A Grand Experiment

The first recorded scientific trial took place in ancient Babylon more than 2500 years ago, and it is recorded, in brief, in Daniel 1:8-16, which reads as follows: “But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. Now God had brought Daniel into the favor and goodwill of the chief of the eunuchs. And the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who has appointed your food and drink. For why should he see your faces looking worse than the young men who are your age? Then you would endanger my head before the king.” So Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days, and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance be examined before you, and the appearance of the young men who eat the portion of the king’s delicacies; and as you see fit, so deal with your servants.” So he consented with them in this matter, and tested them ten days. And at the end of ten days their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king’s delicacies. Thus the steward took away their portion of delicacies and the wine that they were to drink, and gave them vegetables.

The elements of a scientific trial are easy to see here. We have the person conducting the experiment, Daniel. We have the subject group, those who are receiving the ‘intervention’ of a different diet, namely Daniel and his three friends. We have a control group, those receiving no interventions, namely the rest of the students at the palace school. We have a hypothesis, a test to make sure that Daniel and his friends do not look worse than their classmates, which for simplicity’s sake we will consider as a two-tailed test. The account even includes the results and analysis, conclusions, and follow-up. The results were that Daniel and his friends looked measurably better than their classmates (meeting the confidence level of the chief eunuch), with the conclusion that a diet of water and vegetables is healthier than a diet of palace delicacies, which resulted in a changed diet for all of Daniel’s classmates. While the experiment likely did not make him popular among his classmates, it did make him an experimental science of high caliber, and the first known one in recorded history.

There is, however, a second level of experiment going on here. We see this level of experiment less openly than the level of experiment that Daniel conducted, but the same elements are present. In this experiment, though, God is the experimenter, and Daniel and his friends are the subjects. What is the test? Will Daniel and his friends follow God while in captivity in a foreign land, despite the pressure to conform to a corrupt and ungodly society? We also see God subtly providing interventions in two areas: he gave Daniel favor with the chief eunuch, giving Daniel the possibility of success, and He also made sure that the experiment of Daniel was successful, blessing their obedience. We do not always recognize that the trials of our lives are exactly that, trials in the same sense as experimental trials in scientific fields. To be sure, they are not as obvious as a medical trial, for example, but the same elements are there. If we believe that God is in control of allowing or actively setting certain conditions in our lives, then the sort of situations we find ourselves in are a clinical trial held by God in which it is our behavior and character that is put to the test, put on trial, if you will, to add yet another meaning of this term and another layer to the trials of our lives.

If we have eyes that are properly attuned to look, we can see that experimental design is present in several biblical stories. One conspicuous example can be found at the beginning of Job, when Satan seeks to conduct a trial on Job. The first round of this trial is very straightforward and is given, in full, in Job 1:6-22: “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?” So Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only do not lay a hand on his person.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house; and a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, when the Sabeans raided them and took them away—indeed they have killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands, raided the camels and took them away, yes, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you!” Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong.”

This is a slightly longer experiment than that of Daniel, it is a lot less pleasant, but the same elements are here. God deliberately points to Job as an example of godliness on the earth, and Satan (taking the bait, we might add) immediately proposes a scientific test—if Satan afflicts Job by taking away his children and his wealth, Job will curse God and die. God accepts the experiment and allows Satan to change the conditions of Job’s life (the experiment). Job does not change his respect for God despite his serious losses, and Satan’s experiment fails, while God’s belief in the null hypothesis (the continued faithfulness of Job) is vindicated by experimental result. Satan, like a corrupt pharmaceutical company, decides that he wants to shift the goalposts, and it is the result of a second test under even more stringent interventions that takes up the remainder of the book of Job, in which Job’s faith is vindicated again, albeit at heavy cost to himself and his relationships with his wife and friends. Moreover, God never tells Job that his suffering was the result of two experiments that Satan was allowed to conduct with Job as the subject and the conditions of his life as the area where that experiment took place.

Nor is this the only example where there is a clear scientific design to a given trial. Another example can be found in Genesis 21. This example is somewhat lengthy, so you may read it on your own, but I will again cite the elements of experimental design that can be found here. God puts Abraham through a trial by telling him to sacrifice the son that he waited twenty-five years for, the son that was promised to be the first of many descendants of Abraham that would number as the stars in the heavens or the particles of sand on the shore of the sea. Abraham believed in God, and with a heavy heart (and a very inquisitive son), he went to the place where God had appointed for the sacrifice to take place. God wanted to see, plainly, whether Abraham would take God at his word that despite asking for Isaac as a sacrifice that Isaac would be delivered to fulfill the promises that God had made. At the last possible instant, God intervened and a substitute sacrifice was made to fulfill both the demand for a sacrifice while preserving the life of Isaac. Again, God intervened only in specific and limited ways (as is appropriate in experimental design, where interventions are to be as limited as possible to allow the best chance to capture reality in the experiment) but the experiment was a success, and Abraham’s faith was vindicated.

Clearly, if we look at the course of our lives or the stories in recorded scripture, that God is engaged in a grand experiment that includes every human life for all recorded time. The implications of this are staggering. Those scientists whose eyes are not blinded to the evidence in the universe (see Romans 1:18-21) can see the evidence for design in the physical universe, looking at the precise conditions that must exist for life at all, much less intelligent life that is able to recognize and appreciate the bountiful gift of existence that we have been given. A God that would design a universe and design us, and then place us in a large and immensely complicated experiment, is a God that combines two qualities of the utmost importance. The first is that such a being must be of immensely great intelligence. The proper design of experiments is a difficult and demanding task that requires a high degree of intellect to accomplish. Given the fact that the experiments of our lives include controls and experimental subjects, a large degree of factors and interventions, and is a longitudinal study over many generations, one that explicitly (see Exodus 20:5-6) includes the multigenerational effects of both sin and righteousness. Additionally, our isolation from other sentient beings to some extent simplifies our experiment by removing from us any of the noise that would react from too many complications and cross-currents.

How might we conceive of our lives as a grand experiment? There are several ways. Fundamentally, the Bible speaks of humanity in a variety of sets of two kinds of people. There are people who are called by God, accept that call, and are chosen to follow God and model his ways. This is an experimental group, and the experiment is to show what life is like living the way that God commands. What makes them an experimental group is that God intervenes in their lives in such a way that they do not live as others do, and that intervention allows them to be distinguished by God, by Satan, and by other people, as being somehow distinct and different, a peculiar people, whose peculiarity is being chosen by God seemingly at random (1 Peter 2:9-10) or even by design among those whom the world considers to be weak, foolish, and base, even more broken than most people are in this terribly broken world (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). So, we say that God deliberately stacks the deck against himself by choosing the most difficult people to work with in the most undesirable of circumstances, with the intent of showing how His intervention in their lives can make them noticeably and significantly better than the control group of humanity that does not know or follow God, so that those who persist in rebellion when their time to be called comes are without excuse, in the hope that all mankind will accept His invention and recognize Him as their Lord and Creator, and recognize Jesus Christ as their Savior and Redeemer.

In order to be a valid experiment, those chosen as part of the experimental group must be representative. Given the cosmic and universal desire of God for the salvation of humanity (1 Timothy 2:1-4), those people who are called by God must vary as humanity does, so that His family (the experimental group) of believers contains every quality that is present in the world at large. We must have men and women, people of all kinds of gifts and personalities, strengths and weaknesses, historical eras (each with their own unique contexts and cultures), and any other factor (wealth, beauty, intellect) which causes people to vary in the way that we live our lives. Furthermore, this group of people is subjected to a wide variety of interventions, ranging from the absence of visible intervention (the allowance of trials in our lives [1]) to the presence of active and very noticeable intervention, such as plucking someone out of a situation, placing them in a specific place, and then immediately going to work at very obvious tests of character. The reason for this diverse response is simple—not only does God want to work with us, but each experimental subject becomes part of a larger write-up (see Revelation 20:11-15) that shows the behavior of each subject that was part of the experiment, how they responded to various conditions and various interventions, and their part in showing the success (or failure) of the entire experiment. This is serious business. Part of the reason there are so many interventions to be tested is because just as in a medical trial, some people will have idiosyncratic responses to some interventions, simply because human beings are complicated and diverse.

We see, for example, this rich diversity in interventions in the way the Bible is written, and the fact that the same point is discussed in different ways. For example, we see a wide variety of genres and approaches in scripture, some of which appeal to different people. Some books (Job, Ecclesiastes, Hebrews) appeal to those interested in speculative wisdom, more practical types will gravitate to Proverbs and James (to name two examples), while Ruth and Song of Solomon appeal to those with romantic tastes, Psalms contains poetry of deep passion, Leviticus and Deuteronomy (among other places) contain organized groups of laws, other areas of scripture (the Former Prophets, for example) contain narrative history, and still other sections of Bible (like the beginning of 1 Chronicles) contain genealogies that show the interconnectedness of believers who would otherwise be seen in isolation. There are four different Gospel accounts, each of which has its own focus and helps in painting a more complex and rich overall picture, and so on. In any way that someone is open to accepting the call of God, there is some aspect of scripture that will appeal to us, that will inspire and instruct and encourage us, and that will lead us to think and ponder and muse on what God says so that we may be made into better people. There will also be areas that we will appreciate but not really enjoy in the same way because we do not think or feel that way, but that others will appreciate more because of who they are.

This leads to the second factor that such a God has who operates in the means of a complicated experiment to work with mankind. Those who design experiments like that of our world are not only beings of great intellect but also beings of great passion and feeling. Experiments that test treatments are often undertaken by people who care passionately about treating or resolving a given problem of great difficulty and complexity, and who want the knowledge and information it takes to help overcome that problem. It is our passion that supplies the motivation to persist at wrestling with a difficult problem despite its challenge and despite failed efforts and the uneven growth of knowledge and the even more uneven growth of the practical use of that knowledge. Cold intellect without the warmth of feeling will act only in pragmatic ways, without any of that self-sacrifice that ennobles our efforts and makes our lives worthy of emulation and admiration, and makes ourselves lovable as well.

It is clear that both God and Jesus Christ are beings of great feeling. Perhaps the best known verse of the Bible, John 3:16, tells us that God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten son (in the same sense that Isaac was the only begotten son of Abraham) so that those who belief should not perish but have everlasting life. This verse gives us the whole point of the experiment of life. As human beings, we have eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) but created us with short lives that make a mockery of our hopes and goals and dreams and longings. So, when we are offered a place as an experimental subject of God, He offers us something we want—eternal life, the only cure to the death that we would otherwise have and that we know we deserve based on our sins and faults. We therefore have a high motivation to see the experiment through until the end, so that we may receive our reward (itself a frequent feature of scientific trials that use human subjects—the fact that rewards are back loaded to those who persist until the end).

This is not the only place where the great feeling of God is made plain. Far from it. In Matthew 23:37-39, we read a passionate lament from Jesus Christ over the desolation that Jerusalem would face because it did not react positively to His intervention of coming to earth and living among them: ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Who can read this verse, and have feeling for those who have rejected us and tormented us, and not feel the same sort of anguish, that we wished good for others, we wanted them to be happy, and yet they turned their back on us, and worse than that, responded in a hostile way to our gentle entreaties. Those who share in that anguish share in that heartfelt lament, having known painfully well how it felt to see love returned back with hatred and scorn, and see how undeserved it is that God or Jesus Christ should have cause to feel that way from us.

For we are created with like passions and longings that God and Jesus Christ possess. We too long for relationships and affection, long for honor and glory, wish to make a name for ourselves that is everlasting and eternal, wish to be loved and respected and remembered. It is all too easy for our longings to be corrupted, and for the pursuit of those longings to defile ourselves, damage others, and bring great judgment and condemnation upon ourselves, but those longings are not to be blamed, rather they are to be channeled into the right direction, as time and opportunity permit, and restrained where time and opportunity do not permit. It is our weaknesses, our shortcomings, the longings that we have that are not fulfilled, that remind us that something is missing in our lives and that we were created for a larger purpose than we now see, for something beyond the present grand experiment that we are a part of. In a way, our longings and struggles serve to remind us of our need for God, in much the same way as the longings and struggles of others serve to provoke our compassion, our empathy, and our aid, insofar as we know we struggle also.

There are still other implications that we need to consider. A being that creates an experiment wants to gain knowledge and understanding. We typically associate this with a desire for intellectual knowledge, but even scientific experiments are far more nuanced than that. A scientist may not only wish to know how people react in a given experimental situation, but may also desire to respond effectively to that response. We want many things from God, ranging from small requests like things and stuff, to larger and more central concerns like love and relationships, to the desires for meaning and belonging and eternal life that are our ultimate desires. What is it that God wants from us, though? In a sense, God wants a relationship with us, and He wants to see our love for Him. Such things cannot be coerced, they cannot be demanded, they cannot be earned. They can only be given freely from a heart that can recognize the love of others, and that responds to it in return, or a heart that is filled with love that appreciates when it is returned by others. As it is on earth, so it is in heaven. As the price of freedom, our own and others, is the brokenness that we know in our own lives and that we see around us, so to our existence is a part of a great experiment to see how a loving God can take mortal and very fallible and fragile human beings who are broken as a result of their own sins and life in a broken world, and form them together again whole, so that they may be instruments of love and restoration to the world outside, and so they might become like Him in turn. May that be worth every trial along the way.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/01/06/of-whom-the-world-is-not-worthy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/the-only-way-out-is-through/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/book-review-walls-fall-down/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/roll-with-it/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/do-what-you-can-with-what-you-have-where-you-are/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/let-us-have-faith-that-right-makes-might/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/fool-if-you-think-its-over/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/23/1-peter-5-5-7-cast-your-care-upon-the-lord-2/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/the-breathtaking-beauty-of-pain/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Grand Experiment

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