Must We Choose Between Science and the Bible?

Is there an insoluble conflict between the two?

The Bible says God created the earth and all that is in it. Some feel that the Bible says this act of creation occurred about 6,000 years ago. If they are right, what about fossils in museums around the world? Scientists claim they are the remains of creatures that lived millions of years ago. How could this be true?

God or science?

a Bible and an ancient animal's skullIt's a problem, isn't it, when belief in the Bible seems to be challenged by the discoveries of science?

Scientists say the earth is about 5 billion years old, and that life, in some form, has existed on it for most of that time. Even more disturbing for those who believe in a divine creation of man ex nihilo(out of nothing) is the growing evidence that humanlike creatures (hominids and protohominids are the scientific terms) have inhabited the earth for many hundreds of thousands of years.

Evolution is taught as a scientific theory and a fact in many parts of the world. In many states of the United States, to teach traditional forms of creationism in public schools is considered a breach of laws separating church and state.

How, as Christians, do we answer our children when they bring home from school plausible scientific explanations for the origin and development of life? How do we help them have faith in God's role in creation? And how do we avoid our faith being undermined?

Can we believe in God and dinosaurs? In hominids and Adam? Do we have to choose between divine creation and evolution? The fact is, we need not find an insoluble conflict between living faith and scientific evidence.

An emotional mine field

Since Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859, this subject has been an emotional mine field. Science and religion have often been adversaries in the search for truth and understanding.

Unfortunately, objectivity is not always the frame of mind of those who champion one side or the other in the debate. Some scientists regard belief in the Bible as medieval superstition, while "true believers" can't mention evolution without muttering "secular humanism and godless atheism."

Although many contemporary scientists are atheists or agnostics, a surprising number are committed Christians. They believe that "the fool says in his heart, There is no God"' (Psalm 14:1). They have learned that when scientific evidence seems to contradict the revealed truths of the Bible, then one, or the other, or maybe both have been misunderstood.

Science and the Bible may seem to contradict each other because they focus on different aspects of the same subject. It is possible to describe something accurately, yet in totally different ways, without, a contradiction.

A photograph of a majestic king of the beasts, or a matrix of dots forming an impression of shape and form – which is the correct description? Both are. Below, an enlargement of a printed photo, the oval marked on the lion's nose. 

For example, look at the picture on the right. How would you describe what you see? One way would be to say the photograph shows the head of a large lion that looks like it is about to affirm its dominion with an authoritative roar.

But it could also be described like this: A matrix of black dots, arranged so as to form an impression of shape and depth. The enlarged inset shows how this is true.

Which is the correct description? Both are. Which is best? That depends on what you want the description for.

One description is conceptual, the other technical. The technical explanation would be correct for a textbook on printing techniques; the conceptual would be better if the picture were to be used for a wildlife poster. To argue that one description is better than the other is futile and irrelevant.

Let' s apply this same logic to the questions of the origin of the universe and the development of life. The Bible tells us, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). Most scientists now believe the cosmos began at the moment of a "big bang," somewhere between 10 to 20 billion years ago.

Genesis 1 and 2 further describe God forming the earth and the life-forms on it in six days of creative activity. Most scientists believe the planet's features were molded by natural forces while life developed gradually, from simple to complex organisms, including human beings. Can both these apparently contradictory concepts be two ways of looking at the same thing? Perhaps they can.

Bible not a science book

We need to ask when reading any literature, what is its purpose? How is it written and for whom?

The Bible is not a textbook on science. That doesn't mean it is unscientific – just that its primary focus is not a scientific explanation of the phenomena it describes. It does claim to be the Word of God. But does this mean every word should be interpreted and understood literally?

Think about it. Do you believe that God is a rock (Psalm 18:2)? Did God send giant eagles to fly Israel on their wings to safety out of Egypt (Exodus 19:4)? Could the Pharisees have swallowed camels (Matthew 23:24)?

Obviously, these are not literal statements – the biblical authors used poetic license, metaphors, similes – even exaggeration to make their points. But this does not mean the Bible cannot and does not have divine authority.

God could have given us a detailed scientific explanation of creation. But, based on what we know now, such an explanation would have had to include quark theory, quantum physics, chaos and relativity, all operating in perhaps 11 or more dimensions.

It would have been thousands of years before anyone could have even begun to understand these ideas, let alone have the words needed to express them! Even now, most of us do not grasp the concepts of theoretical physics.

The people for whom Genesis was first written certainly didn't. They lived long before the scientific age. So why Genesis?

Genesis was written to teach the central truth that God is the Creator, who alone, in heaven and earth, is worthy of worship. The original audience to whom Genesis was written lived in a culture that worshiped many gods (polytheism). God inspired the creation account to help people of all historical epochs understand the truth that there is but one God, and he created everything else.

Can we believe in God and dinosaurs? In hominids and Adam? Do we have to choose between divine creation and evolution? The fact is, we need not find an impossible conflict between living faith and scientific evidence.

Given the purpose for which Genesis was written, the age of the earth was not an issue. Neither was the idea of evolution. At issue was which god or gods created the earth. Genesis' purpose was to showthat God made all things, not to provide a detailed scientific explanation of how he made them.

People didn't debate the assumed scientific inadequacies of Genesis until comparatively recently. Some had proposed that the creation account is not literal. In the fifth century A.D., Augustine had suggested that the days of creation week should perhaps be understood as epochs, rather than literal days.

But no one questioned Genesis' fundamental premise that God created the heavens and the earth. How he did it was not the issue. It was even considered impertinent to ask. Some opponents of Galileo refused to look through his telescopes, in case they were trespassing in God's domain.

Our questions today are considerably more complicated. We want to know the details. How did creation happen? When did life begin, and what caused it to be manifested in millions of different plants and animals?

But God chose not to address these topics in the Bible. The age of the earth, the what and why of dinosaurs, or whether the earth was long ago inhabited by hominids are fascinating, legitimate questions. But they are not biblical questions. Our faith and salvation do not depend on knowing the answers.

The Scriptures are given to make us "wise for salvation" (2 Timothy 3:15). Faith and salvation are primary themes of the Bible. The Scriptures are to show us the way to our ultimate destiny, not to answer every question about where life came from.

Mathematician Carl Gauss put it like this: "There are problems to whose solutions I would attach infinitely greater importance than those of mathematics, for example ... our relation to God, or concerning our destiny and our future, but their solution lies wholly beyond us, and completely outside the province of science" (The New Story of Science, page 55).

That is what the Bible talks about. Scientists address the what, when and how of creation. They try to avoid mixing philosophical questions, such as the existence of God, or the purpose of humanity, with the questions that are their legitimate territory.

Because scientists focus on a different set of questions than those addressed in the Bible, we can expect their answers to be different from, but not necessarily incompatible with, what it reveals.

Scientists have made some astounding discoveries in the 20th century. They have revolutionized human understanding of the physical universe. Relativity, quantum physics and now chaos theory have shown that the cosmos that once seemed so predictable is, at its most fundamental level, a mystifying place.

For example, consider a sheet of paper. That is one way of saying what it is. But a particle physicist could also say you are looking at a quivering, shimmering lattice of energy, pulsating millions of times every second as billions of subatomic particles, constrained by forces of unimaginable power, gyrate and spin in an eternal dance. Which is a different way of saying the same thing.

There is, it seems, much more to the creation than meets the eye, or even the mind. Especially the mind. What scientists, including many who do not believe in a divine creation, have discovered causes some of them to doubt that such a creation could be the product of blind chance. They find new levels of intricacy, but underlying the apparent complexity seems to be simplicity and order.

Physicist John Wheeler put it elegantly in the television documentary The Creation of the Universe: "To my mind, there must be at the bottom of it all ... an utterly simple idea. And to me, that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so beautiful, that we will say to each other, 'Oh, how could it have been otherwise.’"

A compelling, beautiful, yet simple idea leads inevitably to the concept of a designer – a designer with a purpose. Physicist Paul Davies wrote: "If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modem physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us" (Superforce, page 243).

Evolution

Opponents of evolution often seize on the fact that it is "only a theory." But to do this is to misunderstand the scientific method. For scientists, theories are the frameworks on which they gather facts while they are forming conclusions.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." —Albert Einstein

Most scientists work carefully and cautiously, and are reluctant to call something a law until they are sure it is. Even then, experience has taught them not to be too dogmatic. So when scientists describe evolution as a theory, they are being cautious. They have no doubts that species change. What is not yet certain is exactly how and why this happens.

Critics of evolution say that the lack of concrete evidence that species do actually change into other species is evolution's Achilles' heel. Evolutionists disagree. Gaps in understanding the process of evolution do not automatically provide evidence of a supernatural intervention. Literalists and creationists must be careful not to seize on gaps or limitations in knowledge with a triumphant "Ha, there you see. We were right all along!"

Richard H. Bube, who edited The Encounter Between Christianity and Science, wrote: "It has been natural for man to assign God as the direct and immediate cause for all unknown and unexplained phenomena in man's experience.... Thus the belief has developed that God is manifest and 'proved' only by the miraculous, the obviously supernatural, that which defies natural explanation" (page 60).

Primitive societies found evidence of the supernatural everywhere – an earthquake, an eclipse, even a thunderstorm. We understand now that these are natural phenomena, explainable by physical causes.

Faith must not find refuge only in unexplained gaps in human knowledge. Those gaps have a habit of closing suddenly, sometimes on the fingers of those clinging to them. It is possible that new discoveries could yet provide conclusive evidence that one kind of creature can change into another as a result of macromutations. The concept that life-forms change is not intrinsically an evil idea. Such changes do not say anything about the presence or absence of a Creator.

So how do we prove God exists?

We have come to an intriguing crossroads in the search for understanding. The brilliant achievements of scientists have led them, inexorably, back to questions that rightfully belong in philosophy and in theology. That is a compelling reason why religion and science should lay aside their antagonism and work together in a spirit of humility and mutual respect.

Proof From Design?

As scientists explore ever further into the universe, and probe the inner secrets of the atom, they find new levels of intricacy and design. Those who believe in a God find a special excitement in these discoveries, for these scientific findings reinforce the greatness of the One they worship.

It is tempting to take this further and conclude that science is "proving" God, for surely anyone can see such design must be the work of a divine Designer.

The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:20: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

But this is not saying that the facts uncovered by science inevitably pile up to the point where the agnostic – or even the atheist – must conclude there is a Creator. Historically, this line of reasoning is known as "proof from design."

Believers, who accept the cosmos as an expression of God's greatness, can understand and appreciate him more through it. They understand why King David of ancient Israel could write: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Psalm 19:1.).

But from a strictly scientific point of view, other interpretations of the design of the universe, including the earth, are possible. Thus, many scientists do not regard design as irrefutable proof of God's existence.

Once more, let's stress that you cannot scientifically prove nor disprove the existence of God. It is not a scientific question. But does that mean it cannot be proved?

Can anything be proved without firm scientific evidence? The scientific method is the intellectual foundation of our world, and there is a tendency on the part of many to think that the only real, solid truths are those that can be scientifically demonstrated through the "hard sciences."

Physicist Erwin Schrödinger once wrote: "The scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information ... but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us (Nature and the Greeks, page 93).

It may be true that human beings are genetically nearly identical with the great apes. But you know from your experience that you are not just an intelligent animal. You can think and plan, not with some kind of natural instinct, but with the power of choice. You can understand the difference between good and evil, and can decide which way to go.

You can argue, inspire, excavate the past and anticipate the future. You can bear grudges, plot revenge or grant forgiveness. Most significantly, you have a sense of destiny. You wonder where you came from and contemplate a purpose for your existence.

As physicist Murray Gell-Mann observed: "It is difficult to imagine that a handful of residents of a small planet circling an insignificant star in a small galaxy have as their aim a complete understanding of the entire universe, a small speck of creation truly believing it is capable of comprehending the whole" (Stephen Hawking's Universe, John Boslough, page 1).

What makes us, alone of all species on earth, like this? God reveals to us in Genesis that he created us unlike any other creature. Humans are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27). We are able to establish and maintain a relationship with him. If you are a Christian, you know that God exists because of the undeniable experience of your contact with him.

In the Bible, our God makes certain promises to us. He promises to hear our prayers when we ask in Jesus' name (John 15:16). He tells us we can approach his throne "with confidence so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). Christians have met Jesus Christ, not literally in person, but spiritually, as he lives his life in them.

Scientists and God

Physicist Stephen Hawking concluded his best-selling A Brief History of Time with this remarkable statement: "If we find the answer to that [why the universe exists], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would truly know the mind of God."

Dr. Hawking is not the first scientist to include theological-sounding statements or to mention God in popular scientific works. Albert Einstein, questioning the validity of quantum theory, said, "God does not play dice."

Physicist Paul Davies, in The Mind of God, acknowledged as well that: "Among those scientists who are not religious in a conventional sense, many confess to a vague feeling there is 'something' beyond the surface reality of daily experience, some meaning behind existence."

Believers often read into these statements that scientists are beginning to concede the existence of the God of the Bible. Scientists find this irritating, for it is taking their statements out of context. Scientists often use "God" as a metaphor for the metaphysical, rather than an acknowledgment of a divine Being.

It is important to understand that although some scientists do believe in God, not every scientist who uses terms such as "Creator," "creation" and "first cause" is necessarily in agreement with biblical Christianity, or conceding there is a divine Being worthy of worship.

Motivated belief

John Polkinghorne is unusually well qualified to comment on both sides of a science/religion question. Dr. Polkinghorne was a professor of mathematical physics before his ordination as an Anglican priest. Today he is a fellow of the Royal Society and of Queens' College, Cambridge. He has said, "Faith isn't a question of shutting our eyes, gritting our teeth and believing impossible things. It is motivated belief, motivated basically by our encounter with Christ."

This relationship may not be quantifiable scientifically, but it is nonetheless real. Christians know it has changed their lives.

In Revelation, Jesus makes an astonishing claim that revolutionizes our concept of life, death and eternity: "I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!" (Revelation 1:18).

You know this is true, and because it is, you too have the "hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:7). You were born as a part of the physical creation. But Christians are also spiritual children of God, born of his Spirit, to share a spiritual inheritance with God (Ephesians 2:6).

You can appreciate the splendor of the physical cosmos, knowing that "God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20).

God has left us to study the details of the creative process for ourselves. It's an exciting quest, and we are learning more all the time. Let's enjoy the experience, as we look over the shoulders of those who seek out the answers.

But we should not forget there are some things we can never discover for ourselves. They are the questions that lie beyond the reach of science.

That is why God revealed them to us. In books like Genesis.

How Old Is the Universe?the universe

One of the most profound beliefs of science is that the universe is not infinitely old. That means it had a beginning, a moment popularly known as the big bang. Scientists estimate this happened between 10 and 20 billion years ago.

The Bible explains the origin of the cosmos with the bold statement: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty" (Genesis 1:1- 2). The Bible shows that God finished the creation in six days. From this, some have concluded that the age of the universe should be measured in thousands, not billions, of years.

In the 17th century, Archbishop Ussher calculated that creation happened in the year 4004 B.C. He did it by adding up the ages of the people listed in the geneaologies from Adam to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. If the theories of modern science are correct, the archbishop was off by 14,999,995,996 years, give or take a few billion.

But let’s look at the first verses of Genesis again. Genesis was written in Hebrew. So how do we translate the first verses of the original Hebrew, which some interpret as contradicting the facts of science?

The Scofield Reference Bible, published in the United States in 1909, attempted to harmonize the Bible with geology. It suggested that Genesis 1:2 could be rendered "and the earth became without form and void," implying a time when it was not this way. This interpretation is called the Gap Theory. It appeals to Isaiah 45:18, which states that God did not create the world initially in a formless state.

The problem with this proposal is that to translate the Hebrew verb hayah in Genesis 1:2 as "became" rather than "was" is technically possible, but the majority of scholars feel it is an unlikely rendering of the Hebrew text.

The Hebrew word translated "created" is bara, a word that describes a special act of creation, although not necessarily out of nothing. Bara is also used to describe the creation of Adam from the dust of the ground. It is interesting to compare how various Bible translations have rendered these enigmatic verses.

  • King James Version: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void."
  • The Holy Scriptures (Jewish Publication Society Translation, 1917): "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. Now the earth was unformed and void."
  • Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (The New JPS Translation, 1985): "When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void."
  • New English Bible: "in the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void."
  • Moffatt Bible: "When God began to form the universe, the world was void and vacant."
  • The Anchor Bible: "When God set about to create heaven and earth – the world being then a formless waste."

These translations show that the Hebrew grammar allows for translations that convey the possibility of previous epochs before the present creation.

Nevertheless, we should note that the opening verses of Genesis make a theological statement, not a scientific one. Genesis tells us the origin of a world in which human beings were created, sinned, and for whom Jesus Christ died. This is what we can know for certain from the text.

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