Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Advantages of Bishops

It may however be pointed out that the catholic system of church order is such that its emphasis upon the institution of the church, with its associated ecclesiastical apparatus, means that a prolonged period of spiritual mediocrity or even decline can be sustained without undue damage, to await spiritual renewal and regeneration at a future date. If the lifeblood of the Christian faith appeared to cease to flow through her veins, at least the church was able to retain her outward structures for the day when renewed spiritual fervour would revitalise her, raising her form her knees and propelling her forward to meet the challenges and opportunities of a new age.
Alister McGrath, Luther's Theology of the Cross

And yes, I've been reading about Luther recently...

Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Brian Walden wrote a decent piece on the BBC website about discrimination, specifically asking why if racism is so bad, given for example the recent incidents on Big Brother, class discrimination is accepted and rife.

Most of his examples are from the "upper" classes looking down on people. And yes, it happens a lot. But so does the "lower" classes really hating others. I lived for four years on a fairly rough council estate in Manchester where I was (I think) the only university-educated person on my street, as well as sounding posh (even though I was fairly local) and as well as being a Christian and as well as teaching at the local fee-paying school. There's plenty of discrimination working both ways.

But there's plenty of racism in Britain. And I don't just mean the anti-black racism which was pretty endemic on that estate.

As far as I can tell, it's currently accepted to discriminate against the following groups in Britain. There may be some I've missed.

  • Scousers (a remnant of anti-Irish racism?)
  • Scallies / Chavs
  • Old Etonians
  • Posh people
  • Gypsies
  • Americans
  • "Fundamentalists"

If Harry Enfield's famous scouser sketches were done with Jamaicans or Jews, would they be racist?

What would it mean for the Church to more fully take on board that God accepts anyone who turns to him, even if it's George W Bush?

Monday, January 29, 2007


Oooh - this is a nice video. The idea is that when you heat or cool something, it doesn't change state automatically. There needs to be a bit of dirt or something for the new state to start on. So here they've got a bottle of clean water and it's cooled quite a bit below room temperature but hasn't frozen because it was clean. Then they shake it, which introduces an irregularity so it freezes.

You can get the same with boiling water, especially if it's in a microwave in a very clean cup. You can heat the water to 120C or so without it boiling. But then, if you let it touch your lips, the lips provide an uneven surface, so it all boils then and you end up with a faceful of steam, which is really not nice. Don't try that at home.

And I referred to that in an essay I wrote last week on the Reformation.

Why I'm Not Into Church Politics

As far as I can tell, the main "political" groupings in the C of E are as follows:

  • Reform, who believe that no-one else believes the Bible and that it's more important to be right than to be loving
  • New Wine, who believe that no-one else has the Holy Spirit
  • Forward in Faith, who believe that women smell bad and that making fun of coloured bishops is a good thing
  • Affirming Catholicism, who believe that the most important thing is getting your clothes just right
  • Sea of Faith, who believe that it's important to believe that it doesn't matter what you believe
  • The Prayer Book Society, who believe that if we change anything from the way it was in 1662, we're dooooomed.
  • Fulcrum, who believe that it's important to be nasty to anyone involved with Reform, whatever they do

All the above descriptions are of course parodies, but all have at least an element of truth. And that's why I'm not into church politics.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ageing and Experiencing Time

I think that roughly, we compare time as we experience it with time as we have experienced it.

So when I'm 10, another 5% of my life would be 6 months.
When I'm 50, 5% of my life would be 2½ years.
I suggest that 6 months when I'm 10 would feel roughly the same as 2½ years when I'm 50.

This would explain:

  • why time seems to accelerate as we get older
  • why we can't remember much about when we're very young
  • why people tend to get more patient as they get older - the waiting time seems less

An interesting consequence is this. I'm 29. If I try and relate to an 18 year old (for example), from my point of view the age difference is 38% of my age. But from their point of view, the age difference is 61% of their age. Hence I'd think it was easier to relate to them, on average, than they would to me. This also fits with experience.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Luther's Insults

Martin Luther to Erasmus, about Erasmus's Diatribe. They don't make them like this any more... checked my zeal for battle and drained my strength before the fight began. That was due to two things: first, your skill in debate... by which you have prevented my wrath waxing hot against you; and, second, ... you say nothing at all on this whole vast topic that has not been said before and to say so much less about, and assign so much more to, "free-will" than the Sophists did before you... that it seemed a complete waste of time to reply to your arguments. I have already myself refuted them over and over again, and Philip Melanchthon, in his unsurpassed volume on the doctrines of theology, has trampled them into the dust. That book of his, to my mind, deserves not merely to live as long as books are read, but to take its place in the Church's canon; whereas your book, by comparison, struck me as so worthless and poor that my heart went out to you for having defiled your lovely, brilliant, flow of language with such vile stuff. I thought it outrageous to convey material of such low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung.
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will

Yes, I mostly agree with Luther in his arguments against Erasmus. But I also think there's more than an element of truth in Erasmus's criticism that Luther tended to put people off by his rudeness. Personally, I'd like to see Luther review Dan Brown's books.

It's worth me adding that Luther was also very complimentary (well, for Luther) about Erasmus in his book, saying Erasmus was superior to him in everything except theology...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Procedural Questions

Maybe someone could enlighten me.

  • Why in communion services (when using rails for administration) do the people administering (almost) always go from the congregation's left to their right?
  • I get the laying hands on people when praying for them. But what's with the vague stretching out of hands towards them? Are you expecting to be able to throw lightning bolts, as with the Emperor in Star Wars? Or is it a telekinesis thing? Or a telepneumatological thing? In which case why does it need the hand?
  • I'm sure there was something else, but I can't remember right now.

Quick Note About Trains

It's worth adding that despite their appalling ventilation problems (which explains why half the new trains smell of uncleaned toilets), Virgin trains are still about a million times better than First Great Western (Boris Johnson rant here).

My experiences of FGW have been of continual computer system crashes, incompetent and unfriendly staff who won't sell you tickets they're meant to be able sell you and they don't even have a FastTicket machine at Oxford station.

Oh, and I'm intending to post something interesting and upbeat about either epistemology or Mark's use of the phrase "Kingdom of God", but I think both of those will have to wait a bit longer...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Signs of the Times

There's a really striking story here. Basically, some Germans have decided to hire themselves out to anyone who wants people to protest.

My guess is that this used to happen quite a bit, but it seems a telling indication of modern society that we'll support whatever our sponsors ask us to support.

This message was brought to you in association with Virgin - trains and planes who don't go all the way.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Monday, January 22, 2007


The estimable Michael Jensen has posted some interesting thoughts about blogging...

1. Typing out a quote without commenting doesn't count as blogging: it is just typing. [You know who you are...;-) ]


3. The state of one's blog is likely to be similar to the state of one's desk. Well, mine is...

Quite. Both a complete mess.

8. The kids don't blog: blogging is a middle-aged (ie, over 21) thing. The kids do facebook and myspace, where they can post lots of pictures of themselves at drunken parties and type swears.

So true (with a few exceptions). Oh, and I'm on facebook too, but no drunken pics.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Gender of the Holy Spirit

Here's one that surprised me...

For years, I've been taught that the Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity. Not a physical person, but a person in the way that God the Father is a person. The Holy Spirit isn't an inanimate substance. And there's been plenty of evidence given for that, much of it very good - like the fact that we're told not to grieve the Holy Spirit, for instance. I still agree with all of that.

And there have been several consequences spelt out for this - like the fact that we shouldn't say we want more of the Holy Spirit, because we can't have more of a non-physical person. We can get to know them better, we can surrender to them more completely, but we can't have more of them. Also fine, and a helpful corrective to some of the garbage that passes for theology these days.

But one of the big pieces of evidence I've heard cited and one of the big consequences I've heard time after time turns out to be wrong. It's this....

I've been told that the correct pronoun to use for the Holy Spirit is "he". And indeed, it's the pronoun that the NIV uses, that the ESV uses, etc. The problem, as a friend pointed out to me, is that it's not the pronoun that the Greek uses (or the Hebrew, for that matter). Take John 14:17, for instance, which we were looking at at church tonight.

even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
John 14:17, ESV

In Greek, the pronouns are implied most of the time, but there's one pronoun in there where the gender is clear, which is the one translated "whom". In Greek, it's neuter.

Now, I can kind of understand why it was translated "him" in English. Because there are so few impersonal nouns with masculine or feminine genders in English, we tend to think of "he" and "she" as personal and "it" as impersonal. That's not true in Greek - there's no real distinction between personal and impersonal pronouns. And the noun "Spirit" is neuter, so it gets the neuter pronouns. Now I can see why the translator did it - the early ones wanted to make the point that the Spirit was personal not impersonal, and male was the default gender then. I guess the NIV and ESV translators would say they're just following tradition. My Hebrew isn't good enough yet to check, but I'm told in the OT, the word for Spirit is feminine and takes feminine pronouns....

Interestingly, of the supposedly gender-neutral translation, both the NRSV and the TNIV have "him" in John 14:17. Nick King however craftily repeats "Spirit" so as avoiding using any gender-specific pronouns.

Of course, when the Greek word for the Holy Spirit is παρακλητος ("helper" / "comforter"), which is masculine, you get masculine pronouns too like in John 14:26; 15:26 and 16:13-14. But it seems very much that the Holy Spirit does not have a gender which imposes itself on the pronouns used.

Interestingly, Grudem cites those verses as breaking the "rules" of Greek grammar in giving the Spirit a masculine gender (which is what I'd heard happened too). But actually it's just referring to the masculine noun παρακλητος.

I'm fine with the theology here - I just find it surprising that so many people have just taken it on trust that only masculine pronouns should be used...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cartoon - Procrastination

Another cartoon from everyone's favourite web cartoonist...

cartoon from

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

Random Rant


Why did the Windows XP search tool have to be so much worse than the Windows 98 one? Why do there seem to be so few decent search tools for the PC? And why does one of the few decent ones - Google Desktop not index OpenOffice files? And don't try telling me about the plugin by some sleazy-sounding American that allegedly enables it to search those files; it doesn't work.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Response to Women in Ministry

I was having a conversation with someone the other day about the issue of women preaching. He took the line that he didn't think that women should teach men in church (which is a line I understand and respect). His conclusion from this is that if women were teaching in church (or college chapel) then he should stay away.

That got me thinking...

I guess the verse he'd cite would be 1 Timothy 2:12:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.
1 Timothy 2:12, ESV

My thoughts – this verse is about what women should or shouldn't do rather than about what men should or shouldn't do. It doesn't say

I do not permit a man to be taught by a woman or to let a woman exercise authority over him.

In fact, what we are told is that we should submit ourselves to every authority instituted among people. So if there's a woman in authority or teaching, I really don't see that it's our place to refuse to submit to them, regardless of what we take 1 Timothy 2:12 to mean.

So what is my attitude? I think that women should obey 1 Timothy 2:12, but that's their responsibility. It's a contested verse in some ways (specifically whether it's refering to women and men or wives and husbands), but I expect women involved in “ministry” to be clear in their own minds and to have clear consciences over it.

Paul says that he doesn't allow women to do that. So I'd expect whoever is in charge of churches to be clear in their own minds and to have clear consciences over what they do or don't allow women to do in the church.

But for those who aren't in charge and who aren't women with the choice to teach or not, I'd expect us to listen to whoever preaches and weigh it in accordance with Scripture. I'd expect us to submit to whoever is in authority, provided that that authority is exercised in accordance with Scripture.

NB - there's quite a lot more discussion on this here.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bible Translations

Quite a few things have got me thinking about this recently.

One of the TNIV translators (randomly) got back to my comment on the translation of Galatians 2:17. I still think I'm right, for the simple reason that the NIV, ESV, etc say what the Greek says and the TNIV doesn't.

Mark Driscoll and the folk at Mars Hill have switched from the NIV to the ESV.

And Psalm 8, which is a critical passage in Bible translation, has been knocking around in my head for a while.

Type of Translation

The main types of translation are the near-literal translations (ESV, NKJV, NASB, NRSV, Nick King often but not always), the dynamic equivalent translations (NIV, TNIV) and the paraphrase translations (CEV, NLT, Message). Mark Driscoll also lists distortions like the JW one.

As far as I can tell, this should simply be a question of readability versus accuracy. You should go for the version that is as literal as possible to the original while still making sense. For me that means near-literal as often as possible, though in a church context I'm happy with dynamic equivalent and in a culture with low levels of literacy I'd happily go for paraphrase.

The people who are big fans of the dynamic equivalent translations sometimes try arguing that the advances in scholarship mean that we have a greater understanding of what the original writers meant, so that we can put that into better English than a literal word-for-word translation. One problem with that are partly that so often the dynamic equivalent translations lose a lot of the subtleties of the Greek - for example the use of the morphe stem in Philippians, which is key to some of the meaning of the book. The other problem is that what you're actually reading is what the translator thinks God is saying whereas at least with the near-literal translations you have fewer layers of interpretation added onto the text.

Gender Language

One of the big contentious issues in translation is gender neutrality in language. It used to be that "a man" could mean either "a person of indeterminate gender" or "an adult of male gender". But that isn't necessarily true any more. In addition, Greek has three words - aner: "an adult of male gender"; gune: "an adult of female gender" and anthropos: "a person of indeterminate gender" (but it takes masculine pronouns). The old translations all used "man" and "he" for anthropos as well as for aner. Several newer ones (NRSV, TNIV) try to translate anthropos in a gender-neutral way and tend to use "they" for the pronoun. That's good; it's gender neutral in modern English, which the original is too.

The problem comes with some of the translations. For example "Son of man" is huios tou anthropou, so some of the times (like in Psalm 8) when it doesn't clearly refer to Jesus, it's translated in a gender neutral way - "mortal humans" or something. The problem is that Hebrews then picks up Psalm 8 and does apply it to Jesus.

Another problem is the problem of pluralisation. The gender-neutral translations tend to pluralise because it's easier to be gender neutral then. That's a problem in Psalm 1 for example, where there's a clear distinction between the righteous person and the wicked people. But you can't see that at all in the NRSV / TNIV. Gender neutrality where the original is, good. Mangling the Bible, bad.

I think, for example, that the phrase "son of man" needs to be translated consistently. The problem is that to do that in a gender neutral way would mean changing one of the best-known titles of Jesus.


I think it's important to be clear that any of the following translations (and some others) are great and will give you a very good idea of what the original is saying at least 95% of the time. ESV, NASB, NKJV, NIV, TNIV, NRSV. If you're fussy about meaning, it's a good idea to have two from different backgrounds to compare - I'd probably go for ESV and TNIV and say that between them you've pretty much always got a good translation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

1 Corinthians 13

1 Corinthians 13 is a really famous passage about the importance of love. And at least a dozen times I've heard people suggest reading verses 4-8 substituting your name for "love" and asking if it is true. This is about what I find more challenging about the passage.

The first few verses are well known.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3,NIV

But those things which are meaningless without love are things that the Corinthians value or things that Paul values. So think of what you value most about people, and substitute that in there.

If I am always completely sound in my doctrine, and never make any mistakes but don't have love, I am nothing.

If I know everything there is to know about my chosen subject but don't have love, I am nothing.

If I am really popular and well-respected but don't have love, I am nothing.

If I am spectacularly gifted and humble with it but don't have love, I am nothing.

I find that sort of thing challenging.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dog-Related Crime

Quick post this...

A guard dog's toilet break cost a German jeweller £1 million of gold and diamonds.


He said: "I was walking the dog together with the security man and somebody grabbed the suitcases from the car.

story here

Monday, January 15, 2007

Hippolytus - Image of God

When I think about something, and come to a conclusion that's different to what everyone else seems to say, but that I'm sure is right, it's always nice to find someone writing a very long time ago who agrees with me.

These things then, concerning spiritual gifts, which are worthy of note, we have set forth. God gave these gifts to people in the beginning in accordance with his will, presenting them with his own image, which had been lost.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition

Hippolytus died in AD 235, and assumes here that people naturally are not in God's image - we've lost it, but Christians are being restored into it by God's action. Cool...

(see what I've written about the image of God)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Galatians 2:17, Sinfulness and the TNIV

Last week, we had a Covenant Renewal service at college. In principal, I don't think I have any objection to them, but I've never been to one I found helpful.

My main problem with those things is that they often expect people to promise what they know they can't fulfil. In this case, I think we were expected to promise never intentionally to sin again. Now, I know I can want to do that, but I know equally well that I am not perfect and that I do all kinds of stupid stuff. I know that I am a sinner in continual need of God's grace. And I have no intention of promising anything I can't fulfil.

So I am quite happy to promise that I "intend to lead a new life" or to say that I surrender to Christ. I'm happy to offer my soul and body as a living sacrifice, but I know that I'm a sacrifice that just keeps trying to crawl off the altar.

So this led me back to wondering how on Earth I could be a Christian. How can I seek to follow Jesus, when I know that I'll fail? That's a painful path, but it's one I've trodden before and I know the way now.

So I turned to Galatians 2:17, which in the NIV reads

"If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.
Galatians 2:17-19, NIV

In other words, the fact that I go on sinning even after putting my trust in God only goes to show that I am a sinner and that I keep on needing God's grace. And that's the normal Christian experience. It reminds me not to be complacent, but that I need to keep coming back to Jesus to seek forgiveness and to recognise that I need him.

Except that the Bibles we have in chapel are TNIVs. I'm usually fine with the TNIV, but this verse really annoyed me.

But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn't that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.
Galatians 2:17-19, TNIV

The addition of the word "Jews" totally changes the meaning away from the meaning that I found so helpful when studying this as an undergraduate. So I looked it up in the Greek, and "Jews" isn't there. It seems to have been added in as a totally unhelpful and incorrect addition for no good reason whatsoever.

So God is good, but the TNIV translators are dumb and just as much in need of God's continued grace as I am.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Exams Again

The exam seemed to go ok - I don't know the mark yet, though I know some details I missed in my shorter questions.

The main essays I wrote were expanded version of this post and this post. What are the chances, eh? ;)


It's my first proper exam for 6 years today!

Well, unless you count driving tests, literacy and numeracy tests and exams I've set or am doing to see what they're like...

It's also my first exam which is mainly essay questions for 10 years...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Cosmology and the Age of the Universe

Back to creation/evolution posts...

What is Cosmology?

Cosmology - the study of the physical universe, its structure, dynamics, origin and evolution, and fate

Basically, cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole. It's the bit of physics that gave us the Big Bang theory, for example. It's also one of the least discussed areas in the debate about the age of the universe, probably because it tends to be trickier to visualise than evolution.

My background in cosmology is that I studied it as part of my taught masters' at university first time round. So I've got the foggiest what I'm talking about, but I'm not an expert. The bits here that are unconventional I've checked out with people who are experts. I'm going to try to explain this at the level of an intelligent layperson. Some of that means that I'm going to simplify to the point where the truth might be slightly obscured - I'm trying to do it to keep the main points clear.

Virtual Photons

Oddly enough, one bit of background that turns out to be really useful comes from Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), which is a completely different area of physics.

Atoms are made up of electrons, which are really small and which kind of go round a nucleus made of protons (and usually neutrons too). The electrons are held into the atom because they have a negative charge and the protons have a positive charge. The force works by the electrons and the protons constantly swapping particles called virtual photons, which are just like the particles that light is made up of, except that they last a very very short period of time while they are between the proton and the electron (coz they go very fast and it's only a small distance).

Evidence for the Big Bang

The Big Bang theory, or some variety of it, is held by I'd guess at least 99% of cosmologists. It basically says that the universe is expanding and all the matter and energy in the universe started off in one place about 14 billion years ago. That must have been much hotter than today, and the idea is a bit like an explosion that threw out all the matter, whch gradually condensed into atoms and galaxies and stars and planets and stuff.

There are three main pieces of evidence which are cited as evidence for the Big Bang. I'm going to discuss them and look at how the evidence is interpreted.

  • Redshift
  • The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
  • Abundance of Elements
Hubble Redshift

The idea that originally started the Big Bang theory is called Hubble Redshift. It's not actually quite what is believed today, but it's a good way in to talking about it.

When an ambulance or a racing car is moving away from you and giving out sound waves, the sound waves get stretched out and it sounds lower-pitched than it would do if the ambulance or racing car wasn't moving. (And if it's moving towards us the waves get squashed together and it sounds higher)

There's a great example that shows that here.

The same happens with light, which is made of particles called photons, but they act like waves with this. If an object is moving away from us and giving out photons, the photons get stretched out, and the light appears redder than it normally does - we call this a redshift. We don't usually notice it because light goes very very fast compared to cars and stuff. (And yes, there is a blueshift if it's coming towards us).

When Hubble looked at very distant galaxies, he saw that their light was redder than he was expecting, and the further away the galaxies were, the redderer the light was. This led him to conclude that they were all moving away from us, and the idea of the Big Bang was born.

Cosmological Redshift

The current idea isn't that the galaxies are moving away from us through space, but that space itself is being stretched, kind of like the skin of a balloon when you blow it up. So the galaxies are getting further apart, but it's not because they're moving. And as the photons are going through space, they get stretched too as space stretches, so we get the redshift because light has been travelling through space that is stretching. That's called the cosmological redshift.

So the evidence is that the distant galaxies look more redshifted than nearer ones, which we interpret by using the cosmological redshift idea and saying that that's because when the light set out from the distant galaxies, it was a very long time ago, so the universe has stretched a lot since then and redshifted the light. The further away it is, the longer ago the light set out, the more it's been redshifted.

The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

Another thing we observe if we look carefully at the sky is that everywhere we look, there's a load of microwave photons whizzing round the universe. And the cosmological redshift idea helps us to explain this too.

After the Big Bang, the argument goes, everything started off very hot, so there weren't atoms or anything. But as the universe cooled down, it eventually got cold enough for atoms to form. And when they formed, there were a load of photons left behind that didn't quite have enough energy any more to break those atoms up. And as the universe expanded, they got redshifted and ended up as the Microwave Background.

Actually, some scientists had realised that if the Big Bang theory was true, we should see something like this, but they apparently realised it only just before Penzias and Wilson discovered the Microwave Background Radiation, so they didn't get their prediction published in time.

The Problem with the Cosmological Redshift

So far, so good. It all kind of makes sense, that's all on the A-level physics syllabus so far and it's all pretty much what I was taught. The problem is that the cosmological redshift idea doesn't work (and I've checked this out with some experts, who agree that it's a valid criticism).

Redshifted photons have less energy than normal photons (this is because the energy is given by hf, and as they are redshifted, f drops).

That means that in a universe with the cosmological redshift, the universe is actually losing energy. It's not going anywhere; the amount of energy in the universe is decreasing. Some people might think that's a big problem because it contradicts the laws of thermodynamics, but cosmologists get round it by saying that we can say that the mean energy density of the universe is constant rather than the actual total energy of the universe. I'd say that energy itself not being constant really messes up Quantum Mechanics, but there's a much bigger problem that's easier to see, so I'll focus on that one.

Remember those virtual photons? Well, they need to get redshifted as well. Only a little tiny bit each time, but over 13 billion or so years, it'll add up to quite a lot. That means that atoms have to lose energy too as the universe expands. But atoms can't lose energy - we can work out how much energy an atom has and it doesn't have anything to do with the age of the universe in it. So we have a big problem. We understand atoms pretty well, and we know they can't lose energy. But we know that if the cosmological redshift argument is true, then they must. So I'd conclude from that that the cosmological redshift argument might be nice, but it doesn't actually fit what we already know about the universe.

That kind of undermines the first two pieces of evidence for the Big Bang. The problem then is that the cosmological redshift argument is actually the only argument that explains the CMB. What most cosmologists do is they say that there are "problems with the relationship between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics" then carry on using the theory regardless and hope someone very very clever sorts the problems out in the end.

Maybe it's true, and the theory just needs some very clever tweaking. Or maybe it isn't and there's some other explanation for the Cosmic Microwave Background and the Redshift other than the Big Bang with cosmological redshift. I honestly don't know.

Abundance of Elements

Some people much better at maths than me have worked out how much of each element there should be in the universe to start with if the Big Bang happened. It's something like 75% hydrogen, 23% helium, 2% everything else. That's just trying to remember the numbers from 6 years ago, but the exact numbers don't matter for this.

Of course, nuclear reactions in stars and stuff have changed that by now, but they won't have made any more hydrogen. So no star or anything should have more than 75% hydrogen (or whatever number it is).

The problem with this piece of evidence is that all kinds of weird stuff can happen to stars. People find stars which really don't fit with pretty much any pattern quite often, then manage to come up with an explanation for why they are the way they are. Here's an example of the kind of thing they come up with.

There used to be two stars here, one heavy and one less heavy. The heavy one burnt its fuel more quickly, but then it got so large that the gravity of the less heavy one started stealing the outside bits of the heavier one. Eventually, the heavier one exploded into nothingness, leaving this star which looks like it's a mixture of two other stars.

Theories like that are fine, but if you've got that kind of potential level of complexity in a star's lifecycle, plus 14 billion years for stuff to happen, I'm sure that current cosmologists and astrophysicists could explain just about any imaginable star in terms of some process or other. So I don't think this piece of evidence is actually falsifiable.

In other words, even if it was false, we wouldn't know because astrophysicists could (and would) always find another explanation for why the star was like that.

Virtual Photons and the Appearance of Age

As I discussed in the comments to this post, virtual photons also undermine the argument from distant starlight.

The basic idea is this - we see things that are a very long way away. That means that the light must have left them a very long time ago to get to us now. So the universe must be at least that old.

It's a nice argument. The problem is that if the universe was created suddenly out of nothing, then for atoms to work for the first tiny bit of a second, virtual photons need to have been created in mid-flight along with the protons and electrons and stuff. Those photons would have look like they'd been emitted by the proton or electron just before, but they actually hadn't - they'd just been created out of nothing suddenly, along with the proton and electron.

If you scale that up, then it makes sense that if the universe was created suddenly then photons are created mid-flight between two objects, even giving the appearance of a history which never actually happened. It's pretty much like the idea of rocks in the garden of Eden, which I discussed here.

Problem - the Fine Structure Constant

One problem which I haven't seen anyone tackle properly, on either side, is the problem with a number called the fine structure constant. It's a number - about 1/137 (if I remember correctly), which is worked out by combining a whole load of important quantities in the universe like the speed of light and the charge of an electron. The problem with it is that in most attempts to unify all the physics theories into one big theory, it needs to have changed as the universe gets older.

Where the problem comes is here - if the fine structure constant is changing, what's that doing to the redshift? What's that doing to the photon energies? What's that doing to the CMB? What's that doing to the stability of atoms?

Maybe one day all the problems with the theory will be solved and cancel each other out. Or maybe they won't and in 1000 years people will be looking back and laughing that people in 2007 believed in the Big Bang. I really don't know.


My personal opinion is that the Big Bang theory, while it has huge holes in, is probably the best current explanation for the evidence, but I think there's plenty of room to think that the universe is young.

The fact is that no-one on either side has yet come up with a comprehesive enough theory to explain all the evidence and fit in with the rest of what we know about how the universe works. Or if they have, they haven't told me...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Covenant - Response to Critics

This response is well worth a read for those interested in the furore surrounding the "Covenant for the Church of England". It's a response to the criticisms by some of the original authors of the Covenant.

Job and the difficulty of wisdom

I'm still meant to be revising, so here's another Old Testamental post.

In Proverbs, we saw that wisdom was fundamentally making sense of the world around us as something God was in control of. Job shows us that it's not always that simple.


Job is a very rich very good guy. God and Satan have an argument about Job - Satan says he's just following God because things are going well for him; God denies it; Job ends up losing everything, except his nagging wife and is left sitting in the ruins of his house, scratching his sores with bits of broken pot. As if that wasn't enough, three of his "friends" show up and start arguing with him about why he is suffering in epic-style Hebrew poetry. They're later joined by another guy too. In the end, God shows up and tells them how amazing he is, then they all shut up and in the end Job lives happily ever after.

Did it really happen? I don't know. Does it matter? No. Unlike most of the rest of the Bible (except Jesus' parables and a few other bits) the important bit is not whether the events actually happened, but what we learn from them, in particular about wisdom and suffering.

Job and Wisdom

In Proverbs, wisdom was really worth finding, but often reasonably possible to find - by reading books, obeying God, and so on.

My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding,
and if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
For the LORD gives wisdom,
and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.
Proverbs 2:1-6, NIV

In Job, however, even though wisdom still comes from God, it's a little trickier to find...

"But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Man does not comprehend its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, 'It is not in me';
the sea says, 'It is not with me.'
It cannot be bought with the finest gold,
nor can its price be weighed in silver.
It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir,
with precious onyx or sapphires.
Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it,
nor can it be had for jewels of gold.
Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention;
the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.
The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it;
it cannot be bought with pure gold.
"Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds of the air.
Destruction and Death say,
'Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.'
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
'The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.'
Job 28:12-28, NIV

Sometimes, as Job points out, we cannot make sense of the world. We cannot see how to "live skillfully". Job manages to refute his friends, but does not get an answer to the problem of his own suffering.

Job and God

What Job does get is God showing up and spending quite a while telling everyone how amazing he is and how feeble they are. The implication - why should we expect to be able to understand the universe or how God works?

This explains the apparently unsatisfactory climax in which God does not answer Job’s questions or charges, but though he proclaims the greatness of his all-might, not of his ethical rule, Job is satisfied. He realizes that his concept of God collapsed because it was too small; his problems evaporate when he realizes the greatness of God. The book does not set out to answer the problem of suffering but to proclaim a God so great that no answer is needed, for it would transcend the finite mind if given; the same applies to the problems incidentally raised.
H.L. Ellison in New Bible Dictionary

So wisdom literature basically summarises what it is to be human. One one hand we can make great progress in understanding how the world works. On the other, we are mortal and so cannot find real significance in life apart from God, and we are small and foolish so cannot always understand the world, especially when it comes to understanding God and his motives.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Proverbs and the Nature of Wisdom

I'm meant to be revising for an exam right now. But it's an exam on the Old Testament, so I feel kind of justified in writing random stuff about the book of Proverbs instead.

Striking Features of Proverbs

Proverbs has several very interesting features, some of which are so obvious that it's easy to miss them. We can see most of the features I want to write about in the first few verses:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for attaining wisdom and discipline;
for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life,
doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the young-
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
and let the discerning get guidance-
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Proverbs 1:1-7, NIV

Here are some of the striking features:

  • Probably the key word in Proverbs is "wisdom"
  • Proverbs consists mostly of observations about daily life
  • It claims that the starting point for wisdom and knowledge is the fear of God
  • It isn't written in prose - it really really doesn't read like Plato
  • It includes lots of stuff by non-Israelites

"Wisdom" in Hebrew includes ideas like the skills needed to be a carpenter, basic science (1 Kings 4:33) and stuff. A nice summary of Proverbs is that it's about enabling people to "live skillfully" (Goldsworthy), so it makes sense that it includes a lot of observations about daily life. It's not meant to be a philosophical treatise - it's much more down to earth than that...

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.
Proverbs 21:9 and 25:24

This includes quite a few observations that might well be "borrowed" from other cultures - there's a fair bit of overlap with, for example, Egyptian wisdom literature. But one of the distinctive features of Proverbs is that with its down-to-earth-ness and with its borrowing stuff from non-Israelites, it's still thoroughly Yahwistic (worshipping the God of Israel). Even in noticing patterns in the way the world works, it still puts God absolutely at the centre and sees him as indispendible to the whole idea of wisdom.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
Proverbs 9:10, NIV

It's odd - I usually disagree with liberal Biblical scholars on most things (but still read what they're saying). But here, I found some really sensible comments from the liberals.

There was never any question of what we would call absolute knowledge functioning independently of the faith of Yahweh. This is inconceivable for the very reason that the teachers were completely unaware of any reality not controlled by Yahweh.
Gerhard von Rad, Wisdom in Israel

So yes, they took wisdom literature from non-Yahwistic sources, but when they did they adapted it to make it Yahwistic and they dropped bits of it that didn't make sense with their faith. Like Christians today taking sensible bits of what non-Christian scientists say but saying it's part of the way that God upholds the world.

St Augustine and Babies

Here's a quote from St Augustine that neatly says something I get shouted down every time I try to say:

Afterward I began to laugh - at first in my sleep, then while waking. For this I have been told about myself and I believe it - though I cannot remember it - for I see the same things in other infants. Then, little by little, I realised where I was and wished to tell my wishes to those who might satisfy them, but I could not! For my wants were inside me, and they were outside, and they could not by any power of theirs come into my soul. And so I would fling my arms and legs about and cry, making the few and feeble gestures that I could, though indeed the signs were not much like what I inwardly desired and when I was not satisfied - either from not being understood or because what I got was not good for me - I grew indignant that my elders were not subject to me and that those on whom I actually had no claim did not wait on me as slaves - and I avenged myself on them by crying.
St Augustine, Confessions 1:8

Monday, January 08, 2007

Random Physicsy Cartoon

Here's a cartoon that the physicist in me appreciates...


Purpose in Life?

This is roughly a bad paraphrase of something interesting that was said at church last night...

Many atheists / agnostics / philosophical materialists (people who say that matter is all there is) / etc say that believing in God is stupid.

But if you say that matter is all there is, then before too long (on the time scale of the universe), humanity will be extinguished, either by our own actions or by the slow death of the Sun. And everything that everyone has ever accomplished will be worth precisely nothing. There will be no memory of anyone; there will be no consciousness to observe our remains - nothing and the universe will carry on as if we had never existed.

In the light of that, it seems at least as crazy for an atheist to attach meaning or significance to anything ever done by anyone as it does to say there's a God who transcends it and who can provide meaning.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ordination and Physics Teaching

I used to be a physics teacher. I'm now training for ordination in the Church of England. People's reaction is often surprise because they think the two are very different. Here are some similarities....

  • Both are about conveying truth, even Truth. St Augustine (I think it was him anyway) said "All truth is God's truth". That's quite profound and I might well blog on that soon (along with more creation / evolution stuff).
  • Both involve a lot of interaction with and responsibility for people. That was actually one of the key reasons I went into physics teaching in the first place.
  • A lot of the thinking skills involved are the same - the way I think about them anyway. There's lots of putting different ideas together needed in both, and lots of explaining one thing by saying it's a bit like something else.
  • Both physics and theology often end up taking something really beautiful, interesting and cool and making it seem utterly dull and uninteresting. I aim not to do that.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Ecclesiastes and the New Testament

So what does the New Testament do with the big idea in Ecclesiastes? We've seen that the key in Ecclesiastes was the idea of hebel - that everything in this life is “just a breath” - it passes away.

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, hebel was translated to ματαιοτης / mataiotēs, which my (borrowed) big Greek dictionary translates into English as “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness”. So pretty much the same idea.

Mataiotēs is only used three times in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:17 it describes the way that “the nations” think – taking no notice of God. In 2 Peter 2:18 it's used to describe how false teachers in the church are speaking – attracting Christians to go back to “fleshy desires” and “sensuality” instead of following Jesus. But it's the other use that's the most interesting, and which I mentioned the other day.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to mataiotēs, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV

The mataiotēs of the world is like the suffering of the Christian. It is transitiory. This world is subject to bondage to decay – to running down, to transitoriness, because it will be freed when we are freed. We're in a world that is passing away to remind us that our present situation is only passing away. Everything will be made new in the end.

So the pointlessness of life is in itself a pointer to the fact that the groanings of this life – the fact that we never manage to live up to what we aim for, the tension between being dead to sin but alive to God, the present suffering and the hope of glory – that they are also transitory. They will go, and be replaced by something much better.

But how does this affect the non-Christian? (and I know plenty of my readers wouldn't currently describe themselves as Christians). Life often seems pointless, especially when you think about it. We are born, we live, we die. But there is hope and meaning in life, and that hope and meaning comes only from God, who can do things that last forever, who has come and been born and lived and died so that death doesn't have to be the end for us and there can be a point to life beyond all the pointless transitoriness of existence.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Good News Story

Wow. Someone in New York had a seizure and fell onto the tracks as a subway train was coming. So this random guy jumps on the tracks and rolled with him into the gap between the rails. Impressive.

I sincerely wish that in the same situation I'd do the same thing. But I'm not sure...

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books of the Bible (it's in the top 66 anyway), but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Even a good, generally evangelical commentator (in this case Tremper Longman, NICOT) argues that because the message of the main part of the book isn't Christian, Ecclesiastes is actually another author doing long quotes from a book he disagrees with.

Ever since I became a Christian, the book always had some resonances, but I wasn't entirely sure how it fit with the rest of the Bible. I guess the turning point came when I read this post by Hebraist Chris Heard, which got me thinking about translation issues.

The key phrase in Ecclesiastes can be seen in the second verse.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV

"Meaningless! Meaningless!"
says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless."
Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That's what the Quester says.] There's nothing to anything—it's all smoke.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, Message

Clearly there are some issues in translation. The key word is הבל / hebel, which is translated "vanity" (more "literal" translations), "meaningless" or "smoke". It usually means something much closer to "breath" in Hebrew. Oddly, given that no-one uses that translation, it seems to make more sense translated that way. Well, to me anyway. Everything is just a breath - it's "meaningless" because it's ephemeral.

In addition, as Heard argues, the longer form of hebel is also frequently mistranslated.

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV

I've seen it all and it's nothing but smoke — smoke, and spitting into the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, Message

A more literal translation of "and a chasing after the wind" is "a neighbour of wind". It makes more sense too! The point of Ecclesiastes isn't that everything is meaningless - it isn't. The point is that everything "under the sun" - everything in this life is ephemeral - it passes away, therefore it doesn't make a long term difference, in a sense it's futile. It's just a breath, the neighbour of wind.

So then, what's the point of Ecclesiastes? To remind us of the fact that things in this life pass away. It's exploring what meaning can be found in life when that life is transitory.

In the following quotes, remember that "meaningless" is referring to the idea that it's only a breath - it will soon pass away. This is what Ecclesiastes says about the purpose of life.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, NIV

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, NIV

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 11:9-10, NIV

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
"I find no pleasure in them"-
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher.
"Everything is meaningless!"
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12, NIV

It's about the futility of trusting in wisdom, riches, power, sex to bring meaning to life and the importance of being content with what you have and of fearing God, because what God does lasts forever, unlike what we do (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

As book recommendations go, the best one I've found on Ecclesiastes (so far; I've skim read quite a few) is the NIV Application Commetary by Iain Provan.

Coming next - Ecclesiastes and the New Testament.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


If I was still a teenager, Brainiac would be my favourite program. It's sciencey and very destructive :o). It's almost good enough that it's worth losing Open University for!

Here are some clips...

Stuff in microwaves:

Various random experiments:

Some stuff you can try at home (or not):

Charismatics, Preaching, Dodgy Doctrine, etc

It's often far too easy to blame other people (especially for men). I find it much more helpful to blame myself for stuff...

I subscribe to the Briefing, which is a frequently thought-provoking and sometimes well-thought through read from a very conservative Christian perspective. For those who know what such labels mean, they're evangelical but not fundamentalist, with a strong overlap with Sydney and Oak Hill Anglicanism, which is a position I nearly share. Their latest issue was mostly a fairly well-informed and theologically astute discussion of Hillsongs Church in Sydney. I agreed with the analysis of the theological weaknesses (trying to appeal to lots of people, no real content), but disagreed with their understanding of why it is like that and how we should respond.

I disagree with large swathes of charismatic theology, but recently I've got to know quite a few theologically-inclined charismatics, and I agree with them on pretty much everything. The simple truth of the matter seems to be that most of the charismatic "heresies":

  • Saying that singing draws us into the presence of God (rather than into an experience of his presence)
  • Emphasis on knowing joy without knowing suffering
  • Lack of order in church
  • etc, etc.

Most of them are simply examples of bad wording by people who haven't thought it through properly. The charismatics I know who think about things theologically and Biblically seem to agree that these are weaknesses when asked, but know "what people mean by the language" because they're used to it.

The difference seems to be down to two distinctives of the charismatic movement, both of which can be argued to be the fault of less charismatic people like me.

Greater Participation by the Theologically Illiterate

As evangelicals, we're great believers in every member ministry, but all too often that just means a select few people with the right sort of Bible training. I'll be blunt - I don't remember Paul making doing a Cornhill course a prerequisite for preaching in the church. My experience is that charismatics are in general much better at letting everyone contribute to meetings, but that this (of course) does create issues when people who haven't got the basics straight do stuff up front.

Valuing Singing over Preaching

And I can see why.

How many sermons are over-long, dull, avoiding the passage, not applied properly, aimed at people other than the congregation, arrogant, obvious, infantile, boring? How many sound like someone's reading an essay or that they haven't thought beforehand about what to say?

Most preaching is rubbish, and that's just the evangelicals. I can see why people prefer singing - if the songs are decent you'll often get more Scripture better applied in the songs than in the sermons.

On the other hand, when the preaching is good, often the music does not engage the emotions properly - it doesn't apply the word to our hearts, and so again we fail.

So how should we respond? If we don't like the songs, then write better ones, ones which engage the emotions properly in response to God's word. If we don't like the theology, preach God's Word powerfully, clearly, relevantly and with our whole selves so that people other than conservative evangelicals come to value Biblical preaching again. But don't judge other people because they try to avoid our problems and fall into ones of their own.

Yes, I know in this I've assumed that there are two groups - charismatics who value singing and conservatives who value the Bible. I know that isn't true. I hope that one day as well as meeting charismatics who value the Bible as much as I do, I might attend a service where the Bible is preached properly and emotions properly engaged. But I can't remember a single one...

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Death in a Good Creation?

This is continuing my series on questions connected with creation / evolution.

One of the best arguments I've heard for why evolution is not consistent with the Bible is the argument from death. I'm going to explore the argument a bit, show why I don't think it works, then show how an argument might be constructed that might work.

The Argument from Death

Here is a selection of quotes that hopefully illustrate the Biblical background to the argument:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die."
Genesis 2:15-17, ESV

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
Genesis 3:4-6, ESV

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned ... death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.
Romans 5:12, 14, ESV

The argument then goes something like this:

  • Genesis teaches that death entered the world through Adam and Eve
  • Romans shows that a literal understanding of Genesis 3 is required
  • Evolution teaches that there must have been death in the world before the time of Adam and Eve
  • Therefore evolution before the time of Adam and Eve does not fit with the Bible.
Why the Argument Fails

I'll start by agreeing with a fairly literal understanding of Genesis 3. I'm not convinced that it's necessary for someone who believes the Bible to be authoritative and true to think that, but I do.

One key is what Paul means by "death" in Romans 5:12, as quoted above. The verse says "and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned" - it's clearly talking about human death. So when it says "death entered the world through sin", it seems likely that it's talking about human death too.

It's worth noting that "men" here is ανθρωπους - "people" would probably be a better translation in the context.

Furthermore, when I hear the argument from death used, it usually argues that animals didn't die until after Adam's sin. Why priviledge animals like that? Why shouldn't plant death count? Why not bacterial death? And if bacteria didn't die, what about Adam's gut bacteria, or those in a cow or rabbit or something?

What does Romans 5 require? That the first people did something wrong - they went against what God had told them to do, and that they died eventually as a result. That actually fits fine with evolutionary theory. After all, what is to stop God revealing himself to some hominids and thereby making them into the first people? In fact, it seems to suggest that part of what it is to be human is to be in some kind of relationship with God... I'm not saying that the Bible teaches that people evolved from something else - I'm pretty sure it doesn't. But I think that here it's consistent with it, just as it is with a Young Earth. I don't think this argument makes us say that the Earth is either Young or Old.

Were Adam and Eve Ever Immortal?

I guess the standard understanding is that these first people were made immortal in their interaction with God, and then lost it again by their disobedience. But is that actually what the passage says?

Once again, I think the passage isn't clear. God says that they will die "in the day that they eat" of the fruit (Genesis 2:17, above). But Adam survives another 930 years (whether to take the ages in Genesis literally is a completely different question, which I might come back to some day). So, even allowing for the Hebrew "day" to mean more than just 24 hours (as it clearly does in Genesis 2:4) what is going on?

What happens after they eat the fruit is that God confronts them and changes their working conditions. In particular:

Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever--" therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis 3:22-24, ESV

It's interesting that God tells Adam that he's going to return to dust (v19), but then his action is excluding him from the tree of life so that he will not live forever. What would have been the effect of eating from the "Tree of Life"? Maybe it would have reversed the effects of Adam being made mortal - in which case, why have it in the garden in the first place? Or maybe (and this seems to me much more plausible), maybe it was there because it was only in eating from the tree that Adam could live forever in the first place. We certainly see the tree again in Revelation 22 (in the New Creation), and it bears fruit continually rather than just as a one off.

So it seeems likely that Adam's promised death comes about as a consequence of him being excluded from the Tree of Life rather than by God changing his nature so that he becomes mortal. That further undermines the argument from death.

(this topic is discussed in more detail here)

Is Death Good?

Another strand of the argument is that God says that creation is good in Genesis 1, and therefore that it does not include death until Adam's fall. But that doesn't quite work either - it assumes that animal death is bad rather than that the complexities of life cycles and life coming from death in the natural order is in itself part of a good creation.

Towards a Better Argument

I've heard (and read) the argument from death trotted out quite a lot. And because I know it doesn't work, it makes me doubt that the Young Earth Creationists actually have anything better.

Here are some thoughts as to how a better argument might work - they aren't a coherent whole yet, because I'm not sure I understand all the passages involved properly. I haven't heard people argue this one, so maybe it can't be made to work...

The Bible is pretty clear that Jesus' is not just significant for his relationship to people, but to the natural world as well. A simple example would be his ability to command the natural world and it obey him, for example his ability to stop storms by telling them to stop.

But a stronger and more relevant example is the future relation of creation to Christ.

And God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.
Ephesians 1:9-10, NIV

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV

There certainly seems to be a cosmic aspect to what Christ will do in the future in "liberating creation from its bondage to decay" and in "bringing all things under Christ". The problem is that I'm not sure what that means. Is it simply speaking about the New Heavens and the New Earth of Revelation 21? Will there be different laws of physics?

The potential better argument uses this, and somehow ties the creation's "futility" to Adam's sin. Christ's action certainly has cosmic consequences - if it could be shown that Adam's action also had cosmic consquences, but that the "bondage to decay" (whatever that means) was required for evolution, then that would be a much better argument.

Having just checked John Stott's commentary on Romans, he points out that the word translated "futility" is the same word used in translating Ecclesiastes into Greek, which makes sense of the passage to me - I'll blog about it some other time, but I don't see that it requires this to be the consequences of Adam's sin.


The argument from death does not show that the Bible requires a Young Earth, nor does its failure show that it teaches an Old Earth.