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.
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 withJennifer 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.
Tomorrow, read how pastor Gustavsen handles the question of whether science disproves the Genesis account of creation.