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The conflict between science and the Bible

The panel reviewing the atomic clock
The panel reviewing the atomic clock
Photo by David Goldman/Getty Images

In August of 2013 Dr. William Lane Craig engaged in a debate with Dr. Lawrence Krauss titled “Life, the Universe, and Nothing: Has Science Buried God?” In the course of this debate, one of the objections raised by Dr. Krauss was to ask why God did not simply teach calculus to Moses. The implication being that, if the Bible was of divine origin, an easy way to evidence this would be for God to reveal some kind of scientific truths inaccessible to primitive nomads.

Assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was, in fact, God incarnate. Imagine the awkward position this put him in when relating to the people around him. Here he sat in the first century surrounded by a dozen uneducated tradesmen, to say nothing of the unwashed masses that surged around him. As he interacted, he inevitably heard such overwhelming ignorance as to make the modern scientific mind cringe with embarrassment.

While it’s hard to speculate as to the particular superstitions of first century Palestine, those around him would most likely talk of such things as the sky dome that covered the flat earth; and they likely had their own version of such wives tales as frogs being responsible for warts, and clouds being composed of great bunches of wool.

Understanding so little of the world around them, Christ’s disciples doubtlessly spewed forth childish notions in excess.

Whether or not Christ had access to the limitless knowledge of his heavenly Father, he certainly knew several things more about the universe than his followers. If he chose to correct their ignorance, he would likely have had to address practically every few sentences they uttered. Had Christ turned to the much larger task of educating his devotees in the finer points of science, he would have had quite a labor before him. Imagine trying to educate illiterate fishermen in basic chemistry, geology, and astronomy to say nothing of cellular biology and quantum physics.

It is certain that Jesus had to allow a number of errant or ignorant statements sail past him unchallenged. There was not enough time to show all of those around him the gaps in their understanding.

This creates a situation in which Jesus had to wisely choose what things he would communicate to his listeners, and which he would not. His priorities would determine the things he chose to speak about.

When studying the words of Christ in scripture, it seems as if he did just this. One of his most common tactics was to redirect his challenger’s question away from their hidden agenda to some greater truth he wished to communicate. He was a master of answering questions with questions and of using similes and analogies to tell what he was speaking of.

It would be one thing if, like Aristotle, Christ interspersed his teachings with scientific speculation which has now become outmoded. Instead, what we see in Christ’s teachings is a surprising absence of scientific talk at all. He seemed to have an entirely different agenda.

Jesus conversation with Nicodemus is illuminating in this respect:

John 3:5-12

English Standard Version (ESV)

“5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

This observation in regards to Jesus may be extended to the rest of the Bible. The Bible has at least a few unique features that separates it from all of the other religious and philosophical texts in the world. One of these is that – with the debatable exception of the book of Genesis – the Bible is almost entirely free of statements that pretend to define and qualify the physical world.

Most mythologies the world over were conceived as a series of “just so” stories; that is to say, they establish a theory of how the universe works based on imaginative tales. In these tales, gods and spirits and monsters and mythic heroes are responsible for scientific observations that had not yet been explained naturally such as the seasons, the rising and setting sun, wind, rain, drought, and disease.

In all mythologies around the world, the gods are part of the same world in which humans dwell. The sun is the eye of Ra or the chariot of Apollo. The sea is formed from the blood of a frost giant, the earth was held on the back of Atlas, lightning was the ringing of Thor’s hammer, and volcanoes erupted from the forge of Vulcan.

In Hebrew writings, however, God remains separate from his creation. He is transcendent above the universe he created. God is said to order the world, speaking to universal design, complexity, and intelligibility, but the Bible does not deign to explain the method in which God does so. In fact, strangely, the God of the Bible appears to play his cards close to his chest (so to speak). He makes it clear in multiple places throughout the Old Testament – most notably the climax of the book of Job – that his power, ordering, and directing of creation are his business, and that the human inability to grasp these is further revelation of his awesome nature.

In her article “Will Biology, Astronomy, Physics Rule Out The Existence Of Deity,” Natalie Wolchover says:

“Over the past few centuries, science can be said to have gradually chipped away at the traditional grounds for believing in God. Much of what once seemed mysterious — the existence of humanity, the life-bearing perfection of Earth, the workings of the universe — can now be explained by biology, astronomy, physics and other domains of science.

“Although cosmic mysteries remain, Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, says there's good reason to think science will ultimately arrive at a complete understanding of the universe that leaves no grounds for God whatsoever.”

The assumption is apparently that if humans can understand the universe, then it follows that God did not create it. If they can pull back the curtain and find a fully functioning machine without a God in a hamster wheel keeping the whole thing running, that there must not be a God.

As apparent here, humans already poses the tools to obtain comprehensive knowledge of science and the physical universe. It is telling, therefore, that the Bible doesn’t waste ink telling of things humans would discover regardless. Rather, it gives humans access to information they would have no way of discovering on their own.

St. Augustine once said, "One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon.’ For he willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.”

How does an infinite mind communicate with a finite mind? Clearly it does not spend time building a foundation of science and philosophy. Rather, it meets the finite mind where it is at, and puts things in terms that such a mind may study and comprehend.

If God seeks to make believers of all people, he must communicate with those people in simple, understandable terms; terms that are accessible enough for the fool, and profound enough for the wise man.

Despite the bluster of modern scientists, there remain vast gaps in scientific knowledge that will make the modern man seem foolish to future generations.

While the books of the Bible have been mocked by critics since they were first penned, it has remained surprisingly relevant because of its profound insights into human nature, justice, and morality; and the access it claims to provide to the heart and mind of the Creator himself.