Tough Questions: Does Science Make the Bible Irrelevant?

In 2006, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that in today’s world, you cannot be an intelligent, educated person, especially a person who takes science seriously, and have religious faith.  The God Delusion was part of a string of books by “The New Atheists” like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, during that same post-9-11 decade.  Those books were all best-sellers and stirred up lots of conversation.  Statistically speaking, atheism hasn’t actually grown all that much in the decade since (the most recent Pew Research study put their number at 3% of the US population).  But the voices that publicly ridicule faith have grown precipitously louder.  Just read the comments on any online story that has to do with church, faith, or spirituality and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s no wonder that many Americans, especially younger ones, draw the conclusion that the smartest people are all unbelievers, and that people who believe in the Bible and accept Christian doctrines are just not all that bright.  One of the reasons often cited by young people who leave the church (even if they don’t completely reject belief in God) is that Christianity seems to be anti-science. Don’t misunderstand: We shouldn’t obsess about what people think of us.  But we should be very concerned that increasingly, intelligent people feel like they have to choose between what they learn through science and what they are taught in Scripture.  Is that true?

Dr. Francis Collins is one of the most eminent geneticists in the world, and was in charge of the project that ultimately mapped the human genome.  He was raised in a highly educated, irreligious home.  As a young scientist, he was struck by the fact that he had never really researched the evidence for faith in God.  He considered himself an atheist and didn’t expect to find anything pointing to God’s existence, but he thought that a scientist shouldn’t simply make up his mind without at least doing a little homework. A conversation with a Methodist minister led him to read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.  That book (which has changed so many minds) posed a question Collins couldn’t answer.  He knew evolutionary science and was convinced it explained the existence of all life, but where did morality come from?  Why do we as humans all instinctively know there is such a thing as right and wrong?  Why don’t we simply follow the law of the jungle, in which the strongest do whatever they want, as all other animals do?  This question led Collins to belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, and then to Christian faith.  His book The Language of God shows very elegantly how he sees God’s handiwork in his genetic research.  That’s a great book if you want to see how science and faith can coexist in the same brain.  I would also recommend the books of Tim Keller.  He was for many years the pastor of a church he planted in Manhattan, where he preached to highly educated, mostly skeptical people.  His best books for working through intellectual issues with faith are The Reason for God and Making Sense of God. Let’s touch on three specific questions regarding how to live as both people of science and people of faith.

Aren’t science and faith in conflict?  This is very commonly believed, even by many Christians.  And we can all point to times when people of science and people of faith have indeed been in very public conflict.  But it shouldn’t be that way.  Modern science came out of a Christian environment, because Christians, unlike Platonists, believed that matter was essentially good and should be studied.  Most of the pioneers of science, men like Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Pascal, Priestley, Pasteur, and Newton were devout Christians who studied science because learning about God’s creation brought them closer to Him.  A few years ago, a Rice University study found that 36% of scientists believe in God.  18% attend church weekly, and 19% pray regularly.  Those numbers are much lower than in the general public, of course, but they certainly prove that it’s possible to be rigorously scientific while still holding faith in God.   So where did this idea come from?  Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his book The Secular Revolution, asserts that, toward the end of the 19th Century, many major universities were under the control of Christian denominations.  Some university officials, wanting to gain control, promoted the idea that religious faith was opposed to scientific research.  This was during a time when some Christian leaders—who identified themselves as fundamentalists—felt threatened by recent advances in science and spoke out against them.  Even though these fundamentalists didn’t represent all Christians, and certainly didn’t represent those in leadership of major universities, the theory stuck, and has persisted.  The media plays a role in this too.  The 24 hour news cycle must be fed, and nothing drives up ratings better than conflict.  So instead of a story about a scientist like Francis Collins who is a devout believer, it’s simply good business to run a story about a small town science teacher who is fired for teaching evolution, a preacher who predicts the end of the world on a certain date, or about a religious group who opposes stem-cell research.  But let’s be honest: we Christians bear some blame, too. I sometimes see my Christian friends commenting on science-related stories when they don’t know what they’re talking about.  We haven’t done research or read any studies; we just don’t like what some scientist is saying, so we criticize him.  Or we post stories that claim to validate the Bible, but aren’t true.  For instance, I have seen Christian friends post several times that NASA has discovered a mysterious “extra 24 hours” in the history of the earth.  They can’t explain it, according to the story, but it corroborates the story in Joshua about God making the sun stand still in the sky.  I believe the story in the Bible, but the internet tale about NASA scientists is absolutely not true.  When we post such things, we leave the rest of the world thinking, “Those people don’t care about science.”

So let’s just say it out loud: Thank God for science.  I for one am glad that when I get sick, I can go to my local doctor and get antibiotics to fight my infection, instead of visiting a witch doctor who will kill a chicken and shove stinkweed up my nose to repel the evil spirit of sickness.  I’m thankful that when a solar eclipse occurs, none of us assume the world is ending, and that when hurricanes bear down upon us, we know ahead of time and can prepare.  These and so many other wonderful things we take for granted in our modern world are the result of brilliant men and women doing scientific research.  But science also has its limits.   Science can’t tell us why the world exists.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  What was there before all of this came to be?  How did inanimate matter become living tissue?  What is the purpose of life?  Science and faith are not at war. They each answer key questions that the other cannot.

But hasn’t science disproved the Bible?  As Christians, the Bible is our ultimate authority in telling us who God is and how we can know Him. In other words, the Bible is key to us understanding who we are, why we’re here, and how we should live.  And to many unbelievers, that’s a conversation stopper.  They wonder how we can base our lives on the words in a book so ancient, primitive, and blatantly unscientific.  For instance, they say, “Everyone knows that life on this planet developed over hundreds of millions of years, but the Bible teaches that all life was formed in six days.  That alone is reason enough to set the Bible aside as anything more than a book of myths and fables.”

There are certainly plenty of Christians who believe that Genesis 1 must be taken literally, that God created the world in six 24 hour days, and that any scientific findings to the contrary must simply be ignored as being based on false presuppositions.  They point to the discoveries of Creation Science and Intelligent Design theory to bolster their convictions.  I am not going to debate the merits of these beliefs here.  I just want to show that these people are not “anti-science.”  They have examined evidence and come to a different conclusion from most secular people.

There are also Christians (Francis Collins is an example) who point out that some portions of the Bible are poetic in form.  For example, in Judges 4, we read the straightforward account of Israel, commanded by Deborah and Barak, defeating the army of Canaan, commanded by Sisera.  Then in Judges 5, we read the same story in poetic form, as a song written by Deborah about the event. Here’s a line from the poem in v. 20: From Heaven the stars fought; from their courses they fought against Sisera.  No one believes that celestial bodies literally fought against the Canaanite army.  This is Deborah’s picturesque way of saying, “We didn’t win this battle by our own strength.  We had the supernatural power of Heaven on our side.”  These Christians would submit that Genesis 1 is also a poem, not a narrative.  It’s more like Judges 5 than Judges 4.  So God didn’t write it to literally tell us how many days it took Him to create the world, or when it happened.  It’s meant to tell us that He made the world and it was very good, and that there is a natural rhythm to life, including work and rest.  They might say Genesis 1 is meant to be a work of theological truth, not a biology textbook.  Some of these Christians believe that God used the process of natural selection to get us where we are today; some call this idea Theistic Evolution.  Others believe in a variation of this idea.  They believe God intervened at times in the process of natural selection.  For instance, they would say that God created human beings separate from the way the rest of life evolved.    By the way, those different perspectives within the church aren’t new; they’ve existed for years.

My point is that if you believe the Bible, you don’t have to be afraid of science, or vice-versa.  Follow the truth wherever it leads.  All truth is ultimately God’s truth.

Can an enlightened person believe in miracles?  I sometimes hear, “I can’t believe you actually pay attention to a book of fairy tales, like a man being swallowed by a whale and surviving, or a baby being born of a virgin.”  This isn’t a modern phenomenon, by the way.  Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, put together a Bible stripped of all miracles or any reference to Jesus’ divinity.  That was a Bible for an enlightened person, in his view.  But this reasoning is circular.  It says, “If science can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist.  Since no scientist has ever proven a child was born of a virgin, the story of Jesus being born that way must be an old legend, believed in by much more primitive people.”  This kind of thinking assumes that science is the only way anything can be known. I like the way the philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it: It’s like a drunk looking for his keys who insists on only looking under a streetlight because the light is better there.  Since he can’t see anything out there in the darkness, he just keeps walking circles under that streetlight, saying to himself, “If those keys exist, sooner or later, I’ll find them here.”  We’ve already demonstrated there are things that cannot be known through science.

On the other hand, if there really is a God who created all things—as almost all people on Earth have historically believed—then would it really be difficult for Him to put a fetus in the womb of a virgin?  If miracles are rare, as the Bible asserts, is it really surprising that we have little scientific evidence to substantiate them?  To put it more plainly, if God only performed one virgin birth in all of human history, and it happened two thousand years ago, should we be surprised that no scientist has witnessed one?

2 Corinthians 4:4-6 says the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  For those of us who are Christians, we need to understand that we’re not smarter than or superior to unbelievers.  We didn’t find Jesus on our own.  God turned on a light in our hearts, so that what would seem to be ridiculous superstition to us when we lived under the dominion of the “god of this age” has become the truth that changed our lives forever.  That’s a miracle, just like God saying “Let there be light,” and it was.  Be patient with your unbelieving friends.  Respect their questions and doubts.  But also realize that you cannot argue them into salvation.  When you get to know them well, you will often find that it wasn’t their intellectual objections that caused them not to believe.  Many, like Francis Collins, were raised in homes where belief in God was simply never taught.  Others grew up in a toxic church environment (like my favorite Christian author, Philip Yancey), or a dysfunctional family that caused them to doubt the faith of their parents.  Others experienced a traumatic event that made them doubt the existence of a loving God.  For many, the only contact they have with Christian faith is what they see on the news, or the occasional angry conversation on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.  Instead of trying to prove their atheism wrong, which only makes them defensive, just be intentional about loving them.  Look for opportunities to treat them the way Jesus has treated you.  They will be won by your faithful friendship, not your arguments and certainly not by arrogance and self-righteousness.  If you have a relative who is not a believer, pray that God would introduce them to someone who would show them what the Gospel really looks like in the life of a person who has been changed by God’s grace.

If you’re not a religious person, you might find this Scripture offensive.  Does the Bible really teach that unbelievers are blind?  Yes.  But rather than be offended, consider the following:  Have you ever subjected your own convictions and doubts to the same scrutiny that you hold up against the Christian faith?  Your own beliefs are, in fact, a form of faith.  How do you know your faith in your own beliefs is valid?  What if you did what Francis Collins did all those years ago?  Why not investigate the possibility that the Gospel is true?  You don’t need to decide what you believe about Genesis 1 or whether Jonah really was swallowed by a whale or whether you agree with me on any particular social or political issues.  Just figure out who Jesus was, really.  Jeremiah 29:13 says If you seek me you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.   What an amazing promise!  Why not put that promise to the test?  If you need some guidance on how to investigate these things, I would love to help, and to answer any questions you have.

I know it’s much more comfortable to think that what you’ve always believed is still true.  I know it’s easier not to believe in a God who you will ultimately be accountable to for everything you say, do or think.  But here’s the good news.  Here’s why 2 Corinthians 4 talks about belief being like a light turned on in our souls: The story of the Bible is NOT that God wrote down a list of rules, and whoever is really good at following those rules, and gives money to a church, goes to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. The story of the Bible is that when humanity was lost and without hope, God became a man who lived among us long enough to live the life we should have lived, and then died the death we all deserved to die, so that we could experience true living, including a never-ending, always challenging, exhilarating, joyful, purposeful relationship with Him.  It says the Universe was created by and will ultimately be ruled by someone who loves you and has a beautiful purpose for your life.  In other words, the message of the Bible is that God would rather die for you than live without you.  Not only that, this God has a plan for the full redemption of the entire Universe; not an escape to a mystical fantasy world, but a renewed World, where things are finally set right, and things function as we all wish they would.  If there is even a possibility that is true, isn’t it worth your time to find out?

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