What is a Challenge for God?

I read a book a couple of years ago called God’s Debris. It was a free online book by Scott Adams. In it, the main character debates what God would want to do. He reasoned that an omnipotent God would be quite bored by almost everything, since there would be no challenge. Thus, the character concluded, the only real challenge to God would be to see if he could destroy himself. The character posits that God did and that’s what the Big Bang was: God blowing himself up. Everything in the universe is “God’s debris” and as part of the divine essence, we are all gradually coalescing back into his consciousness.

cosmic dewdrops

This is an unrelated image, but it looks cool. Source

Now, the book is just a thought experiment. The author (most likely) isn’t suggesting that this is really what happened, but it got me thinking: what is God’s motivation? As an omnipotent God, what would interest him? One answer is that God has created the universe so that his creation can give glory back to him. That, of course, isn’t a challenge. God created angels, too, to give him praise and worship him for eternity. So what is a challenge to God?

I don’t think God is interested in destroying himself, but it occurred to me that the real challenge for God is to create something that’s uncreatable. In fact, that is what he is doing right now, and Christians are uncreatable beings in the middle of the process.

It is paradoxical to say that you can create something instantaneously which requires a process. We, as humans can build a car, but we cannot build a tree. That is something that requires a specific, time-consuming process. In the same way, a woman can give birth to a baby (and even that is a process), but not a mature adult. That would be a paradox, since a mature adult is not a product of an act of creation; he or she is the result of a process over many years.

In the same way, God cannot simply create a being who has chosen Him of their own free will, who has grown to know Him and love Him over time. It is a long, sometimes painful process and we are in the midst of that process. To find the endpoint of that process, the uncreatable being, the Bible says that we will be perfected, to be like Christ. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, the ultimate conclusion of this process of being a Christian is to become “a little Christ”, though not on our own merits but only through him.


Why I Have No Problem with Evolution

First of all, let me say that I do not have a strong opinion about the veracity of biological evolution. I am not a biologist and I have no way to know whether what scientists claim is true or not. However, I do believe in objective truth and if the vast majority of scientists think that evolution is incontrovertible, then I feel that it is important to at least consider it.

What I want to do here is talk about the concept of evolution. When we talk about evolution, we mean a gradual change over time, specifically from simpler forms developing into more complex forms. Not only is this process not contrary to God’s way of doing things, it is way he almost always does things. In the next sections, unless I state otherwise, this gradual change from simple to complex is what I am referring to by evolution, not specifically the biological evolution of species.

Evolution in the Bible

The first example of evolution in the Bible is right at the beginning, in Genesis 1. God creates everything in seven days, starting with light, the most elementary aspect of nature. From there, each day progresses to more and more complex things, from water and air, to dry land, then plants, then fish and birds, then other animals and people. I think it is likely that each “day” represents a much longer period of time, but even if you believe that this was all accomplished in seven 24-hour periods, you still have to ask yourself why it took seven days at all. Why would God need to take a week to create the world when he could theoretically create it, fully formed, in a single moment? There is no explanation except that that is how he chose to do it, creating the world progressively in stages from simple to more complex.

The next example of evolution in the Bible is the entire Bible itself. The Bible is a complex book and has a lot of parts, but it is first and foremost a history of how people become separated from God and how God reestablishes the relationship. To summarize the Bible in a few sentences:

  1. God creates humans
  2. Humans sin against God and become separate from him
  3. God establishes the Israelites and gives them the Law to teach them the nature of sin, the concept of holiness or separateness (something being either one thing or another), and how to atone when they do sin
  4. God sends Jesus to earth to be the perfect fulfillment of the law, the last sacrifice that could finally do what all the animal sacrifices prescribed in the law couldn’t
  5. God sends the Holy Spirit to continue the work that Jesus started, establishing the church on Earth.

You could write a library of books (and people have) about those five points but the point is that there was a process that took a long time, thousands of years between the Garden of Eden and Jesus coming. The question someone could ask is why? Why take all that time and let the world languish in pain and ignorance for so long? Why didn’t Jesus appear in the Garden the day after Adam and Eve sinned for the first time and get things back on track right away.

Again, that is apparently not how God does things. God always works through a process over time and—to use a term from education—scaffolds things, building on a foundation of simple understanding to lead to more complex concepts. Concepts like sin, sacrifice, and grace have little meaning without the context of history behind them.

Some Objections

These are only a few examples of this evolutionary process, but at this point, let’s get back to the sticking point, which is that the idea of biological evolution contradicts the creation story in Genesis, specifically the part with humans. After all, Genesis 2:7 says, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (NIV). This clashes with the idea of humans developing slowly over millions of years. It is a seemingly irreconcilable problem and this is why many Christians cannot accept the idea of evolution, all other issues aside.

An Attempt at Reconciliation

The Bible is filled with poetic language and metaphors. In fact, metaphors are the only way to convey concepts outside the human experience into human language. Some of the language in Genesis could easily be a poetical telling of the creation story. For instance, you can read the Genesis 2:7 verse as God taking on a physical form, making a human shape out of dirt and then literally breathing into the figures nose and granting it life. Or this could be a poetical way of saying that God created humans.

Another verse that seems like it is probably poetical is where God creates Eve from Adam’s rib. After all, in Genesis 1: 27, it says “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NIV). It seems like males and females were created at the same time, which would make sense since that was assumedly the same with all other species on earth.

One explanation is that God used evolution to create the world, then chose Adam and Eve to introduce himself to. In this scenario, there are many primitive peoples living on earth and God takes Adam and Eve and gives them the Garden of Eden and talks to them and makes first contact with the human race.

This explanation does not reconcile everything, but does help with a few issues in the Bible. For instance, in Genesis 4:14, after Cain has killed Abel, he says, “…I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me” (NIV). He could be thinking ahead to the future, but if there are really only 3 people on Earth at this point, it would seem like he doesn’t have any immediate worries. Then it mentions his wife three verses later. While we could assume this is his sister, it doesn’t mention Adam and Eve having any other children. The real moment that gives me pause in the next sentence, in the second half of Genesis 4:17. “Cain was then building a city and he named it after his son Enoch.” Why would you build a city if there are less than 10 people in the entire world?” There could be lots of explanations for these things, but it would also fit well if there were already thousands of other people in the world at this time.

Some Final Thoughts

With all this being said, I am still neutral on the idea of evolution. I don’t see it being irreconcilable with my beliefs but it doesn’t affect my daily life one way or the other, so I feel like I can remain open-minded. However, there are two things that might help those Christians who find the idea of evolution to be unsettling and against what they have always believed.

The first is a tautology that I have always found comforting, which is “Whatever happened, happened.” In other words, history and reality are fixed and won’t change because of what we believe or because science makes some new discovery. I find this comforting because ultimately, I think Christians should be interested in truth since we believe God is interested in truth. If evolution is true, then it is from God and is something we should accept, and if not, then it will fall by the wayside as all misconceptions eventually do.

As well, as Christians we need to be quite sure in our own minds what our faith is based on. As the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus Christ, my righteousness.” Jesus is the foundation of Christianity and should be the only basis for our faith. What is very dangerous is to let our faith rest on a rigid conglomeration of beliefs about the world mixed with the cultural norms we grew up with. The danger is that once one thing cracks or one belief is found to be untrue, the person’s entire belief structure can crumble. This unanalyzed, unreinforced rigidity of belief is probably why so many Christian teens backslide once they go to university and aspects of their belief system are challenged.

I once saw a video on YouTube by a teenager who tied his Christian faith to the earth being flat. I grieved for that boy since he was encumbering the saving power of Jesus’ love and sacrifice with something that was not only extraneous but also untrue.

I do not know if evolution is true or not, but what I do know is that I do not want to tie my faith in Christ to that fact. While it is an important question, it is not the most important question.

Should We Do What the Bible Says?

I’ll admit, that’s a pretty clickbaity title, but bear with me. First of all, what is the point of the Bible? If you asked a Christian, they would probably say something like, “to learn about God and how to live a Christian life.” Probably other things too, it’s a big book.

And that’s the problem: the Bible is a very big, very complex book (66 of them, actually). There is history, Jewish law, poetry, prophesies, letters to people, and more. The Bible also has a lot of R-rated sections, more than even most Christians realize sometimes. One thing I have seen when people attack Christians and the Bible specifically is that they point to a particularly gruesome section and say, “Wow, this is your moral compass?” They also make the charge of hypocrisy since we have a holy book with all these terrible things in it that we don’t actually believe we should do. An example of this might be Judges 11, where the judge Jephthah makes an idiotic vow that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. What did he think was going to happen? Anyway, it turns out it’s his daughter. He’s trapped by his vow and so he sacrifices her, something neither he, nor God, nor anyone wanted him to do.

That’s a horrific story, but here is where it is important to divide the Bible into two areas: descriptive and prescriptive. Simply put, descriptive means “this happened” and prescriptive means “you should do this.” The majority of the Bible is description, and we know this intuitively. Otherwise, all Christians would build an ark, build a wall around Jerusalem, go on a missionary journey around Turkey and Greece, and so on.

The problem is deciding which parts are which. Here are some principles I think we can use:

  1. The characters in the Bible are flawed people

The Bible is pretty clear about what is good to do and what isn’t and yet it is also brutally honest about the people in it, even the people we might call heroes of the faith. There are only a few people in it that are covered universally positively and none of these (except Jesus, of course) takes up more than a few verses. Critics of the Bible might point to, say, Abraham (who pretended his wife was his sister because he was afraid for his life), and wonder how we could see him as any sort of an example of how to live. First of all, no one said anyone in the Bible except Jesus is perfect and no one said we should emulate everything they do. Also, that is precisely the point of Christianity, that God uses us despite our flaws and sins. We don’t have to be perfect to be used by God, just willing to trust him and be used by him.

  1. Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law

The Jewish law (usually considered the first five books of the Bible), which is the majority of the you-should-do-this portion of the Old Testament, is just that: it’s the Jewish law, and so it is not something that Christians have to follow.

“Wait, what about the Ten Commandments?” you’re probably saying, if you’re still reading after that last paragraph. Clearly, we need to follow those. Yes and no, in my opinion. We can’t just forget them, but in the Gospels Jesus  reveals the principles behind the commandments that we need to follow.

A lot of Christians probably routinely break the 4th commandment by doing some sort of work on Saturday (or Sunday), but the point behind the commandment is to rest and make time for God and for things besides work. On the other hand, some of the principles are much harder than the commandments: not only is adultery a sin, but also lustful thoughts; not only is murder bad, but also murderous hate for someone (Matthew 5:21-22, 27).

There is obviously value in the Old Testament, which is why it’s there, but it’s not a rule book for Christians to follow. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.

  1. You have to take verses in the context of the whole Bible

It is very easy to cherry pick verses of the Bible to make a case for one thing or another—so easy, in fact, that people have been doing it since the Bible was a thing, I’m sure. We must remember that the Bible was written to specific groups of people in specific cultures for specific purposes. There are universals in the Bible, but also a lot of things that are cultural for that time.

For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). It seems pretty clear that Paul doesn’t approve of women teachers and pastors, but I think if you look at the New Testament as a whole, you can see that this is not a universal of the Christian faith, but a cultural point specific to that time and even then, possibly just Paul’s opinion.

At this point, critics could make the charge that we are just revising parts of the Bible that aren’t socially acceptable anymore, to which I would respond: yes, exactly. The central tenets of Christianity do not—and cannot—change: specifically “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27, NIV). That is what we should do and that should never change. How we carry out a lot of the aspects of the religion we call Christianity do change with time and culture.

In conclusion, the Bible has a lot of purposes and Christians are not claiming that every verse is something that we should do. Clearly, we should each study the Bible to see what it really says. There is, of course, a lot of debate on what parts of the Bible Christians today should follow, but this is my take on things. What do you think?

Inequality in Grief

Last Monday, April 15, 2019, I was shocked to turn on the news and hear that the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. Not only is it an especially beautiful structure, it is also my favorite cathedral, despite not having visited it. I have even built a cathedral in Minecraft based on it. All day long, I felt sick whenever I thought about it and the fire that was consuming it.

However, this puts me in a conflicted situation. Objectively, I believe that a person’s value is greater than that of a building. People have eternal souls but any physical thing is necessarily going to be destroyed eventually. Yet here I am mourning the loss of a building when people suffer and die all the time and I don’t feel the same sense of loss.

Let me say right now that I am not saying we should not mourn the damage done to Notre Dame. I felt the same way when Namdaemun, the Great South Gate of Seoul burned down in 2008. It is nonsensical to say that we should not grieve because there are possibly worse things happening in the world. That would be like never celebrating good things because there might be something better that could happen.

One problem is that human suffering is so common, it is easy to get inured to it. I’m sure if cathedrals burned down every week, we’d soon get used to it, unfortunately. Still, I find it disturbing that I don’t have the same amount of feeling for the tens of thousands of people who die every year from gun violence or opioid overdose. It’s true that I don’t know those people, but then again, I’ve never been to the Notre Dame cathedral either. Part of it is how much media coverage something gets, but that doesn’t seem like a good excuse either.

I’m also not saying that we need compelled to take the entirety of the world’s suffering on our shoulders. No one has the strength to do that and I don’t think it would be productive to do so. Still, there should be a way to better reconcile one’s beliefs with one actions.

The obvious solution is to do what we can in our own sphere of influence, but in today’s increasingly global world, what is that sphere and how much is enough? Yes, I should help the people in my community, but what about victims of the civil war in Syria or Yemen or kids stuck in the sex trade in southeast Asia or many other tragedies I could discover with a quick Internet search? It’s true that merely empathizing with people or feeling bad for their situation doesn’t always translate into action, but there is often something we can do.

The problem is that something covers the whole spectrum from nothing to everything. For some people, the problems of the world seem so big that they collapse into apathy. On the other extreme is what I call the Schindler Paradox: the more you do, the more you worry there was more you could have done. At the end of the movie Schindler’s List, after the title character has saved many Jews from destruction, he looks around and wonders how many more people he could have saved. As long as he still has any possessions left, then he could have done more.

So is there any hope in this situation? How can I reconcile my belief in the primacy of human beings with not empathizing more with those who are suffering and then, acting proportionately?

What do you think?

Are You Good?

Are you good? What does that even mean, to be good?

Most people, if asked this question, would probably answer yes, or would say, “I try to be good” because nobody’s perfect, right?

First of all, let me say that “good” is such a broad term that there are many ways to define this, but we’ll use the accepted moral definition where, for example, helping an old lady across the street is good, while pushing her down and stealing her purse is not good. I think we can all agree on that.

Here are four possible definitions of what it might mean to be good.

1. Good is an action

This is the easiest way to measure goodness and least stringent definition. If I do a good deed, then I’m good.

The problem with this definition is that our minds easily find objections to it. After all, if a mass murderer gives a hundred bucks to the Red Cross, does that make him good, based solely on that one act? Not likely. Clearly, this approach is too binary and simplistic for the real world. We need more.

2. Good is an average

This is much more in keeping with the way most of us think. It is in keeping with the idea of karma. Good and evil are a balance and if over the course of our lives, we do more good than evil, then we’re (basically) a good person.

The problem with this view is that we need to define what time period we’re talking about. What if a person is a saint for 60 years and then becomes the worst devil the world has ever seen for 10 years? Can we really still say he is a good person as he commits the rape and murder of hundreds of innocent people, if the average of their life was spent doing good?

You might say, “He was a good person but he’s not now.” But that means you are taking a smaller time to average the good and bad deeds and if we reduce the time period enough, we are back to the first option. So let’s go deeper.

3. Good is a direction

Here is a way to reconcile the problem we had in #2. Perhaps goodness is a direction that we are facing: we are good when we try to be good and keep trying every day to get better. The man who was good in his youth has changed the direction of his life and now he is facing the wrong way: he is a bad man now. This is a more satisfying position because it’s the effort that matters, not just the results. Sure we fall sometimes, we do bad things, but nobody’s perfect.

The problem with this view is similar to the second one. How do we measure these shifts in direction? I, for instance, am a person who really tries to be good. I am nice to pretty much everyone, and I like to help people. But then I have a bad day where I am nasty and dismissive and selfish. I get petty and treat people unfairly. Am I no longer a good person on that day?

You may be tempted to give me a pass on that one. Everyone has bad days and after all, it’s the overall direction that matters. But now we’re back to the law of averages and if a single day of terrible deeds doesn’t matter, then how long does it take to stop being good? Is a week short enough or do you have to be terrible for a whole month? There is one more position that is quite uncomfortable and very depressing.

4. Good is a location

I don’t mean a physical location. I mean that either you are good or you’re not and once you do anything that is not good, then you are not good. This view is terrifying because as we all know, literally no one is perfect and that is what this view requires.

Let’s use a metaphor. “Goodness” is soup and “badness” is cyanide. If you are making soup, how much cyanide is acceptable? Hopefully, for the people who will eat it, none. Using this metaphor, we can see how different the other views are from this last one. #1 says that as long as there is some soup in the pot, never mind how much cyanide there is, it’s fine. #2 says that as long as there is more soup than cyanide, everything’s okay, and #3 says that as long as you keep trying to put soup and healthy things in the pot (even if some cyanide sneaks in), then it’s okay and no one can blame you, because nobody’s perfect. #4 says that if there is any cyanide in the soup at all, then you’re in deep trouble.

Unfortunately, this is the view the Bible holds. In Mark 10:18, someone refers to Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus replies, “”Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says blatantly, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.”

So what’s the point? If we’re supposed to do something that’s impossible, why try at all? Jesus might as well have told us to jump to the moon.

But that is exactly the point of Christianity. We can’t be good except through God. The cyanide of evil and sin are already in the soup that is our lives and we can’t strain it out, no matter how fine a strainer we use. Short of dumping the whole pot down the sink and destroying ourselves, we are stuck with poison soup.

But there’s hope. Right after Jesus says that no one is good, his disciples ask the obvious question “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26). Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

This is the beauty and simplicity of the matter. Not only can we not make ourselves good, we don’t have to. If God pours his antidote into our poisoned soup, it doesn’t matter if there is a little poison or a lot: it takes it all out.

This flies in the face of concepts like karma. After all, if we do evil, we should suffer proportionately. A man who kills 10 people should receive 10 times more punishment than the man who kills one person. But God says that everyone’s soup is poisoned, no matter if by genocide or by one white lie.

In 1992, a man named Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested and convicted of killing and eating 17 people, along with other gruesome acts. He was sentenced to 16 life sentences and his name quickly became a byword right next to Hitler for the evilest of people ever born. He was beaten to death in prison two years later but before he died, he apparently became a Christian.

Of course, that is between him and God but if he did become a Christian, then God’s antidote wiped away all the poison in his soup, and there was a lot of it. He died a good person, not because of anything he did, but because of God’s forgiveness. God made him good.

The Window of Words

I love words. They are like small windows that open up onto huge realities. Even grammatical words can hold large truths in them. There are times when our language is simply not capable of expressing what we need it to, but many times words contain a great deal more than we ever think about. This is especially true with the Bible, where a lot of meaning can be packed into only a few words. I feel sometimes that if we could fully understand a single verse of the Bible fully, we would be wiser than any person in the world.

Take Psalm 23 for example. It’s probably the most famous chapter in the Old Testament. Many people have it memorized (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”) especially in the King James Version. The problem is that the more we know something, the less we think about it. Do you actually think about what every word means when you sing the national anthem or Happy Birthday? Probably not. Those don’t matter much, but when it comes to the Bible, there can be a lot of truth hidden in every syllable. Let’s look at the first verse of Psalm 23 in closer detail:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Psalm 23:1 (KJV)

The — This means something that is unique and definitive. This excludes any others from the same plane, letting it stand alone in our minds as we invoke it.

Lord — A king and a ruler. The monarchical term is a metaphor for God’s relationship not only with us, but with all of creation. He is above all, ruling and overseeing everything. (Here, of course, we see a limitation in human language: the English word Lord indicates male even though God is neither male nor female.)

Is — Even though it’s small, this is one of the most significant word in the whole language, a statement that something exists. It is in the present tense, which indicates not only existence in the present moment, but for an unspecified amount of time, stretching into the past and on into the future.

My — This shows there is a personal relationship on some kind, a connection to myself. We are not talking abstracts here: this is something that affects each and every one of us intimately.

Shepherd — This is a metaphor that shows the nature of the relationship. There is a lot packed into these two syllables. It contains the image of a flock of sheep ranging around the countryside, seemingly on their own, but always under the watchful eye of the shepherd. When they wander away, he finds them. When they get stuck in a bush or fall down a hole, the shepherd gets them out. A sheep has nothing to be boastful of. It is constantly and totally dependent upon the shepherd for safety, food and water.

I — Like “my”, this makes it personal. However, “I” is the subject, the one who must do something. The first sentence was a statement of fact. This is where we come in to do our part.

Shall — This word isn’t used much anymore, but is similar to “will”. “Shall” is a word of definiteness. If words like “might” and “maybe” are sand, “shall” is a granite boulder, something that can be depended on. We can rest in peace within the promise of this future certainty.

Not — This word is a solid wall that divides the existent and non-existent. “Not” nullifies of what comes after it. We can have faith that God will keep us always on the right side of “not”.

Want — In this situation, this mean being insufficient, or lacking in some way. It brings up the image of hunger, loneliness, parched throats and empty spirits. In God, we will not lack for what we need, because God does not know insufficiency. He is completeness itself and joined with him, no part of us can remain incomplete, any more than a submerged cup can remain empty.


And that is just one verse. Behind all words, especially ones that hold such great truths, there is a whole universe waiting.


This piece is an updated version of one I posted on Facebook in 2011.

Welcome to the Green-Walled Chapel

Welcome. Come on in and sit down and let me tell you where you’ve found yourself.

This is the Green-Walled Chapel, called such because it is a recently built annex to the Green-Walled Tower, my other blog. Let me tell you why it is here.

I have been wanting to start this blog for some time, but until recently I didn’t have much time to run two blogs at the same time. Usually when asked to tell a bit about myself, I mention that I am a Christian and a writer. The Green-Walled Tower is my (mostly) fiction blog, but because of this I never felt it was a good place to share a lot about my faith. So that is why this is here.

First of all, here is what the Green-Walled Chapel is not. It is not a cathedral, a place where one person proclaims and many listen. It is not a place of preaching. It is not a place of condemnation. It is also not a place for bad logic or personal attacks.

One of the reasons I chose a chapel is that a chapel is smaller and more personal (also, it matches the word “tower” in syllable and stress pattern). The Green-Walled Chapel is:

1. A place where everyone is welcome, from all denominations, faiths and religions, or no religion at all. We might not agree on everything, but I want to create a constructive, open environment.

2. A place to wrestle with the big questions of faith, religion, and philosophy

3. A place to speculate

4. A place of honesty and logical arguments


copyright David Stewart

5. A place of respect, no matter what. I welcome different points of view, even if we can’t agree, but always with respect.

Finally, this blog, as well as my beliefs, are based on the idea of objective truth, that reality is a certain way whether we agree with it or can every know what it is. That is what I am interested in searching for.

I hope to post every week, on Monday morning to give you something to start your week with. I would post more, but for the moment, that is all I can do. If you find something you find intriguing, infuriating, or commendable, please comment and share with others.

So again, welcome. Make yourself at home.