Science Turns to God

Eric Metaxas’ ‘Science turns to God’ article in The Australian (29 December, 2014) provoked a spate of hostile letters and the newspaper’s editorial comment.

In brief, the article contrasted what we know today about the conditions for life on this planet with what we knew back in 1966.  In that year Time published the opinion of Carl Sagan that there were ‘two criteria for a planet to support life ? the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star’.

Metaxas’ argument is that the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), despite high levels of funding, has not discovered any signals pointing to life elsewhere in the universe.  He claims there are octillion planets (1 + 24 zeros) in the universe, surely more than enough for their signals to be picked up by our vast telescopic networks.  But, says, the author, ‘silence of the rest of the universe has been deafening’.

The article then turns to what scientists today think are the necessary criteria for a planet to support life.  Metaxas claims that ‘there are now 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life — every single one of which must be perfectly met’.  He cites the example of a large planet like nearby Jupiter, whose gravity draws to it asteroids that would destroy Earth.

His argument is that greater faith is required to believe the universe depends on random, accidental forces that belief in an intelligent creator.

The major statistic relates to the creation of the universe itself.  If the four necessary forces — gravity, electromagnetic force, the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ nuclear forces — were determined less than a millionth of a second after the big bang, there would be no universe.

Two Criticisms:
(i)        Metaxas is not a scientist, and his style is a little over-confident.
(ii)       Letter writers to The Australian complain that his appeal to Fred Hoyle and Paul Davies were inaccurate.
(iii)      His reference to SETI seems to be an example of the ‘God of the gaps’ argument by which God’s existence is positively asserted because of what we don’t know.

Reflections of a non-scientist:
(i)        The contrast between current multiple known criteria for life on the planet             relative to the known criteria in 1966 is helpful.  But Metaxas doesn’t say who are these more modern authorities.
(ii)       The 200 criteria, if accurate, are very important.  But their importance needs to be stated cautiously and humbly, without any hint of coercion so as to drive unbelievers into a corner.
(iii)      The arguments of ‘natural theology’, which seem to be Metaxas’ approach, may arouse interest, and the beginnings of faith.  But it is the testimony of the Gospel that arouses a genuine and true faith in the God and Father of our Lord  Jesus Christ.



Debt Slavery and Redemption

A fine article by Haznain Kazim in the Australian Financial Review (‘A Tale of Deliverance’, 9 January 2015) states that 35.8 million worldwide live under debt slavery.

It gives an example about how it happens.  A penniless family borrows a small sum (by our standards), in this case to build a modest dwelling.  They repay the debt by all the family working in the lender’s brick-making factory, except that the interest rates are so high that the amount owed does not diminished but grows.  The whole family is now trapped in debt slavery in perpetuity, with almost no freedom and crippling working conditions.

The owner, a prominent politician in Pakistan, hypocritically says, ‘Our employees have a good life with us’, he says, ‘They aren’t lacking anything’.

The article claims that many debt slaves are physically abused, including sexually, and that there are examples of people missing without trace, incinerated in the fiery hot brick kilns.

Perhaps the ‘slaves’ might simply run away and find freedom?  They are effectively prevented by a cultural sense of shame in reneging on their promises.

The article speaks warmly of a small Christian aid organization, Vast Vision that raises funds to buy the freedom of debt slaves.  It tells of a man, a debt slave for many years, being set free by the founder of Vast Vision physically handing over a wad of cash to the ‘owner’.  With tears in his eyes the free man collects his wife and two small children and they walk away to a new life.

Of course, debt slavery is illegal in Pakistan, but the authorities do little to stop it.  Powerful and wealthy slave owners see that the law is not enforced.

Vast Vision has one condition in liberating adult debt slaves.  Their children must go to school so that they will not be drawn back into this servitude.

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’. The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’.
The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

Non-specialist readers, as well as academics, are baffled by Luke’s final glimpse of his hero, Paul, in Rome.  We know from Paul’s Pastoral Letters that both Paul, and his companion Luke were alive and active for some time after those those ‘two whole years’.  The key question is: why doesn’t Luke tell us about those extra years, but just leaves Paul in prison?

Indeed, as I will propose, Paul’s three last letters explain Luke’s ‘mysterious ending’ of his epic two-volume narrative.

Luke’s reference to Paul’s two year ‘house arrest’ in Rome awaiting Caesar’s trial implies at least two things.  The first is that Luke was close at hand for him to know of the timespan of this imprisonment, and the second is that Paul was then released.  Had Paul been executed at the end of those ‘two whole years’ Luke would surely have told us. In any case, since the Roman authorities in Judea did not find against him it is likely that Nero Caesar would not have found against him.  Which law of Rome had he broken?  Clearly Luke intends us to know about Paul’s circumstances, namely that he had been released.

This is also confirmed in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, written from the Praetorian Barracks in Rome.  Paul wrote to the Philippians during the ‘two whole years’ and he clearly expected to be released and to come to them in Macedonia (Phil. 1:25-26).  Thus evidence from Luke and Paul independently confirms that Paul was released after the initial two year imprisonment in Rome.

For his part during those two years Luke would have been actively gathering texts and researching for his planned, major two-volume ‘orderly account’, as he had most likely been doing in Palestine during the previous three years, when Paul had been in prison in Caesarea.  Those five years in total would have provided Luke with opportunity to speak to key people in Palestine and Italy, as well as to collect texts he would employ in a chronicle that would span the seventy years between the birth of John the Baptist and the ‘two whole years’ of Paul’s incarceration in Rome.

If, as I believe, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome shortly after the martyrdom of Peter in 64, it would at last provide Luke with a precious, Peter-authorised account of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to the resurrection.  This would provide the narrative ‘spine’ for the first ‘book’ of ‘the works and words’ of the historical Jesus.

This would connect well with Paul’s comment to Timothy: ‘Luke alone is with me’ and his pointed instruction, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry…..When you come, bring…the books (biblia, ‘written scrolls’) and above all the parchments (membranas, ‘blank sheets )’. Paul knew his own end was near, so that Mark’s ‘usefulness’ to him would not be for some kind of ongoing ministry partnership.  More probably it somehow related to Mark’s relationship to the ‘books and the parchments’ that Luke would use in writing Luke-Acts (see Luke 1:1-3).

To return to our mystery, we ask again: Why didn’t Luke tell us about what happened to Paul after those ‘two whole years’?  I think the answer is staring us in the face.  It is that Luke doesn’t need to tell us.  The information has always been there for us to discover.  Where might that be?  It is there in Paul’s three Pastoral Letters, especially the third and final letter, Second Timothy.  From those letters we can piece together Paul’s movements between his release (in c. 62) and his death (in c. 64).

Luke was aware of the contents of that third Letter, as noted above, and indeed may have contributed in some way to its contents, as C.F.D. Moule suggested many years ago (The Birth of the New Testament; London, A & C Black, 1973, pages 220-221 )

In any case, Luke had his own reasons to end his epic in the way he did.  During those ‘two whole years’ Luke shows us Paul ‘proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus’.  Clearly that is the vision Luke is leaving with his readers, to pick up the gospel baton from Paul and to run with it into the next generation.  For Luke to merely have narrated Paul’s brief spell of freedom back in the east and ended with his execution might have seemed to him something of an anticlimax.  In any case, for those interested to know about Paul after the ‘two whole years’ it is all there in those three letters, in particular the third.

Paul Barnett?9 January, 2015