in light of eternity. It will be here before we know it. Are you seeking to do God's will for your life? That's the only thing that will really matter in the end. Whatever you do, pursue God's will. Treasure your loved ones - family, church, co-workers and so on. And be thankful for them. We are only given one life to live. May we honor God with what we have been given.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More reasons to be skeptical of Global Warming

One of the reasons I've been skeptical of the idea that man-made global warming was leading the earth toward an ecological amageddon is that I remember reading books from the 70s and 80s that also predicted the coming ecological collapse for different reasons. We were going to run out oil, we were going to pollute ourselves into extinction, we were going to run out resources, etc., etc. Those dire predictions of catastophe did not come to pass. However, some of the groups that promoted those ideas with particular vigor (like the Club of Rome) also had a strongly humanistic agenda and an interest in things like one world government and a new world order. All of this was in our best interests, of course. Without the help of these super-smart people (so we are told), we would end up destroying ourselves. They would graciously offer to rule over us in order to prevent this unspeakable harm from befalling us. How generous of them.

The global warming hysteria appears to me to be the same sort of thing with the same sort of questionable premises. Recently data has been coming out that seriously calls into question the idea that the earth really is warming, let alone whether that warming is caused by human activity and the production of too much carbon dioxide. As this article in the Telegraph shows, a report issued last week by NASA which claimed that this October was the hottest October on record was completely wrong. Two skeptical bloggers discovered that they had used the data from September for two months in a row. Rather than the hottest October on record, October 2008 was actually the 70th warmest out of 114 years - putting it in the bottom half of warmest Octobers on record. Other mistakes by global warming proponents include reports that the 90s was the hottest decade of the 20th century when in fact the 30s were hotter. Other studies have shown that temperatures are not rising as predicted, and in fact have been dropping. Also, sea-ice in the Arctic has recovered from the widely-reported melting in the summer and the ice cover is now 30% more than this time last year. But you won't hear that in most of the media which only publishes pro-global warming pieces. Other recent reports have indicated that rather than warming, the earth is actually cooling, possibly due to solar activity including a sudden decrease in sunspots. Apparently sudden decreases in sunspots (which is a cyclical phenomenon) in the past have resulted in sudden cooling on the earth, including one "mini ice-age".

It's always amazing to me when Christians jump on the bandwangon of the latest over-hyped claims. I can understand why a secular person who doesn't actually believe in God's sovereignty might be concerned and think that it's up to us to save the planet. But I've heard Christians, when confronted with the fact that the science behind global warming is not conclusive, say things like "yeah, but by the time it IS conclusive it'll be too late." I still have a hard time believing that a Christian would say or think such a thing. If it were limited to ivory-tower seminary professors it wouldn't concern me so much. But such thinking tends to filter down to the average church-goers when it's parroted by respected Christian leaders. It then becomes accepted wisdom in some circles, without ever being challenged.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Atheists for Intelligent Design?

I recently listened to some interesting podcasts (see links below) in which an atheist philosopher of physics, Bradley Monton, shared that he thinks the basic arguments for Intelligent Design are sound from a scientific and philosophical standpoint and should be given more weight than they are. Intelligent Design is the theory that many features of the universe can only be explained as a result of the activity of an intelligent agent rather than as the product of non-intelligent forces and laws of nature. This includes many features of biological systems, which naturalists insist can be adequately explained by random mutation and natural selection working together.

Many critics of Intelligent Design view it as an attempt to sneak religion into the classroom and skirt the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. They often attempt to have ID arguments dismissed from the outset by saying that it is not science. This assumes that there is some agreed-upon means of determining what is "science" and what is not "science." This is a philosophical question known as the demarcation problem. Many people (including many philosophically unsophisticated scientists) believe that there are agreed-upon criteria that can delineate scientific ideas from non-scientific ones. In fact, there is no such set of criteria agreed upon by philosophers of science, which Monton points out in his interview. I have written previously about a Christian philosopher of science, Jeffrey Koperski, who agrees. Koperski is critical of some ID arguments (as is Monton), but does show that the ideas are valid and should not simply be dismissed out of hand.

A recent debate about Intelligent Design featured this interesting twist: the two men arguing in favor of it were an agnostic, secular Jew (David Berlinski) and an atheist (Monton), while the two men arguing against it were an atheist and a Christian. So of the four participants only one was religious, and he was arguing against ID. What does this mean in terms of the ongoing discussion and debate about ID?

Well, it does call into question the idea that ID is just religion in the guise of science or that it's a way to sneak religion into the classroom in violation of the establishment clause. If atheist and agnostic scholars can see that ID raises valid concerns, then this argument loses a lot of its force. I recognize that most supporters of ID are religious and do so for religious reasons (it does provide support for their worldview after all), but a great many supporters of Darwinism are atheists and have an anti-religious agenda. Some, like Richard Dawkins, apparently would like to eliminate religion altogether. Ultimately, however, the motivations of the supporters of one theory or the other is not the main issue.

I have long believed that as ID concepts get more exposure they would get more traction among scientists and philosophers who are actually interested in seeking truth rather than perpetuating the dogma of metaphysical naturalism. That appears to be happening. It doesn't help the cause of Darwinism that some high-profile academics who are in favor of ID have recently been victims of what appears to be flagrant discrimination for pro-ID sympathies, and this is in spite of having outstanding academic credentials.

The podcasts with Bradley Monton can be heard here:
[part 1] [part 2] [part 3] [part 4]


Part five is now available as well and can be found here:
[part 5]

Interestingly enough, one of the things professor Monton (whose website can be found here) discussed in this most recent podcast is the attacks that he has received from biologists over his willingness to discuss Intelligent Design. He notes that his colleagues in philosophy, even if they disagree with him, are still willing to engage in reasonable discourse. He also mentioned his surprise that even though he thought some of his arguments would offend Christians (I suspect because of the general misrepresentation of ID and Christians in the academic world), in fact that hasn't been the case. It has been the dogmatic Darwinists who have been up in arms, in one case even making a bogus threat of taking legal action against Monton. These types of intimidation tactics are becoming increasingly common.

I mention this in part because I just knew that as soon as I put up this post I would start receiving derogatory comments from the Darwinist collective in cyberspace. And sure enough, I came home this evening to find two juicy comments from bobxxxx (don't you love people who don't even have enough courage to sign their real name?). Whether "Bob" is actually 15 years old or just writes like he is is anyone's guess. But here's a sample of Darwinist thinking courtesy of Bob: "Since everyone knows "intelligent design" means "god's magic tricks", it's very obvious your fake atheist is an idiot and a liar."

This sort of anti-religious bigotry and inability to engage in anything other than ad hominem attacks is unfortunately all too common these days. Bob wouldn't be able to articulate a single argument in favor of ID, but he's sure they're wrong because he has it on good authority that they are. Unfortunately for Bob the ideas behind ID are already public where intellectually honest people like Bradley Monton and David Berlinski (the secular agnostic Jew who also defends ID whom I mentioned above) can examine them. The Darwinian establishment has focused all of its energy on attacking the people who speak favorably of ID rather than the ideas (which most of them haven't taken the time to understand and couldn't articulate if they had to). By the way, according to Monton's blog he's currently working on a book entitled Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Expect to see more attacks and threats against Bradley Monton.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What is missions, anyways?

In 2000 I returned to seminary four years after graduating with the Master of Divinity degree to prepare for the mission field. I was there to earn another master’s degree in missions and evangelism. In one of my first classes on "Christian Mission and Global Culture," we watched a video. On saving the whales. No, seriously, it was about how to prevent the extinction of a particular endangered species of whale. I looked around the room, thinking to myself, "is this a joke?" It was no joke, but it does represent a strong trend in contemporary missiology.

If I could summarize this perspective, it basically says that whatever we do to bring "shalom" (or "peace") to the created order is missions. In other words, saving a species of whale from extinction is just as much a part of the mission of the church in this mode of thinking as the more traditional idea of converting sinners. Now, I was aware of the controversy surrounding the so-called "social gospel,” which emphasizes caring for the physical and material needs of people less fortunate than ourselves with not so much emphasis on things like repentance from sin and faith in the redemptive work of Christ as the means to eternal life. Of this Bishop Stephen O’Neill astutely observed that those who start with social needs never seem to get to the Gospel message, whereas those who start with the Gospel end up addressing these other needs of people as well.

But this wasn’t social gospel, it was the gospel of environmentalism. Taken to its greatest extreme, it’s the gospel of fix-everything-ism. Apparently the mission of the church in the eyes of some people is to fix every problem on earth. Eliminate poverty and economic inequality? We’re on it. Get rid of discrimination? We can do that. Solve environmental problems like endangered species, global warming, and all the rest? We can do that, too. Excuse me for saying this, but I really think the biggest problem in the world is the alienation of people from their creator. Everything else, in my humble opinion, is just symptoms of the disease. Even the issue of the alienation of people from each other in all of its many iterations is a symptom of alienation from God. We can try to address some specific problem like, say, racism by means of education and legislation. But we still haven’t changed anyone’s heart. You just can’t force people to love others. Eventually the ugliness that is still lurking in the heart will show itself unless the heart itself is changed. I’m thinking of some well-publicized instances where celebrity figures who say they aren’t racist suddenly and inexplicably start uttering racial epithets under duress. I don’t believe that’s because there’s something called “racism” in their hearts that is revealed in those inopportune moments. Rather, it’s that there is contempt and spite towards others that is manifested as racial slurs. No amount of education or legislation can fix that.

So I don’t really see the proclamation of the Gospel message as one more thing on the church’s “to do” list after finding a solution for poverty and replacing the ozone layer. It’s the one thing that we can offer that nobody else can: reconciliation to God. All of the rest, quite honestly, pales in comparison to this one. To put it another way, even if we solved or greatly alleviated all the rest of these issues without offering eternal life to the world, what have we really accomplished? Jesus’ words come to mind, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” What does it profit the church if we fix all of these other problems but forfeit the souls of men and women who are perishing without the knowledge of the one True God? At the same time, I think another basic theological problem is the idea that the Gospel message is merely about what happens to you after you die. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the possibility of living an increasingly transformed life in the here-and-now, about biblical holiness. That’s an issue of Christian discipleship (as it’s often misleadingly called), of teaching Christians to obey everything that Jesus commanded. But this presupposes that someone is first a disciple.

Someone may tell me that it doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both/and. We can evangelize and solve global warming (or whatever). Weeell, maybe. (I won’t even bother to comment whether man-made global warming is as big a problem as many people seem to think but I will say I’m pretty skeptical of that claim). But maybe the latest “-ism” that we’re supposed to fix is just a passing fad that is actually a distraction from our real mission, which seems to me to be much more likely. I would point out that genuine conversion contributes towards addressing many, if not all, of these other problems. It’s noteworthy to me that the world is fixated on solving these other problems but doing so in a humanistic fashion. If we all just come together and work together, we’re told that we can make the world a better place. But supposedly this will happen only if we put aside our differences, like ideas about who God is (or whether God exists or not), and about whether or not there are real objective moral values that we are all obligated to live by. I’m not convinced that Christians jumping on the bandwagon to show how eager we are to do our part really helps matters.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Christian Intellectuals

A common stereotype of religious people among certain types of atheists is that they are all uneducated ignoramuses. That seems to be the view of one recent commenter on this blog who sent me this gem:

you pretend to know what you are talking about with enough rhetorical chum to bait in the ignoramuses. This tells a lot about your position: you go to uneducated and poor people to spread your “message.” If “the message” were worthy, you’d think you could go to any U.S. college campus and have converts. But no, it’s only for those who [have] no critical thought. Pat yourself on the back.

I'm not actually sure where this individual got his facts from on what my "position" is, but it's completely false. I can only presume he's just projecting his stereotype of what a missionary is or does. In fact, as readers of my blog should know, I've taught and ministered in Hungary. The Hungarian educational system is very rigorous, much more so than the increasingly dumbed-down American public education system. So I certainly can't be accused of going to "uneducated" people. It's true that Hungarians are not as wealthy as Americans, but it's not a third-world country, either. But it's hard to know what to say about someone who is so bigoted as to think that people who live in a poorer country than he does are all uneducated ignoramuses. It just shows the shocking bigotry of some anti-religious people. Apparently in his mind the only people dumb enough to believe in religion are poor and uneducated. That just doesn't fit the facts.

I was involved in campus ministry at Western Michigan University while I was doing graduate studies in philosophy there. And there I found a thriving campus ministry led by InterVarsity. I'm also currently involved in campus ministry at another U.S. college. Critical thinking is certainly a valuable skill. It prevents people from making false assumptions based on prejudice and stereotypes. I would encourage this atheist commenter to try developing some.

Normally I wouldn't bother even publishing comments like the one above seeing as it's an insult to every Christian reading this blog (and I happen to know that several of my Christian readers are college educated and some have done graduate and post-graduate studies), but it does serve to make a point. First, it points out the growing anti-religious bigotry that I fear is spreading in the U.S. and Europe, fueled by demagogues like Richard Dawkins and others. Second, it's an opportunity for me to point out that the Gospel message is alive and well on college campuses not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. Spiritually and intellectually vibrant faith movements are growing in these supposedly unlikely places. A good starting place for those who want to learn more about this is two books by Kelly Monroe Kullberg: Finding God at Harvard and Finding God Beyond Harvard.

Finding God at Harvard includes an essay by that poor, uneducated ignoramus Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970 (please note my use of irony - Solzhenitsyn was a brilliant thinker and highly influential Christian intellectual). Solzhenitsyn brought the world's attention to the Soviet gulags. He diagnosed the cause of the inhuman and oppressive Soviet system as the "calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious human consciousness". He also criticized the West for being beholden to consumerism and commercialism. He decried the moral poverty of the West and saw the rising tide of humanism here and where it would lead. He said, "this carefree life cannot continue in your country or in ours. The fates of our two countries are going to be extremely difficult, and it is better to prepare for this beforehand." These words sound ominious. Rather than causing fear, however, they should serve as an exhortation to believers in the West. We have been guilty of spiritual laziness and worldliness. It's time to wake up to what has happened and is happening around us.

You can find out more about the Veritas Forum which was founded by Kullberg and their ministry on college campuses in the U.S. and Europe by visiting their website. One of the purposes of my blog is to discuss issues in Christian apologetics and expose my readers to the thought of some leading Christian intellectuals as well as more popular works. I'll continue to present readers with substantive apologetics along with updates on our ministry here in the States and abroad.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Eyewitness testimony

In history and law, eyewitness testimony is of great importance. Both of these fields are concerned with establishing whether or not some event actually happened. While indirect evidence can obviously be important, the testimony of eyewitnesses can often be of crucial importance.

With eyewitnesses, of course, there are important questions to be asked. Is it possible the eyewitness is mistaken, and is it possible the eyewitness is lying? These are obviously crucial concerns, as not all eyewitness testimony is credible. People can be mistaken, and people can be intentionally deceptive in their testimony.

When it comes to the Resurrection, we are confronted with claims of having eyewitness testimony of several events. First, there is the death of Jesus by crucifixion. Second, there is his burial in a tomb. Third, there is the finding of the same tomb empty on the third day. Fourth, there are reports of several different appearances of Jesus to his followers after his resurrection. There are no eyewitness reports in the New Testament of anyone actually observing the Resurrection itself. The question, however, is if we actually have credible eyewitness testimony of these events, and if so, is there some explanation of them other than that offered by the New Testament writers: that God raised Jesus from the dead.

One skeptic on another website argued that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who was an eyewitness to Jesus. Note that this wasn't simply a claim that Luke hadn't met an eyewitness to the risen Christ, but that Luke never claimed to have met anyone who saw Jesus when he was alive. I pointed out that Luke writes in Acts 21:18-19 about a meeting between Paul and his traveling companions (including Luke) and James, along with all the elders in Jerusalem. Keep in mind that this was not James the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve apostles. That James was executed by Herod in Acts 12:2. This was James the brother of Jesus mentioned in Matthew 13:55 who became one of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem. This is also the James whom Paul records in 1 Cor. 15:7 as one of the witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. So not only was James an eyewitness of Jesus's life (having been his brother), but was also a witness of the resurrection. But, this skeptic argued, Luke didn't specifically say that James was an eyewitness of Jesus. But this point is moot. Paul specifically identified James as the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19) and as an eyewitness to the Resurrection. Luke was present when Paul conferred with James and the elders in Jerusalem. It's impossible to believe that Luke wasn't aware of James's background just because he didn't write about it. What this does, however, is point to the importance of eyewitness testimony. The skeptic wants to exclude any possibility of the Gospels being actual eyewitness accounts.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
1 Cor. 15:3-8

Scholarly consensus, even among critics of the New Testament, is that 1 Cor. 15:3-8 is an early church creed. 1 Corinthians was written around AD 55-57. Paul says that he had previously passed this creed on to the Corinthians, which would have been at the latest during his previous visit to Corinth, which was around AD 51. This is already within 20 years of the crucifixion. But he also says that he had passed on "what he had received", which means he received this tradition even earlier. It's probable that he received it during meetings with the apostles in Jerusalem or Damascus around AD 32-38, within a few months to a few short years after the crucifixion. There is no question then that we have actual claims of eyewitness testimony to the post-resurrection appearances. These were not legends that developed over a long period of time.

Were the eyewitnesses mistaken? We're not talking about an "Elvis" sighting at a distance for a brief moment. The independent testimony of the Gospels (which corroborate most of the specific details of Paul's testimony) record several encounters with the risen Christ which included extended conversations. It's impossible to conceive that the witnesses were mistaken. If Jesus did not actually appear to them, they were in a position to know it.

Were the eyewitnesses lying? It has been often observed that the conviction of the disciples in the truth of their message was that they died for their belief. While it's true that tradition records that all of the apostles except for John were martyred, the independent evidence is not always that strong in every case. But, as philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew point out in a chapter in the upcoming Blackwell's Companion to Natural Theology, there are several cases where we do have strong evidence for the martyrdom of those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. The earliest of these is in the book of Acts itself, James the son of Zebedee (see above). The rest of the apostles knew, then, that death was a highly probable outcome of continuing to proclaim the Resurrection. And yet they persisted in that proclamation in spite of that fact. Thus, not only did the disciples have no good reason to lie about their testimony, they had very good reason not to lie, namely to save their own skins.

Legal scholar Simon Greenleaf, whom many regard as one of the greatest experts on eyewitness testimony who ever lived, applied the rules used in courts of law to the testimony of the evangelists. He wrote, "The result, it is confidently believed, will be an undoubting conviction of their integrity, ability, and truth."

About me

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.