Missing the Beginning

Earth, Moon, and Sun
Earth, Moon, and Sun

The first word in the Hebrew text of Genesis is reshith, translated into English as “In the beginning.” For hundreds of years, atheists have tried to dispute the notion that there was a beginning. Until the latter part of the twentieth-century scientists didn’t know that there was a beginning. There is an old joke that says, “What did Moses know that Einstein didn’t?” The answer: “That there was a beginning.” The problem is that if a person admits that there was a beginning, they are faced with the question, “What was the cause of the beginning?” It is much simpler just to deny that there was a beginning and maintain that everything has always been–not necessarily as it is today, but in a form that could change into what we see today.

In the 2003 version of the Humanist Manifesto, the statement was clearly made, “The universe is self-existing and not created.” Older versions had the word “eternal” in the statement. It is obvious that the question of origins is evaded by the use of “self-existing” so the word “eternal” is not needed. Atheists will usually respond to this point by saying that religious people claim God is self-existing, so there is no reason why atheists cannot make the same claim about the universe. Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos said, “Why is it any more reasonable to say that God has always been than to say that the cosmos has always been?”

The answer to this challenge lies in the nature of God and the nature of the cosmos. When we measure light, we measure its frequency in cycles per second. When we measure speed in space, we measure it in meters per second. Force, mass, acceleration, energy, momentum, and inertia are all measured in space/time units. We are limited to understanding things in terms of time and space. Various scientific measuring tools have verified that there was a beginning to time and space. The cosmos is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, suggesting that it has accelerated away from a place where it began.

Since research in all areas of science has made it increasingly obvious that the cosmos had a beginning, science seeks to explain the beginning. The result is that theories are being proposed such as String Theory which suggests that there are multiple dimensions beyond our own. Since String Theory and proposals of multiple universes cannot be tested scientifically, they fail to give an answer to the beginning. We are limited by our inability to devise experiments to measure and test these theories. The biblical term “In the beginning” refers to the origin of all of reality. Whether God created the universe using strings of energy or a big bang is not relevant.

The atheist will say that being unable to explain origins does not necessarily mean that God did it. We are not proposing a “God-of-the-Gaps” argument in which we say, “God did it because we have no other explanation.” What we are saying is that the Bible makes it clear that God is outside of all other dimensions. God is described as the creator of time and space. God is described as a being with no time/space dimensional limitations (1 John 1:5; 4:8,12,16; 2 Peter 3:8; Colossians 1:16-17). Also, the biblical description of God shows a number of properties that are clearly seen in the cosmos and which blind chance would not produce. These include love, care, design, patience, personality, purpose, wisdom, and planning. More and more evidence is coming to light showing that our universe was designed and fine-tuned to sustain carbon-based life. Atheists and skeptics may try to counter this evidence, but they have no real alternative to offer.
–John N. Clayton and Roland Earnst © 2017

The Design of Basic Chemistry

Chemistry Class
Chemistry Class

I enjoyed teaching basic chemistry. Once we got over the fear factor that came from what other people had told them, young people became as enthralled as I am with the way chemistry works. Just the basic concept of acids, bases and salts was a revelation to most kids. They had visions of acids being stuff that could eat your arm off and had a hard time understanding that the salad dressing they put on their lunch was primarily an acid. When they saw that their soda pop would turn litmus red indicating it had acid in it, they were incredulous. Understanding that ascorbic acid was vitamin C and that there was acid in their stomach made kids realize that acids serve us in many benign ways.

The next revelation was that bases also have many important uses. Household ammonia, ammonium hydroxide, is a base. Sodium hydroxide is a strong base able to do amazing things to grease, making it a classic soap. Calcium hydroxide is lime, and some kids knew it was used on their lawns and gardens. The real surprise for kids was what a salt is. When I pulled out the salt shaker, I would ask them what kind of salt was in it? Most of them knew it was sodium chloride, but I had twenty salt shakers all of which were labeled “salt, ” and none of them contained sodium chloride. Some were potassium chloride, and some were calcium chloride. Some were different colors such as copper chloride, iron chloride, and cobalt chloride. It was interesting to watch them test the salts with litmus paper as they discovered that salts could be acidic or basic.

The next step was to make salts. We would take hydrochloric acid (a strong acid) and mix it with sodium hydroxide (a strong base) and get sodium chloride and water–two things you take into your body. If you mixed the hydrochloric acid with a weak base like aluminum hydroxide you would get aluminum chloride which would turn litmus paper red indicating an acidic nature. What do you put on your plants to make them grow? Some plants like an acidic soil. If you pour hydrochloric acid on the soil, you will kill the plants, but acid salt will make such plants flourish.

One day after doing all of these tests and writing all of this down, one of my students looked at the board and all the equations we had written and said, “Who thought all of this stuff up in the first place?” That question is always out there, in every science class, every experiment, and every view we make through a microscope or a telescope. Romans 1: 20 tells us that “we can know there is a God through the things He has made.” Science is knowledge, and the more we know of the creation, the closer we can get to the Creator.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Exoplanet Data Goes Wild

Alien Planet Fantasy
Alien Planet Fantasy

An exoplanet is a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. At the time that I am writing there are 3,565 known exoplanets, but by the time you read this, there could be over 4,000. In spite of what the media says, there have been no “Earth-twin,” “habitable,” or “Earth-like” planets found. These are cliches the media throws around which have very little scientific validity. When a scientist identifies a planet as being in a habitable zone, it simply means that water could exist on the planet in a liquid form. Scientists consider water, carbon, and oxygen essential for life. But there are many other variables that must be carefully chosen before an “Earth-like” planet could actually have life on it.

The exoplanets that have been discovered so far are an incredibly varied group. Most are too big, too hot, too gassy (like our gas giant Jupiter), or they have orbits that are too eccentric (ovals, not circles) to support life. Some planets are so hot that they rain glass. Others are so cold that no biological organism could exist on them. The stars around which these planets orbit are also an incredibly varied group with enormous ranges in size, activity, temperature, and radiation levels. In most cases, those stars are orbiting other stars making life nearly impossible.

Every day new discoveries are reported. We now understand more about how planets form, and that tells us how special our planet is. We need to take care of it, because moving to another planet is not feasible now, and may never be possible. Data from Discover magazine, April 2017, pages 40 -45.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Another Lesson from (Recent) History

Mir Space Station photo by NASA
Mir Space Station photo by NASA

The older I get, the less confidence I have that the history presented by the media is correct. I was in high school from 1951 to 1955, and the sitcoms and movies that I see of things that supposedly happened during that period are so far from what really happened that I wonder where the people who make these programs got their information.

The April 2017, issue of Astronomy magazine, contains an article by Bob Berman telling of what actually happened in the Russian Mir space station from 1986 to 2001. The media reports at that time painted a very idealistic picture of great cooperation, wonderful technological achievements, and trouble-free living in space. We know now that the Russians controlled reports by cutting the pay of anyone who complained about what was happening on Mir or told of any negative events.

This is the twentieth anniversary of the time when United States astronauts inhabited Mir. When medical doctor Jerry Linenger arrived on Mir in 1997, he found clutter and leaky pipes. Propylene glycol was leaking into the air so the astronauts had to wear breathing masks and were not allowed to exercise because they couldn’t breathe deeply. The climate-control was dysfunctional, so the temperature stayed around 90 degrees. On February 23, 1997, an oxygen-generating canister exploded creating a fire that nearly killed everyone on board. On June 25, 1997, a supply ship rammed Mir once again nearly killing everyone on board. Berman calls Mir “a bit of a death trap.”

Media portrayals of what happened in biblical times are even more difficult. The portrayal of Noah’s Ark in the “Ark Encounter” and the movie Noah as well as movies about the Passion Week, and the entire Genesis account have been embellished, westernized, and modernized by the media and entertainment industries leaving completely erroneous concepts of what really happened. The biblical narrative uses an economy of language because the focus is not on the event itself but on the meaning of the event. We can trust the biblical narrative, but we need to be careful about buying into the media presentations of biblical events. There is a difference between history as revealed in God’s Word and history as shown in modern media portrayals.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Travel in Space

Travel in Space
Popular movies portray travel in space as just being a matter of solving simple propulsion problems. The truth is that cosmic radiation is now better understood as a huge risk to space travel. In Scientific American (February 2017, page 54) Charles Limolihas wrote an excellent scientific discussion of the dangers of cosmic radiation.

Galactic cosmic rays are charged atomic nuclei flying at nearly the speed of light, probably coming from the supernova remnants of dead stars. Our Sun generates a great amount of radiation, but the cosmic rays are much more of a hazard. When these atomic nuclei hit molecules in our body, they ionize atoms, knocking electrons off the atoms and causing the atoms to become charged. These charged atoms hit other atoms, and there is a domino effect that is greatly magnified because of the extra energy involved. In human bodies, there are clusters of damage from such radiation, and just trying to duplicate the process in the laboratory has turned out to be incredibly difficult. Limolihas and his fellow researchers have shown that there is a much greater effect on brain tissue than anyone imagined.

The Earth is designed to handle this huge radiation by having two levels of shielding. The Earth’s magnetic field sweeps galactic cosmic rays away from the areas of the planet where most people live, and the atmosphere stops much of the rest. The amount of cosmic radiation we receive on the surface on Earth’s surface is relatively harmless. When you travel in space beyond Earth’s magnetic field, you, have virtually no protection, and that is going to be a huge challenge for space engineers to solve.

The lesson we would bring from this is that God’s design of Earth becomes more and more amazing as we learn of the complexities that have to be taken care of for you and me just to get up in the morning.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

The Mountains and the Sand

Mountains
One of the interesting studies available to students of geology is the way in which various structures on the surface of the Earth are formed. Where does sand come from and what message does it carry for us? Where we live in the Great Lakes area, there are massive amounts of sand. Areas to the south of us have lots of rocks, but relatively small amounts of sand compared to our area. This has not always been true, however, because deep underground in that area there are massive amounts of sandstone–the same sand we have around the Great Lakes but cemented together into rock.

Sand can be produced by the smashing of rocks. In places like Hawaii, there are beaches made up of black lava pounded into sand by the waves. There are even green and pink sand beaches made from rocks that contain colored minerals like olivine. Most sand, however, is made of quartz and is the by-product of the breakdown of volcanic rocks. Granite is made up of three basic minerals: orthoclase, hornblende, and quartz. There can be smaller amounts of other materials, but these are the dominant ones. These minerals have different hardness levels and are eroded at different rates. Orthoclase is quite easy to erode and has a pinkish color to it. This material erodes to become clay. The dark colored hornblende is also fairly easy to weather and erode. Quartz is extremely hard and durable. The result is that when weather and physical processes work on granite, the orthoclase and hornblende are carried away and what is left is quartz sand.

The massive amount of sand seen around the Great Lakes has come mainly from the granite that makes up the Canadian shield–the bedrock underlying much of North America. Any mountainous area will ultimately be reduced to nothing more than sand. One lesson that comes from mountains and sand is that nothing in this physical world is permanent. Jesus stated this eloquently when He said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break through and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

When I studied geology at Notre Dame University, we had a professor who would take us on a field trip to the cemetery. Headstones erected in the early 1800s already had disintegrated into piles of sand. One has to be reminded of James 4: 14, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Through all of this, however, there is the message of purpose and design by God. The mixture of sand, hornblende, and clay lead to soil. Life could not exist on a planet made of rock that could not be eroded. The waters that erode the granite sustain life, and the erosion process produces the topsoil that feeds us. The change of mountains into sand makes Earth a vibrant, living thing of beauty. So too, our lives can be beautiful if we allow God to mold and shape us. That is one of the key messages of 1 Corinthians 15:51-55. As the writer tells us about the most beautiful change of all:

“Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will all be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must be clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
–John N. Clayton © 2017

How Long Does it Take to Make a Canyon?

Yellowstone Canyon
Yellowstone Canyon

Yellowstone National Park is one of our great American treasures. During several summers at Montana State University, we spent a lot of time wandering around this huge wilderness. Most people think of Old Faithful and the geyser basin when they think of Yellowstone, but the canyon and falls are some of Yellowstone’s most beautiful places.

What does it take to make a canyon like this, and what does this tell us about the history of the Earth? The answers to these questions are remarkably simple. You need something that is capable of cutting down through a material, and you need a material that can be cut. On planet Earth, the primary geologic cutting agent is water. When water is frozen, it gouges and cuts a wide U-shaped channel. This is called a glacier, and the shape of its canyon is easy to identify. In the liquid form, water makes a V-shaped channel like the Yellowstone Canyon. How long the channel is and how deep it is cut are determined by how much water flows, how long it flows, and how hard the rock is. In Yellowstone, most of the rock is geyserite, a soft yellow rock easily cut and eroded by water. This soft rock is produced by volcanic processes, and deep canyons can happen quickly when flooding occurs.

In other places like the Grand Canyon and most of the eastern part of the United States, the rock is much harder and takes much longer to erode. Yellowstone is a young topography caused by recent volcanism. The sedimentary rocks of the eastern United States and the Grand Canyon took a long time to deposit and a long time to erode. All of this points to God’s patience and timelessness. We should not try to lock God into a time-frame that makes God look small and trivial. Remember that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Global Warming Nonsense

Global Warming Thermometer
The “hot button topic” for a wide variety of people today is the issue of global warming. It is easy to understand why political figures want to use this issue to manipulate their followers, but followers of Jesus Christ seem to be getting swept up in the paranoia also. Jesus said, “Take care that no one misleads you. For many will come claiming my name and saying, ‘I am the Messiah’; and many will be misled by them. The time is coming when you will hear the noise of battle near at hand and the news of battles far away; see that you are not alarmed. Such things are bound to happen; but the end is still to come. For nation will make war upon nation, kingdom upon kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes in many places. With all these things the birth-pangs of the new age begin” (Matthew 24:5-8 NEB). We need to be informed, but global warming is not of eternal significance. Some people try to make a religion of climate change. We can get involved scientifically or politically if we so choose, but let us not get involved religiously.

So what are the facts?
#1. Climate change is happening. Anyone can look at climate data worldwide and see the changes on a global scale. This is global–not local. We just had the warmest winter here in Michigan that I can remember, and I have lived here almost 60 years, but that is not directly due to global warming.

#2. This is not the first time. The Earth’s rocks show periods of warming and cooling. Natural processes cause changes in the Sun which affect the Earth. Geologic events such as volcanic eruptions can affect climate for long periods of time.

#3. Humans have altered the planet. This isn’t even worth commenting on, and what we have done has effects that are still unknown. God told us to “take care of the garden” (Genesis 2:15), and as custodians of the planet, we need to take care of it. Releasing greenhouse gasses indiscriminately would seem to be failing to do that.

#4. There are consequences to what we do and what we don’t do. As an example, cancer is mostly caused by human actions. The list of diseases human actions have caused or catalyzed is enormous. Not managing Earth’s resources well has cost us dearly in the past, and it will do so in the future.

Jesus said not to let these things disturb our minds. As Christians, we need to keep our eye on the cross and on our journey to an eternal home free of global warming, war, and all the other things that concern people about the physical world in which we live. The physical is important, but the spiritual is far more significant.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

Beauty Among the Thorns

Cactus Flowers
Cactus Flowers

When my oldest daughter married and moved to West Texas, I worried about how a young lady born and raised in Indiana would fare in an area that was essentially a desert. Leaving a state full of lakes, streams, trees, and fruit and vegetable crops for a world of cactus and yucca seemed to be quite an adjustment. When my daughter and her husband showed us a lot they were buying high on a butte, I worried even more. They were miles from town and surrounded by nothing but thorn-covered plants, mesquite trees, and bare rock and dirt.

Our first visit after they built their new house was during a time when they had been blessed with a great deal of rain. I was amazed at the transformation that had taken place in the landscape. Everything was green, and most things were blooming. Even the obnoxious cactus I always managed to get scratched by was covered with beautiful flowers.

When you study the design of desert plants and animals, you find they have a beauty all their own, and their design radiates the wisdom of the Creator. Sometimes you have to look among the thorns to see it, but there is always a testimony to God’s wisdom and design in the world around us.
–John N. Clayton © 2017

How Did These Things Happen?

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon

One of the more beautiful areas of the United States is Bryce Canyon. There is no other place quite like it, so the processes and conditions there must be unique. Anyone who visits the area with its rugged landscape would be motivated to ask how it got to be the way it is.

It is interesting that we frequently see atheist authors and creationist authors giving the same answer to this question. Both say that you either believe that all of these geological phenomena–as well as everything else in the creation–was either created that way by God or it has come about as a product of blind chance. In both camps, there is a prevalent view that all things are either God-designed or chance-designed and that there is no other alternative. It is understandable why atheists would want to make such a narrow choice available. Not only does it push forward their religious view that there is no God, but it also makes belief in God seem to be a shallow and inconsistent view of reality. The problem of human suffering and disaster is a much more difficult area for believers to deal with if God is pulling all the strings and making it all happen. This viewpoint places belief in God in an illogical box.

It would seem that Bryce Canyon is the ideal place to show the foolishness of forcing only these two choices. Did God sit down and carve each pillar as an artist would carve a statue? If not, does this mean that chance formation of the environment that produced the columns is the only other option? How about the option that God designed the system and let it run its course?

Geologists believe there are a wide variety of factors that contributed to the production of Bryce Canyon. When the rocks that make up the Canyon were laid down, they were deposited in a flat area near sea level. The sand and the iron oxide that colors it were deposited in beds that were flat. After many beds had been laid down, a new material was deposited with complex minerals making it very hard. After the area had been covered with several more layers of material, the whole region was lifted up to 8000 feet by forces deep within the earth. Water eroding this uplifted area found it difficult to cut through the hard material on top. Once that hard layer was cut through, the water cut deeper and deeper instead of flattening the area. The hard cap rock remained as the softer rock layers were eroded. Does this process preclude God having any role in the carving of Bryce?

Many times we have emphasized that the Bible tells us that God brings about His will in two ways. One way is the performance of a miracle that only God can do. The Hebrew word bara (create) denotes this kind of process and is only used when referring to God’s activity–never human activity. The second way is that God makes things happen in a natural way with no miraculous action. The Hebrew word asah (make) indicates this and is often applied to things that even humans can do. At the end of the Genesis account, the author tells us that God used both processes in bringing about the Creation. Genesis 2:3 says that God rested from all the work he had “created” (bara) and “made” (asah).

A failure to understand both processes that God uses in bringing things into existence leaves us with many problems in a variety of areas. God’s capacity to heal is not only seen in miracles that defy acts of doctors, but also in the design of the human body, in our mental outlook, in plants and animals that provide us with drugs, and in environmental factors. The bad things that happen to us do not happen because “God does it to us.” They come as a logical result of the struggle between good and evil and as a consequence of what we have individually and collectively done to the environment. War, starvation, poverty, and the spread of disease are not God-caused, but the result of our refusal to live as God commanded.

When we look at life itself, at the cosmos as a whole, and at beautiful places like Bryce Canyon, we are seeing the handiwork of God. The design built into everything from quarks to intergalactic space allows processes to function and bring about the beauty we see. Humans or God can direct how the processes will progress, but the initial design demands intelligence that makes mere chance a belief system without credibility.
–John N. Clayton © 2017