Science: Science and Bible, Evolution and Faith


In one of the most famous clashes between science and religion, the Church in the 17th century said that the Earth is the center of the universe, and the sun and various planets must orbit the earth.

Galileo said that the scientific evidence supported the opposite: the earth actually orbits the sun. He got into a lot of trouble with the Church for his opinion, but the Church eventually admitted that Galileo was right.[1]

The Church made a mistake when it thought that the Bible was giving facts about astronomy. Our understanding of the universe works best when we let the facts speak for themselves. It was quipped that church could teach people how to go to heaven, while science could teach people how the heavens go. They investigate different realities.

Geology

A couple of centuries later, scientific findings again seemed to contradict what the Bible said. Geologists saw evidence that the Earth was much, much older than the six or so thousand years implied by the Bible. Layers and layers of sedimentary rocks were apparently created over the span of millions or even billions of years.

Most Christians have come to accept this belief, too, although some prefer to speak about “the appearance of age.” They think that just as God created the first humans as adults, with the appearance of age, so also he created the earth with an appearance of being old. But if God did this, he also designed millions of fossils of organisms that never lived. The God who cannot lie apparently gave us evidence that the earth is very old.

Most of us are familiar with tree rings: as a deciduous tree goes through the cycle of seasons, it adds a ring each year. Whenever a tree is cut down, we can count the rings and see how old it is. Some are 4 or more thousand years old.

Perhaps you did not know that undersea coral reefs also provide a way to date living things. At perfect conditions, they grow at most 8 millimeters each year. Now, the Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific has a coral cap that is more than 4,500 feet thick. Under ideal conditions, it would take at least 180,000 years for this coral reef to grow; it is most likely much, much older.[2]

Some rocks also have layers, built up each year by deposits of wind- or water-born particles, usually changing with the annual cycle of season. The Green River shale deposits in Wyoming have several million paper-thin layers of clay alternating with organic materials, deposited each spring and summer. These layers could not be the result of a large flood—the only natural explanation for them is that they formed over several million years.

At least when it comes to geology, it seems that God has given us evidence that the earth is quite old, and if we think that the Bible says it’s young, then we have misunderstood what the Bible is trying to say to us. The Bible is simply not trying to tell us how old the rocks are.

Astrophysics

More recently, astronomers have discovered that the universe is a lot larger, and older, than Galileo would have imagined in his wildest dreams. The universe contains billions of galaxies that can be seen only with high-powered telescopes. As scientists survey these pinpoints of light, they see stars in various stages of formation—enormous spheres of gas, energized by fusion furnaces.

With our much smaller laboratories on earth, physicists have learned how atoms of hydrogen and helium can fuse to produce new elements and massive amounts of energy. Each element produces a slightly different spectrum of electromagnetic energy, and even though we are billions of miles from other stars, we can see the tell-tale evidence of various elements and the radiation that is produced when atomic nuclei merge to create new elements.

Here, too, there is great age. It takes billions of years for a large sphere of gas to condense, to begin fusion of small atoms to create larger atoms, then for those larger atoms to fuse and create yet heavier elements. Many of those galaxies are so far away from earth that it takes billions of years for even the light to reach us. Indeed, what we see now is something that actually happened several billion years ago. The further away we look, the further back in time we see. As we look into space, we see the history of the universe.

It all began roughly 15 billion years ago at one spot. All our notions of time and space were wrapped into a point smaller than anyone can see. And in an enormous “big bang,” it unfolded faster than anyone could see. I’ll skip the details and just sketch the general result: astronomical amounts of matter and energy flew out—all sorts of tiny particles with incredible force, creating what we know as length, width, height, time, mass and energy.

As the particles slowly cooled, they began to form protons, neutrons, electrons, and eventually hydrogen atoms. As gravitational forces worked on these fast-flying atoms, they gradually began to clump toward one another and form massive clouds of gas. Gravity eventually pulled those clouds so tight that pressure in the center began to create nuclear fusion—and then there were stars, still flying at enormous speeds away from that initial explosion.

The gravity of one star affected others, too, and the stars clumped into groups, and as they began to drift toward one another, spiral bands of stars were created. Some stars went through several fusion cycles to create heavy atoms such as sulfur, iron and lead. In time, some of these stars exploded, sending heavy atoms flying through the universe, and they began to condense again into spheres flying through space. Some were captured by the gravitational force of a star, and they became planets.

Galileo had no idea of the history involved in the stars he was able to see with his small telescope. Indeed, most of the details have been learned only in the last 50 years, but the evidence is so clear that the model has been widely accepted.

Creation bigger than we thought

Is there any conflict between the Bible and astrophysics? No, not at all. Almost all Christians have accepted the findings of astrophysics. Indeed, many people believe that the “big bang” is evidence of a Creator God—for how else could so much come from nothing at all, for no discernible reason?

For many, the “big bang” theory of the universe’s origin is indirect evidence in support of the existence of a Creator. But at the same time, it has certainly changed our understanding of how God created the physical world. As we look into outer space and see the history of subatomic particles, electromagnetic radiation, nuclear fusion and planetary development, we see a physical world that develops through time.[3]

But it did not happen the way some people might imagine. God did not say, let there be stars in the heavens, and presto, there were instantly billions of globes of gas churning away in nuclear fusion, complete with electromagnetic radiation that was already reaching Earth.

No, there was no reason to rush. Instead, God created matter that would in time create those stars. He created a physical world, with physical properties such that it would organize itself and eventually create a galaxy, with solar systems and at least one planet with a mixture of carbon, oxygen and heavy elements that would provide a place for life. We can see the history in our telescopes.

God created matter in such a way that it would bring order out of chaos. He set it all in motion, and watched it unfold. But he didn’t just watch—the Bible says that he sustains his creation day by day. He ensures that it works for his purpose.[4]

Life itself

Almost 150 years ago, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace proposed that life also develops through time. Darwin proposed a means by which this could happen, and that was eventually combined with what scientists have learned about genetics, heredity, chromosomes and DNA. Almost all biologists have accepted evolution as the best available explanation for the diversity of life we see in the fossils and in the world today.

But many Christians are not quite so sure. Although many major denominations have accepted evolution as the best explanation of the evidence that we see, others are skeptical, even hostile, to the idea that life developed by means of random variation and survival of the fittest. Let’s survey the options on the development of life:

  1. Young-earth creationism. Because these people have the most extreme position, and the least evidence, they are sometimes the most vocal. They believe that the Bible says that God created everything in six days less than 10,000 years ago. But they are not against science itself. Rather, they say there is scientific evidence that the earth is young. Although some things were created with an appearance of age, others were not. So no matter what kind of evidence is found, it fits their belief.

We do not doubt the sincerity of these people, nor their faith in Christ, but we do believe that they have misunderstood both Scripture and science. Most biblical scholars, even some quite conservative ones, do not think that Genesis is trying to tell us that God made everything in six literal days. Rather, it tells us that God made everything; the six days are simply a literary structure.

For the sake of illustration, let’s look at one aspect of Genesis 1 that cannot possibly be taken literally. Genesis 1 verse 7 says that there is water above the expanse of the sky. Verse 14 says that there are stars in the expanse. If we put these literally and put them together, it means that there was a layer of water above the stars, and from all that we know of astronomy, that is simply not possible.

The point is, that Genesis 1 should not be read that literally. Just as we do not take the parable of Lazarus and the rich man literally (with people in heaven and hell talking to each other), we should not take the details of the Creation account literally. Just like a parable, the creation story is true in its larger point, but not in the details.[5]

And the vast majority of scientists, including scientists who are Christians, say that the “creation scientists” have their science wrong. Although they claim to respect science, in practice they believe evidence only if it supports what they already believe to be true. Theologians, scientists, and even the courts have concluded that creation science is based in religion, not science. The evidence God has given us in creation simply doesn’t fit this theory.

  1. Old-earth creationism, sometimes called progressive creationism. These people agree with geologists that the earth is billions of years old. Some say that God created everything in six long ages, corresponding to the six “days” of Genesis 1. Others think that Genesis 1 refers to a week-long re-creation of life after it was destroyed in a huge catastrophe.

Again, we respect those who hold this view. They believe the Bible, and they believe the evidence in nature that shows great age. This has caused them to re-examine their understanding of Scripture, and try to see how both might be true.

However, some of the facts do not fit well into the scheme. Fossils do not show up in the geologic layers in exactly the same sequence that Genesis describes. And again, it seems that people are trying to read Genesis too literally. It is poetic and literary, not precise in either speed or sequence.

Nor is there any evidence for a worldwide catastrophe that killed all life 6 or 10,000 years ago. Although some people suggested that there might be a “gap” in Genesis 1:2, the Hebrew grammar does not support that theory. We once held this position ourselves, but we do not think it is honest with the evidence either in nature or in Scripture.

  1. Intelligent Design. A more recent attempt to harmonize the Bible and science is to suggest that the scientific data itself points to a Designer. Such organs as an eye seem too complex to have developed from random mutations—the eye is useful only if all of it is there; a partly developed organ would have little survival value.

Again, we respect the faith of people who prefer this option. It insists on the biblical claim that God is the Creator, without specifying exactly how or how fast he created. Indeed, many ID supporters admit that evolution is a reasonable explanation for much of life’s development; it is only the exceptional organ here or there that required divine intervention rather than random mutation. They may say that microevolution is a demonstrable fact, but macroevolution is not.[6]

The ID movement is an attempt to give creation a scientific face, but in doing so it misrepresents science. Science, by its nature, seeks natural causes for natural events. When biologists discover something that is seemingly too complex to be formed by natural selection, science cannot conclude that it was formed by a Designer who is outside nature. Nor can science say that a Designer did not do it; science simply cannot say anything about the supernatural. As a method of discovery, it limits itself to seeking natural causes. If every time it found a problem that it did not yet have an explanation for, if it simply said that God must have done it, and quit looking for a natural explanation, then science would make no progress and we would know nothing about the cause of diseases, for example. Science has been very successful at explaining nature precisely because it does not give up looking for natural causes of the complexities of this world.

Further, this approach sends the Christian to a life of progressive retreat. As more fossils are found that document transition stages in the development of living creatures, and as survival value is discovered for incompletely developed organs, it becomes less necessary to appeal to an external Designer.

It seems that ID does not explain anything, except to say that there are various phenomena in nature that we cannot yet explain. But science is committed to searching for a natural explanation. Theologians might well conclude that God did it, but they should also ask, How did God do it? Perhaps it was by a natural means, and we will not find out unless we keep searching for a natural explanation.

  1. Theistic evolution. Many theologians believe that, just as God created the physical world in such a way that it would develop by itself into galaxies, stars and planets, so he also designed the living world to develop by itself into the diversity we see today. In other words, he created evolution. This is another viable option for Christians today.

Since Scripture does not tell us how God created life’s diversity, it is reasonable for us to look into nature for evidence of how it was done, and evolution is the best scientific explanation of what happened. It’s not a perfect explanation, and it does not explain every detail (just as Newton’s laws of physics did not explain every detail), but it’s the best explanation that science now has. Theology says what it can, and it lets science say what it can.

In some ways, science and religion are like oil and water, using different methods for different purposes, so there is no conflict between them. Problems arise when we make the mistake of thinking that the Bible is giving us scientific information, or when we think that science gives us information about God.

Theology focuses on the supernatural realm. Although theology says that God created the universe, it does not say how he created it. Although theology cares about truth, theology is not in the business of pronouncing which theories of physics and biology are true—that study is best left to the domain of science. Theology then encourages people to study the natural world, and to come to conclusions based on the evidence they see. And indeed, people of all beliefs, from young-earth creationists to theistic evolutionists, believe that science will give an accurate answer. So Christians are free to study science and free to accept the conclusions that the evidence leads them to.

Theology does not tell science what it should find, but this does not mean that theologians have to be completely silent when it comes to scientific subjects—particularly if they have studied science in addition to theology. They may prefer quantum physics over Newtonian physics, but this is based in their study of science, not because theology itself tells them which form of physics is best. Theology tells them to seek the best explanation, and they believe that quantum physics is best.

Similarly, they may believe that evolution is the best explanation of biological diversity, but this is based on their study of the natural world, not because theology itself tells them that particular detail of biology. The Bible does not specify the details, so we should look at the evidence God has given us in the natural world, and study it without advance assumptions as to what is permissible. Theology says that we should let science do its work without artificial limits, and if evolution provides the best explanation, then it is reasonable for a Christian to believe in evolution.

Now, God-directed or God-engineered evolution does not mean that God started the ball rolling and then went away on a long vacation. No, most theistic evolutionists believe that God has continued to stay on the scene and is active in human affairs, especially in matters of salvation. God intervened in human history at various points, most especially in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. Just how many other times God has intervened in history or in the natural world is open to debate, but the bottom line is that God does continue to be involved in the day-to-day life of his people.

  1. Atheistic evolution. At this end of the spectrum are people who say that evolution has explained everything, so we therefore have no need of the God hypothesis. These people have faith—faith in science—but they have misunderstood what science is. Science is the search for natural causes of natural phenomena; it is simply incapable of concluding the non-existence of everything outside of its self-chosen limits.

Science is very successful at what it does, but it has no way of investigating, or pronouncing conclusions about, the supernatural. When scientists do this, they are working in the domain of philosophy, not of science. We reject this approach as bad philosophy and bad science.

In the Bible, God has revealed himself as a Creator. He has also given us nature as a record of what he has done, and he has given us science as a means of investigating the way he created the universe and the life we see in it. We let both forms of evidence speak. One tells us the purpose of creation; the other gives us the details of how it happened.

There is no conflict when we let each say what it was designed to say, but we run into conflicts when we cross those boundaries. We have conflict when we think the Bible gives us information about science, and we have conflict when we think that science gives us information about God.

We who have faith in God have nothing to fear from science, or from evolution. We can let science say what it discovers, and we can let the Bible reveal the supernatural meaning of it all.


[1] See “When astronomy became a theological football,” (March 2005 Christian Odyssey, page 16).

[2] See Daniel Wonderly, “Coral Reefs & Related Carbonate Structures as Indicators of Great Age,” IBRI Research Report 16 (Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1983), online at http://www.ibri.org/RRs/RR016/16coral.htm. Also see Alan Hayward, Creation and Evolution: Rethinking the Evidence from Science and the Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1995) and “Are Geologic Strata the Result of the Biblical Flood?”

[3] All this matter has just the right properties for it all to work. If the force of gravity had been slightly different, nothing would have ever come together. If the forces inside of atomic nuclei were slightly stronger or slightly weaker, nothing would have worked. But dozens of the constants of physics just so happened to be in the right range, so that we have the universe as we know it today. Many people again see the hand of a Creator at work.

[4] Whether he did anything special for this planet, or whether the properties of matter were such that this planet was bound to develop anyway, we do not know. Science cannot investigate that kind of detail. But science can see the general history of the universe quite well.

[5] See the article by Dennis Gordon, “No Contest: Why the Argument Over Genesis?” June-July 2007 Christian Odyssey, and Michael Morrison, “Genesis 1: Are the Six Days of Creation Literal or Figurative?”

[6] Microevolution refers to changes within a species, or from one closely related species to another. Macroevolution refers to larger changes, such as from one order to another.

Author: Michael Morrison

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