Compelling Evidence (Science & Christianity)

Should Christians be afraid of science? Should scientists be afraid of Christianity? We Canadians can tend to be more science-focused than Bible-focused, including those of us who call ourselves Christians. When we fall ill, do we follow James 5:14 and call the elders of the church, or do we call the doctor? As a pastor, I would be pleased to come and pray with you, but I will likely also encourage you to call the doctor if you have not already done so!

There can be a sense of conflict for a Christian. Do we learn from the Bible or science? Do we lean on the Bible or science? Do we lean into the Bible or science? Are we to choose between Christianity and science?

With this apparent conflict, what are we to think?

First, we should be aware that Christianity has provided a good foundation for science to flourish. Belief in a God Who has ordered the universe, creating laws that govern how things work, inspires the investigation of how it all works. Christians were, and still very much are, involved in science.

Second, we appreciate science for what it is, and what it is not. Science is the expectation that things operate according to patterns and laws which are predictable and discoverable. There is no argument with Christianity there. Science is therefore done without explicit reference to God, even by Christian scientists. Let us consider a simple example of how science works. In this past week my youngest son baked a rather large batch of very good peanut-butter cookies. I could run an experiment where I eat twenty cookies a day until they are all eaten, then step on the scales to observe the effect of eating the cookies. If the rest of my eating patterns remained unchanged, we could predict a weight gain. What we will not do is ask how God will intervene in my life based on my cookie consumption. To do so would be to hold a “God of the gaps” kind of theology. The experiment is not about finding God, but finding out how things work.

Science is the belief things operate according to laws, however, it is not the belief that there is no God. As Christians we would say that science is the discovery of how God made things to work. A Christian doing science does the same thing as an atheist doing science. Both are discovering how things operate, but one thinks of the laws of nature, however they came about, the other of God’s Creation operating according to His design. Science is a methodology which does not seek God in the workings. However, to say there is no God is not science, but scientism.

Third, we appreciate what the Bible for what it is, and what it is not. The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself within history with each part written to different people at different times using different genres. The Bible is not a science textbook written to science-minded westerners. Of the many genres used in the Bible, one genre you will not find is a lab report.

It is helpful to remember that the Bible was written for you, but it was not written to you. In Bible studies I often ask “what do you find striking in this passage?”. We really should ask how the passage would have struck the first readers and hearers. What were the original readers meant to learn, or what were they likely to learn? To give an example, the prevalent worldview when the Book of Genesis was taking shape held that there were multiple gods who had complicated relationships with each other, the world, and humanity. The original hearers/keepers of the passages in Genesis would have been struck by the fact there is only one God worthy of consideration, that He is a God of order, He is the Creator of everything, and He wants a relationship with all people, which will be worked out in some way through one particular group of people, the people descendant from Israel. No one would have questioned whether the universe really did come into existence fully formed in six literal 24 hour periods. That is a question we ask today when we fail to appreciate the theological poetry of Genesis 1.

Fourth, we learn to navigate the relationship between science and Christianity as we follow the evidence. If our science and theology do not fit together, then our understanding of theology is correct and our understanding of science is wrong, or, our understanding of science is correct and our understanding of theology is wrong, or a wee bit of both. Scientists are not infallible, their interpretations of, and inferences from, the data can be off. We believe the Bible to be infallible, meaning it is exactly what God wanted it to be. However, our interpretations of the Bible are not infallible. With humility in our understanding of both science and theology we follow the evidence.

Consider John chapter 9. A blind man healed by Jesus is willing to follow the evidence. He was blind but is healed, therefore the evidence leads him to the conclusion that Jesus is someone special. The Pharisees are also trying to follow the evidence in figuring out how the blind man was healed. However, they have prior assumptions which affect their conclusions:

 The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”
20 His parents said, “We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. 21 But we don’t know how he came to see—haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.” 22 (His parents were talking like this because they were intimidated by the Jewish leaders, who had already decided that anyone who took a stand that this was the Messiah would be kicked out of the meeting place. 23 That’s why his parents said, “Ask him. He’s a grown man.”)
24 They called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind—and told him, “Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.” John 9:18-24 (The Message, emphasis added)

The blind man does not begin with assumptions:

He replied, “I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.” John 9:25 (The Message)

Operating with different assumptions, the healed man comes to a very different conclusion about the identity of Jesus!

Science-minded people may come to an investigation of Jesus and the Bible with assumptions, and so miss the truth. They may have already decided that miracles cannot happen and therefore they have already concluded, before their investigation, like the Pharisees did, who they think Jesus is. In doing so they can miss an amazing opportunity for relationship with God.

The shoe can be on the other foot, however. Notice that in John 9, it is the religious leaders who are the ones with the assumptions. The Christian may also hold assumptions about science and/or the Bible and miss truth. In doing so we can miss opportunities for growth, and importantly, opportunities for witness. The man born-blind follows the evidence and it leads him to worship Jesus:

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and went and found him. He asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36 The man said, “Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.”
37 Jesus said, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
38 “Master, I believe,” the man said, and worshiped him. John 9:35-38 (The Message)

One of our goals as Christians is to help others come to know Jesus. If we hold to the view that science and the Bible are at odds, then we may be creating a stumbling block for others. Are we willing to follow the evidence? Do we give the freedom to others to do the same? I believe that if we send our youth off to university with the belief that they need to choose between science and Christianity, we have failed them. Do we give them the tools to follow the evidence?

Do we need to pick between Christianity and science? Far from being in conflict, there is a good relationship between science and Christianity. One can follow the scientific evidence and still be a Christian. In fact many people come to Christianity because of the evidence provided by science. Many religions have fallen by the wayside, some would say thanks to science. However, the fact that science and Christianity can enjoy a good relationship is another reason Christianity is compelling!

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

To the Glory of God, Helping People Walk with Jesus in Faith, HOPE . . .

(This is part five in a series based on the tagline of our church: “To the Glory of God, Helping PeopleWalk with Jesus in Faith, Hope, and Love”)

We threw out the anchor, but nothing changed. At the age of thirteen it was my first year as a sailor in an old wooden sailboat which we bought with everything needed including an anchor. Except that it wasn’t really an anchor. More of a tin of beans filled with concrete and a hook. We threw it out as a last attempt in too strong a breeze for inexperienced sailors. It didn’t help. Yes, we remembered to tie a rope to it, but it didn’t help. It was not a good anchor.

“We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . ” Hebrews 6:19 (NRSV)

The Bible describes hope in Jesus as a good anchor. But is it? Are there other anchors, or even better anchors, for our souls?

Can science be an anchor for the soul? On the one hand science provides good reason for hope. Having a son with Type 1 diabetes, I am very hopeful that a cure will be found someday. I am also hopeful that the technology will get better while scientists work toward that cure. My hope in both these things won’t be realized without scientists doing their thing! On the other hand, hope in science cannot be an anchor for our souls for at least two reasons.

First, nothing kills hope like what we learn from scientific discovery. Centuries of scientific observation tells us that we will not be alive for very long. Even as we attempt to extend our lives through better medical care, scientists tell us that the universe will not always be life permitting. Ultimately there is no hope for humanity if science is all you can base your hope on.

But more importantly, science cannot tell us everything about everything. Science has its limits. For example, scientists cannot teach us the facts of history. As a scientist, if you knew nothing about airplanes, you could, by observation, figure out how they work. However, you will never know about the many people, engineers, designers, and test pilots for example, who were behind the evolution of the airplane. Scientists can tell us a lot about how things work, but we rely on historians to teach us about the who behind things, the creators throughout history.

Science cannot teach us about things beyond the reach of the telescope, microscope, or any other instrument used to “observe” things. It cannot discover spiritual realities. Going to a scientist to learn about spiritual realities is like going to an auto-mechanic for heart surgery. Sure, the mechanic may know something about the heart, but heart surgery is not her or his expertise. Going to science to learn everything about reality is like buying a house off the internet based only on photos of the outside. There is much that can be learned from those photos, but there is so much more to learn. Science provides too narrow a view. There is so much more that cannot be seen or measured. Science cannot be a good anchor for the soul, for it is far too limited in the truths it can discover.

So religion is the anchor for our souls, right? Well, not so fast. Perhaps I might start my own religion. Let me begin with the promise that you will live forever if you give me $1000. Will you buy in? Why not? You know you will die and I will be $1000 richer! Placing your hope in my made-up religion is unreasonable. Placing our hope in any made-up religion is unreasonable. Every man-made religion, even though it may contain elements of truth, is not going to be reliably true in the things that really matter. The religious leader may point to things the scientist could never discover. But the religious leader may be far from the truth in what he thinks and says. Mere religion cannot be a good anchor for our souls, for it can be unglued from reality.

In what can we anchor our souls if neither religion, nor science, provide good anchors? The question turns out to be not “in what” but “in Whom?” Hope in Jesus Christ provides a good anchor for our souls for it is grounded in realities that science cannot discover, and reality religion cannot reasonably point to.

Hope in Christ is grounded in realities that cannot be observed, and which therefore scientists could never discover through science alone. There is no hope of finding just the right camera or instrument to be able to see God. But God has revealed Himself to us throughout history, to the patriarchs, people, and prophets of Israel, then supremely though Jesus. Through scientific discovery we may infer the presence of a creator, but we cannot discover the truth about the fall of humanity and God’s rescue operation. However, God can reveal it.

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us. John 1:18 (NLT)

But how do we know that all this Jesus-talk is not just more made-up religion divorced from reality? Unlike man-made religion, hope in Christ is grounded in realities that have been observed. It is based on real events experienced and observed by real people, many people. For example;

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)

The call to trust in Jesus is not a call to believe what one man claims to be true without providing any evidence for its truthfulness. It is a call to trust what many eyewitnesses were testifying to and willing to die for. It is a call to trust that the New Testament exists for good reason, not because a few people were trying to create a religion that would get them killed, but because so many people were responding to the events around Jesus, including his resurrection. It is a call to trust the reality of God as experienced through His presence as recorded in the Bible. It is a call to study history. There is a long history of God revealing Himself and people experiencing Him.

Our hope in Christ is also a hope that neither science nor religion could provide:

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever . . . Hebrews 6:19-20 (NRSV)

The talk about a curtain, inner shrine, and high priest relates to Old Testament symbolism around the presence of God. The temple, the “Most Holy Place” within the temple, and priesthood all symbolized God’s desire to be with people, but also the impossibility of a sinful people being able to approach, and so be fully with, a holy God. So there was a sacred space and a whole lot of rigmarole to teach people about holiness and the Holy One. Enter Jesus, who being God the Son, is the only One Who could dwell fully in the presence of the Father. He became our “high priest”, meaning that He is the mediator between ourselves and God. Through His death and resurrection Jesus did what religion could never do. He also did for us what we will never be able to do despite the wonderful advancements being made through science. He reconciled sinful people to a holy God. Neither science, nor religion, can do that.

As a church we are called to help people walk with Jesus in hope. We do that best by living as people of hope, anchoring our hope in Jesus while always being ready to say why:

. . . you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way. 1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)

 

Why Worship This God and Not Another, Or None?

The new Governor General of our nation, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, recently found herself in a bit of hot water with religious groups. In a speech she expressed concern that that anyone would believe in something other than what you can learn from science. To quote:

“And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”

While people of faith, including myself, may have felt slighted by this, we do well to consider that our Governor General really is expressing a sentiment of many Canadians. Our most recent worship service began with the following words:

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! Psalms 95:1-2 (NRSV)

Many Canadians would respond to this call to worship with “why would we bother to do that? Has not science taught us that God is not necessary?”

The people in the Psalmist’s day would have asked a similar question coming out of the typical worldview of their day: “Why sing to this Lord, and not another? Why not worship the gods of the Babylonians or the Egyptians? After all, those nations seem to be more powerful, so maybe their gods are more powerful! Why not the gods of the Canaanites? The worship in their fertility cult temples sounds like more fun than ours!”

The Psalmist goes on to answer this question, which in turn also helps us answer ours. Why worship this God?

For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.
6 O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! Psalms 95:3-6

Worship the Lord, because He is the one true God, the Creator of everything including us. God as revealed in the Bible is quite a different kind of god from all the other gods believed in during those times. Of all the mythologies of those days, no other religion expressed the theology of creation in quite the same way as the Hebrew Scriptures. The theology of God as revealed in the Bible has stood the test of time in a way no other theologies have. Belief in God is still very much with us. Zeus and the rest, not so much. Why? The Judeo-Christian concept of God stands up to philosophical enquiry, historical study, and scientific scrutiny. In fact such investigations even point to Him!

You might ask, “how can science point to God as creator when there is a fight between science and faith?” Let us consider an example (inspired by John Lennox). Consider my favourite motorcycle, a 1939 Triumph Speed Twin. Now consider a motorcycle enthusiast who owns one, and loves to take it apart and put it back together again to see how it all works. Scientists are like the motorcycle enthusiast who studies the motorcycle. Now consider a history buff who collects books about the Triumph Motorcycle Company.  The history buff learns that a man named Edward Turner was the chief designer of the Speed Twin. Theologians are like the history buff who studies Edward Turner, the man behind the motorcycle. Now when scientists say things like “having studied the world and the universe, we are able to explain how things work without reference to God, therefore God does not exist”, it is a bit like the motorcycle enthusiast saying “having studied the motorcycle, I did not find Edward Turner in the crankcase spinning the crankshaft to make the motorcycle go, in fact I can explain how the motorcycle moves without reference to Edward Turner, therefore Edward Turner does not exist”. Scientists say a lot of good things, but they say too much when they say that kind of thing.

Theologians can say too much too of course. Though a history buff will learn about the Speed Twin from history books and biographies on Edward Turner, they will not learn the same kinds of things as someone with the blueprints. Both the scientists and the theologians need to be careful they don’t say too much.

Consider further, that the existence of the Speed Twin as an engineering marvel, and as a work of art, points to a designer. That much is obvious. There are scientists who infer the existence of a Creator God from the engineering excellence and the artistry evident in the universe. This is the theory of Intelligent Design which you can read more about here.

While the existence of design in the universe points to a Designer, why should someone today worship God as understood through Jesus and not some other? The Psalmist helps us answer this question also.  Why worship this God?

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. Psalm 95:7a

Worship this God because He is the God who has had a relationship with us all along. God’s people in the Psalmist’s day could look back at the records chronicling God’s relationship with them and recognize that God has been walking with them all along. The gods of the other nations were not. God was their shepherd, sometimes protecting, sometimes correcting, but never far away. Likewise, we can look back and see God’s hand in history.

If you are a Christian, suppose for a moment that you are not. You are hardly going to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or that miracles of the Bible happened. However, even if we do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God, we should at least recognize that it is a collection of historical records. It is a collection of 66 books, written over 1500 years, by the hand of over 40 different authors from quite different backgrounds. Whether you believe what the authors have to say or not, at the very least you can believe that these are historical records of what they believed to be true. As we study this collection, questions arise. For example, why the incredible unity of thought about God? Why the incredible storyline that runs from beginning to end including creation, fall, promises plus shepherding, redemption, and restoration? Why did a group of Jews claim that Jesus experienced resurrection, and why were they willing to die for that claim? Why has Xnty stood the test of time where other religions have faded away? How has Christianity become the biggest religion in the world, and why does it spread even quicker under persecution? The simplest answer is often the best, and in this case answers every question: Jesus is Risen Lord, God is our maker and has a long history of relationship with humanity.

The Psalmist calls upon the people of his day to worship God and not another, to listen to God’s voice: “O that today you would listen to his voice!” Psalm 95:7b. Why listen to His voice and not another, or none? Because God is the Creator, and humanity has a long, and recorded history with Him. Are we listening?

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high . . . Hebrews 1:1-3

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV