Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross (2016)

Improbable Planet by Hugh RossIn Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home, Hugh Ross tells the story of Earth’s four-billion-year history (as scientists currently understand it) from initial chaos to present wonders. But whereas secular scientists often narrate this story as one of random, unplanned chance that just happened to lead to intelligent lifeforms, Ross narrates it as overflowing with intentional purpose through the mind-bogglingly complex cascading of unlikely events, each in their proper place and order, as if someone was thoughtfully preparing a planet to eventually house humans created in his image.

The book’s scope starts with our sun’s favorably formed position in the galaxy, describes the order that emerged from the early solar system’s chaos and the precise formation of the moon, and carries on through the history of Earth from its remarkably early appearance of life on up to the present day. Key themes include:

  • The challenge of the sun’s gradually increasing brightness over billions of years, and how continual shiftings of components in the Earth’s atmosphere and the types of life on Earth just happened to maintain a habitable temperature window for liquid water, from the early methanogens to a later cycle dominated by carbon dioxide, whose levels gradually decreased with the appearances of more efficient oxygen-producing life
  • How life and the planet interacted to change and maintain both – such as life and plate tectonics being necessary to sustain each other, and the role that different life forms played at different points in history to change the atmosphere or influence the development and erosion of continents
  • How successive appearances of creatures affected the planet in ways that not only maintained the temperature zone but also prepared things for future appearances of creatures – such as early bacteria that produced the oxygen which allowed for more efficient aerobic energy processes, or the sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRBs) that transformed minerals from toxic to benign states that proved crucial to future human civilization

Unfortunately, Ross pushes too hard on his claims of specific purpose. For example, surely we are woefully too ignorant at this point to confidently claim that our galaxy’s position in the universe is the only setup that could lead to a habitable environment for intelligent life! And many of his claims would be dismissed by opponents as unimaginatively reversing the cause and effect – if some conditions had turned out differently a couple billion years prior, they say life would simply have adapted to it in a different direction.

While that may be true for some cases, there are also clear physical limits on life’s flexibility, and Ross is right to marvel at life’s remarkable persistence, teetering on the edge of darkness through multiple extinction events and near-snowball events, but never fully snuffing out, and always leading to further progression. And even while trying to restrain my bias with as much skepticism as possible, in my mind many of the unlikely events Ross points out truly do carry whiffs of intention, due to the ordering and timings required to keep the chain of events going.

The moon-forming collision, the Grand Tack, the Late Heavy Bombardment, the late veneer accretion, the “boring billion”, the slushball events – Ross’s narrative of purpose also makes all of this history more memorable and interesting. Why is Earth the only planet to buck the naturally decreasing density of planets from the sun? Why have our orbits just barely avoided destructive resonances and maintained stability for billions of years? How did life arrive so quickly to start the adjustments that completed just in time for intelligent creatures to appear and flourish in the blink of geologic time before the sun gets too bright for decreasing carbon dioxide to maintain the habitable window and the moon gets too far away for those beautiful perfect solar eclipses? Is there Someone watching and even orchestrating all of this?

In some ways the book is an updated and explicitly Christian version of Rare Earth. Ross is an old-earth creationist, and while he sprinkles some critique of evolution, especially around initial abiogenesis and the sudden appearances of new life forms in key places (the Cambrian explosion, of course, but also less familiar junctures), much of the content overlaps peaceably with evolutionary creationist ideas. What young-earth creationists should take away from this book is an appreciation that the old-earth view, whatever their opinions on its doctrinal merits, can hold a much greater – not lesser – wonder and admiration for the perfect plans of an almighty Creator.

Many are familiar with the Earth’s “perfect distance from the Sun,” and maybe some other anthropic characteristics. But if it’s impressive for a God to think up and instantly create a beautiful universe out of nothing, with Mars over there and the Earth and moon over here with all of the useful elements that they have today, perhaps it’s exponentially more impressive for a God to plan and masterfully piece together that same configuration over billions of years, with the laws of physics and distributions of elements interacting in just the right ways for the right supernova to seed the right proportions of iron and aluminum and copper and silver and gold and the right collision to create the right size moon and all the other things that had to happen when and where they did for everything to end up the way that it did.

One of Ross’s interesting theological contributions highlights that Earth’s habitability will not last forever, and in fact has a relatively short amount of time left. I don’t know if all of Ross’s thought-provoking claims are correct – did the perfectly-timed lake-and-fjord-inducing Ice Ages really make the present era the most aesthetically beautiful in all of Earth’s history, just in time for us? – but together they make a strong case for the argument that we are here for a reason. That case will remain relevant and be tested in fascinating ways as we exhilaratingly discover more about exoplanets – and thus also more about the relative uniqueness of our own – in the coming months and years.

Seven Days That Divide The World by John Lennox (2011)

john-lennox-seven-days-that-divide-the-worldOxford mathematics professor John Lennox offers his thoughts on the relationship between Genesis and science in the short but insightful book, Seven Days That Divide The World. Lennox notes various historical approaches to Scriptural interpretation, comparing the current “young-earth/old-earth” divide to the “fixed-earth/moving-earth” controversy of centuries past. Lennox argues that Scripture allows for an old-earth interpretation involving sophisticated, meaningful metaphors, but he also argues the Scripture indicates the special distinct creation of man, not seeming to allow for the common ancestry of humans and animals. He also offers thoughts on the Bible’s and science’s “convergence” on the non-eternity of the universe, and the significance of “non-material” information in universal constants and the human genome as pointing to a “non-material” Creator.

Some of the quotes below are introductory references to ideas that are presented with more fully-developed claims in the full text of the book.

On Interpreting the Bible, and specifically the first chapters of Genesis

“What we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed.” “”We cannot simply read it as if it were a contemporary Western document written to address contemporary Western concerns.”

“There are two extremes to be avoided. The first is the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture too closely to the science of the day… The opposite danger is to ignore science.”

“For many years, if not centuries, there would have been two major polarised positions: the fixed-earthers and the moving-earthers… These positions were held.. by those who were convinced that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and who regarded it as the full and final authority.” They agreed “on the core elements of the gospel… They disagreed, however, on what Scripture taught about the motion of the earth.”

“We cannot keep science and Scripture completely separate… the Bible talks about some of the things that science talks about… However, saying Scripture has scientific implications does not mean that the Bible is a scientific treatise from which we can deduce Newton’s laws… We are encouraged… to find out many things for ourselves.” Psalm 111:2, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.” “God loves an enquiring mind…”

“If the Biblical explanation” of the beginning of the universe “were at the level, say, of twenty-second-century science, it would likely be unintelligible to everyone, including scientists today… One of the most remarkable things about Genesis is that it is accessible to, and has a message for, everyone, whether or not they are scientifically literate.

“Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.”

“We know now that the earth does not rest on literal foundations or pillars... the words “foundations” and “pillars” are used in a metaphorical sense. However.. the metaphors stand for realities. God the Creator has built certain very real stabilities into the planetary system that will guarantee its existence so long as is necessary to fulfill his purposes. Science has been able to show us that the earth is stable in its orbit over long periods of time, thanks in part to the obedience of gravity to an inverse square law, to the presence of the moon, which stabilizes the tilt of earth’s axis, and to the existence of the giant planet Jupiter, which helps keep the other planets in the same orbital plane. Earth’s stability, therefore, is very real… Even though our interpretation relies on scientific knowledge, it does not compromise the authority of Scripture… Scripture has the primary authority. Experience and science have helped decide between the possible interpretations that Scripture allows.”

“What we learn from this is that it is just not adequate to choose an interpretation simply on the basis of asking how many people held this interpretation, and for how long”

“We should be humble enough to distinguish between what the Bible says and our interpretations of it. The Biblical text might just be more sophisticated than we first imagined.”

On historical interpretations of the creation account

“The understanding of the days of Genesis as twenty-four-hour days seems to have been the dominant view for many centuries,” but certainly not the only one:

“Philo (10BC-AD 50) … thought creation was the act of a moment, and the Genesis record had more to do with principles of order and arrangement”

“Justin Martyr.. and Irenaeus… suggested the days might have been long epochs on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (“For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past”) and 2 Peter 3:8 (“With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”). Iranaeus applied this reading of Genesis to the warning God gave regarding the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (“In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) Since Adam lived on to 930 years, “He (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit.”

Augustine: “As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean… But at least know that it is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.” Augustine held that God had created everything in a moment, and that the days represented a logical sequence to explain it to us.

“Origen… pointed out that in the Genesis account the sun was not made until the fourth day… “Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first, the second, and the third day, and the evening and morning existed without the sun, moon, and stars?”

The word “day” makes no obvious sense in the absence of the sun and the earth’s rotation relative to it… Some have postulated the existence of a nonsolar light source that functioned for the first three days. However… we know nothing about such a light source, either from Scripture or from science. The logical alternative is that the sun existed at the beginning of the Genesis week… One suggestion is that on day 4 the sun, moon, and stars appeared as distinguishable lights in the sky when the cloud cover that had concealed them dissipated… “The verb ‘made’ in Genesis 1:16 does not specifically mean ‘create’… can also refer to ‘working on something that is already there’ or even ‘appointed'”… The verse is speaking about God appointing the role of the sun and moon in the cosmos.”

“In any case, the fact that some early church fathers had difficulties with interpreting the text should give us some comfort, make us more humble, and, in addition, show us that the difficulties are not all generated by modern science but arise from a serious attempt to understand the text itself.”

On the “days”

“The question of the age of the earth (and of the universe) is a separate question from the interpretation of the days… Logically possible to believe that the days of Genesis are twenty-four hour days (of one earth week) and to believe that the universe is very ancient… This has nothing to do with science. Rather, it has to do with what the text actually says.”

“Even though the Hebrew language does have a definite article (ha), it is not used in the original to qualify days one to five… it is used for days six and seven. A better translation, therefore, would be “day one, day two… day five, the sixth day, the seventh day” or “a first day, a second day … the sixth day, the seventh day.” Thus a “possibility” of “a sequence of six creation days… that might well have been separated by long periods of time.”

Does the work week pattern of Exodus 20 insist the creation week was identically structured? “There were not only similarities between God’s creation week and our work week, but also obvious differences. God’s week happened once; ours is repeated. God’s creative activity is different from ours; God does not need rest as we do… God’s week is a pattern for ours, but it is not identical.”

Human Beings: A Special Creation?

“Genesis does not deny what chemistry tells us – that all life has a material substrate of common elements… “let the earth sprout vegetation” … “let the earth bring forth living creatures” … “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” .. Therefore Genesis affirms that (human) life has a chemical base, but Genesis denies the reductionist addendum of the materialist – that life is nothing but chemistry… Genesis seems to be going out of its way to imply a direct special creation act…

“Let the earth bring forth living creatures… Let us make man… This surely deliberate repetition is a clear indicator that, according to Genesis, you cross neither the gulf between nonlife and life nor the gulf between animals and human beings by unguided natural processes.”

Regarding the attempt to find a helper among the animals: “It is interesting that the first lesson Adam was taught… is that he was fundamentally different from all other creatures.”

Unlike, for instance, “The Lord appeared to Abram” … “Genesis 1 and 2 are not talking about God revealing himself to humans that already existed, but rather explaining how those human beings came to exist in the first place.” … “There was no man to work the ground” alongside suggestions that “there were millions of Neolithic farmers in existence at the time.”

Death Before the Fall

“Paul… says that death passed upon all human beings as a result of Adam’s sin; he does not say that death passed upon all living things… We do not accuse the lion of sinning when it kills an antelope.”

Discussing the special features of carnivorous creatures: “The view that animal death did not exist before humans sinned makes the existence of predators problematic.”

“In light of the New Testament’s explicit statement “God alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16) does it follow that Adam never had intrinsic immortality, but was dependent from the beginning on regular access to an external source of food (the Tree of Life) for continued existence?”

“What was the difference, exactly, between the inside and the outside of that garden?”

“Evil in the universe appears to antedate the sin of Adam and Eve… C. S. Lewis: “Man was not the first creature to rebel against the Creator… If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.”

“It is simply false to suggest, as some do, that the only alternative to young-earth creationism is to accept the Darwinian model.”

The Message of Genesis 1

“The Genesis account… is diametrically opposed to all idolatrous interpretations of the universe, whether of the ancient, pagan kind or the modern secular variety.”

“The Biblical teaching, that the earth was specifically designed as a home for human beings, fits well with what contemporary science tells us about the fine-tuning of the universe.”

“So, both Genesis and science say that the universe is geared to supporting human life. But Genesis says more. It says that you, as a human being, bear the image of God… The galaxies are unimaginably large compared with you. However, you know that they exist, but they don’t know that you exist.”


“The idea that the universe did not come to be without the input of information and energy from an intelligent source seems to me to have been amply confirmed by scientific discovery…. The language of mathematics has proved to be a powerful tool in describing how things work. Its codification of the laws of nature into short and elegant “words” consisting of symbols surely reflect the greater Word that is ultimately responsible for the physical structures of the universe.”

“Above and beyond that… we humans possess a “word” of mind-boggling length, the human genome.

“In recent years information has come to be regarded as one of the fundamental concepts of science. One of the most intriguing things about it is that it is not physical. The information you are reading at the moment is carried on the physical medium of paper and ink. But the information itself is not material… The nonmateriality of information points to a nonmaterial source – a mind, the mind of God.”

On Literary Parallels To The Creation Account

“The impression given is of a text that is written in “exalted, semipoetical language”

“Similarities… have led some scholars to surmise that the Genesis account is derived from the Babylonian Enuma Elish… However, many scholars point out that the similarities mask much more significant differences… The God of Genesis is utterly distinct. He was not created by the universe, as were the pagan gods. It is the other way round… Furthermore, according to Genesis, human beings are created in the image of God as the pinnacle of His creation… According to the Enuma Elish, on the other hand, human beings are created as an afterthought to lighten the work of the gods… Also, by contrast with the Mesopotamian myths, Genesis has no multiplicity of warring gods and goddesses; the heavens and earth are not made out of a god… there are no deifications of stars, planets, sun, and moon – the usual names of the last two are not even used in Genesis 1.”

“It is frequently asserted that the text of Genesis is theological and literary, as distinct from historical or scientific… It is, however, perfectly possible for a text simultaneously to inform us about objective facts and to have a theological purpose.”

On Scientific Parallels To The Creation Account

Quoting “English philosopher and historian Edwyn Bevan” discussion of the Genesis days’ parallels to the scientific story of an ocean covered in thick clouds followed by emerging land followed by plant life followed by animals followed by humans: “The stages by which the earth comes to be what it is cannot be precisely fitted into the account which modern science would give of the process, but in principle they seem to anticipate the modern scientific account by a remarkable flash of inspiration…”

Andrew Parker, Research Director at the Natural History Museum in London, “The opening page of Genesis is scientifically accurate but was written long before the science was known.”

On the universe having a beginning: “What is striking is that the Bible claimed it for thousands of years, whereas scientists only recently began even to entertain the possibility that there might have been a beginning.”

From physicist Sir John Houghton: “For human beings to exist, it can be argued that the whole universe is needed. It needs to be old enough (and therefore large enough) for one generation of stars to have evolved and died, to produce the heavy elements, and then for there to be enough time for a second-generation star like our sun to form with its system of planets…”

On Theistic Evolution / God of the Gaps / Miracles

“On the seventh day God rested. The work of creation was done. That would seem to imply that what went on during the creation sequence is no longer happening.”

Michael Behe argues that “natural selection and random mutation do something,” but their limit “can be transcended only if mutations are introduced that are nonrandom.” Simon Conway Morris “suggests that the uncanny ability of evolution to find its way through the space of all possible paths… is congruent with creation.”

On the risk of theists like himself resorting to “God of the gaps” arguments: “I see evidence of God everywhere… God is the God of the whole show…” But if the universe and earth came about as a result of the natural unfolding of fine-tuned conditions and natural laws, “Theistic evolution now asks why we should introduce a special supernatural act of creation at the point of the origin of life…. Of course, the issue is not whether or not God could have done it in a particular way… The question is, did God do it all in that way?”

“Most physicists seem to be able to live with the view that the origin of space-time is a singularity… It is part of the historic Christian faith that there have been other singularities in more recent history – preeminently the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ… That being the case, I find it strange that some Christians seem to find a priori difficulty in the claim that there have been some additional singularities in the past, like the origin of life and the origin of human beings.”

Distinguishes between “miracles” that “stand out against the known regularities of the universe,” and a “supernatural” action to “set up the universe with its regularities.” “For in both Old and New Testaments, the Bible clearly distinguishes between God’s initial acts of creation on the one hand and his subsequent upholding of the universe on the other… Genesis 1 records a sequence of creation acts followed by God’s resting. “

The Religion of Geology by Edward Hitchcock (1851)

131px-Edward_HitchcockEdward Hitchcock was an old-earth creationist from the 1800’s. A pastor as well as a geological surveyor, Hitchcock’s equal passions for theology and geology were clearly on display in his work The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (1851)a series of lectures arguing for the harmonization of “revelation” (the Bible) with recent discoveries in geology. Hitchcock had an eloquent style, clearly defining his propositions and assertions, differentiating between certainties and conjectures, and kindly acknowledging objections. He argued against both young-earth and atheistic worldviews of his day, claiming that geology reveals an old earth with miraculous creative acts that “corrects” previous interpretations of Scripture and enlarges our understanding of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” expounding on not only the creation of the world but also cosmology, eschatology, and the problem of evil.

The work is freely available in the public domain on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere (I found it on Apple’s iBooks)

Overall worldview:

Hitchcock believed the Earth’s rocks have changed form since God’s original creation, according to consistent laws and forces, by the same processes presently depositing sediment layers in lakes and seas. He believed these layers contain fossils arranged orderly like “the drawers of a well-regulated cabinet,” with four or five divisions that he interpreted as separate divine acts of creations over time, as geological processes slowly “improved” the Earth’s condition for the presence of more complex creatures, in “a vast series of operations, each successive link springing out of that before it, and becoming more and more beautiful.” He saw all this as evidence of God’s “infinite wisdom” and “infinite benevolence” (phrases which occur over fifty times in the lectures).

On the role of science in interpreting the Bible:

Hitchcock argued that we use many methods to help interpret the “natural” language of the Bible, including grammar and history, and that scientific discovery is simply another viable method. He gave examples from advances in chemistry, meteorology, and astronomy that affected interpretations and argued that geology is just as qualified.

He argued that since the “object” of Scripture is the “plan of salvation,” we “ought not to expect” terms used “in their strict scientific sense,” but in their “popular acceptation.” The “earth” doesn’t necessarily mean the spherical globe proved by science, but “that part of it which was inhabited,” being all the reader would have understood. “We ought only to expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, rightly interpreted.”

Hitchcock used several examples, beginning with the setting sun as describing appearance rather than scientific accuracy. Like Miller, he quoted the older theologian Turretin as one who insisted on an unmoving central Earth, even though today the “language conveys quite a different meaning to our minds,” and no one suspects any contradiction.

Unlike previous scientific advancements, Hitchcock said some Christians had the idea that the relatively new science of geology was hostile to the Bible, and searched it not to understand but to find contradictions and attack it, resulting in “striking misapprehensions of facts and opinions, with positive and dogmatic assertions, with severe personal insinuations, great ignorance of correct reasoning in geology, and the substitution of wild and extravagant hypotheses for geological theories.” He feared they were weakening the faith, having “excited unreasonable prejudices and alarm among common Christians” against science, while awakening “disgust and even contempt among scientific men… who have inferred that a cause which resorts to such defenses must be very weak.”

While acknowledging that science has degrees of certainty, and that we should be hesitant to alter Biblical interpretation without strong reason, Hitchcock was confident that many claims of geology were solidly settled, and he discussed their connection to previous interpretations of Scripture in three main areas: the age of the earth before man, the existence of animal death before the Fall, and the extent of Noah’s flood.

On the Bible and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock believed in a literal six-day creation that occurred six thousand years ago, but he argued that Genesis 1 allows for an undefined interval between the creation of the universe out of nothing in verse 1 and the six-day creative act that followed (This sounds similar to what in the early 1900’s was called the “gap” theory, though that word does not occur in the lectures). He was “willing to admit” that “the common interpretation, which makes matter only six thousand years old, is the most natural,” but argued “the strict rules of exegesis” allow for such a gap (his defense includes a treatment of the oft-neglected Exodus 20:11 counterargument, which he argues is a simple summary that does not limit the creation of the universe itself to the six-day creating period).

Rather than describing the first creation of life, Hitchcock believed the “six days’ work” was the most recent of several creative cycles, arguing that Gen 1:2 is better translated something like “Afterwards the earth was desolate,” or “empty and vacuous,” – i.e., finally ready for the creation of man and other creatures after the extinction of the previous cycle.

(He also claimed Psalm 104 as support for this cycle view: “thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust, Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.”)

His interpretation of Genesis 1 includes discussions of “bara” (bawraw) and “asah” (awsaw) and the implications of differentiating between creating “out of nothing” and “renovation or remodeling” of previously created materials. He addressed what I believe now would be called “day-age” interpretations (see his contemporary Hugh Miller), but he thought it required too much cherry-picking to try to fit the geological record into metaphors for the six days or to have the earlier days of creation describing extinct species rather than living ones.

On science and the age of the Earth:

Hitchcock declared that “no chronological dates are registered on the rocks,” unaware that radioactivity would one day be argued to provide the very thing. Yet he believed there was enough evidence to place such unknown dates far beyond six thousand years (though he placed the six-day creation, including Man, at such time.)

Hitchcock seems to have detailed the evidence behind these beliefs in his textbook-style Elemental Geology,  but he included some details here. He said man’s remains are only found in the uppermost “alluvium” of a few hundred feet, where only slight changes have been observed in recorded history. The “six or eight miles” of rocks beneath, full of animal remains, suggest a gap closer to “ten million” than “ten” years (the closest he gets to suggesting an actual age). There was “incalculable time requisite to pile up such an immense thickness of materials, and then to harden most of them into stone.”

He declared broadly that “each successive investigation discovers new evidence of changes in composition, or organic contents, or of vertical movements effected by extremely slow agencies, so as to make the whole work immeasurably long,” far beyond lumping into “a few thousand years,” with even more time required for the “decomposition, consolidation, and metamorphosis” of the “far thicker” “non-fossiliferous rocks.” He referred to vast numbers of “vegetables” required to produce “beds of coal from one to fifty feet thick, and extending over thousands of square miles, and alternating several times with sandstone in the same basin. He referred to masses of limestone that are “nearly half composed of microscopic shells,” suggesting the need for large amounts of time for such quantities to live and die and consolidate.

Far from diminishing the power or authority of the Christian God, Hitchcock was adamant that these geological discoveries greatly increased our understanding and appreciation of the “vast plans of Jehovah,” comparing the increase of time to the increase of space. Astronomy had enlarged our knowledge of the numbers of “worlds” by millions, and thus enlarged our conception of the Author’s power, wisdom, and benevolence. He saw “as much grandeur” in the “vast duration” of time as the “vast expansion” of space – in fact, even more so, due to what he saw as evidence of God’s miraculous cyclic creative interventions:

“Mechanical philosophy introduces an unbending and unvarying law between the Creator and his works; but geology unveils his providential hand, cutting asunder that law at intervals, and planting the seeds of a new economy upon a renovated world. We thus seem to be brought into near communion with the infinite mind. We are prepared to listen to his voice when it speaks in revelation. We recognize his guiding and sustaining agency at every step of our pilgrimage. And we await in confident hope and joyful anticipation those sublime manifestations of his character and plans, and those higher enjoyments which will greet the pure soul in the round of eternal ages.”

On death before the Fall:

Unlike the book I read by Hugh Miller, which merely mentioned in passing his view that death before the Fall was an obvious reality, Hitchcock devoted an entire lecture (Lecture 3) to exploring this theology. Noting the common interpretation of animal death originating in the “apostasy” of our “first parents,” he argued that the 1 Corinthians passage (“Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead”) clearly does not include animals, and the Romans passage  (“By one man sin entered into the world, and the curse by sin”) doesn’t indicate whether animals are included or not.

If Romans allows for either possibility, and if geology is permitted to help us interpret it, Hitchcock argued that the answer is clear: while man is only found at the very top of fossil layers, animals are found in miles of rocks, many species of which could not live in current climates. Many were clearly carnivorous, as indicated by fossils of other animals inside their bodies, as part of God’s plan to keep animal populations balanced.

Hitchcock developed a theological theme of a cycle of death and resurrection: “Dead organic matter is essential to the support and nourishment of living beings.” He argued that without death there would be no nutrients to support new plant life, and animals would eventually exhaust all available food. “To exclude death… would require an entirely different system.” The carnivorous teeth, muscles for chasing prey, digestive systems for eating it, etc, would have required so much change that it must have “amounted to a new creation,” which in Hitchcock’s view surely would not have “passed unnoticed by the sacred writer.”

Hitchcock addressed the “common” view that Genesis 3 indicates “thorns and thistles” springing from the curse, arguing that this interpretation may have been influenced by Milton’s writings and that the passage could simply indicate the result of man leaving the perfect garden to tend the less fertile soil that was already there. Addressing the view that the curse on the serpent suggests effects on animals, Hitchcock argued this curse was a spiritual reference to the devil only, noting that serpents do not literally “eat dust,” and that while it was “cursed above all cattle,” modern snakes “appear as happy as other animals.”

Hitchcock argued that a “system of death” is a necessary counterpart to a “system of reproduction,” without which the fruitfully multiplying creation would soon have the world “overstocked.” While this may not seem benevolent, he argued that death is not as bad for animals as it is for intelligent, psychological men, and that total animal suffering would be worse without it (animal utilitarianism?). Without the aggravating effects of sin, he actually saw animal death as evidence of “infinite benevolence and wisdom.”

(Hitchcock devoted two additional lectures – 6 and 7 – to expanding this point. He acknowledged that a history full of “desolation and death” would seem “the very place where the objector would find arguments to prove the malevolence, certainly the vindictive justice, of the Deity.” He argued geology offers evidence of the infinite “divine benevolence” not only throughout sinless history but also in the present fallen world, harmonizing “infinite and perfect benevolence in God with the existence of evil on earth,” which he called “the grand problem of theology.”)

Hitchcock argued that man would not have understood the penalty of death if he had not seen it in animals. He also discussed a more speculative theory that historical animal death could have been caused by man’s apostasy even before the apostasy occurred as part of God’s foreknowledge and plan.

Hitchcock seemed open to the question of whether or not sinless man was immortal, suggesting that if not, the tree of life may have preserved against natural decay, and that without sin man may still have “translated” to a higher existence without “death,” like Enoch, Elijah, and the same change that “shall pass upon multitudes” when “we shall all be changed.” In this view, sin changed “not the going out of the world, but the manner of going.”

On Noah’s flood:

Hitchcock believed that ascribing all the fossil layers to a global flood was “absurd.” He argued that Genesis supports a limited regional flood, noting places in the Bible where the phrase “all the earth” only refers to known or inhabited land, not the entire globe, and noting logistical problems with holding all the animals on the Ark and dispersing them afterwards (Hugh Miller’s work went into more detail on this).

He said the Flood cannot explain the geological order of a “well-regulated cabinet,” nor the prevalence of extinct species: “with the exception of a few species near the top of the series, the fossil species are wholly unlike those now alive,” with “at least five distinct races of animals and plants,” many of a “tropical character” that could not have been “contemporaries” with living species.

Hitchcock noted that rivers mentioned in Genesis before the Flood suggest there was not a major reshaping of the land:

This theory requires us to admit, that in three hundred and eighty days the waters of the deluge deposited rocks at least six miles in thickness, over half or two thirds of our existing continents; and these rocks made up of hundreds of thick beds, exceedingly unlike one another in composition and organic contents.

He claimed to have no theological problems resorting to miracle to explain things if necessary, but if history showed not only difficulties, but irreconcilable contradictions, and if a limited flood was consistent with the text and removed the difficulties, then he saw history as revealing a limited flood to be the correct interpretation.

On evolution:

Hitchcock argued in Lecture 9 against the Lamarckian “theory of development” which claimed to show how “all the higher families” “may have been evolved.” He saw this “hypothesis of creation by law” as an attempt to explain “how animals and plants may be produced without any special exercise of creating power on the part of the Deity.” Spontaneous generation was said to support the natural emergence of life “without parentage,” but Hitchcock argued that improvements in science were ruling out more and more claims of such abiogenesis. He correctly predicted that “more scrutinizing observation” would reveal the last remaining footholds of tiny creatures to follow the same pattern of “descending from parents” observed in larger animals.

He argued against claims that the “mammalian embryo” evolves as it forms, literally beginning life as an insect, and becoming a fish, etc, believing (perhaps presciently, in a pre-DNA paradigm) “the human condition results from laws as fixed as those that regulate the movements of the heavenly bodies.”

He noted that hybrid species are generally infertile, and uncommon in the wild, declaring that there seem to be “strong barriers around species.” He claimed animals described in the “catacombs of Egypt” “three thousand years ago” “are precisely like the living species.”

He admitted that the “general” view of geology seems to support the theory of “development” but claims “the tables are turned when we descend to particulars.” He claimed the first members of each epoch are “higher,” not “lower,” and even show signs of “degradation,” not progression, as time unfolds.  He said strata are marked by “sudden changes” with “entirely different” species “of a higher grade than those that preceded them, but could not have sprung from them.” He explained his theory that as the earth slowly changed and improved, old groups “died out” as it become “unsuited” to them, and the Creator brought in new “more complicated and perfect” groups better adapted to the new conditions.

He said vertebrates “become more and more complex as we rise on the scale of the rocks,” but there “does not appear to have been much advance” of invertebrate classes, except in numbers and variety. Similarly, flowering plants have gradually advanced and now “predominate,” but flowerless plants “seem to have been as perfect at first as they now are.”

He said the “doctrine of development by law” cannot explain the “wonderful adaptation” of animals and plants to the conditions of the world without making the law as intelligent as the Deity himself. He concluded that the idea “corresponds only in a loose and general way to the facts, and cannot be reconciled to the details. If that hypothesis cannot get a better foothold somewhere else, it will soon find its way into the limbo of things abortive and forgotten.” (Fascinatingly, it was only ten years later that Darwin changed the course of history by presenting such a foothold.)

To Hitchcock, the evidence against such ideas was so “overwhelming” that he speculated that its advocates simply “do not like the idea of a personal, present, overruling Deity.”

On intelligent design:

With remarkable similarity to modern discussions on “intelligent design,” Hitchcock came close to using the very phrase when he referred to “the evidences of high intelligence and unity of design” in Lecture 8 (which even opens with a brief discussion of “the human eye”!)

Hitchcock described creation as “a series of harmonies, wheel within wheel, in countless variety, yet all forming one vast and perfect machine.” He argued that this harmony pervades the entire history of the planet, and that the same laws of physics and chemistry applied throughout (he refers to “the distinct impressions of rain-drops” in red sandstone layers as evidence that “meteorology” has been consistent).

“The present and past conditions of this world are only parts of one and the same great system of infinite wisdom and benevolence.” From biology to chemistry, “one golden chain of harmony links all together, and identifies all as the work of the same infinite mind.” Quoting William Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise, he said there is so much uniformity of construction and adaptation “that we can scarcely fail to acknowledge in all these facts a demonstration of the unity of the intelligence in which such transcendent harmony originated.”

He also spoke in Lecture 5 of the “argument from design.” “When geology shows us, not the commencement of matter, but of organism, and presents us with full systems of animals and plants springing out of inorganic elements, where is the law that exhibits even a tendency to such results? Nothing can explain them but the law of miracles; that is, creation by divine interposition.”

He argued that this natural evidence for miraculous intervention supported the Christian idea that God would also intervene in history by giving us his Word.

On atheism:

Hitchcock also had some interesting comments on atheism, which he saw the evolutionary hypothesis as tending towards (or, at best, towards a hands-off theism that was still “dangerous,” as it “may swing off into utter irreligion”). He argued against two common arguments that were used to support atheism, which today have been largely forgotten. Hitchcock was remarkably accurate in predicting the demise of both arguments. The first, as referenced above, was that spontaneous generation proved there was no need of a creator to specifically create life.

The second was the idea that the universe was eternal, having always existed and thus needing no creator to kick things off, contra Genesis 1:1. It is often now forgotten that this was a common belief before the Big Bang of the twentieth century. Hitchcock argued that, regardless of the eternity of matter itself, the Earth at least must have had a beginning, and that geology shows modifications of matter only explained by a Deity. He said natural laws may turn a ball of fire into sea and land, but only God could populate the chaos or void with life, initially as well as after each major extinction. “To prove that any organic system shows a tendency to ruin is to show that it had a beginning.” From this he conjectured that if earth and life had beginnings, surely all matter did also? Correctly anticipating the coming overturn of cosmology, he said, “Science has not yet placed within the reach of man the means of proving its non-eternity.”


In hindsight, some of Hitchcock’s work seems more eccentric than brilliant. For instance, he speculated about a very materialistic “new heaven and new Earth” as a final cycle of destruction and re-creation, conjecturing about resurrected bodies made of “ether” that could survive while a new crust cools from the fiery destruction!

Overall, however, given the scientific context of the time, it is remarkable how well most of these lectures hold up over one hundred and fifty years late. Many of Hitchcock’s predictions came true, and many other concepts that have been refined still contain relevant principles. From philosophical bantering about the relation of scripture and science, to exegetical delving into the days of creation, to the “Cambrian explosion” as an example of miraculous creative intervention, many of the same sorts of ideas are still discussed today (often with folks completely unaware that someone two centuries prior thoughtfully engaged the points they bring up).

Hitchcock’s love for both the Bible and natural science shine throughout these engaging lectures. He marveled how the “disturbance and dislocation” of long, slow geological processes could create beautiful scenery, from Niagara to the Alps, that “so intensely gratified” the soul; he saw this as evidence of the “predominance of benevolence” of a Creator who “delights in the happiness of his creatures.” He developed a philosophy of miracles to explain the interaction of natural laws and supernatural intervention, including answers to prayer. He bemoaned that “a large proportion” of the church had “yielded” to skepticism and forsaken the “fasting and prayer” of their forefathers, and wished they would be “led back to the Bible doctrine.”

Regardless of the accuracy or inaccuracy of his geological views, it cannot be said that he held them in ignorance of the Bible’s teachings, or out of a desire to accommodate evolutionary or atheistic ideas, which he argued against as forcefully as any young-earth creationist of his time or ours. By contrast, he believed geology, “rightly understood,” strengthened the case for a personal loving God of “infinite wisdom and benevolence.” May his work be a comfort to anyone struggling with such issues today.


God and Aliens and Outer Space: Are We Still Special In The Universe?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers
The moon and the stars, which you have set in place
What is man that you are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the angels
And crowned him with glory and honor
– Psalm 8

There have been two particularly interesting developments in astronomy in the last few decades. The first is the discovery of exosolar planets – that is, planets outside our solar system. The second is the discovery of liquid water on planets and moons inside our solar system. Both developments have accelerated in recent years and show no signs of stopping. Both have fascinating implications for our understanding of our place in the universe.

Humans are the most dominant living creatures on a little round ball that teems with life, from the deepest hydrothermal vents to the coldest poles and highest mountaintops. This fertile sphere exists in a mind-boggling vast universe that, as far as we know, has no other life in it. There are numerous ways to make sense of all this, but they tend to fall into two broad camps: Special and Not-So-Special.

Source: NASA
The Earth rising, as viewed from the Moon (Source: NASA)

Special Or Not So Special, That Is The Question

The Special camp says that we appear to be alone in the universe because we are special. A representative sample of this kind of philosophy can be found in the “Rare Earth hypothesis,” which says that the origin of life and any progression to intelligence require such “an improbable combination of astrophysical and geological events and circumstances” that extraterrestrial life, especially the complex or intelligent variety, is likely to be extremely rare, if it exists at all. The hypothesis emphasizes how our planet is in the right location in the right kind of galaxy, orbiting at the right distance from the right type of star, with the right arrangement of planets, in a continuously stable orbit, with a solid surface and an atmosphere and plate tectonics and a large moon, and so on, and so forth.

A Special Earth does not demand that it was created by God, nor does belief in God demand a Special Earth, but they generally tend to suggest each other. (See “The Privileged Planet“.) If our existence within this universe is sufficiently improbable, it’s rather compelling to suggest that Something – or Someone – outside our universe intentionally set it up with that outcome in mind. Of course, such a Someone could have set up our universe with intelligent life teeming across other stars and galaxies as well. But many religions tend to assume some centrality to humanity and planet Earth. The Christian’s Bible does not (in my opinion) explicitly rule out life on other planets, but it certainly portrays God as more interested in humanity than anything else of his creation, from the beginning of this universe to its end.

By contrast, the Non-Special camp claims Earth is “a typical rocky planet in a typical planetary system, located in a non-exceptional region of a common barred-spiral galaxy.” This “mediocrity principle” tends to view the universe’s contents as spread out along fairly uninteresting statistical distributions. Wherever life does arise, it might think of itself as special due to its own selection bias, lack of imagination, and circular reasoning, but Non-Specialists see no objective reason to posit such a thing. Earth appears to exist under finely-tuned circumstances, but they view that as reversed logic and see no reason to assume that life couldn’t have simply developed differently, with a similar appearance of fine-tuning, if any given parameter had been different.

With the variety and vast quantities of stars and galaxies, Non-Specialists believe the universe is overwhelmingly abundant in life. The fact that we have not yet discovered any of that life is known as the Fermi Paradox. WaitButWhy has an entertaining and informative post that describes many of the speculative explanations for this paradox. After all, most stars are pretty far away and our technology is still pretty limited.

A Non-Special Earth does not demand atheistic origins, nor do atheistic beliefs demand a Non-Special Earth, but they generally tend to go together as well (see Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, etc). If the unfolding of the universe was not guided by any intelligent purpose, it tends to follow that there is nothing special about our existence. If we are simply one of billions of life forms across the galaxies, that doesn’t disprove God as creator of it all, but it certainly makes such views less compelling than the idea that everything was specially designed just for us. For Christians, if intelligent life – if the very image of God – isn’t special to humanity, it introduces sticky questions about sin and salvation and the whole theology of God becoming Man.

The Story Thus Far

It might be natural to think of the arc of scientific progress as bending from Special to Non-Special for a long time. The ancients assumed the sun and the planets all went around the Earth. Now we know our planet orbits the sun just like the others. We used to think of the sun as a distinct object in the sky. Now we know it’s a giant nuclear fusion factory orbiting a black hole like all the other stars in our galaxy. We used to think all stars were part of our galactic system. Now we know there are about as many galaxies out there as stars in the Milky Way, spreading across a universe that is far vaster than we had ever imagined.

Yet in that vastness we have reclaimed our significance. We ooh and aah over the Hubble Space Telescope’s images of vibrant galaxies as demonstrations of God’s power and creativity. The heavens declare the glory of God, like never before.

We contrast the hostility of the vast dark and cold and radiation and black holes and gamma ray bursts with the charming comfort of our planet. Its protective ozone layer and magnetic fields and our large neighbor to scoop up deadly asteroids and all those other properties make our home feel so safe and Special in the context of all that outer death and darkness.

Guillermo Gonzalez argues in The Case For A Creator that our inconspicuous off-center position in the galaxy puts us in an excellent position to observe and discover the rest of the universe. Intriguingly, the relative sizes and distances of our sun and moon create perfect solar eclipses that have helped us learn about the contents of stars and confirm general relativity. “The very time and place where perfect solar eclipses appear in our universe also corresponds to the one time and place where there are observers to see them.”

In other words, it’s not just that it seems special that we are here at all to comprehend our own existence. It takes even more specialness – being in the right place to discover the vastness of the universe – to be able to comprehend that our existence is special! Special upon Special…

In that sense, nothing has really changed since David penned his psalm under the spiral arm of the Milky Way in the night sky three thousand years ago. Modern discovery has exponentially amplified the dynamics, but it’s the same story: God’s created universe is amazing, and what a mystery that humanity is so Special within it!

The New Kids In The Universe

Exoplanet discoveries per year (Source: Wiki)
Exoplanet discoveries per year (Source: Wiki)

Yet the very progress of astronomy that has enhanced our Special place for so long is now threatening to undo it.

Ever since science revealed our sun to be one of the stars, humans have speculated that other stars might have planets, too, but the technology wasn’t there to verify it. When I was born in the late 1980’s, scientists still had not confirmed a single exoplanet. We were just beginning to uncover possibilities – looking for the brief but regular dimming of stars being transited by giant planets whose orbital plane happened to cross our line of sight, or the subtle but regular shift in a star’s radial velocity from the gravitational effect of a near, giant orbiting planet.

The first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992. More planets trickled in as we grew up. Technology improved, new detection methods were found, smaller and smaller planets became observable. The trickle became a stream, and then a torrent – at the beginning of this year (2015) NASA announced confirmation of the 1000th exoplanet. Nine months later the number has already almost doubled, with thousands more candidates waiting for the due diligence of confirmation. Direct imaging is now within our limits. Further technological advances will only increase all of this.

We have just entered a golden age of discovery. Every few months now, it seems, NASA announces a new milestone crossed in the search for planets: new candidates of “near-Earth” size in the “habitable zone”; the closest rocky planet yet found! Each announcement serves to underscore the huge gap still separating Earth from all the others, yet at the same time increasing the confidence that more of the gap will be filled by the relentless mathematics of astronomical numbers. (See the wiki “exoplanet” article for much more.)

How special is a one-in-a-million property if there are 200 billion planets in the Milky Way? Is Earth the only one with a tilt-stabilizing moon in a circular-enough orbit in the habitable zone for liquid water?

Speaking of liquid water, this brings us to the other accelerating major development in astronomy: the detection and confirmation of water throughout the solid bodies of our own solar system.

Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Jupiter’s moon Europa was suspected for decades to have liquid water under its icy surface. Gravitational and magnetic measurements in the late 90’s from the Galilean missions strengthened such theories. In 2013 plumes of water eruptions venting from the subsurface ocean were announced by Hubble. In 2014, active plate tectonics were confirmed.

Source: NASA

In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft spotted geysers venting from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Last year, scientists detected signs of a subsurface ocean near the southern pole. Last month, they announced signs that the ocean is global.


Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Magnetic readings in 2000 suggested the possibility of an ocean on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Spring 2015 saw the announcement of even stronger aurora-based indications of a global saltwater ocean with more water volume than Earth’s.

Source: NASA
Source: NASA

Mars has seen a steady stream of water-related discoveries in the last few decades, from indications of liquid water under the polar ice caps to evidence of powerful streams and vast oceans in the past to moisture in the present soil to last month’s headline of patterns of salty brine emerging just under the surface.

Potential candidates for future headlines include Callisto, Titan, Triton, and more. (See the wiki “extraterrestial liquid water” article for more information and a cool infographic.)

What’s the big deal with liquid water? Water is a special property, a sort of “Earth among chemicals,” with its ability to dissolve almost anything and allow other substances to play around with each other. Its solid form expands and floats on top, protecting instead of crushing what lies below. As far as we know it is utterly necessary not only to sustain life, but to allow life to arise from non-life at all (assuming that such a thing is actually possible, that is).

We used to think it was only possible for liquid water to consistently exist within a pretty narrow “habitable range” of a star on a rocky planet with a proper atmosphere and rotation. Too close: boiled. Too far: frozen. Locked in orbit with the same side facing the sun: both. Earth was only object in our solar system that was even close to qualifying.

But now: Earth. Mars. Jupiter. Saturn. Fully half the planetary bodies seem to be qualifiers, either themselves or through their moons. We wrote off gas giants as totally inhospitable to life! But what does that matter if their moons have liquid oceans hiding under the surface of that protective ice?

We haven’t even begun to detect exosolar moons. Jupiter alone oversees two oceans – at least! This potentially expands not just one major limiting factor of the rare Earth hypothesis, but several: maybe you don’t need an atmosphere or magnetic field to protect whatever might develop under ice, either.

Does this bump up the odds of life by an order of magnitude by itself? Is the Special theory too narrow after all?

Many Non-Specialists seem to think so. There are corners of the Internet practically giddy in anticipation at finding life hiding under every dihydrogen-monoxide collection in the cosmos. Some seem to have an overwhelming confidence that given the right time and conditions, well, “life finds a way,” and we’re finding the conditions everywhere!

In my opinion, such confidence springs more from Hollywood than science. Liquid water could exist on every moon and planet in the galaxy and still leave far longer odds than many seem to realize. But if the aforementioned factors can be bested by such unanticipated discoveries, who knows what other possibilities may exist out there that we haven’t imagined, either?

But there is still a fundamental mystery. We don’t know whether or not we’re going to find life. For the first time in the history of humanity, we’re on the verge of being able to quantify how special the Earth really is as a planet in the universe. As the reports of new planets keep rolling in, with candidates of ever-increasing similarities to Earth – just as you’d expect from a random statistical distribution – our home seems to be on the verge of finally losing its Special thunder.

Yet as we continue to fail to discover life despite a continual increase in potential habitability, the Not-So-Special Fermi Paradox only deepens. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop of life?! Just as the vastness of a hostile universe made Earth seem more Special than ever, the emptiness of a habitable universe makes life on Earth seem more Special than ever. Maybe time plus conditions can’t equal life on its own. Maybe life doesn’t just “find a way.”

What If…?

But what if we do discover life out there one day?

If the history of astronomy is any indication, I predict it won’t come in the form of an alien spaceship or a poem on a distant radio wave. If it comes, it will come in fits and hints and pieces. Instrument readings of oxygen and carbon dioxide on some distant planet, or microscopic fossils on an outer moon that aren’t quite conclusive, or bacteria on a rover that just might have hitched a ride from Earth, until more evidence trickles in and skepticism starts to diminish and finally it becomes apparent after years and years that, yes, life has, at least once, maybe in the past, undeniably lived somewhere besides Earth.

It would be the most stunning scientific discovery in history. And we will ask ourselves again: Are we still Special?

The answer in large part will depend on what we find, and how much of it. Perhaps the Special line will simply move up to complex life or intelligent life, with the Not-So-Specialers continuing to expect it to one day vanish altogether. Will that life have the same kind of DNA? Would that suggest a Universal Programmer? Or more outlandish theories of panspermia?

Let’s consider the worst case scenario for the Special camp: we discover intelligent life abundant in the universe. Earth, life, even humans become unequivocally Not Special. Maybe not even the most dominant creature of all creation. What would that mean for theology?

Such prospects are exceedingly speculative. Nevertheless, I predict that many atheists would see this as vindication of their ever more compelling worldview. (Though I think they should be careful what they wish for; we very well may find ourselves asking why a blind universe seems programmed to develop so much life.)

But I predict that theism would not go quietly into the night. Christians who previously insisted that the Bible ruled out alien life would reinterpret it as not speaking to the issue one way or another. And through the intergalactic crowds and chatter, we would reclaim the mystery of Special once again. If God answers prayers and performs miracles, if Jesus rose from the dead, if the Holy Spirit transforms the lives of men and women from depravity to glory – these are truths that are unaffected by the existence or non-existence of life on other worlds, intelligent or not, just as they are and always have been unaffected by the shape of the Earth, or its age, or its position in the universe. The existence of other life would simply elevate these truths of God’s interest in man to another level of wonder, and we would cry out yet again, with a deeper emotion than ever before,

What is man, that you are mindful of him?

Why Doesn’t God Heal Amputees?

Recently over the Internet I have expressed in a couple of places my belief in God answering prayers and both times I was asked why God never heals amputees. This is my attempt to provide a thoughtful response to this Question, though I do not claim to have a definitive answer.

The Question

The Question arises from three apparent observations. The first observation is that there are thousands, if not millions, of claims throughout history, across the Internet, and among personal testimonies, that the Christian God of the Bible has answered prayers and performed miracles. The second observation is that there are thousands, if not millions, of examples where this same God clearly has not answered prayers or performed miracles as expected. The third observation is that the examples of unanswered prayers generally tend to involve more difficult situations than the examples of answered prayers, even though a cursory reading of the Bible seems to suggest that “extraordinary” miracles should be no less prevalent than “easy” ones. The third observation appears to create a contradiction between the first two.

There are two primary methods of reconciling this apparent contradiction. Christians tend to accept the first observation as true and try to rationalize the second; they assert possible theological explanations for why God often does not answer prayers as expected. Atheists tend to accept the second observation as evidence that the first observation is false; they assert possible natural explanations for all of the claimed answers to prayer.

The Transporter

I believe the difference between these two approaches is clear, but the implication of each approach is so important that I would like to risk my reader’s attention span with an elaborate analogy.

Suppose you meet a man who claims to have invented a transporter after watching every episode of “Star Trek.” He claims this transporter will instantly transport him anywhere in the universe, and he has used it to visit dozens of countries across the globe and even other planets. You express skepticism that one could learn how to build such advanced technology merely from watching a TV show, but he says he will prove its power if you come to his house.

You arrive the next morning, expecting a full tour and demonstration of the machine, but the man does not oblige. He claims the transporter is in a room on the second floor of the house, but if you wait here he will go up the stairs and into the room and instantaneously transport himself to the basement, where he will come up the stairs and greet you with a smile. The man goes up the stairs. You hear strange whirrings and accelerating pitches, followed by complete silence. Suddenly the basement door opens, and the man appears.

You are impressed, but not convinced. Perhaps he has some hidden elevator or trapdoor to physically take him to the basement. “If this machine can take you anywhere, why don’t you let me see it? Or why don’t you transport yourself hundreds of miles away? That would prove it once and for all!” But for some reason the man acts uninterested in such displays. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll transport to the basement again.”

Determined to discover the truth, you sneak into the man’s house while he is away and visit the upstairs room. You see a strange-looking machine and are scared to touch it. But you install a tiny camera in the room and another camera in the basement.

Morning comes, and the man again tells you to wait in the front room while he carries out his demonstration. Once again, he appears from the basement after a couple minutes of noise from the machine. “Are you convinced now?” he asks.

You say nothing, but go home and review the footage. You are astonished to watch the man step up to the machine, press some buttons, wait a minute, and then completely disappear from the first screen, instantaneously appearing on the other!

Now you have an interesting predicament. If the man refuses to demonstrate a transportation across the country because the machine does not work at all, there must be an explanation for his apparent transportation across the house. However, if the man has truly transported across his house, there must be an explanation for his apparent reluctance to demonstrate a transportation across the country. Perhaps the machine is not so powerful, or maybe big transportations use a lot of electricity, or maybe he doesn’t want people to find out and break in to take advantage of it, or maybe he’s just an eccentric who wanted you to say please. But – and here is the crucial point – just because we don’t have that explanation, it would be absurd to conclude that the machine must not do anything at all!

We can now relate this predicament back to the Atheist, the Christian, and the Question. If God never seems to provide clear, undeniable and reliably documented evidence of a big and obvious miracle when he is supposed to have the power to do so, there must be a natural explanation for all of his other credited miracles – placebos, coincidence, poorly understood body functions, and the like. But if there is no natural explanation for some of those miracles, and God has truly answered some prayers, then there must be an explanation for the prayers that aren’t answered, and it would be absurd to conclude from a lack of such an explanation that God hasn’t answered any of the prayers.

Unfortunately, there is uncertainty about either resolution. I may find the natural explanations for asserted answers to prayer unsatisfying, but you may find the theological explanations for unanswered prayers unsatisfying. We do not have a complete explanation of either, so we cannot make a truly objective decision. We must accept on faith that one of the explanations is more satisfying than the other, and our existing biases and experiences will play an enormous role in which explanations we consider to be more satisfying.

If you are still with me, I am now ready to make my case. First, I will attempt some feeble arguments to make the theological explanations for unanswered prayers a little less unsatisfying. Second, I will attempt to explain why I am content to have incomplete explanations for them because I find natural explanations for many answered prayers much more unsatisfying.

Theological Explanations For Unanswered Prayers

If we are going to consider explanations to close the “gap” of unanswered prayers, we should start by considering how large that gap actually is, as it is important not to exaggerate its true scope. I don’t know how many amputees, for instance, have never prayed for healing but I suspect the number is greater than zero; many may not expect “major” healing because they have never seen it, which could possibly be a reinforcing cycle. And I do find it interesting that statements like “God never heals amputees who pray for healing” are generally asserted without any accompanying evidence of amputees who have prayed for healing and not received it.

This does not suggest that the scope of unanswered prayers is not very large; it is not difficult to find someone who has earnestly sought healing and not received it, and I have no shortage of first-hand examples myself. I am not denying that there is no gap, but I do think it may be smaller than is often implied.

Now on to the gap itself. Gaetano linked me to a comprehensive essay which lists many Bible verses that seem to indicate God should heal amputees, and responds to many so-called rationalizations of why God seemingly doesn’t.

I agree that some of the rationalizations are weak, though I think some of them in some combination may explain at least some of the unanswered prayers, and I think the author’s subjective rejection is somewhat amusing in its presumption of telling God what he is allowed to do or not do.

For example, the author rejects the idea that God would not do obvious miracles by pointing to examples of publicly reported healings. But how can that be evidence God does no miracles at all? Either the healing was not so obvious after all, in which case it does not support his argument, or the healing really was obvious, in which case the author has admitted he will not be convinced by obvious reports of miracles!

Regarding another point, I have no problem using God’s divine providence combined with his allowance of the consequences of free will to explain a large part of the gap, and some Christians might use it for the whole thing, although I appreciate that atheists find this both unsatisfying and unfalsifiable.

I think it is important to recognize that the Bible itself places limits on answered prayers. Yes, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive,” but James also said “You do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” I emphatically do not mean to imply that unanswered prayers for healing might be selfish prayers, but I think it is clear that James opens the door for limits on the statements of Jesus that appear to be unlimited by themselves. We also see the disciples being surprised they could not cast out a demon that Jesus could (Matthew 17), which suggests some events may be more complicated than even Jesus’ closest followers expected from some of his teachings. If we are going to argue about whether or not the Bible is reflected in reality we need to consider the entire Bible in context.

Finally, there is one possibly provocative explanation that I have not yet seen addressed. Many Christians may not actually believe those words of Jesus about receiving “whatever you ask for in prayer” or “Nothing will be impossible to you”.

This may seem like an odd accusation to make of millions of people who claim to be following Christ, but it is trivial to find other words of Jesus that millions of Christians do not seem to actually believe in practice, whether they are ignoring those verses, rationalizing them away, or even correctly interpreting them in context. So why should we be surprised if they also do not literally believe “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”?

There is plenty of debate among Christian theologies as to what role faith plays specifically in healing, but to be as fair as possible to multiple streams I think the Scripture is clear that at a bare minimum it at least sometimes plays some definite role (e.g. Jesus saying “Your faith has made you well”, or James saying “This prayer made in faith will heal the sick”). If this is true, then perhaps we should not be surprised that we tend to fail to see “big” healings around us. I believe in healing and even I admit I do not think I have enough faith (yet?) to pray for God to heal an amputee and believe that it would happen.

This may seem like a convenient explanation, and it may have a bit of a “no true Scotsman” fallacy that carries an enormous risk of shredding any comfort and compassion (i.e. anyone who doesn’t get healed must not have had enough faith), but I think it is at least a reasonable hypothesis for some situations. Possible evidence in favor of this hypothesis might be that the more you go beyond the “nominal” Christians who have simply layered Christ over their regular lives and find the radicals who live crazy lives devoted to Christ, the more you find more exciting stories of miracles that lack satisfying natural explanations.

Natural Explanations For Answered Prayers

Take the life of George Muller.

Muller’s autobiography is a public domain text available on Project Gutenberg. Muller describes how he was surprised that many Christians around him did not believe the Bible’s radical statements about things like answered prayers, and he decided to literally live a life that would prove it. Muller started an orphanage, and despite never asking for donations or expressing his needs, the orphanage grew and his prayers for provision were consistently answered, often in remarkable ways.

Perhaps the most famous incident is when he gathered the children to thank God for providing breakfast even though they did not have any food available, and as soon as the prayer finished, a milkman knocked on the door because his cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage. There are numerous other incidents of the orphanage repeatedly coming extremely close to having absolutely nothing, with unasked-for provision arriving just in time.

How does one explain this? If these things were happening by random chance, it seems statistically unlikely that they would repeatedly come so close to zero, so to speak, without ever actually crossing it. Perhaps Muller was lying about never asking for help, but it seems unlikely that such a pious humble man who devoted his life to caring for orphans would have such a blatant vice. Perhaps others were keeping an eye on Muller and expressing his needs, but in that case it seems odd that they would repeatedly let him get so close to nothing, and also that no one ever came forward to so easily disprove Muller’s claims, or that no one was ever found doing so.

You can find similarly flavored testimonies from saints across the ages, present-day missionaries to other countries, workers in inner cities, and even (if you go looking) scattered rather thickly among “regular” believers in churches across the country. What intrigues me about many of these occurrences is that they defy some of the natural explanations that might close the gap for many other answered prayers.

First, many of these answers are immune to the placebo effect that can be used to explain some answered prayers, especially those of the headache-healing variety.

Second, many of these answers to prayer are too specific to be explained by statistical coincidence, unlike more simple “binary” prayers. You pray for rain, and sometimes it does but sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t pray for rain, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Someone may be convinced that God answered a prayer for rain, but what if it was just statistically bound to happen and their selective memory forgot the unanswered prayers for rain? But thanking God for food right before a milkman knocks on your door – that’s a whole ‘nother level of probability. For that to be likely, you would expect many other instances of milk carts breaking down farther up the road, or other carts breaking down in front of the house when they didn’t need its contents, or carts breaking down the day after they needed it, etc, etc. That answered prayer was like hitting a very small bullseye, and if it was all random you would expect a lot of near-hits in the outer rings as well. Perhaps if we knew more about nineteenth century Germany we could say that some of those near-hits were common but ignored by Muller. But in my opinion, there are many testimonies of prayers where an answer hit the bullseye without any statistically expected near-answers along the way.

Third, many of these answers to prayer are too big to be explained by statistical coincidence. The essayist seems to think all claims of answered prayer can be explained this way; I simply disagree. You might say even the most specific answers would not be surprising if we also examined all the similar prayers that were unanswered – though I find this unconvincing. But some answers are so remarkable that the statistical occurrence should be zero. I don’t care how many examples you can find of someone unsuccessfully telling a cripple to get up and walk; the fact that it has actually happened once to someone I know makes all others irrelevant. To attribute stories like these to the body’s “remarkable” powers of self-healing is to stretch the credulity that the atheist does not have some unfalsifiable beliefs himself.

An atheist might still reject these testimonies by claiming they are not reliably documented. This is a valid strike against many, but I would caution the atheist against deceiving himself into exaggerating his own objectivity. In theory, documentation objectively proves things, but in practice it is subjective. While my bias may set a threshold of proof too low, an atheist’s bias may set a threshold of proof too high. It is always possible to demand higher thresholds of proof for historical events if you are highly suspicious for other reasons that, in your mind, remain more important than the evidence presented.

There may be no possible threshold to convince a conspiracist that NASA landed on the moon, because no matter how convincing the evidence you offer, it is no match for their belief in a deceptive and propagandist government and/or their belief in the unassailable difficulty of the feat. In the analogy of the transporter, it may be impossible to convince a friend who thinks the man’s refusal of a big presentation is so suspicious that it counters all other evidence. You offer your video evidence, but he might question how you know the man didn’t tamper with it before you retrieved it, or suggest that the recording mechanism hiccuped right when he disappeared, or ask if you’ve analyzed the house for hidden trapdoors. Your friend may believe he’s only asking for objective evidence, but his existing bias affects the level of evidence that will satisfy him.

Similarly, many atheists sincerely proclaim hypothetical examples that would convince them that God answers prayers, but like a hypothetical political philosophy that can always argue its imagined world would be better then practiced realities, I wonder how they would react were such events to occur in the real, messy, complicated world we live in – if they would not request yet higher thresholds of proof because the real events were not quite as clean as what they had in mind. As we have seen already, even newspaper accounts are no match for what I can only presume is an appeal to a “nature of the gaps” that allowed the girl to recover in ways medical science does not yet understand. Perhaps God has healed an amputee somewhere, after all, and he just didn’t feel like waiting for someone with a camera to show up.

Many atheists seem to approach prayer as a “science,” looking for ways to test and measure and reproduce it. I think it may be more useful to approach it as “history,” in the sense of analyzing the evidence for many claims of historical events, and what thresholds of proof we need to decide whether or not they actually occurred. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” as they like to say – but who gets to decide how extraordinary the claims are, and how much do existing biases affect how extraordinary a claim seems? Besides, any one claim of answered prayer might be extraordinary on its own, but what if God is answering prayers every single day?


After all, I do believe such events have occurred many times over, and even when you strip away the overwhelming numbers of coincidences and placebos and completely undocumented hearsay, the only explanation I see remaining is outright fraud, and in my opinion there are still far too many significant evidences presented by pious people who had no incentive to deceive their listeners and no incentive to continue their often difficult and thankless lifestyles if they knew they were lying (which, incidentally, is parallel to some compelling arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the initial growth of Christianity).

We return to the initial observations that began this overlong essay. If there are too many stories out there of “small” miracles and too few stories of “big” ones, it might suggest that the small ones are irrelevant coincidences and the big ones are misunderstandings, frauds, or fakes. But if any of the big ones are legitimate historical events that cannot be naturally explained, then answered prayers are a reality, and it doesn’t matter how much you don’t like the theological explanations for all of the un-answered prayers because reality doesn’t care what you think about it!

In my opinion, the lack of compelling natural explanations for the strongest stories of answered prayers is a bigger gap than the lack of compelling theological explanations for the strongest stories of unanswered prayers. Of course, I may have arrived at such a conclusion through a faulty maze of assumptions, generalizations, and overlooked considerations, and as such I invite any challenges to the ideas presented herein (just please do not expect me to respond in a timely manner).

God of the Gaps

When science can’t explain something, some people attribute it to the work of God, and later sometimes science figures out how to explain it. This “God of the gaps” has been discussed all over the Internet, including in this interesting talk between atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and Mormon pseudo-libertarian Glenn Beck (at about 22:40):

“Atheists often refer to the ‘God of the margins’, which is, as time goes on, we put less and less on God, and more and more on things that we find out.”

The idea is that science keeps explaining more things, disproving primitives who used to believe that there had to be supernatural explanations for them. “Galileo and Newton undid the idea that planetary motion was accomplished through the efforts of angels.”

Some theologians think such “gaps” should never have been attributed to God in the first place. Some say the advance of science has actually vindicated theists on some things, or that such advancement simply portrays the laws of nature God invented. Meanwhile, atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to mock theists for having small imaginations that are continuously being assaulted by science’s advance.

Whatever the case, the entire discussion seems to revolve around the assumption that the gaps in scientific knowledge are shrinking, and whether or not this helps or hurts the arguments for God.

But I think this assumption is false. The gaps in scientific knowledge are not shrinking. In fact, they are growing faster than ever.

Yes, we are constantly discovering new things, but I think people sometimes get the impression that science is like an unknown land, where every discovery uncovers a new bit of ground and leaves that much less ground still to uncover. But reality is a lot messier than that.

First, a lot of new scientific knowledge merely overturns previously discovered knowledge. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food details the abrupt reversals in nutrition recommendations over the last century. Matt Ridley has discussed some of the scientific “consensus” that has changed over the ages: “There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of which proved false.” It seems like every couple of decades the experts change their minds about whether back sleeping or stomach sleeping is safest for babies. Samuel Arbesman has actually tried to measure “how long it takes for half of the knowledge” in various scientific fields “to be overturned.” Often, new discoveries simply reveal that old discoveries were based on wrong assumptions or  misinterpreted data or inadequate studies that have been replaced with (hopefully more accurate) new ones – or rather, refilling gaps we thought we had already filled.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that all science is like this. Science is supposed to correct its earlier mistakes, of course, but there is also plenty of real advancement! Sometimes these “corrections” are actually tweaks that get us continually closer and closer to the truth. Newton had his physics that explained the movements of most of our everyday objects, and then Einstein came along and tweaked the equations with weird quantum stuff that explained the movement of everyday objects and the weird stuff that Newton couldn’t explain. (Pardon any oversimplifications or technical errors… I’m a little rusty on my physics.) Newton was right, but Einstein was more right.  He filled in a little more gap, making the gap smaller. Right?

Well, not exactly. This leads me to my second point: even when science fills a gap, it often does it with new understandings that reveal bigger gaps that we didn’t even known about before. Sure, we don’t have to invoke angels to explain the movements of the planets anymore. But the equations of gravity left us with an even bigger problem; we can explain how planets move around their stars, but we can’t explain why the stars all stick together in galaxies (there doesn’t seem to be enough stuff at that level) or why the galaxies are all flying away from each other (there seems to be too much stuff at that level).

So scientists have come up with “dark matter” that holds the stars together and “dark energy” that pulls galaxies apart. Our current, best understanding of the universe requires a whole bunch of invisible, unobservable stuff that is said to be 19 times greater than all the stuff we’ve ever observed in the entire universe! And you mean to tell me that’s a smaller gap than a few angels pushing four or five planets around?

The more questions we answer, the more questions we get. And this isn’t just true for outer space. It’s happening in health, where we’re learning that understanding the human body requires understanding the trillions of bacteria that coexist within it. It’s happening in particle physics, where accelerators discover more tiny things like neutrinos and leptons, and most recently the Higgs boson, but not always exactly in the way we expected. It’s happening in mathematics, where old conjectures are proved with whole new fields of study that lead to new conjectures. It’s trivial to find scientists saying things like “For every question we answer, as scientists, there are ten more questions that arise from the knowledge that we gained.”

And that’s why I can’t help finding God in the gaps, though perhaps not in the primitive manner of the ancients. I’m not suggesting we move the angels from the planets to dark matter. But I do disagree with the general idea that the continuing discoveries of science leave less room for God, as if they’re somehow mutually exclusive. Every scientific advance creates more room for appreciating the wonder of the universe God created.

When I read books about outer space (like Space Atlas) I marvel at the incredible variety of all the things we’ve found, and I marvel at the mystery of all the new details we can’t explain. When I read books about mathematics (like Visions of Infinity) I marvel at the sheer elegance of the way numbers behave across seemingly disparate fields and forms, and I marvel at the mystery of all the theorems that we haven’t proved and don’t even know whether or not they can be! Whether science is explaining something new or discovering something it can’t explain – both things make me think “God is awesome!” God is God of both the gaps and the non-gaps, and they’re both growing faster than ever.