Sunday, October 15, 2017

When to Stop

Scientists who subscribe to the the Big Bang Theory seem compelled to seek out some earlier cause for each event in their chain. Everything happens, they reason, because something else happened first. So, for instance, this astronomer argues that the “highly concentrated ball of matter” from which the universe is supposed to have begun was the product of decaying photons.

We might try to frame this sort of argument in the language of the book of Hebrews by saying this: something “visible” (in this example, light) eventually gave rise to “what is seen” (in this case, matter).

But obviously the writer of Hebrews would disagree with that formulation.

Uh … You’ve Got that Backwards

In fact, he says the opposite:
“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was NOT made out of things that are visible.”
Someone asked me what I thought this verse meant recently, and let’s just say I wasn’t exactly quick off the blocks with an answer. I had to go away and think about it more than a little.

And perhaps I’m not there yet. So what is the writer to the Hebrews saying here exactly?

Great Acts of Faith

This third verse of chapter 11 is the very first of twenty items in a list of commendable acts of faith. For this reason alone it may be significant. It’s also the only item on the list where the persons exercising faith would seem to include both the writer and each of his faithful readers. “By faith WE …”, the verse begins. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that’s also anyone who happens to be reading this passage and agrees with its author’s first statement.

So you and I, assuming we believe what God says about origins, are given a place among the great examples of faith throughout history. That’s pretty cool.

“We” also means this particular belief is something the average Christian should be able to arrive at, starting with the average professing Christian Jew to whom Hebrews was written. Such a person would not have possessed or even have read much of the New Testament. At least 10 of its books had not yet been written, and many of the remainder had not been collected or widely distributed. Such a person might not even be literate, though he or she might be reasonably well versed in the Old Testament scriptures.

My point is that the explanation of this particular biblical statement cannot be excessively scientific, theological or complicated, and it would not have been confusing to those who read it in its original language at the time it was written.

Some Neat Greek Words

With that in mind, a short list of the more important NT Greek words used here, so that we can do a little better job of putting ourselves in the shoes of the original audience:

“By faith we understand¹ that the universe² was created³ by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
  1. “understand” = noeō, meaning knowledge gained by exercise of the mind. It’s the same word the Lord Jesus used when he asked his followers to draw conclusions from his words and actions that should have been obvious to them even apart from special revelation, the teaching of religious authorities or the work of the Holy Spirit, who had not yet been given: “How is it that you do not understand?” The disciples were being expected to use their heads and work through logically the consequences of what they had seen and experienced. What stood in the way of their coming to grips with these truths was only hardness of heart. Thus, with regard to the subject of origins, faith is far from an anti-intellectual exercise.
  2. “universe” = aiōn. This is often translated “age” and is used to convey a period of specific or indeterminate length, though it may also be used to refer to all of history (meaning all the ages taken together), and even to the physical, spiritual, intellectual and moral world contained within history. For instance, Luke contrasts “this age” with “that age”, meaning the age to come. The differences between the two ages include not just a change in time period but a change in governing rules and physical conditions. We do much the same in English when we speak of an “ice age”, referring to a set of physical conditions that characterize a particular era. But when we speak of, say, the “iron age”, “stone age” or “bronze age”, we are doing more than that, because we are now describing the defining characteristics of human civilization during a particular period by way of the physical factors that produced them. This would seem to be the sort of thing the writer to the Hebrews has in view.
  3. “created” = katartizō, a word that emphasizes the intelligent purpose of the creative process. It is variously translated “fitted”, “joined”, “restored”, “mended”, “perfected”, “made” or “prepared”; all of which actions require intelligent choices. We do not speak of mere forces “fitting”, “mending” or “preparing”, unless we are poetically attributing human qualities to them.
  4. “word” = rhēma. The spoken word, particularly, in contrast with the written word.
  5. “what is seen” = blepō, meaning the object of the eye, but more importantly what is perceived or understood by having been seen (as in Matthew 13:13, “seeing they see not”).
  6. “made” = ginomai, meaning happening as a natural consequence of another event. It stands in almost complete contrast to katartizō.
  7. “things that are visible” = phainō, having to do with how things appear, rather than what they are intrinsically and essentially. Matthew says that hypocrites disfigure their faces to as to appear [phainō] to be fasting, which may or not be the case. The important thing is how it looks.
Adding It All Up

Taken together, I think the writer is saying something like this: “It is by faith that we have intelligently worked out that our current environment is the result of God’s deliberate choices and personal actions, and that the universe we take in with our senses is not merely the natural consequence of existing processes that may be observed.”

In other words, faith understands this didn’t all just happen on its own. Stuff didn’t just give rise to other stuff. It isn’t “turtles all the way down”. God planned it. God did it. Period.

That’s not overly convoluted or scientific. Almost anyone should be able to grasp it.

Decaying Light Energy

The astronomer in our original example explains matter by means of decaying light energy. But that just backs his problem up one step. It solves the problem of matter without resolving the problem of origins. Where did all this light energy come from then? Where did the photons come from whose decay into particles and antiparticles supposedly produced all the matter that exists? We are given no answer.

Instead, scientists stagger forward in time from their faith-based assertion to spend pages discussing how the universe rapidly expanded from a singularity into what we may observe today. But they cannot step backward past the light energy to tell us what went before.

Simple: God went before. At some point you have to back your way up to a First Cause, and that First Cause is the word of God. He spoke, and said, “Let there be light.”

Accepting that takes faith, but it’s not blind faith. It’s not even out of step with the current science of the origins of the universe. The only difference is the Christian doesn’t try to keep backing up from cause to previous cause indefinitely.

He knows when to stop.

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