Are Christianity and science at war? This was a major concern for me when I came to faith in Christ 22 years ago in the middle of my career as a biology professor at Iowa State University. Although it did not prevent me from coming to faith in Christ, it continued to trouble me and caused doubts about my faith in the early years after my conversion to Christianity. I wondered whether modern science is really compatible with belief in God and whether it is possible to reconcile the Bible’s account of creation with the scientific account of natural history.
These questions also trouble young adults today. A recent five-year study, headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman, identified antagonism between churches and science as one of six reasons why three out of five young adults disconnect from church after age 15. The study found that a quarter of young adults believe that Christianity is anti-science and the same proportion say that they have been turned off by the evolution-versus-creation debate.
These questions led me to develop the Christianity and science honors course that I have been teaching at Iowa State University for the past 14 years. In this last post in the Christianity and science ESN Blog series, I want to summarize and reflect about some of the key ideas that we have considered.
Does science rule out God?
This question was absolutely crucial to me as a young believer. Had science found out something that ruled out God? If so my Christian faith was a lie or a sham! I was very much helped in my thinking about this question by John Polkinghorne in his chapter Theology in the University (Faith, Science and Understanding, see post 11).
Polkinghorne pointed out that reality is complex and multi-leveled. He talked about four levels, nature, aesthetic (beauty), moral & spiritual. He argued that knowledge of each of these levels must be allowed to conform to the way in which they actually can be known. Each of these levels are studied by different disciplines that must respect the way that each level can be known. Thus while science is the best tool for studying nature, its competence does not extend to the other levels (aesthetic, moral or spiritual). Some atheist scientists argue that science disproves God. While these statements sound like conclusions of science, they are actually metaphysical interpretations based on the presuppositions of their worldview. The late Stephen Jay Gould, an agnostic and one of the most widely read spokespersons for evolution, agreed with this conclusion. He said:
Science simply cannot by its legitimate methods adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. Either half of my colleagues are enormously stupid or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs – and equally compatible with atheism.
The bottom line is that science can’t be used to disprove the existence of God. Dallas Willard puts it well in his book The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God:
The powerful though vague and unsubstantiated presumption is that something has been found out that renders a spiritual understanding of reality in the manner of Jesus simply foolish to those who are “in the know”. …But when it comes time to say exactly what it is that has been found out, nothing of substance is forthcoming. …You can be very sure that nothing fundamental has changed in our knowledge of ultimate reality and the human self since the time of Jesus. . . . The multitude of theories, facts, and techniques that have emerged in recent centuries have not the least logical bearing upon the ultimate issues of existence and life.
Can we reconcile the Bible’s account of creation with the scientific account of natural history?
We’ve seen that there are two creation stories, one from the science perspective and the other from the perspective of the Bible.
Story from the Bible. At the beginning of the Bible there are two complementary creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. The first tells the story of creation from a cosmic perspective while the second story tells it from a human perspective. The two creation stories are set within the larger context of the central story of the Bible:
- Redemption through Christ
Story from science. The central theme of the story from science is evolution. We saw in previous blogs that there are three scientific meanings of the word evolution.
- Change over time includes three dimensions:
- and biological evolution.
- Common descent in which all of life is believed to have been descended with changes over time from a common ancestor.
- A mechanism, i.e., evolution by natural selection, which explains the changes over time and the observation of common descent.
Apparent conflict. There are several areas of apparent conflict between the two stories.
- Timing of creation events. Did God create the universe and everything in it during 6 literal days as some interpret Genesis 1 or did creation take place over a period of 13.7 billion years as indicated by science?
- Mechanism of creation. Were all non-living and living things, including man, created miraculously by special creation events or did God use a natural mechanism, i.e., evolution, which he created?
- Origin of man. Were Adam and Eve real people created specially by God in the Garden of Eden or did humans evolve from lower animals over a long period of time through the process of evolution by natural selection? Was the fall of Adam and Eve, described in Genesis 3, a real event involving real people or is it a mythical story which illustrates human sinfulness.
Resolving the apparent conflicts. In the first blog post of this series, I said that God reveals himself to man in two ways. One is through the Book of Nature (general revelation) and the second is through the Book of Scripture (special revelation). Both revelations must be true because of God’s character. The two books of revelation tell the story of creation from different perspectives. The story from science represents man’s attempt to understand God’s revelation in the Book of Nature while the story from the Bible is man’s interpretation of God’s revelation in the Book of Scripture. The bottom line is that there can be no real conflict between the story from Scripture and the story from science (i.e. nature). Thus the conflicts discussed above must arise from errors in human interpretation of one or both revelations.
There are three main Christian views about the relationship between the story from science and the story from Scripture: young earth creationism, old earth creationism and theistic evolution (see post 9 and 14).
- The young earth view sees God creating all things miraculously over a period of 6 literal days. Adam and Eve are understood to be the first humans who were the parents of all mankind. They were created miraculously by God as described in Genesis 2. This view sees the fall as a literal event which brought sin and death into God’s creation. The young earth creation view believes that Scripture is inspired by God and therefore is inherent. When claims and theories of modern science contradict Scripture then Scripture trumps science because Scripture is inspired by God.
- The old earth view accepts the science relating to the age of the earth but rejects the science behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. The old earth view agrees with the young earth view concerning the origin of life, origin of mankind and the story of the fall in Genesis 3.
- The theistic evolution view accepts the science underlying both the timing and mechanism (i.e. evolution by natural selection) of creation. With respect to the timing they typically use the literary framework view although the day-age view and John Walton’s temple creation view are also consistent with the view from science (see post 5). With respect to mechanism, this view sees God as the creator of space, time, energy and matter as well as the laws of nature that govern evolution and other natural processes. However, there are differences within the theistic evolution community with regard to God’s role after the initial Big Bang creation event. Some would see God continuously involved in guiding the evolutionary process whereas others would see God allowing evolution to proceed without further intervention by God or see the final outcome of evolution built into the laws of nature.
With respect to mankind, all theistic evolution views see mankind originating in a purpose-driven natural process in which humans descended from pre-human ancestors. However there are differences with respect to the status of Adam and Eve and the origin of sin. One view sees the Bible account of creation in mythical terms where imagined characters (Adam and Eve) are used to convey spiritual truths. Another view sees Adam and Eve as real people in a real Garden of Eden and the fall as a real event with consequences for the biblical story line of creation, fall, redemption through Christ and consummation at the end of time. They were chosen from a population of early humans who arose through evolution to be archetypical representatives of all mankind.
At the moment there is no consensus among Christians about which of the three views is correct. My personal preference is God-guided theistic evolution because I think it does the best job of being faithful to both creation perspectives (science and the Bible). With respect to the origin of mankind I think a real Adam and Eve in a real Garden of Eden and a real fall are necessary for the Bible’s big story of creation, fall, redemption through Christ and consummation. I think John Walton’s idea of Adam and Eve as archetypical representatives of mankind does the best job of reconciling the stories from science and Scripture.
Here are some things to consider as we think about these views.
- Whichever view one holds it is important to understand that evolution is not incompatible with belief in God as the creator. There is a tendency to link the theory of evolution by natural selection to atheism. This is not necessary. Atheism is a metaphysical interpretation not a scientific conclusion. It is grounded in a set of materialistic presuppositions (see posts 11 & 12)
- The two Genesis accounts of creation are set within the context of an ancient Near Eastern understanding of the cosmos. It is not meant to convey truths about modern science. Thus we must be careful not to read modern science into the biblical creation accounts (see post 3).
- There are several different ways to interpret the timing of creation events in Genesis 1 which remain faithful to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Thus the 24 hour day view is not a necessary interpretation of the timing of creation events (see post 5).
Finally, there is a need for grace among Christians with respect to the different ways of interpreting the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. There are two main themes of Genesis 1 which are found throughout the creation passages in the Bible. First, God is the creator of all things. Moreover, he created with wisdom and order and he is sovereign over his creation. Second, man is the pinnacle of God’s creation – created in the image of God with the purpose of ruling and serving as steward of God’s creation. These themes are the main message we as Christians need to communicate to the world. There is no conflict among Christians about these themes and they are not in conflict with the story from science.
Science and Christianity are friends and not enemies. I started this series with the concern that science and Christianity are enemies at war with each other. We’ve now seen that they are not enemies!
We’ve seen that God reveals himself to mankind through what is observed in the Book of Nature and through his word, the Book of Scripture. We also understand that science is a very useful tool for understanding God’s revelation in nature. In my last two posts we talked about nature as a Christian apologetic. We found that nature alone can’t be used to prove God’s existence. Rather nature was seen as an “open secret” whose true meaning is only known from the perspective of Christian faith. The Book of Nature serves to reinforce an existing belief in God.
Let’s look more deeply into the apologetic roles God’s two books of revelation.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. — Psalm 19:1-4b
Psalm 19:1-4 tells us several important things about the role of nature in God’s plan of revelation. The Book of Nature is a universal and tangible witness to God’s glory as revealed in his creation. It is universally available to everyone on earth. There is nowhere on earth that we cannot see at least some aspects of God’s revelation nature. The message of nature is expressed in a universal language that can be understood by all peoples regardless of their nationality or culture. Finally, the message of nature is always available, 24 hours per day, seven days a week.
But the message of nature is limited and incomplete. We saw that nature is ambiguous with respect to the question of God and thus it does not prove that God exists. It is also incomplete in that it does not fully reveal the nature and character of God.
I think that a primary purpose of Book of Nature is to point us to God and his revelation in the Book of Scripture. Nature does this by arousing a sense of awe at the grandeur and beauty of nature. Nature also raises questions that it can’t answer
- Why does the universe exist?
- How did it come into being?
- Why is the universe ordered with laws of nature rather than in chaos?
- Why are the laws of nature fine-tuned for life?
- What is our significance in such a vast universe?
- Is there a deeper meaning to nature and human life?
In contrast to nature, the Bible is a complete revelation of God. Here we learn about God’s character, his instructions for life, the problem of sin and God’s plan of salvation and most importantly we meet God in a personal way.
In the Bible we learn that at the center of reality is one God who is eternally existent in three persons, the Father, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. Tim Keller, in his book Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, gives us an excellent description of the relationship between the three persons of the Godhead.
In the words of my favorite author, C. S. Lewis, “In Christianity God is not a static thing . . . but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” Theologian Cornelius Plantinga develops this further, noting that the Bible says the Father, the Son and the Spirit glorify one another, and defer to one another. . . . Each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. In constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others. . . . God’s interior life [therefore] overflows with regard for the others.
Thus the three persons of the trinity exist in a perfect, intimate relationship. We were made to enter into this loving relationship at the center of reality. And it is through this relationship that we come to know God in a personal way. I believe that this knowledge is the ultimate proof of God’s existence. This knowledge in turn provides the verification that the Book of Nature is in fact a revelation from God.
In conclusion we have seen that science and Christianity are not enemies but rather are friends that have complementary roles in revealing God to mankind.
Questions for Further Reflection:
- What are your thoughts about the view, expressed by some young adults, that Christianity is anti-science?
- Do you view science as anti-Christian?
- What might you say to a young Christian who is considering pursuing a career in science?
- What are your feelings about the evolution-versus-Christianity debate? How might we as Christians be more respectful about our differences with each other and with scientists who support evolution?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
- You lost me: why young Christians are leaving church — and rethinking faith, David Kinnaman with Aly Hawkins. BakerBooks, 2011.
- Theology in the University in the book Faith, Science and Understanding, John Polkinghorne. Yale University Press, 2001.
- The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, Dallas Willard. HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.
- Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything, Gerald Rau. InterVarsity Press, 2012.
- Jesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God, Timothy Keller. Riverhead Books, 2013.
- Added by the editor: Thank-you to Tom for this thoughtful and challenging series! For those with interest, I have created a PDF with the titles and links to the posts in Tom Ingebritsen‘s Christianity and Science series. In addition, if you have questions you’d like addressed in relationship to Christianity and science, please comment below and/or email the Emerging Scholars Network.
To God be the glory!
Update: 5/18/2014. 2:52 pm. Editorial corrections. Thank-you David!