If God Designed Humans, How Do We Account for “Design Flaws”?

A friend posed a question to me the other day that I found interesting. I’ve copied it below:

Given: God is good, all knowing, all powerful.

If he had designed us intelligently, then he would have known that at some point in time, many of his children would become rather prosperous, even those who are considered “the least among us” in the US are reasonably prosperous, compared to Jesus time, and truly most of the world has improved it’s standard of living to some extent, even though there are hundreds of millions if not over a billion that have poor access to water.

Given that he would know that his children would generally become this prosperous, why did he then design us so that we could become obese and diseased (in the various ways that we do) just by being averagely prosperous. Granted, many are extraordinarily or at least partially gluttonous, but many eat more or less reasonably and still become obese and diseased. Is this not, in some manner of thinking, a design flaw? I’m not per se arguing this, but the thought came to me, and I thought that you might enjoy the thought experiment if nothing else.”

Physiologically speaking, my friend raises a great point. In many ways, the human body does seem more proficient at dealing with food scarcity (for example, by utilizing ketone bodies during starvation) than with food excess (for example, its limited means of excreting cholesterol).

wall-e obesity

[Name that Pixar film]

Theologically speaking, we’re left with an apparent dilemma. It’s true that the mere presence of “design flaws” doesn’t, in itself, undermine the existence of a designer. (If a bridge or building has a structural flaw, it was probably still designed by an engineer or architect). Yet if God is a maximally great being, shouldn’t humans (being God’s highest creation, and all) be optimally designed? Shouldn’t our bodies be flawless, if God is flawless?

I don’t think so – although I do understand why one might ask the question.

My friend (a medical student) was specifically referring to metabolic diseases of the developed world…but I think we can safely lump together all examples of physical flaws. This includes everything from autoimmune disorders and birth defects to cancers and aging.

Speaking for myself, the presence of such flaws is easier to understand when I try to imagine what the absence of “design flaws” would look like. If our bodies were designed flawlessly, wouldn’t that necessarily entail immortality and perfect health? When we look at Scripture, I think the Christian has grounds for arguing that this is exactly what God originally intended for us, and still intends for us.

garden of eden fall of adam

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” –Genesis 3:17-19 (NIV)

So rather than regarding our physical flaws as a problem of design, I would be more inclined to attribute them to the effects of sin. And this pattern can be found elsewhere, when we stop to examine various aspects of human psychology, sexuality, sociology, etc. The physicalist might claim that humanity’s existence has the markings of randomness, but I believe it has every appearance of a good thing that’s been tainted – a sort of “fallen paradise”, if you will. (For those who are interested, I’ve written more on this topic HERE.)

Eric Metaxas on Phoney Religion vs. Real Faith

On February 2, 2012, Eric Metaxas delivered the keynote address at the National Prayer Breakfast. I had recently finished reading Metaxas’s excellent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so I decided to watch a replay of the speech a few days later. And I was impressed.

As I watched Metaxas deliver this speech – only a few feet away from where President Obama sat with the first lady – I couldn’t help but think of the prophet Nathan rebuking King David in 2 Samuel 12.

C-SPAN 3 doesn’t get much more edge-of-your-seat than this, folks. If you don’t have time to watch the full 30 minutes, I’ve collected some highlights below:

“There were plenty of churchgoers in England in the day of Wilberforce, and everybody in that day seemed to have no problem with the slave trade, or slavery…England paid lip-service to religion in those days. Everybody said, “Oh, I’m a Christian. I’m English. We’re Christians.” But they really seemed to think, most of them, that the slave trade was a fine thing. So keep in mind that when someone says, “I am a Christian,” it might mean absolutely nothing

[Wilberforce] fought politically. He fought hard. And the only people who were really fighting with him at this point were the “fanatical Christians”…the born-again nuts – the Quakers, the Methodists – that people made fun of. They were in the trenches, because they knew they had no choice but to regard the Africans as made in the image of God, and worthy of our love and respect. Everyone else was just going with the flow.”

african slave trade

“In Wilberforce’s day, going with the flow meant supporting slavery, and that Africans are not fully human. In Bonhoeffer’s world, in Nazi Germany, it meant supporting the idea that Jews are not fully human. So who do we say is not fully human today?”

“Wilberforce somehow saw what the people in his day did not see, and we celebrate him for it. Bonhoeffer saw what others did not see, and we celebrate him for it. Now how did they see what they saw? There’s just one word that will answer that, and it’s ‘Jesus’. He opens our eyes to His ideas, which are different from our own. Which are radical.

Now personally I would say the same thing about the unborn: that apart from God we cannot see that they are persons as well. So those of us who know the unborn to be human beings are commanded by God to love those who do not yet see that. We need to know that apart from God we would be on the other side of that divide, fighting for what we believed was right…

Today, if you have a Biblical view of sexuality, you will be demonized by those on the other side, who will call you a ‘bigot’. Jesus commands us to love those who call us bigots…to show them the love of Jesus. If you want people to treat you with dignity, treat them with dignity.”

C.S. Lewis on the Efficacy of Prayer

Can the efficacy of prayer be measured scientifically?

Personally, I would be a bit skeptical of any scientific study that claimed to have found a clear relationship between prayer and “desired outcome”. I’m of the opinion that this understanding of prayer (a mere tool for getting what we desire) is fundamentally flawed.

This is the same misunderstanding that Dawkins makes with his “God Hypothesis” paradigm (i.e. “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other“). This viewpoint takes a very small view of God (and, by extension, of prayer). Rather than acknowledging God as the ultimate Source of all knowledge and human experience, it seeks to detect the existence of God as an entity within the physical universe – like one might detect dark matter or alpha particles. It regards God as a variable within a system rather than the Creator and Sustainer of the system itself.

CS Lewis Not Impressed

In his book “Miracles” (buy it HERE, or check out my review HERE), C.S. Lewis offers the following commentary on free will, divine foreknowledge, and the efficacy of prayer. His model includes some important qualifiers and details that I’ve glossed over, but this excerpt conveys the basic idea:

“Suppose I find a piece of paper on which a black wavy line is already drawn, I can now sit down and draw other lines (say in red) so shaped as to combine with the black line into a pattern. Let us now suppose that the original black line is conscious. But it is not conscious along the whole length at once – only on each point on that length in turn.

Its consciousness in fact is travelling along that line from left to right retaining point A only as a memory when it reaches B and unable until it has left B to become conscious of C. Let us also give this black line free will. It chooses the direction it goes in. The particular wavy shape of it is the shape it wills to have. But whereas it is aware of its own chosen shape only moment by moment and does not know at point D which way it will decide to turn at point F, I can see its shape as a whole and all at once. At every moment it will find my red lines waiting for it and adapted to it. Of course: because I, in composing the total red-and-black design have the whole course of the black line in view and take it into account. It is a matter not of impossibility but merely of designer’s skill for me to devise red lines which at every point have a right relation not only to the black line but to one another so as to fill the whole paper with a satisfactory design…

line-man

It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, non-miraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer. Since it was non-miraculous the sceptic can always point to its natural causes and say, ‘Because of these it would have happened anyway,’ and the believer can always reply, ‘But because these were only links in a chain of events, hanging on other links, and the whole chain hanging upon God’s will, they may have occurred because someone prayed.’ The efficacy of prayer, therefore, cannot be either asserted or denied without an exercise of the will – the will choosing or rejecting faith in the light of a whole philosophy. Experimental evidence there can be none on either side. In the sequence M.N.O. event N, unless it is a miracle, is always caused by M and causes O; but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.

This impossibility of empirical proof is a spiritual necessity. A man who knew empirically that an event had been caused by his prayer would feel like a magician. His head would turn and his heart would be corrupted. The Christian is not to ask whether this or that event happened because of a prayer. He is rather to believe that all events without exception are answers to prayer in the sense that whether they are grantings or refusals the prayers of all concerned and their needs have all been taken into account. All prayers are heard, though not all prayers are granted. We must not picture destiny as a film unrolling for the most part on its own, but in which our prayers are sometimes allowed to insert additional items. On the contrary; what the film displays to us as it unrolls already contains the results of our prayers and of all our other acts. There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.) But this is, and must remain, a matter of faith. You will, I think, only deceive yourself by trying to find special evidence for it in some cases more than in others.”