Science and Christian Apologetics

Allan H. Harvey


This was not originally written as an essay; it was a talk delivered to the Couples fellowship of First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado, on March 25, 2001, as part of a series on apologetics. What follows is the text for the talk, except that it has been edited in a few places where there were references to local people and situations that would not mean anything to the reader who encounters this on the WWW. Also in a few places I have fleshed out into complete English things that I had as shorthand references in my speaking notes.

Science and Christian Apologetics

A previous speaker talked about there being 2 categories of apologetics: positive apologetics (making the case for Christianity), and negative apologetics (answering objections). In talking about science today, I'm going to deal with answering objections. I have sympathy for some of the positive arguments (the Big Bang [consistent with the Biblical beginning], and the fine-tuning of universe so that we can exist). The arguments related to biology have a pretty bad track record, so I'd tend to avoid those. But thatís not today's topic.

Maybe I can start by saying I wish this talk wasn't necessary. I think science has become a bigger apologetic problem than it should be, and, I hate to say, a lot of that is our fault as the church. Not because we don't know enough science (though that can be a problem, too), but because we've got some basic misunderstandings about how science and nature fit into Christian theology. So I'm not going to talk much about science, I'm going to talk about what I think are the real sources of our problems. If we can get those things straight, I think most of the apologetic problems go away.

I want to start with an observation about apologetics in general. When people say they reject Christianity, a lot of the time what they're really rejecting is something else. Maybe they're rejecting televangelists, or some hypocrisy they saw in their parents or their parents' church, maybe they're rejecting the politics of the Christian Coalition, or some opinion about science that they think is an essential part of the faith. I think an important part of apologetics is to recognize these misconceptions and clear them out of the way so people can consider the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ. There may be things they'll reject there (Paul said the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing), but at least then youíre dealing with the real issues and not these distractions.

I have an example of this from my own experience. When I was working on my Ph.D., I shared a lab with a man from Taiwan named Albert. One day there was an evangelist making noise on campus, and Albert asked me a question out of the blue: "How can you be a Christian and believe all that Creationism stuff?" I managed to mumble something about how "that stuff" wasn't what Christianity was all about. But Albert's question had illustrated the problems we have with science and apologetics.

Albert knew that the claims of so-called "creation science" about the Earth being only 6000 years old and so forth were ridiculous, like saying the Earth was flat. I can't blame him for not wanting to be associated with that nonsense. But what's worse is that that was the first thing that came to Albertís mind about Christianity. Not the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not even the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments. The anti-science noise had drowned out the Gospel so all Albert had heard was a false Gospel, one that was centered in a particular interpretation of Genesis rather than being centered in Christ. [Gal. 1:6-9]

Of course another problem was that, in the 2 or 3 years I had known Albert, I had failed to share my faith with him well enough to correct his misconceptions. Fortunately for me, that's not our topic today.

My concern is what can we do to correct the misconceptions that people have (both people like Albert and some Christians) that the findings of science (geology, astronomy, biological sciences [including evolution]) are incompatible with Christianity, that embracing Jesus means rejecting science. And it's a serious problem. It's serious because there are people like Albert out there who know science, and we put stumbling blocks in the way of them even considering Jesus. You hear missionaries talk about unreached people groups; here's a group of people that aren't hearing the Gospel because they canít get past the huge credibility barrier put up by the things some Christians say about science.

But it's also serious because of its effects on Christians, and I'm especially worried about children. If we teach our children that they have to choose between science and faith, we're setting them up for a fall. Because some of them are going to grow up and study the real world God made and learn that what the church has told them about science is false. If we've taught them that the Gospel or the truth of the Bible depends on those things, then it's like the house built on sand, their foundation gets washed away, and their faith may go with it. I think Jesus had some words about those who set people up to stumble on issues like this: [Luke 17:1-2] "Stumbling blocks are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble."

So, how do we give our children a foundation that won't crumble the first time they take a college science class, and how do we keep science from being a stumbling block to people like Albert? I've thought about these things a lot, and I've decided that at the root of our problems are two fundamental mistakes, and both of them involve taking our human philosophy and letting it dictate to God what he can and can't do. I hope you'd all agree that dictating to God isn't a good idea.

The first problem is dictating to God how he can communicate to us in Scripture. People have come up with doctrines about the Bible, using words like inerrancy or perfection, and I'm not saying those doctrines are wrong. But sometimes they're so extreme that they donít allow God to use stories or figurative language to communicate truth (which is silly since Jesus taught that way all the time). Or they don't allow God to use simplified concepts in order to get his point across. For example, when Genesis was written people thought there was a solid dome above the Earth holding back the waters above, so God used that framework in Genesis (firmament in Gen. 1), but some people can't allow that. Those are what you might call "fundamentalist" views, but they creep into the rest of the church, to the point where a lot of people want to treat Genesis as a science textbook, and they think for it to be true all the details have to "line up" with science. That's a bad approach for two reasons. First, it just doesn't work Ė to make all the details "line up" you have to twist science or twist Scripture or both (Genesis doesn't even line up with itself in that sense, because the order of creation is different between Ch. 1 and Ch. 2). But, maybe more important, reading it that way dishonors God as the Author of Scripture. Imagine what Jesus would have thought if after he told the parable of the sower, one of the disciples had said "Thanks for that lesson about agriculture." Jesus wasn't teaching about agriculture, he was using agricultural images that the people were familiar with to teach about responding to the Gospel. Any time we're reading the Bible we should be asking what's the message, what's God's purpose here. Genesis is teaching important things like how the stuff we see around us isn't divine, it's all the creation of God, and we are too. To try to get scientific details of how that happened out of Genesis is asking it questions God wasn't trying to answer, and I don't think God wants us to do that. As Peter Barnes put it in a sermon a year or two ago, what matters is the fact of Creation, not the means of creation. I also like the line attributed to Galileo: "The purpose of the Bible is to tell us how to go to Heaven, not to tell us how the heavens go." If we can remember that, we can avoid the apologetic problems that come from trying to defend some scientific claim that the Bible really isn't making. So that's take-home point #1: The Bible is not a science textbook.

The second problem where we dictate to God is telling him how he is and isn't allowed to create. There's a common view that the world runs completely on its own, except maybe for a few interventions where God sticks his hand in and does something. Of course atheists have this view (and then they say that the number of interventions is zero), but a lot of Christians have it too, they have the idea that in order for something to really "count" as God's work, it can't be natural, God has to have worked in some sort of miraculous interventionist way. There's actually a name for that, it's called "God of the Gaps" theology. God of the Gaps theology divides the world into 2 categories. There's things we canít explain (gaps in our understanding where we say "that's where God is" [in primitive times thunder and lightning were gaps]). The second category is things where we do have a natural explanation, and therefore God isn't in those places. The result of "God of the Gaps" theology is that every time science finds a natural explanation for something, one more gap closes up and God gets squeezed closer to nonexistence. This forces Christians who have this theology to attack science in order to make room for God.

Maybe my most important message today is that this "God of the Gaps" theology is wrong. The reason it's wrong is that God is sovereign over nature. (Take-home point #2) The Bible tells us that everything that exists is upheld by God's power. God isn't just in the gaps, he's the creator and sustainer of the whole fabric of creation, including the things we call "natural." So what does God's sovereignty over nature mean for our apologetics? It means that science isn't any threat to Christianity. Scientific results don't count as points against God, they're just uncovering how God did things. It means that if somebody has the idea that some scientific explanation (evolution or whatever) has eliminated God, the wrong thing to do is to argue against the science Ė that's defending the God of the Gaps and it's a losing strategy (unfortunately, it's the strategy of a lot of Christians). The right thing to do is to remember that God is sovereign over nature, that the atheist argument that natural explanations mean God is absent isn't science, it's completely unjustified philosophy. We can tell people that natural explanations may eliminate the God of the Gaps, but they don't eliminate the Christian God.

Now, if you were listening carefully, you heard me mention the E-word Ė Evolution (term that really needs to be carefully defined, but we don't have time). In some places, especially more fundamentalist circles, thereís a knee-jerk reaction that the E-word is anti-Christian, itís evil. It may be a new concept for some people that the theory of evolution, whether itís true or not, is at least OK from the standpoint of Christian theology. So I want to make that point with a less controversial example.

Let's talk about rain. We know several atmospheric scientists at NCAR who could explain how rain happens, and it would be an entirely natural explanation, there'd be no point where they'd say "and this is where God intervened." But the Bible tells us that God is responsible for rain. So is the Bible wrong? Or maybe we should condemn our friends at NCAR for promoting these naturalistic, atheistic theories of weather? No, we just have to remember that God is sovereign over nature, so explanations on a natural level are perfectly compatible with the Biblical teaching that, on some higher level, God is the one making the rain. Now, most of us have no problem applying that logic with rain. But with the evolution of life, logic goes out the window and you hear things like "Darwinian evolution explains things in terms of natural mechanisms with no reference to God, so Christians have to oppose it." But that's just like saying we should oppose the explanations of rain. Just like rain or gravity or any other natural explanation, we need to realize that evolution doesn't mean God is out of the picture.

Now that I've pointed out our two apologetic problems (trying to make the Bible a science textbook, having a God of the Gaps rather than God who is sovereign over nature), where do we go from here?

First, we can get our own house in order. We can learn to read the Bible with its purposes in mind, and not try to ask it questions it isnít trying to answer. We can reject any false Gospel that depends on a particular interpretation of how God created. We can affirm God's sovereignty over nature and reject the "God of the Gaps." If we can keep our children away from that horrible teaching that says Genesis 1 has to be true according to somebodyís narrow literal interpretation or else we might as well throw our Bibles in the trash, and if we can get them to understand that scientific explanations donít mean God didn't do something, they just tell us how God did something, they'll be much better prepared to face the world.

Second, we can be ready to give people good answers. If they say that science contradicts the Bible, we can tell them that the Bible isnít making any scientific claims about those things. If they think that scientific explanations have eliminated God, rather than argue against the science, we can point out that natural explanations of how things happened don't eliminate the Christian God, because our God is in charge of the whole picture, not just the gaps where we don't have explanations. If they want to argue "creation vs. evolution," we can point out that it's not a "versus" Ė those aren't mutually exclusive opposites, they're answers to two different questions. "Creation" is the answer to "What is all this?" All this is the creation of God. "Evolution" is the answer, or a plausible answer, to the different question, the less important question, "How did God do it?"

Finally, we need to remember that these science things are not the real issue. Jesus Christ is the issue. These arguments are stumbling blocks, obstacles in the road to be moved aside so people can hear the Gospel. That's a danger of some of those arguments for the existence of God Ė if you've convinced somebody of the existence of God or some sort of Designer, "that and a quarter might buy them a Coke." Sometimes that might be a first step, but we always have to remember that the real destination is the Gospel, the real destination is Jesus.

In closing, I want to recommend a few books that I think will be helpful on these issues. Three good introductory books are The Galileo Connection by Charles Hummel, Toward a Christian View of a Scientific World by George Murphy, and (the best introduction in my opinion) Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution by Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma. There is also a great older book that is a little less introductory, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens are Telling Us about the Creation by Howard Van Till of Calvin College.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are the opinion of the author of this essay alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Originally written in 2001.
Page last modified November 1, 2008

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