Humans seem to enjoy using symbols for everything in life. Notice the emoticons and emojis used in electronic communication. It is interesting that the use of symbols to convey meaning is an attribute of humans that is not seen in any other form of life. Animals may use sounds or chemicals to alert others of their kind to danger, territory, or sexual availability, but these are not symbols. Sometimes symbols have different meanings to different cultures or even different generations. In my hippie days, holding up two fingers in a “V” meant “peace.” When I was first inducted into military service, the same symbol meant “victory” and indicated an intention to conquer. Symbols convey information, and as the deaf can demonstrate to us, they can even form the basis of complex communication.
Our use of symbols is a reflection of our spiritual makeup. We can create art, express ourselves in music, and worship God because we possess a soul which allows these unique forms of expression. The most mentally challenged among us can use symbols and rejoice in being able to do so.
Sometimes symbols and their use are unique to a particular time in human history. A classic example of this is the use of the cross. In today’s world, the cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity. People wear crosses to express their personal faith. The cross is put on many buildings, Bibles, and along our roadsides. Steven Lemley in an article in Power for Today (January 2, 2017) points out that in the first century the cross was only a sign of the execution of guilty criminals. He reminds us that wearing a cross or having it adorn a place of worship in the first century, would be like us today wearing the image of a hypodermic needle used in executions. Many saw the cross as a stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23) or a sign of God’s weakness. Paul used the cross as a symbol of separating ourselves from the world (Galatians 6:14) as well as crucifying our sinful nature (Romans 6:6).
We live at a time where there is great concern about the environment. We have seen the effect of human carelessness in dumping wastes into the atmosphere, rivers, and lakes. As an earth science teacher in the public schools, I always was disturbed by the complacency of students and administrators toward this critical issue. In my lectureships, I have sometimes had skeptics suggest that the problems of ecology are due to Christianity. In Genesis 1:28 God told the first humans, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Someone has commented that this is the only command God ever gave that man completely obeyed, and there might be some truth to that. Atheists have maintained that this is the cause of human abuse of the natural world in which we live.
From a biblical standpoint, this is a misuse of the message of the Scriptures. Any statement in the Bible can only be properly understood if you look at who write it, to whom, why, and how the people it was written to would have understood it. Genesis 1:28 was written to let us know that God expects us to control the Earth and its resources, but it gives no indication of how to do that. In Genesis 2:15, God told the man to, “take care of the Garden, to dress it and to keep it.” In Genesis 3:23 we are told that after the man had left the garden, he was to “work the ground from which he was taken.”
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, a great emphasis is placed on the beauty of the creation and the great wisdom and power that created it. Proverbs 8:22-31 puts an emphasis on the wisdom involved in all that was done to prepare the Earth for human life. The Psalms are full of references to God’s creation, and Jesus in Matthew 6:26-30 calls his followers to consider the beauty of the creation. Even more important, throughout the Bible humans are viewed as caretakers and guardians of what God has given us. Nowhere is there an instruction or suggestion that the creation is to be exploited or abused.
The biblical definition of humans involves our being created in the spiritual image of God.
In April 2017, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published a study concerning areas in Indonesia where some of the oldest cave art has been found on the island of Sulawesi. (Pictured) In 2014, cave art was found that dated back to 40,000 years ago. The new study reports on remarkable pieces of handmade jewelry found in the same area dating back to 30,000 years ago. Jewelry pieces include beads and pendants.
The “image of God” in humans doesn’t refer to our physical appearance, but our capacity to engage in spiritual things–worship, music, art, using symbolism, feeling guilt, and being sympathetic. Artwork shows spiritual events and practices. Finding these artifacts so early in human history is a strong indication that it was not something that evolved as culture moved into the modern era. It was present in the earliest days of human existence.
I have subscribed to National Geographic for well over 50 years. The magazine has evolved from a reporting magazine to a promoting magazine. What I mean is that in the 1950s and 60s the magazine reported on scientific discoveries and explanations of the science of the day. In recent years has adopted an agenda that does a great deal of speculative editorializing. Things that scientists like to speculate about are frequently presented as facts, and this happens in a wide range of subject matter. Speculations concerning quantum mechanics and cosmology are presented in such a way that lay readers assume that they are scientific facts. Sometimes the magazine is in an awkward position because of presenting speculations as facts. A few years ago, in their rush to push the idea that birds are actually dinosaurs, National Geographic ran a cover picture and article on a fossil find in China that seemed to prove that theory. Later it was discovered that the fossil they placed on the cover was a fake, constructed by a field worker and sold to make money.
In the April 2017, issue of the magazine there is an article titled “Beyond Human” and subtitled “Like any other species we are the product of millions of years of evolution. Now we’re taking the matter into our own hands.” The article by D. T. Maxis is well written and presents many facts about how humans can adapt to varied climatic conditions. People living at high elevations adapt in such a way that their hemoglobin binds larger amounts of oxygen. The article also presents various ideas proposed by scientists to fit their particular model of human evolution. Some examples are bipedalism to speed up locomotion, making tools leading to bigger brains, reduced fur to keep cool and make finding parasites easier, blushing to signal remorse and elicit forgiveness, and tears to show vulnerability and get help. Those are interesting speculations, but tears also flush the cornea, have an antiseptic quality, and carry certain chemicals from the body. Most of the characteristics justified as evolutionary products have a purpose different from or in addition to what is suggested.
Magazines like National Geographic promote naturalism–the notion that everything can be explained by science and with natural causes. In this article, the use of art and symbols is viewed as an evolved characteristic for establishing civilizations. This ignores the fact that artwork has been found in the remains of the very earliest specimens of humans long before any civilization. Religion is presented as an evolved case of self-awareness leading to thoughts about a possible afterlife. How natural selection would do such a thing is hard to visualize. The article points out that humans now have the capacity to alter their genetic make-up and introduce new traits that will make us free of genetic diseases and give us improved physical characteristics. Naturalism cannot answer the moral and ethical questions of how we should use our ability to change the human genome.
A comic strip called “Close to Home” is carried in daily newspapers around the country. On April 1, 2017, the cartoon showed a huge pipeline labeled “Prozac” running into a town named “Gurgeville.” A television news reporter is shown giving a report and saying, “Since adding the pipeline, Gurgeville has had a 30% drop in crime, divorces are down 40%, and student grades are up 28%.” I thought it was appropriate that our newspaper, The South Bend Tribune, ran the cartoon on April Fool’s Day. But for many people in our culture, the message that drugs are the solution to all our problems is real.
God’s solution to most of the things we try to medicate away is TIME. Dr. Stephen Eckstein wrote a wonderful article titled “Quality Time is LOTS of Time.” Eckstein points out that for the first few months after birth a baby requires almost all of the mother’s time. If the mother is sincere in her love, she will change her activities so that the baby can grow and develop. Any child deprived of this time and of both parents engaging in cuddling, kissing, and expressing love to the child is irreparably harmed. As the child grows, there must be time in which the parents play with the child, read to the child, and give the child enormous attention. We public school teachers see an amazing number of children on medications that are simply addressing the problems that result from their growing up without time from their parents.
We adults also need the time of others to be stable, productive adults. Jesus set the example of maturing and growing stable adults. Can you imagine Jesus and his disciples meeting one time a week for an hour? For three years the disciples walked, talked, traveled, ate, and lived together. The Passover meal of John 13:25 portrays an intimate social setting where teaching and sharing took place. The members of the early Church described in Acts 2:42-47 were together daily, sharing, eating, praying, and enjoying the stability of a common faith and experience.
For many of us, Church today involves parading into a building, watching a performance for an hour, being told to come back 167 hours later, and then returning to the struggles and challenges of the modern world. This simply doesn’t work, and people quit coming because their needs are not met. The Church is people, not a building. Passages like 1 Corinthians 3:11-23 make it clear that what most of us experience as “church” is not even close to what God planned for us. There are times when a medication is needed because of chemical imbalances and medical conditions, but for most of us, pharmaceutical Prozac is not the answer. God’s Prozac involves having large amounts of time with those who love us and with those whose values will lead us to good choices in life.
Are you carrying around some vestigial conviction that God is good, or that Nature loves you? We guarantee that our newest nominee, the Guinea Worm, will fix that in one easy lesson. –From an atheist website.
Many atheist sites promoted the Guinea worm as the ultimate example of how one cannot believe in God because of terrible things that exist in the creation. It also shows how far atheists will go, and how much sarcasm and derision fills most atheist sites. A frequently quoted phrase is this one: “God’s plan [for the Guinea worm] is … carefully engineered pain machines, self-sustaining, spreading ever wider and deeper through the world … the worm is the very incarnation of god’s plan.”
A careful study of this situation is useful not only to answer the challenges of atheists but to better understand the design issue and how God functions in the world. The Guinea worm is a creature that is unquestionably a real horror story. This animal begins with Guinea worm larvae in ponds or rivers being eaten by small lobster-like water fleas. The embryos mature inside the water fleas. When humans drink the water, the water fleas with the larvae get into the human stomach where the fleas are digested, but the Guinea worm is not. They will find their way to the small intestine where they burrow through the wall and pass into the body cavity. During the next 10 to 14 months, the female worm will grow to as much as 31 inches (80 cm) long and as big around as cooked spaghetti. It will migrate to the lower limbs of the human. The worm will chew its way to the surface of the skin where it will emerge from a blister which causes a painful burning sensation. The only way to get relief is to put the foot or leg into water. When this is done, the female will release a milky white liquid with millions of larvae into the water contaminating the water supply. Once the worm emerges through the skin, you can pull it out, but you can only move it a few centimeters each day. If you pull too fast and break the worm, it will cause massive infection in the human body. It can take weeks to pull a worm from a person’s body. A person who has this parasite is likely to have many worms in his body and can be totally incapacitated and in severe pain. A person does not develop immunity and can be infected multiple times.
Our purpose is not to “gross you out” as my high school kids liked to say, but rather to look at the question of why such horrific creatures exist and how issues like this relate to the concept of a loving and compassionate God. Many other examples could be given from mosquitoes to the AIDS virus, and the points we want to make here apply to all of them.
It is important to understand that many things that exist in the world were not created by God, but they are a consequence of something else. As a simple example, God did not create war, but because God created humans with free will, there is war. Similar statements would apply to pornography, sexual abuse, and any number of other social issues. In the biological arena, there are many things that exist because good things have been mismanaged, misused, or are a product of a human-corrupted environment. Humans have many times caused nature to function in a way it was not designed to function. There are many examples of animal behavior that turn out to be aberrant, caused by the duress of captivity or other human activity and not by the normal function of the organism. In other cases, natural processes have caused changes with negative consequences. Seventy-five percent of all mosquitoes are pollinating insects that feed on nectar and plant juices and do not depend upon blood to survive. However, in many species, the mouthparts of the females have adapted to pierce the skin of humans or animals. Many virus mutations have caused changes in what was a positive organism and turned it into a negative one. Genetic studies of the Guinea worm have shown it is related to other worms which have positive roles in the environment. It appears that this terrible parasite is a mutant. Our point is that assuming that the Guinea worm is something God created to torture humans is an assumption that is due to the vested interests of those making the claim, not what the evidence shows.
Guinea worm infections are due to misuse of the environment. The worm is totally transmitted by humans drinking from contaminated water. Filtering water to remove the water fleas would stop the disease. Drinking from underground water sources would prevent it. The water sources given to the Israelites in the Old Testament would never have allowed the Guinea worm to exist. Not allowing humans to enter water supplies would stop the disease. For the most part, the disease has occurred where war has forced people to extreme situations and conditions.
God gave humans instructions on how to live. God told the first humans to have dominion over the Earth and all that is on it, and to “take care of the garden, to dress it and keep it.” Mismanagement of the natural world has caused massive hardship for humans, but to attribute this to a design or plan of God is to simply be dishonest. Christian organizations have led the battle against the Guinea worm. Atheist complaints against agents like the Guinea worm would be much more convincing if atheists were instrumental in helping to alleviate the suffering. The Carter Center founded by former President Jimmy Carter began attacking the problem in 1986 when there were almost a million cases. Since then the number of cases has decreased each year until there were only 25 in 2016. Many Christian organizations have worked to supply clean drinking water to people in impoverished and war-torn nations.
In my college days at Indiana University, there was a department known as the Kinsey Institute. The first public studies of human sexual conduct that had been given wide circulation were conducted by Kinsey and revealed much about the morality of our culture. That institute is still functioning and recently released a study of brain responses to sexual interactions in humans. The bottom line is that the first person you have sexual relations with “lays down a template for what you find attractive.” A study reported in the Journal of Neurophysiology goes into a chemical discussion of the brain’s natural opiates which are set in a person’s first sexual experience.
What stands out in this study is that any kind of promiscuity violates the design of the system that is built into us. Proverbs 5:18-19 portrays the ideal for a man when it tells us: “Let your fountain be blessed and rejoice with the wife of your youth. Let her be as the loving hind, a graceful doe; and let her breasts satisfy you at all times and be ravished with her love.” God’s plan is for a single relationship (Genesis 2:24) which is nurtured and cared for (1 Corinthians 7:1-5).
“I will praise you, God, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: your works are wonderful, and I know that deep in my soul.” Psalms 139:14.
We can see one of the best examples of the wisdom of God’s design in the incredible complexity of the human body. Just being able to stand up and walk while keeping one’s balance is far more sophisticated than most of us realize. Walking uses, among many other things, our visual system and our vestibular system. The vestibular system involves fluid-filled canals and specialized membranes in our inner ear. We get “seasick” when that system senses motion, but everything our visual system sees is motionless. The brain is getting conflicting information on different sensory channels, and the result is motion sickness. The word “nausea” is derived from the Greek word “naus” meaning ship. You have probably had the experience of being on a ship or maybe a simulation of a ship and having nausea overtake you.
In virtual reality (VR), there is also a mismatch. Your eyes see that you are moving in a virtual world, but your vestibular system senses that you are not moving. A recent study at the University of Minnesota found that 78% of the women playing the horror game “Affected” in virtual reality reported feeling sick. In that same trial, 33% of the men felt sick, indicating that there is a gender effect in the virtual reality experience.
Virtual reality has become a big business. In 2014 Facebook bought the virtual reality company Oculus for about two billion dollars, and the industry is estimated to be a $100 billion business. Premium headsets run around $400 for Sony PlayStation or $800 for an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Audi, General Motors, and Vroom are building virtual reality showrooms, and architects are using virtual reality to walk clients through buildings that don’t yet exist.
Over the past several months, the media has published dozens of articles about a new genetic technique of modifying DNA called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats). This method can be used to edit the embryonic or reproductive cells of human beings, passing on genetic changes to future generations. It makes altering our DNA faster and easier. The media has emphasized the possible positive impact of this technique. The Week magazine (March 14, 2016) called it “genetic research nearing a breakthrough that could transform the world.” We know that many diseases are genetic in nature, including sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and some forms of cancer. The problem is that with some 20,000 genes involved and the fact that genes interact, the possible negative consequences of making permanent changes to human DNA are very high. This technique could potentially be used to alter the genomes of a child to suit parental preferences. The question is whether CRISPR will be used for therapy or enhancement or both. This bioethical question cannot be answered by science alone.
It is difficult to have discussions about the validity of Christianity without the question of miracles coming up. Some skeptics would flat-out deny that miracles happen today or that they have ever happened.
When you get into a discussion about biblical miracles, there is no physical way to verify what happened. You either accept that it happened by faith or you reject it the same way. Miracles that happen today are a different matter. The kind of miracles Jesus did don’t happen today. No one has verified that a person was raised from the dead. By the same token, there are numerous claims of healings by people that seem to be verified by family and/or friends.
A very useful article appeared in National Geographic (December 2016) titled “Mind over Matter.” The basic thrust of the article is that the brain can have chemical stimulation that is natural or artificial which can make a healing take place. Belief, even if it is false, can be a cause of healing. A Parkinson’s victim in a trial at Stanford was given what he believed was a surgery to alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms. The surgeons did nothing to him, but he believed they did and was “significantly improved.” His comment is “Whether it was placebo or some kind of a drug doesn’t matter to me.”