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Could Baby Jesus Solve Quadratic Equations?

Consider this thought experiment:

You are placed in a time machine and transported back to Bethlehem shortly after Jesus’s birth. You enter the stable and see Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and perhaps a few shepherds. Approaching the baby you kneel and gently ask Him (in your native, modern, non-Aramaic language): “Dear Jesus, What are the solutions to the equation: 3x4 + 20x2 + 50 = 2x4 + 5x2 -4?”

What response do you think you might get?

  1. Baby Jesus answers, in your language, “Because the discriminant of each of these 2 quadratic terms is negative, this equation has no real number solutions.”[1]
  2. No response except cooing or perhaps crying.
  3. Something else?

And, if Jesus didn’t give response #1, why might that be?

  1. Baby Jesus comprehended perfectly well but declined to answer because to do so would be out of character for a baby, and it could compromise His mission.
  2. Baby Jesus, at that point in His incarnation, was not able to understand your request.
  3. Something else?

Now I hope it is obvious that no one should particularly care about an answer from Jesus to any math problem. My reason for constructing this odd scenario is to explore what might be the range of options when we ask what it means for Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine.

One option would be for us to consider Jesus to be completely omniscient at all times – whether He is in heaven or at any time during His incarnation. From that perspective one would have to conclude Jesus was capable, even as a newborn, of answering the above math question. But it also seems plausible, without reducing His ‘fully divine’ status, to see Jesus as having some temporary limitations during His incarnation. At minimum, He claimed to not know the time for His Second Coming (Matt. 24:36). And Jesus seemed to have bodily needs (hunger, fatigue, etc.) which we don’t ascribe to deity. So there were apparent restrictions – part of being ‘fully human’ – that didn’t compromise His ‘fully divine’ status.

Where am I going with this? In the Gospels Jesus references Genesis (Matt. 19: 4-6, Mk 10: 6-9) and treats the creation account literally. His scriptural reference is in response to a question about marriage, not origins. But he appears to affirm the traditional Genesis 1-2 interpretation. So an argument is made, frequently and not just by Adventists, somewhat as follows:

  1. Jesus refers to the Genesis account of origins literally
  2. Jesus is ‘fully divine’
  3. If you are ‘fully divine’ you are omniscient and inerrant
  4. Consequently, the literal understanding of Genesis is conclusively proven

This argument seems Bible-based and air-tight to its proponents. And, I would add for clarity, the conclusion might very well be correct. I am not arguing against it, per se! What I wish you to notice is that step 3 makes a significant inference that is not mandated from the Bible. There are a range of reasonable possibilities for Jesus’s being ‘fully divine’ during His incarnation. One of which is that Jesus was subject, temporarily, to limitations which didn’t fundamentally affect His divinity, but did affect his range of ‘powers’ while on Earth. Perhaps His ability to solve esoteric math problems as an infant was unavailable. Perhaps he did not have the historical perspective to be able to know exactly what mechanisms were used during Creation and was instead just affirming what any other contemporary would say and believe.

I find ‘silent’ inferences creeping into a lot of discussion about doctrine, especially so on the topic of origins. And those making the arguments operate as if they are strictly dealing with hard Biblical fact, not sometimes with inferences derived from the core data. We all do this at times and would do well to work at recognizing it so we might better differentiate between information and interpretation.

Now let me suggest two other cases where I think a significant inference has been smuggled in as fact:

  1. There cannot be death before sin
  2. Evolution means theistic evolution

Death before Sin

One argument frequently employed for affirming a literal reading of Genesis is the unacceptability of death before sin.  Consider this exposition from Adventist writer David Newman:

“… Christian evolutionists say that death is natural and normal, while the Bible says that death is an enemy.

‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. … The last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:22, 26 NIV). And it will not exist in the new earth (Rev. 21:4).

The Bible is very clear that there was a time in this world’s history when death did not exist. ‘The Lord God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die”’ (Gen. 2:16-17, NIV).

This passage is saying that Adam would live forever if he abstained from eating this tree. He would never die. Paul, when writing to the church at Rome about how we are saved, says this: ‘Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned … Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses …’ (Rom. 5:12-14 NIV).

Paul makes it clear that death did not exist before Adam sinned. …” [2]

An important underlying question here is: when the word ‘death’ is used, how extensive should we take its meaning to be? First, are we limiting the word to human death or beyond? And, if beyond, then does that extend to everything classified as living? Or does it stop short of this? It is not clear to me where Newman stands, although it seems he is not limiting the word to mean human death only. It also seems to me that the verses are speaking explicitly about human death. Taking the verses further than this is an inference.

Frequently, in my experience, these verses are used in support of a very expansive concept of death. But have we thought about the implications of such a position? Does ‘no death before sin’ extend to the plant kingdom? If so then Adam would have been restricted to eating only food where the plant did not die in producing it. Perhaps we would consider it acceptable for plants to die but would wish to exclude animals, else God would be at least allowing, if not promoting, suffering. Here the thought is likely focused on sufficiently complex animals, like a dog, horse or deer, which have the capacity to suffer (or so we infer, from external observation). [3]

However, what about simpler animals, perhaps down to single-celled organisms? Would a perfect original (or restored) world preclude any food gathering that extended into the animal kingdom? It’s more difficult to make a convincing case, based on suffering, to exclude consumption of simple animals (e.g. plankton, but perhaps even more complex organisms lacking pain sensors or a complex brain). So where is it reasonable to draw a line? Might Adam have even gone fishing? It’s easy but dangerous to be overly-quick about where to draw that line. My central point here is that we do make inferences that exceed the basic data. And we can then silently and often subconsciously slide these inferences into the corpus of material that is considered inspired and thus normative for all.

Evolution means theistic evolution

This assumption is frequently made within Christian circles, and can certainly be found in comments here on the Spectrum website. Perhaps the most visible articulation of this inference, within Adventism, is Clifford Goldstein’s pejorative use of the term ‘Seventh-day Darwinians’ to refer to Adventists who in some way accept (or perhaps even do not categorically reject) evolution. But, I would contend, if one considers why Goldstein and many others feel strongly about the incompatibility between Adventism and evolution, it is because they consider only two possible types of evolution: atheistic, or theistic – meaning God-directed. Obviously an atheistic perspective is non-Christian/Adventist. And if theistic evolution is the only remaining alternative then God would seem to be employing death and suffering to do His creating. And that is a big problem if we are to have an all-good God, as death/suffering appears to be de-facto evil.

However, I would suggest that such an either/or view is not necessary. That is, there are other possibilities besides those two. Here is one alternative. It is possible that Satan & Co. was exiled to Earth eons before Adam and Eve and a Garden of Eden. Being very smart beings, and likely bored, they experimented with life beginning with single cells perhaps even taken from their own bodies. Life that ultimately originated from God, but then was shaped – evolved, if you will – via satanic intelligent design – through millions of years of this exile, which ultimately produced the geologic column as we now find it. Death was a natural consequence on this planet as it was under interdict from God’s protective care. [4]

Now, is this scenario true? I have no clue and it doesn’t matter! It certainly would have its own set of issues if one tried to fully resolve it with a literal interpretation of Genesis. But my point is more modest. It still might be true – for all we know. It provides a narrative largely outside the scope of any available evidence. Yet it delivers a geological record consistent with observed data and also exonerates God – at least to the extent that God would not be the active agent driving evolution. Consequently its existence as another possibility should help us recognize that an inference is being made when the broad term ‘evolution’ gets reduced to ‘theistic evolution’.

To sum up, then. There is a lot of heat being generated when determining what sound doctrine is and how to apply it in forming our world-view and then our actions. This heat often arises as a consequence of perceptions about whether another person is espousing orthodoxy or not. I wish to call attention to the risk of subtly including inferences clothed as inspired source material – as a caution to us all. We should be very careful and humble when drawing our conclusions, as we might be further out on a limb than we think.

[1] Commenters, please spare me a deep-dive into mathematical details. My math is rusty and I simply lifted this example verbatim from a pre-calculus workbook :-).

[2] Newman, J. David, “Death Before Sin – No”, Adventist Today, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Fall 2010), p. 9.

[3] The classic example of this problem of Natural Evil is Rowe’s Fawn (from Rowe, William L., “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979); 335-41):

1) There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

2)       An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

3)       (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

[4] One version of this scenario was proposed by Paul Giem in the Adventist publication: Understanding Creation, where he called it ‘old demonic creation’. However, permutations of this idea have been in circulation long before either of us. Some antecedents might be Thomas Burnet’s [1635(?) –1715] The Theory of the Earth, and the ‘gap’ theory of Thomas Chalmers [1780–1847].

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