Science Ch.32 - Conclusions: Surprise, Disappointment, and Hope

I’ve have been excited, surprised, and depressed by the findings in this book. But ultimately, I’m hopeful. We have found that biblical studies and the sciences really can help each other. After all, they both explore a revelation from God.

What has excited me most about this book is the number of sciences that have provided useful information to help us to understand the text of the Bible. The topics that are covered touch on quantum physics, string theory, astrophysics, multiverse theory, astronomy, paleontology, genetics, archaeology, meteorology, animal psychology, neurology, gerontology, paleoanthropology, embryology, computing, statistics, seismology, and even the nutritional analysis of ancient feces (whatever that specialty is called).

       The nonspecialist always needs to have a humble attitude toward findings that may have taken experts a decade or more to study and verify. It is easy to dismiss something we don’t understand, especially when it doesn’t support the view we are trying to defend. Even those working within a specialty may not understand what others in their own field are doing. For example, within my specialty, there are so many subdisciplines that I don’t always understand the work being done by my colleagues in the same building. One scholar is currently working on tense values of verbal strings, and another is investigating Akkadian naming traditions – projects that I only vaguely understand. And my colleagues may not understand my current project in computational linguistics – but we are all working within the discipline of biblical studies.

       The human race has worked out how to fly to the moon, map its own genome, and teach computers to translate human languages. These achievements were only possible because of interdisciplinary cooperation between hundreds of specialties contributing technology, code, fabrication, and other skills. Bible scholars need to learn from this, come in from isolation, and join with other specialties so that everyone can gain. That kind of cooperation is what I’ve envisioned in this book.

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“Explaining” miracles

One perturbing finding in this book is that miracles can often be “explained” – but I’ve realized that this is very different from explaining away the miracles. Just because we know how God may have done something doesn’t mean that it was not done by God, especially when the event is vanishingly unlikely and yet it occurs at the exact point in time when it is needed.

       We’ve found that the Bible itself sometimes tells us about the mechanism of a miracle – such as the details given about parting the waters for Israel, both when crossing the Jordan and at the exodus across the Red Sea. Exodus 14:21 says God used “a strong east wind all night” – which an ancient reader would regard as a sufficient explanation, though today we have had to do many experiments to figure out what this means. In the case of the Jordan, the mechanism explained at Joshua 3:16 is likely to be understood better by an ancient reader than a modern one. In both cases, the Bible text is willing to explain how God did the miracle and to emphasize the miraculous timing: they happened exactly when “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea” (Exod 14:21) and when “the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the brink of the water” (Josh 3:15).

       The Bible is impressively consistent in its account of miracles. A compilation of books by dozens of authors spanning thousands of years might be expected to include a variety of different assumptions about miracles, and yet their descriptions are consistent. The miracles never involve things popping into existence, or instantaneous movement by dematerializing something in one place and rematerializing it elsewhere. The closest we get to this kind of thing is the multiplying of food by Elijah and Jesus. However, these are not materializations but growth, because they only produced more of what was already at hand. Jesus fed the crowds with bread and fish because these were the only materials available, while Elijah multiplied flour and oil that the widow already owned. Even miracles of healing can be regarded as sped-up normal healing – as we see when Jesus inquired about a miracle’s progress and found that the blind man could not yet see properly (Mark 8:22-25). It is as if God speeds up the normal processes such as growth and recovery of health.

       An almighty God can do anything, but the Bible describes what he does do. And it seems that God likes to use his creation to carry out his will. When normal processes won’t achieve his purpose, he uses a statistically unlikely or a sped-up version of normal. But we never see him pitting himself against the natural processes, like a fictional wizard or alien – even though this might look more dramatic. Of course, we might assume that God does miracles in a particular dramatic way. Augustine did this when he assumed that God works instantaneously, which meant he had to reinterpret the six days of creation as six different descriptions of a single instantaneous act. We can always find evidence to back up our assumptions, but it is more interesting and instructive to follow where the Bible text leads.


What has surprised me the most is that the literal text of the Bible so often mirrors an agreement with various sciences. Its correlation with nature as we now understand it is often remarkable. The order of events in Genesis 1 follows what we now know of the history of this planet, and the plagues in Egypt are in the logical order predicted by our knowledge of pollution, infection, and infestation.

       Any written text has different possible interpretations – as any constitutional lawyer will tell you. Passages such as Genesis 1 have been explored as concrete literal descriptions, poetic imagery, reworkings of ancient mythology, and as theological statements that have no link with the physical world. In this book I have concentrated on the possible literal meanings of the actual words used. This doesn’t mean that I reject other possible types of reading, but one has to start somewhere.

       The aim of this book isn’t to find the “correct” interpretation, but to show that the Bible text can cohere with what we know from various scientific investigations of nature. Of course, if we read Genesis 1 as poetry or mythology, it won’t contradict science because it isn’t intending to describe the real world. What surprised me was that literal interpretations of the Bible text can cohere with scientific discoveries. When all the ambiguities of a specific text are outlined, so that we can see the limited range of possible literal interpretations, one of those literal interpretations almost always agrees with what has been discovered about nature.

       It is often difficult to spot the literal meaning because we read the text through the lens of traditional interpretations. In the account of languages confused at Babel, we read that this affected everyone in the erets (meaning “land” or “earth”). We assume the literal meaning is “the planet Earth,” even though it could also mean “the country” – as it does just a few verses previously. Biblical Hebrew has a vocabulary of eight thousand words compared to the million words of modern English, so ambiguities like this abound. It is all too easy to let tradition decide what the text means, so we have to studiously explore possible alternate interpretations rather than assume our preferred one is correct.

       I’ve been amazed to find that apparently fantastical miracles such as Joshua’s long day, the virgin birth, or human resurrection become less strange when we use sciences to investigate the details in the text. Some of the theories in this book will turn out to be wrong – perhaps all of them – but the point is that the literal Bible text does not contradict knowledge gained by modern sciences. Indeed, the details of the text itself sometimes hold the clues that can point to a link with scientific knowledge that no ancient reader could have imagined. And when the passage is reread in this light, it sometimes solves other difficulties that were present in the text.

       These types of explanation for miracles do not mean that we can replicate them. However, they do mean that we can confirm they belong to the universe we live in. They stand out from the miracles or wonders that we read about or watch in works of fantasy and fiction. Exploring Bible miracles in the light of modern sciences demonstrates that they can belong to the history of God’s work on this planet, because they are clearly part of our reality and not a fictional one.


What has depressed me in these chapters is the entrenched views of opposing camps. For example, when discussing Noah’s flood, any suggestion that it may not have been global is regarded by some as failing a test of orthodoxy. On the other side, it is regarded as intellectual weakness to even admit that archaeological evidence may confirm the ancient historical references to a flood that wiped out a civilization. The Bible text is, strictly speaking, ambiguous – though there are severe problems when you try to fit the literal text into the interpretation that the flood was global.

       What has caused me the most despair for the next generation of Christians is our attitude to evolution. Even though young-earth theories rely on a form of sped-up evolution to produce millions of species from the thousands in the ark, there appears to be a ban on the use of the word “evolution” to describe this process – as if the word itself were harmful. The amount of detailed scientific work that is simply denied in the name of Bible truth is shocking to any fair-minded person who starts to examine it. The result is that intelligent and inquiring students end up rejecting the Bible.

       I fear that those looking in from outside assume that Christians approach facts and studies in the same way as conspiracy theorists – that is, publicizing anything that fits, and criticizing anything that doesn’t.


But I am also hopeful. Many Christians now accept concepts such as “we are made of space dust” or “Two percent of our genes come from Neanderthals.” They know that this contradicts some interpretations about how God created Adam and Eve, but their experience of Jesus is firm enough to get them past that difficulty. They expect that someone will one day find a solution, just as so many other Bible problems have been solved by studying ancient history, languages, and archaeology.

       The chapters that deal with these topics are among the most exploratory and novel – and therefore have a greater chance of being wrong! This is OK, because that’s the way that science works, and it should be the way that theology works too. All scientists work hard to undermine what has already been proposed. They do so by finding some facts to show a theory is wrong or that it can be refined in some important ways. Theology, in its most productive periods, has also worked like that. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were not dogmatic conclusions but proposals and discussion starters. They certainly initiated some productive debates, but they also ignited arguments that were unfortunately resolved on battlefields.

       Christianity is now assumed to be against science. This isn’t because Christians question scientific theories – scientists also do that, constantly. We are being anti-scientific when we ignore those facts that don’t support our theories, because the scientific method has to take into account all facts. Many Christians clasp hold of one interpretation of an issue – such as how long creation took or what kind of death, started in Eden – and then refuse to consider that this may be wrong, as if their salvation depended on it.

       We need to acknowledge the distinction made in the Westminster Confession of Faith between Bible teaching regarding salvation – which it says is “clearly propounded” in the Bible – and other teachings in the Bible, which it says are “not plain in themselves.” God has chosen to teach us through Scripture and through creation. When these two are brought together, those things that are “not plain in themselves” can often become clearer. God’s revelation is found in both the Bible and nature, so we should not use one to denigrate the other. We can, instead, grasp with eager hands the gift that God has given us, to learn from both the Bible and scientific discoveries – together.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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