Are the Bible and science truly in conflict? How can a believer who is also a scientist relate to this issue?
First, a definition of science. For the purposes of this article, the word science refers to a systematic process that attempts to explain phenomena in terms of the physical mechanisms that cause them. Other definitions are possible, but this definition will suffice for this discussion. In a similar vein, a miracle is an event that cannot be explained solely by naturalistic scientific means.
Experimental and Historical Sciences
In discussing science and faith, it is useful to distinguish between experimental (or empirical) science on the one hand and historical science on the other. Sciences that are mainly experimental (e.g., chemistry, physics, anatomy, ecology) involve the manipulation of physical conditions to isolate and identify causal factors that explain an event. Sciences that are mainly historical (e.g., archeology, paleontology) study the results of some past event and attempt to explain what occurred to produce the observed evidence.
Most sciences include both empirical and historical aspects. Only the empirical aspects, however, are open for experimentation. The historical parts are not. Normally, there is no conflict between Scripture and experimental science. Difficulties arise when attempting to understand historical events for which the Bible provides a supernatural explanation, and a scientist attempts to arrive at a naturalistic explanation.
Different Types of Bible Passages
Before considering further the ways in which science and Scripture seem difficult to reconcile, note that there are many areas where there is no conflict. For example, although the Bible is not primarily a science text, it nevertheless describes many events of a scientific nature. Various Bible authors mention mammals, birds, and plants. Aspects of anatomy, physiology, and behavior—plant, animal, and human—are mentioned by Bible authors. The Bible describes the creation of life forms, implying that God designed and fabricated the living systems available for study today. Science today confirms the appearance of design at all levels of complexity, although considerable disagreement exists over the cause of the design.
Some passages in the Bible were written in symbolic terms or in figures of speech. Thus, one might mistakenly interpret an expression as literal when it is meant to be figurative. For example, Habakkuk 3:3 says that God came from Teman. Perhaps some people would conclude from that text that God lives in Teman, but most readers consider this to be a figure of speech. Here, God is represented as coming from the south, or Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given. Other passages may be poetic, illustrative, or expressions of common understanding, not written to convey scientific explanations. On the other hand, many passages of Scripture are clearly intended as historical narrative. These include passages such as Genesis 1–11, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, and His virgin birth, death, and resurrection. The clearly expository prose does not support attempts to “spiritualize” them or otherwise categorize them as figurative, poetic, etc.
Natural and Supernatural Explanations
There are two possible explanations of phenomena (or events): natural or supernatural. The two explanatory systems may be in conflict or may complement each other. As the Bible primarily describes God’s activities in the course of human history, it almost always proffers supernatural explanations. As mentioned above, explanations of past events are inherently not directly testable by scientific methods. For a given phenomenon that the Bible describes as supernatural, a materialistic (or naturalistic) scientist may give a naturalistic explanation. In some instances, both explanations may apply. In other words, God may well have used ordinary physical processes in a supernatural way to accomplish His will.
Many of the great scientists of the past were believers and saw no conflict between the Bible and science. In the 17th century, scientists were divided into two camps in regard to religion and science (or philosophy, as it was then called). Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei belonged to the “separatist” group who felt that the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature were best kept separate, while recognizing that both had the same Author. In the past half-century, American scientist Stephen Gould has extended the idea of separation with his NOMA (Nonoverlapping Magisteria) proposal, which declared that science and religion occupy separate realms that do not interact.1 According to Gould, religion deals with spiritual and ethical ideas, while science deals with the real world. Accepting NOMA thus seems to necessitate rejection of Scripture as the inspired Word of God. The other group of 17th-century scientists, the Pansophists, viewed science and Scripture as being ultimately in harmony.
Thus, both groups arrived at a “no conflict” answer—the separatists because they compartmentalized the fields of study, and the Pansophists because they saw science as reinforcing Scripture. Both groups saw God as author of Scripture and Creator of the world. Any apparent conflict lay in a disagreement between interpretations of the Bible and/or interpretations of science. We might take the same approach today with the additional caveat that not all of our questions will be answered. Since we are in a sinful world and have only incomplete understanding of science and Scripture, we will not arrive at complete answers to all questions.
Areas of Conflict
Conflict is especially prominent in the study of origins, which is a historical question, not an experimental one. Those with a naturalistic worldview prefer evolutionary theory because it posits explanations in terms of purely physical mechanisms. Those with a worldview based on biblical revelation prefer creation theory because it accepts biblical accounts of supernatural activity in the creation and maintenance of the natural world. Both views appeal to evidence. Because that evidence is so incomplete and open to different explanation, the scientist’s worldview comes to play a major role in interpretation; conflict is very evident.
One of the best-known examples is found with regard to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), considered by many to be the father of modern observational astronomy, modern physics, and ultimately the individual most responsible for the birth of modern science.
In the late 16th century, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church endorsed the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe. While a pious believer, Galileo was nevertheless a scientist. He advocated Copernicus’ idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Since the church considered itself the supreme authority, Galileo was deemed a heretic. In this example, it is important to note that Galileo’s problem was not strictly a Bible/science conflict, but it reflected a difference between religious leaders and some scientists over how to interpret the Bible and scientific data.
In the eyes of most materialist scientists, conflict has always existed between secular scientists and those who hold a theistic worldview. Books have been written on the topic of the so-called war between science and religion. Unfortunately, overzealous Christians share in the responsibility for this conflict. Serious thinkers were often alienated by superstition, suppression, and coercion (associated with the dominant church), and this led to distrust of the Bible itself.
The Bible chronicles the occurrence of numerous miracles, which are almost invariably interpreted differently by two groups. A person not persuaded of the Bible’s divine inspiration—a “non-believer” for the sake of this article—concludes that the miracle did not in fact occur and that the biblical account is fallacious. The non-believer arrives at one of the following conclusions: (1) the writer thought it happened the way he wrote it but was wrong; (2) he knew it was wrong but was trying to fool his audience; or, (3) he wanted to make a point and merely told an illustrative story to do so. In any of these cases, the biblical report is regarded as unreliable, or at the least, not to be taken literally. In contrast, the person who accepts the Bible as divinely inspired—a “believer” for the purpose of this article—accepts the miracle by faith. Because the occurrence was placed in the Bible, and the Bible is God’s Word, the believer accepts that God used His power to cause the miracle.
Miracles With No Available Physical Evidence
But what about miracles for which there is no physical evidence? An example included by Gospel writers is Jesus walking on the water (Matt. 14: 25-32). Skeptics might suggest that Jesus may have known the location of rocks just under the surface so that He could walk from land to the boat, thus appearing to walk on water. Peter, not knowing the location of these rocks, lost his footing and had to be rescued. Believers may rightfully regard such explanations as strained, but since no direct physical evidence is available today, no tests may be conducted. Thus, the story is accepted or rejected based on personal presuppositions.
A second example is Jairus’ daughter, a young girl who has died, whom Jesus brings back to life (Luke 8:49-56). The non-believer may observe that Jesus Himself declared that the girl was only asleep (Matt. 9:24), and that He merely woke her. Matthew and Luke’s reports are thus discounted as wrong. There is no direct physical evidence to know for sure whether the girl was in fact dead or not. One’s response to the account will depend on one’s confidence in the reliability of Scripture.
Miracles With Observable Physical Effects
Miracles for which physical evidence does exist today seem to present more problematic issues. At times, it appears that scientific evidence strongly disagrees with the most careful interpretation of Scripture. These are issues that may be called “No conflict, but . . .” issues. The belief is that the Bible and science are not in conflict. Nevertheless, they do appear to be so. To resolve these issues, evidence must be very carefully evaluated, as it can be interpreted in many different ways.
According to a believer, the origin of life on Earth is an example of a miraculous event in which the Bible and science are not in conflict. For more than half a century, numerous experiments have been conducted in an attempt to produce life from non-living material via naturalistic means. Thus far, these experiments have failed to produce empirical evidence for the spontaneous origin of life. Therefore believers feel this is consistent with the biblical narration that life originated through supernatural activity. Non-believers would not be convinced—the absence of evidence is not considered good evidence. The fact that organic molecules have been made from inorganic gases is taken by secular scientists as evidence that spontaneous generation of a living cell could occur and therefore there is conflict in their minds.
The area where the “No conflict, but . . .” questions are perhaps the most vexing is the amount of time required for accumulation of the fossil-bearing sediments in the Earth’s crust. There seems to be a conflict between the relatively short time implied in the Bible and the long time inferred by science. Ice cores offer another example. In places on the world’s surface like Greenland, a thick layer of ice has formed. When the ice is drilled into and a core is pulled out, there are layers like rings in a tree. Some ice cores may contain 160,000 layers,2 the lower ones of which have been identified by chemical means. Since the layers are presumably laid down one layer each year, this presents a conflict with the Bible’s timetable. Of course there are no dates in the Bible, but most conservative biblical scholars have used genealogies mentioned in the text to conclude that not much more than 10,000 years are represented by biblical history.
Many other examples can be given of conventional dating techniques that suggest the Earth is much older than 10,000 years. Many Bible-believing scientists see no conflict in old dates for rocks. God certainly could have created the rocks of the Earth many millions of years ago and then organized the Earth’s crust during a more recent Creation week. However there are many examples of fossils found in rocks dated by standard techniques as much older than 10,000 years.
Even considering these problems, there is evidence that the last chapter in age dating has not yet been written. In some cases, new scientific evidence may cast doubt on current conventional age dating. For example, soft tissue was recently discovered inside fossil dinosaur bones thought to be about 67 million years old.3 No one has an explanation for how soft tissue can survive that long. Another example is the discovery of the catastrophic nature of the Yellowstone fossil forests,4 once thought to represent long ages of ordinary processes. Other evidence for rapid deposition of sediments includes the rapid underwater deposition of turbidites (geological formations that were caused by a type of underwater avalanche), the rates of erosion of the continents, which seems to be too rapid for the supposed great age of the Earth.5
Taking the Bible as Myth
Some people solve the conflict by concluding that the biblical miracles are myths—traditional stories that serve to express a worldview. For these individuals, no conflict exists since the event didn’t happen the way it was described. For example, there really wasn’t a man named Daniel who spent a night in a lions’ den. This is merely a story told to show that God takes care of those who believe in Him.
This approach, however, undermines the inspiration of Scripture. Some see the ages obtained by conventional dating as so strongly indicating an old Earth that they conclude a literal reading of the Bible to be absurd. Such individuals may accept the ideas of some biblical scholars who believe that parts of Genesis (Chapter 1, for example) were written after other sections. Taking this view of Scripture may lead one to deny Christ’s life and ministry. The evidence against the bodily resurrection of Christ is comparable to that against a literal reading of Genesis 1.
To be consistent in an understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, one must be ready to accept that miracles did occur and that, using conventional means, their literal occurrence cannot be proved. Thus the conflict remains.
For most believers, it is no surprise for there to be conflict between faith and secular science. Christian doctrines are based on faith and are supported by evidence that appeals to reason, including personal experience, documentary evidence, and eyewitness testimonies. Empirical evidence is also important but is not the only factor as it is in secular science.
Interpreting Scripture must always be done in humility. Are there other interpretations possible that do not destroy the original meaning? Alternate views may be acceptable if the passage allows for them without losing sight of the event’s miraculous nature. The same principle should apply to interpreting science—a humble attitude and consideration of alternative hypotheses. Maintaining this attitude can help keep conflicts between the Bible and science in perspective.
To be consistent in understanding the inspiration of Scripture, one must be ready to accept that miraculous events did in fact occur and that, using conventional means, how they happened cannot be proved. Thus, the potential for conflict remains—as it will as long as the world does in its present iteration.
Perhaps God will someday reveal to a greater degree the laws within which He has chosen to operate. Only then will an understanding come that there was no conflict after all. For the present, the tension must be tolerated.
There will always be some conflict between science and the Bible. Some apparent conflicts may be resolved as science makes new discoveries, but others will be resolved only in eternity. Conflict between the Bible and science arises for several reasons: (1) the differing philosophical understandings of the role of God in nature; (2) the difficulty of interpreting the history of the world scientifically; (3) the inability of science to explain in scientific terms what God did miraculously; and, (4) the brevity and incompleteness of the biblical information about the history of nature.
All these questions and conflicts should present opportunities for scientists and theologians to grow together in their understanding. The tragedy is that both often seem limited by and locked into their own perspective and fail to communicate in a common language.
David Ekkens, Ph.D., is a retired Professor of Biology from Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee.