Science and the Bible


Is there a conflict between what we see in the Bible and what we see in Science?  Are those two views diametrically opposed and unreconcilable, or are they two sides of the same coin and complementary?

I’m not a scientist or a theologian.  I’m an engineer.  In practicing my profession, I’m often presented with a problem that is too complex to be solved all at once.  When this happens, my usual approach is to try to break the problem in to smaller chunks and to go after each simpler piece using what I know about the basic laws of Physics.  These first principles include such things as Newton’s Laws of Motion or the Laws of Thermodynamics.  It should not be surprising that I would take a similar approach to my understanding of how what we know of God from the Bible squares with what we know of God from the fingerprints He has left on His handiwork in creation.

What are the first principles that apply to this inquiry?

The very first principle is a belief in the existence of God and an understanding that He tells the truth.  I’ll take that as a given for this work.  If I’ve lost you at this point, let me suggest that you leave this post now and pick up a copy of a book such as C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity instead.

If you’re still with me, the next of these first principles is that, if God is who He says He is, then we ought to pay close attention to what He tells us—both the explicit things He tells us in the Bible and the implicit things we learn from our knowledge of the natural world.

The third of these first principles is that we will ask questions only where we can expect valid answers.  When we want answers concerning the general history of the universe or the laws of its mundane behavior, we will go to Science, but there are things for which Science cannot have an answer.  In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking asks

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?  The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.  Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? [1]

Science is about how; religion is about why.  Thus, if we wish to know about God’s governance of the universe or His relationship with man, we will look first to the explicit statements of the Scriptures.

The fourth of these first principles is what I call The Principle of Economy of Miracles.  If there are two possible explanations for an event, one natural and the other supernatural, the preferred explanation is the one that does not require a miracle.  I’m not a deist; I believe that God continues to interact with creation, but I believe that He suspends or overrides the natural laws of His universe only sparingly.  Thus, if His providence causes a set of natural processes to unfold in a particular way, no miracle has occurred.  On the other hand, events such as the Resurrection of Jesus are clearly miraculous.  They happen—rarely.

The last of these first principles was well put by Augustine of Hippo:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. [2]

While Augustine was writing about the interpretation of Scripture, his remarks apply to our interpretation of Science also.

Science and Theology are both attempts to learn true things, but they usually use very different methods.  The scientific method takes observations of nature, creates a theory that tries to explain the observations, and then uses the theory to make predictions that can be tested.  If a theory’s predictions fail, the theory must be scrapped or modified.  Theology is based on the study of things that have been revealed.  Of course, it is possible to make predictions based on revelation, but religion is generally not testable in the same way as science.  This is not to say that religious predictions are never verifiable.  I believe, for example, that prophecies concerning the Messiah can be shown to be true and fulfilled by Jesus—but proven by reason rather than the scientific method.

So what are the supposed conflicts between Science and the Bible?  The first things to pop into most peoples’ minds are the questions of the origin of the universe and man’s place in it.  Was the earth created in 4004 BC, or is it over 4.5 Gy old? [3]  Was the earth created when the entire universe was only a couple of days old, or is the universe 9.2 Gy older? [4]  Was man created around 6000 years ago, or did our earliest common ancestor live about 100 ky ago? [5]

There are other questions.  Did life evolve on earth over billions of years or were all the species that ever existed created a few thousand years ago?  Did dinosaurs coexist with humans?  Did natural processes carve features such as the Grand Canyon over millions of years, or were such landmarks created in about a year by a single catastrophic Flood about 5500 years ago?

More important, what bearing, if any, do questions such as these have on the spiritual relationship between God and man?

In explaining my views in this series of posts, I’ll have to contrast them with those of others.  While I’ll try to be accurate in describing what others have said, I won’t try to make their cases for them.  These posts aren’t balanced; they’re about my point of view.

In this and subsequent posts we’ll look at several topics.  First, we’ll look at what Science and the Bible have to say of about the origin of space and time.  We will also consider the spectrum of beliefs about the origins of the universe, the Earth, life, and man.  We will consider the nature of time and its relationship to God.  We will examine what our own DNA and the Bible reveal about the origin and nature of man.  We’ll look at what physics, geology, chemistry, biology, and Genesis tell us about how the earth got to be like it is today.  We will look at what astronomy can tell us about the life of Jesus.  Finally, we’ll examine what the Scriptures and philosophy have to say about man and personality and how things might turn out in the end.

In the end I believe that you will come away with a deeper sense of awe of the Almighty.

As Maria told the children, “Let’s start at the very  beginning/A very good place to start …”

“In the beginning God created …”  That’s how the Bible begins its story.  How does Science begin its tale?

Until recently, scientists were divided on whether or not the universe had a beginning.  The idea of an eternal universe that had always been had great appeal to many.  You see, Science deals with the natural order of things.  Having a beginning smacks of having a Creator, and that’s supernatural.  Or if we don’t allow for a Creator, it seems to violate the principle of cause and effect.  So, many scientists were comfortable with Carl Sagan’s statement that “[t]he Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” [6]  The odd thing about Sagan’s remark is that he wrote it many years after the Big Bang hypothesis was proposed, decades after George Gamow had predicted the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB) that resulted from the Big Bang, and even after Penzias and Wilson had received a Nobel Prize for finding the CMB!

It is now generally accepted science that there was a time (t = 0) before which we can have no natural knowledge.  Not only has the CMB afterglow been found, but my colleagues at Goddard Space Flight Center [7] have used the COBE [8] and WMAP [9] missions to study and map the CMB.  Here’s some of what cosmologists now believe we know about the Big Bang:

The universe resulting from the Big Bang contains all of space and time as we know it.

The Big Bang did not occur at a single-point in space like some sort of explosion.  Rather, what happened is that all of space (the entire universe) appeared all at once, but the universe was more compact in the beginning that it is today.  It has continued to expand over time.

The resulting geometry of space and time is essentially “flat.”  That means that the universe will not begin to collapse on itself and that it is not cyclical.  Based on the data we have seen thus far, it is likely that there is not enough matter in the universe for gravity to stop the expansion.

The first thing that came into existence in space and time was energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation or light.  Initially, this light was in the form of x-rays, but, as the universe expanded and cooled, it became ultraviolet light, then visible light, then infrared light, and finally the CMB.

As the universe cooled, some of the light became matter.

There was a period of darkness during the cooling when the visible light had faded and before any matter had formed into stars about 400 My (400,000,000 years) after the Big Bang.

The Big Bang occurred about 13.7 Gy (13,700,000,000 years) ago.

Image credit: NASA

How do these discoveries compare with what we find in Genesis?  An almost-literal translation of Genesis 1:1 … 5 reads:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth being a desolation and a waste, and darkness being upon the face of the abyss, and God’s Spirit hovering upon the face of the waters—then God said, “Let light be,” and light was.  And God saw that the light was good, and God divided between the light and the darkness.  And God called the light “day,” and He called the darkness “night;” and evening was, and morning was—one day.

Of course, the obvious point of agreement between Science and the Bible is that the universe had a beginning.  Also, both Genesis and the Science tell us that the first thing to come into existence (other than space and time) was light.  And then Science tells us that it got dark until the first stars formed.  Evening was, and morning was.

One day or 400 My?  Here we have what might be a significant difference.  However, before we assume that there is a problem, let’s remember the wisdom cited from Augustine above.  Is there a way of understanding Genesis 1:5 that does not abuse the text and allows us to believe what we see in nature?  Or is the meaning of yom echad (one day) so specific and literal as to force us into believing that Science must be misinterpreting the apparent age of the universe?

This is a very important point for us Christians who wish to convert others.  If we must ask our fellow men to give up their rational beliefs that they have gained through their personal observations of nature, we have a difficult task ahead.  Augustine also noted that

[c]ommonly, even the non-Christian knows about the earth, the heavens, and other elements of this world; about the motion and movements of the stars and even their brightness and relative positions; about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon; about the cycles of the years and the seasons; about the nature of animals, grains, stones, and other things—and he holds this knowledge with certainty from reason and experience.  Now it is disgraceful and pernicious and greatly to be avoided that one should hear a Christian, presumably speaking according to the Scripture, talking nonsense on these things; all should take notice of such error and laugh it to scorn.  The shame is not that the mistaken man is derided, but that some might believe our sacred writers said such things, to the great loss of the salvation to which we call them, while the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as men without learning.  If they hear a Christian embracing error in a thing that they know well, and hear him defend in the same way our Scriptures, how will they believe those books concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of life eternal, and the kingdom of heaven, when they believe they are full of lies about facts they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?  Presumptuous and imprudent ones bring extra trouble on their wiser brothers when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are reproved by those not under the authority of our sacred Scripture.  Then to defend their completely foolish and obviously false statements, they will go to the holy Scriptures for proof, bringing forth even from memory many words to bear witness for them, although they neither understand what they say nor the things about which they make assertions. [10]

Augustine lived in the 4th and 5th centuries and believed that the world was then only about 6000 years old.  Today, he would be classed as a Young Earth Creationist, but he held that belief based on the best scientific evidence available 1600 years ago.  Given our improved knowledge of the natural world, it would not be unreasonable to expect him to have changed his mind if he were alive in the 21st century.

For the time being, let me say that I do believe that there is a way to interpret yom echad without abusing the meaning of the text and that is consistent with modern science’s understanding of the age of the universe.  I’ll go into my reasoning in the other posts.  For now, let’s stick with the points of obvious agreement.

Genesis 1 is not the only part of the Bible that the science of cosmology tends to support.  The “flatness” of the universe that we see in the astrophysical data from WMAP means that the current expansion will go on until the universe is acted on by an outside force, and throughout Scripture we are taught that life will continue until God intervenes at the end He has chosen.  The Qur’an, on the other hand, teaches an oscillating universe (21:104).  Hinduism views the current universe as just a day and a night of Brahma with an infinite cycle of universes, each with its own gods.

The generations of scientists who lived by faith in the power of reason toiled year after year to learn the mystery of creation.  They traveled a long, long journey, and, as they turned the last corner, they found the theologians who had been sitting at the end of the road for centuries. [11]

Yet, the Bible is not a book about cosmology per se.  There’s no such thing as Biblical cosmology, but the Bible does give glimpses of the ancient world’s understanding of astronomy.  Through the years, various groups of Christians have ignored Augustine’s advice and tried develop cosmologies that fit particular understandings of Scripture rather than considering all the truthful things that God has told us.  Young Earth Creationist try to alter scientific thought to be compatible with a literal six days of creation.  Geocentrists believe that the Inquisition was right and Galileo was wrong about the sun being the center of the solar system.  Intelligent Design advocates try to alter scientific understanding in support of explaining certain features of the universe and living things as being the result of special creation rather than natural processes.  Theistic Evolutionists look at the Bible and nature, take both at face value,  and say, “God did it, and He appears to have done it this way.”

And some scientists are still upset to have found the theologians at the end of the road.  These scientists remain Atheistic Evolutionists.

There’s more about that in my post on the Spectrum of Belief.

NOTES

[1]  Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, New York, 1988, p. 174.

[2]  Augustine of Hippo, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim, Book I, chap. XLI.

[3]  That’s 4.5 gigayears, which is engineer-speak for 4-and-a-half-billion years.

[4]  That’s gigayears again.  9.2 billion years.

[5]  100 ky is 100 kiloyears, a hundred thousand years.  Look, I’m an engineer, and I write like one.  There’s going to be a lot of technical stuff in these posts, but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible, using explanatory notes where necessary.

[6]  Sagan, Carl, Cosmos, Random House, New York, 1980, p. 4.

[7]  Since 2000, I’ve worked as an engineering contractor at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center designing instruments and power systems for satellites.  I am a contractor and not an employee of NASA.  All opinions expressed herein are mine and not those of any other person or organization.

[8]  COBE was the Cosmic Background Explorer.  It was launched in 1989.  In 1992 the COBE team announced that they had found the anisotropy (lumpiness) in the CMB that explains how the universe cooled in such a way as to form galaxies and stars and people who could notice the lumpiness of the universe.  John Mather (of NASA) and George Smoot (of UC Berkeley) received the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work with COBE.

[9]  WMAP is the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.  It was launched in 2001 and was in service through 2010.  It was COBE’s successor.

[10]  Augustine of Hippo, op. cit., Book I, chap. XIX.

[11]  Robert Jastrow’s God and the Astronomer makes a similar comparison that has the scientists scaling a mountain only to find the theologians waiting at the top.

9 thoughts on “Science and the Bible

  1. God doesn’t say use science to determine origins or the date of the universe. He said ‘believe me’. In other words you have a choice to make–1. use faith and believe God did what He said He did in Genesis, or 2. do not and follow evil.

    considering that God also said not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly or follow those who do not believe for they are deceived or being deceived, one would have to ask why would anyone claiming to believe God would choose the latter option?

    In other words, those who claim to follow God must accept all of the Bible as it is written or they call God a liar and do not believe Jesus.

    • Yes, one must chose to believe God or call Him a liar. This applies not only to the explicit things He has said to us but also to the implicit things He says in the evidence of His creation. When we try to bend either to fit the other, we are denying part of what He has said and done. Therefore, I say, "God has said in the Bible that He did X, and, from the confirming evidence in nature, it appears that He did it this way."

      I don't always get that second part right, so I hope folks with better insight than mine will add to the comments.

  2. You need to remember that secular science is not run by believing people. It is constructed and designed after the secular way, through deceived minds and non-divine desires making it a field filled with the wrong ideas and unqualified to determine many things. I just wrote a paper on this you can find it here: http://www.dakotascba.com/Education.php scroll down to the 2nd article.

    • While many scientists are unbelievers, Modern Science is, in fact, a way of looking at the universe which way developed by believers, men who believed that universe was ruled by rational law set down by a rational Creator. This is why Science was mainly developed by Christians in Europe rather than Animists or Hindus or whoever.

    • I checked out the link in your post above. It seems to me that the writer has a problem with “secular” science—as if there were such a thing as “secular” truth. Everything that is true has its root in God. All truth is His.

      The Scientific Method is a means of testing whether what we think we know about the natural world is, in fact, likely to be true. It doesn’t replace God’s explicit communication with us in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that properly done Science can’t help us be even more amazed by what He has done.

  3. you misread what he said. there is a secular science but no secular truth. how can it be truth if it does not follow Jesus? you seem to ignore the fact that unbelievers who do science are not looking for the truth but vigoriously argue that science is not about truth or finding it.
    you also ignore the fact that unbelievers are deceived and being deceived and science/scientists are not excluded from that group. all science is not good science, it is a tool being used by evil to lead people from the truth and to ignore God’s word.
    there was no process, no billions of years, no alternative to Genesis 1 and God’s creative act.
    doing evolutionary experiments is not doing science, it is fabricating an alternative to the truth.

  4. Pingback: Why The Bible Matters? | Nathan Martin

  5. Pingback: Why The Bible Matters | Menaissance

  6. I like your approach to “spirituality” and science. I believe it is rare to see a technologist embrace the beliefs that you have posted. I enjoyed reading it.

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