Note: This two-part series is adapted from a sermon originally delivered at Jacksonville Chapel on January 18, 2015. The sermon series of which these posts are derived was, in turn, adapted from a similar series by pastor John Ortberg.
Good morning. We’re taking four weeks to look at some of the major challenges to the Christian faith. And last week I tried to emphasize that the way we do this is just as important as what we actually say. In the New Testament, Peter says to answer our critics with gentleness and respect, and it’s just great advice. So that’s the tone we’re shooting for.
So, last week we looked at the belief that the Bible can’t be trusted; today we’re going to look at the belief that science disproves faith. And that belief is really built on an assumption that science and faith are in conflict with each other. So you can be a good scientist or you can be a good believer, but you can’t be both. Peter Atkins, who was a professor at Oxford University in England, said it really clearly: “It is not possible to be intellectually honest and believe in gods. And it is not possible to believe in gods and be a true scientist.”
Two quick disclaimers, right up front: We’re just going to be scratching the surface on this. So hopefully this will get you thinking, and wanting to learn more. The other disclaimer is that I’m not a scientist. I’ve done some reading and some study, but there are people in this room who could run scientific circles around me. So I ask for grace.
I see three big reasons why some people believe that science disproves faith.
First objection: Christianity has always been anti-science.
I think we need to admit that there’s a grain of truth in this. The classic example is how the Catholic Church treated the astronomer Galileo in the early 1600s. Up until that point, the Church believed that the earth was the center of the universe. And the reason they believed that is because they interpreted certain biblical passages in an overly narrow way. For example, Psalm 93:1 says, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” So the Church said, “Scripture is teaching that the earth is stationary; we’re at the center of the universe, and the sun moves around us.”
Galileo wasn’t trying to cause trouble. But he had built this telescope, and the more he looked into the sky, the more he agreed with this radical thought that had been proposed by Copernicus a few decades earlier: that we’re not at the center. That we—along with all the other planets—actually revolve around the sun. And the Church didn’t like that. So they basically forced him to recant his view, and they put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.
So there have been times that some Christians have been anti-science. And it’s unfortunate, and it’s embarrassing.
But, on the other hand, you can make the case that modern science developed because of people’s belief in God. Here’s what I mean: Science is built on the belief that there are observable patterns and laws in the universe. Right? If I drop a penny today, it’s going to fall to the ground; and if I drop a penny tomorrow, it’s not going to suddenly fall up, right? The universe is not random. And that sounds so obvious to us, but people didn’t always think that way. C.S. Lewis said, “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature and they expected law in nature because they believed in a legislator.”
Johannes Kepler, who lived in the late 1500s and early 1600s and whose work was foundational for Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, said this: “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony...which has been imposed on it by God, and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.”
So even though the church was sometimes anti-science, it was a Christian worldview that fueled so much of the scientific revolution.
Now, you might say, “Well, even if that’s true, that was hundreds of years ago. In 2015, most scientists have moved beyond religion.” And that’s true for some—there are a lot of atheistic scientists. But what do you do with committed Christians like Hans Halvorson, who teaches the Philosophy of Physics at Princeton? What do you do with Jennifer Wiseman, who’s a NASA astrophysicist with a PhD from Harvard? How do you account for Christians like Ian Hutchinson, who teaches nuclear science and engineering at MIT? And countless others?
Consider the words of former atheist Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project. Listen to what he said: “The God of the Bible is also the God of the genome. He can be worshiped in the cathedral or in the laboratory.”
Peter Atkins said it’s impossible to believe in God and be a true scientist, but I just don’t know how you look at the guy who led the team that cracked the code of human DNA, and say he’s not a real or true scientist.
Second objection: Science is the only reliable source of knowledge.
Is that true? Or are there other ways of knowing things, besides science? Pastor John Ortberg, in his teaching on this, really helped me to think through this, and I’ll refer to his words a few times.
So first, let’s make sure we know what we mean when we say “science.” Do you remember learning about the scientific method? You observe things in the world, and that leads to a theory about how something works, which leads to a hypothesis to test that theory. And then you run an experiment, so you can measure things, and that will either confirm or not confirm the hypothesis. And as time goes on, you adjust your theories, and you integrate your new knowledge with previous knowledge. It’s a beautiful process.
And because science has been so successful in fields like medicine and technology, some people have said that science is the only way we can really know anything for sure. Let me quote Peter Atkins again. He said, “There is no reason to believe that science cannot deal with every aspect of existence.” Wow. That’s a bold claim. Because it means that there’s no such thing as moral knowledge or spiritual knowledge of any kind. In the words of Sheldon Cooper: “Love is in the air? Wrong. Nitrogen, oxygen, argon and carbon dioxide are in the air.” I couldn’t resist quoting Sheldon.
There’s a guy named Sir John Polkinghorne. He’s a physicist from Cambridge, and also happens to be an Anglican priest. And he gives a helpful illustration. Imagine if you saw water boiling in a tea kettle. And so you ask the question, “Why is that water boiling?” And one person says, “Because burning gas has heated the water to the boiling point.” But another person says, “It’s because I want a cup of tea.” So which answer is right? Well, they’re both right. Right? One person is talking about the mechanics, which is what science is really good at.
But the other answer is all about purpose. “I want a cup of tea.” It’s not really a scientific answer, but it’s true and it’s actually really important. John Ortberg said it like this: “Science involves a method that is enormously useful to investigate large chunks of reality, but it is not the only way to know truth. Human life is of great value. That’s true. You know that, but you can’t put it in a test tube. It is wrong to live for selfish greed. That is true. That is moral truth. A society that is unable to recognize the existence of moral truth is headed for serious problems.”
Let me tell you a story. About ten years ago, my wife and I took a trip down to the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and we stayed in the home of a friend. It was April; so it wasn’t very crowded. On the first night we were there, I woke up at about 3:00 in the morning. It was just one of those times that I knew: “That’s it. I’m up. It’s no use trying to sleep.” So I got up. At this house, on the upper floor, they had a Jacuzzi on the deck. So I put on my bathing suit, and I went into the Jacuzzi. It was the middle of the night.
After I sat there for a while, out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving. So I looked over, and there was this beautiful, shiny frog, with multiple shades of green, walking up the wall right near my head, and I marveled at the beauty of this creature. I was kind of glad I had some company. Then I looked up into the sky, and the stars were breathtaking. As I was looking up, just taking it in, I saw several shooting stars streak across the sky. It was awesome. Me and my frog, looking at the stars.
Then I went out to the beach. I started walking and praying. Then I started running, and if you’ve done any endurance sports you know the endorphin rush you get, so I started feeling good. Just as the sun started coming up over the Atlantic Ocean, I looked out and saw a group of dolphins, playing and jumping in the ocean. I finished my run, and stood there, watching the dolphins, and thanking God for all of it. I went home and told my wife, “I just had the best morning ever! Frogs and shooting stars and dolphins.” She was kind of jealous! Amazing morning.
If I had to pick one word to describe that morning, I’d use the word “wonder.” Because I was experiencing things that stirred me inside. Things that gave me this sense that there is more than my physical eyes could see. Does that make sense? Wonder. And, you know what? There’s a fine line between wonder and worship. See, science could explain to me why that particular frog was there because of the climate of coastal North Carolina in mid-April; science could explain the meteorites and the endorphins in my body and the migratory patterns of dolphins. But science couldn’t tell me a thing about what it all meant. And I think the Bible does.
In Psalm 19:1-2, it says: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day it pours out speech, and night to night it reveals knowledge.” In other words, there is knowledge beyond what science can tell us. You can’t test it with a hypothesis, but when we experience the wonder of the universe, something in us knows there’s Someone behind it. And we feel this hunger to connect with that Someone.
So, is science the only reliable source of knowledge? I don’t think it is. It’s an incredibly important source of knowledge, but it’s not the only source.Part 2 Here’s the final belief we’re going to look at today: the belief that evolution has disproved Genesis. This is the big one. If you asked a scientifically-minded atheist why he would never think of coming to a church, this would likely be the first thing he’d say. He would say, “because Christians deny evolution, therefore, they are ignorant; they’re not interested in the facts; they choose myths over science. And if they’re that misguided, why would I listen to anything they say about any other part of life?” So for a lot of people, this is the show-stopper. This is the deal-breaker. So if you’re a person who takes the Bible seriously, as I am, what do you do with this? Well, when you read the book of Genesis or any other book of the Bible, the first thing you need to do is learn as much as you can about the context. It’s really important to learn about the culture in which was written and the questions they were asking. You also do your best to understand what type of literature it is—because the Bible uses many different types of literature. Scholars call it the genre. So any time you’re reading the Bible, you have to ask, “Is this part of the Bible straightforward history? Is it a personal letter? Is it prophecy? Is it poetry?” Because that matters in how you interpret it. Remember why the church was so upset with Galileo? Because he said the earth revolves around the sun, and the church said, “No: the Bible teaches that the earth is stationary, and it’s the sun that moves.” Here’s the question: Was Galileo really contradicting Scripture? Not at all! He was contradicting the church’s interpretation of Scripture, which didn’t consider the literary genre very well. Because look, Psalm 93:1 says, “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” Most Bible scholars would say that was never meant to a scientific, astronomical statement; it was more of a poetic statement about the enduring quality of the world. Ecclesiastes 1:5 says, “The sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” Again, this is never intended to be a statement that taught an earth-centric universe. It was just describing the way things look to normal people. If I said to you, “I saw the sun rise this morning.” And you said, “No you didn’t—because the sun doesn’t rise; the earth actually rotates,” I would tell you to shut up. Nicely. Because talking about the sunrise and sunset is just the way people talk. And because the early church failed to recognize that, they thought they were defending the Bible, but they were actually defending a wrong interpretation of the Bible. Now, when it comes to Genesis, it’s not that simple. Some Christians read Genesis 1, and they say, “Look, it’s clearly talking about literal days, because on each day it says what God created, and it then says, ‘There was evening,and there was morning, the first day...the second day...etc.’” It looks like straightforward history; there’s a lot of other stuff in Genesis that’s clearly historical; so the best interpretation of Genesis 1-2 is that God created the world in six literal days. And taking that same approach, the earth is 6-10,000 years old. And they say, “If scientific theories or evolutionary theories seem to contradict that, then we need to side with the Bible.” Christians who take this view believe that evolutionary theory has a lot of holes in it. They don’t think the fossil record supports the theory of evolution. When they see how similar human DNA is to the DNA of other animals, they believe that just shows they were created by the same God. So this is the view that most people in conservative churches grew up with. On the other hand, there are other Christians who say, “When I look at Genesis, I’m not convinced it was ever meant to be straight-up history. Because we measure time by the earth’s rotation around the sun, but it says the sun wasn’t even created until the fourth day.” And they point to some other things in the context that make it seem like this is more poetic. Still teaching truth, but not in a scientific way. And then, they urge us to look at the context! If you consider the original readers of Genesis—around 1,400 BC—they weren’t asking scientific questions. Modern science didn’t exist yet! But here’s what they were asking: Who created all this? Was it multiple gods, who battle in the heavens,like the cultures around us believe? And Genesis says, “Absolutely not. There is one God, and he’s responsible for everything you see.” People were asking questions of meaning—“Is there a purpose for my life?” And Genesis says, “Yes, you are put here to take care of God’s creation, and do meaningful work, and walk with and obey God, etc.” So, for Christians who take a more poetic view of Genesis 1-2, they’re not as troubled by evolutionary theory, because they believe Genesis is all about who created the world, and why he created it; it was never meant to scientifically describe how he created it. So if geologists say the earth is billions of years old, they’re fine with that. And if evolutionary theory can help us understand how God created, they welcome that! Now, let me say something very personal. I’m not going to tell you where I stand on this issue, because honestly, I’m still in process. I’m still learning. And I’m okay with that. But I feel like I need to give us this warning: I have seen too many people grow up in churches where they were taught that if you’re a real Christian, there’s only one way you can look at this. And people who grew up in those churches heard modern science and evolutionary theory critiqued in ways that were pretty sloppy and half-baked. The people who taught them were very well-meaning, and they felt they were defending the Bible, but they were actually defending one interpretation, among several legitimate interpretations. And then I’ve watched some of those very intelligent young people go off to college, and start reading, and realize their church hadn’t presented the science very fairly. And all of a sudden, they’re faced with a crisis: They think they have to choose between the Bible and the truth. What a tragedy! Listen, we don’t have to choose between faith and science. They’re both so important; they’re both a pursuit of truth; and I think as churches, we can do a better job teaching that. And I think that’s what God is calling the church to do. Let me close with my own version of an illustration I heard from John Lennox. Just before Christmas, I walked into my office, and there was a white box on my desk. White boxes are almost always good. And inside that box was a cake, as well as a card from my friends Lars and Danielle (it turns out that Lars made it). It was an amazing cake. So imagine if I opened that cake, and I had this question: Why did Lars make this cake? What’s the purpose for it? To answer that question, suppose I decided to scientifically probe the cake—take it to the lab and run some tests on it. I could find out a lot about the cake that way, couldn’t I? I could list out the component ingredients. I could give a nutritional breakdown of calories, carbs, protein, and fat. I could determine that it was intelligently designed and fine-tuned for human consumption. All true information! But you know what I could never do in the lab? No matter how much scientific analysis I did, I could never find out why Lars made the cake. The only way I could find that out is...what? Lars would have to reveal it to me. I’m sure you get the point. Science is an incredibly useful tool to analyze our world and learn the mechanics of our world, and we can use that knowledge to make the world a better place. But if we want to know about the purpose of our world and our lives, we’re not going to find it in the ingredients of the world. Right? Because only the designer can reveal that to us. Here is the unique thing about the Christian faith: It teaches that the Creator wanted so much to communicate with his creation that he entered into it personally. The beginning of John’s gospel sounds very similar to the beginning of Genesis. Listen to this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” So Jesus is referred to as “the Word.” And it says everything was created through him. And then look at verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In other words, the one who created us came to be with us. Through his life, and through his teaching, and mostly through his sacrificial death, I believe Jesus has shown us the meaning and the purpose of life. And the more I learn about science, it doesn’t threaten my faith at all! It just makes me more amazed with the God who created it, and more thankful that he came for us.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/i-have-a-friend-who-believes-science-disproves-faith-part-1