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W. Scott McCullough
 on May 29, 2020

Awake in the Night: Part 4

The conclusion of the dialogue ends with the student’s new friend inquiring about Christianity. He seeks encouragement from his mentor.

man holding lantern by a lake

Dear Dr. McCullough,

We have just started fall break and I am catching up on sleep and homework and spending some longer hours on research, which is going well. I am simulating more and more realistic systems. I started by reproducing previous results and with that experience I have been able to develop some of the insight needed to take the initiative, rather than simply following directions. We are starting to think about the protein problem that I will work on. One possibility that excites me is looking at the dynamics of the proteins that create DNA loops. These proteins latch onto two sites on a DNA chain to form a loop. This is preliminary to all kinds of processes that manipulate the DNA, from RNA transcription to replication. It’s important, exciting, doable (with molecular dynamics), and there are lots of problems to go around. There is a brief introductory letter in a recent issue of the Biophysical Journal discussing one such problem.23

Your last email came at a good time. I had read a little of The God Delusion and felt beat up by it. More importantly, it came as I started to have conversations about my Christian faith with a fellow graduate student. This is new territory for me—I did not have a lot of opportunity to share my faith at a Christian college. I guess everyone finds it intimidating, but I find it especially so with someone as smart as he is. He is willing to listen, and, to my surprise, he doesn’t make fun of me—unlike Dawkins!

He did not grow up in a Christian family. His mom’s a doctor and his dad’s an engineer. He has some knowledge of the Bible, but it is very limited. I have to be careful to not assume that he understands the background of the Bible, let alone all the words we use to describe our faith—sin, salvation, faith, etc. He had heard of the Creation Museum and thought that was the way all Christians thought about creation. He was intrigued with some of the ideas we have talked about, especially Walton’s position on Genesis 1. He even read Genesis 1 for the first time to read his book. However, he is skeptical about miracles.

I feel very inadequate as an evangelist, not just because of my lack of experience, but also because I am still wrestling with doubts of my own. Any suggestions for how to move forward?

Warm Regards,

Dear Martin,

I am very excited about your research area. It is certainly an important and attractive area of research. Your comment about enough problems to go around is important too. I had a friend in graduate school whose problem was solved and published by another group when he was almost finished.

I am even more excited about the conversations with your friend. We should all be ready to give an answer: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). None of us ever feels ready, but you are ready to give an answer. Your task as an evangelist is to bear witness to God as Creator and to Christ, especially the Good News that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day for the forgiveness of sins. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convince and draw to faith.

Your continued wrestling with the issues that we have discussed—which you referred to as doubts—might seem an even greater hindrance to effective evangelism than lack of experience, but I see some providence at work here too. First, there is nothing like the questions of a seeker to make us pray and study. Second, there is nothing like God’s gracious work in a life through weakness to give us humble confidence. We mistakenly think that the opposite of wavering doubt is a brash, self-confident certainty. A humble, dependent confidence that acknowledges unresolved questions is a better candidate for the counterpart to doubt. There is no better way to reach such confidence than to give witness to God as Creator and Christ as Savior. And when you see fruit in evangelism, you will know who brought that fruit!

Here is my general advice for your friend: Philosophical discussions (like we are having now) are part of giving a gracious answer. Your friendship is something that can draw his heart. It has already prompted the discussion. But God uses especially the Word and prayer with faith to bring others to faith. If your friend does not have much background in the Bible, then reading Genesis and the Gospels is a great place to start. When I study the Bible with seekers, I usually start with Genesis (especially the first three chapters) before reading the Gospel of Mark. That is a good approach no matter where you are because so few people have a background in the Bible. We have to start further back in the Bible’s storyline. I’m praying for you.

two men in sunglasses looking at a computer

I’m also excited because God is so clearly timing our discussions with the discussions you are having with your friend. In my last email, I argued that Naturalism is a kind of religion. It claims that only the physical world is real, and observation is the only way to know. Naturalism also affirms that everything that happens is the result of cause and effect, without purpose. This effectively excludes miracles. Denying miracles aims not only at the reliability of the Bible, which has many accounts of miracles, but also at the Resurrection, which is the very center of the Christian faith.

Dawkins tackles miracles head-on in The Magic of Reality. He is reluctant to admit testimony as a basis for accepting the truth of a miracle. He quotes David Hume: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”19 This is consistent with his insistence on observation being the only way we can know something. At first glance, Hume’s criterion would seem to pull the rug out from under the Resurrection because we know it only by testimony. But there is more to say about testimony as a reliable way of knowing. Furthermore, the nature of the testimony to the Resurrection gives us special confidence.

First, it is essential to understand the nature of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony. Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses argues persuasively that the Gospels were written in a well-known Greco-Roman genre of history centered on eyewitness testimony.5 After showing the features of the genre and its ubiquity and esteem in Greco-Roman literature, Bauckham concludes that the Gospels were self-consciously structured as eyewitness history.  While the writers were not necessarily eyewitnesses (Luke, for example, was probably not himself an eyewitness), the account is based on sources who were eyewitnesses or who had known the eyewitnesses. He then works through several features of the Gospels to demonstrate their characterization as eyewitness history. For example, he analyzes the list of names in the Gospels and their frequency and shows that they reflect wider Palestinian Jewish usage.5 He also addresses the occurrences of anonymous persons in Mark and argues persuasively that the anonymity was protective,5 a situation that resonated with my experiences with Christian who were threatened. He builds a convincing case that the Gospels are eyewitness history.

In the final chapter of his book, Bauckham discusses testimony as a way of knowing. After discussing the reluctance of some historians to accept testimony as historical evidence, he asserts that a historian’s “complete independence of testimony is unsustainable.”5 He goes on to say, “Testimony is as fundamental to the historian’s knowledge of the past as it is to human knowledge in general.”5 Most powerfully, he discusses the role of testimony in accounts of the Holocaust and concludes that “The testimony of Holocaust survivors is the modern context in which we most readily recognize that authentic testimony from participants is completely indispensable to acquiring real understanding of historical events, at least events of such exceptionality.”5 While the Gospels are in many ways different from Holocaust testimonies, they share with them a reliance on testimony to know the truth about a “truly unique and powerful event in history.” The testimony “asks to be trusted”5 and testimony is the only way to know the truth for unique events.

man in a baseball hat writing in a notebook

Of course, testimony can be false. How can we know that testimony is reliable, especially for a claim as fantastic as the resurrection of Jesus? Hume’s criterion for accepting testimony to miracles will, surprisingly, help us here. What kind of miracle would we need to disbelieve the testimony to the resurrection? In the case of the Apostles, most, if not all, went to the grave for bearing testimony to the Resurrection. A long-time friend and colleague says that the decisive stroke for him to become a Christian was the realization that the Apostles did not die for their faith—they died for their eyewitness testimony. So, to apply Hume’s criterion, we would ask, “What degree of miracle would it require to believe that all of the Apostles died for false testimony?” Perhaps Hume’s doubt wins out here; the Resurrection of Christ is a far greater miracle than twelve men willing to die for a lie. For my part, it is enough; I accept their blood-sealed testimony. Their testimony “asks to be trusted” and it is the only way to know the truth of the most unique event in human history.

I trust that reading Genesis 1 through the worldview of the ancient Hebrews has restored your confidence in the Bible’s witness to creation. Creation is both foundational to the Christian faith (“I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth”24) and key to a flourishing life in Christ. The Bible’s line of reasoning about Creation is very straightforward: God made this world in love and holiness. It is his kingdom, and this is the foundation of your work as a scientist, giving it purpose and meaning. If the full truth of Creation settles deep into your life, it will work out in grateful submission and, with God’s blessing, affirm your calling as a scientist and be a powerful force to turn your heart and the hearts of others to God. Embrace the truth of Creation and work it out in your life, your science and your witness to Christ.

Praying for you,

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About the author

Scott McCullough

W. Scott McCullough

W. Scott McCullough, Ph.D. (Purdue) is associate professor of physics and mathematics at Indiana Wesleyan University. His undergraduate research program is in computational biophysics, collaborating with biochemists and biological chemists. He spent 18 years in the Republic of Yemen, where he taught in the physics department at Sana’a University and worked in STEM teacher education development.

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