What Should We Do When the Bible Seems to Disagree with Science?

Cross Examination
Christians can agree that nature and Scripture each should be taken seriously, and that science and biblical interpretation are both fallible.

In the early 1600s, Galileo discovered that the earth moves in orbit around the sun, yet Psalm 93:1 says, “The world is established; it cannot be moved” (NET). This tension sparked a debate in Galileo’s day. Today, people ask similar questions of other verses that appear to disagree with scientific findings. Some skeptics use these “tension verses” to reject Christianity, while some Christians use them to reject science.

Yet both nature and Scripture are God’s revelation, giving unique insights into God. We can even think of nature as a second “book” of revelation, as described in Article 2 of the Belgic Confession:

We know God by two means:

First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God. … Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.

The Confession echoes the parallel in passages like Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God …” (vs. 1-6) and “The law of the Lord is perfect …” (vs. 7-11).

We trust that God doesn’t teach contradictory things in two different Bible passages. If it seems as if there is a contradiction, we assume we are misinterpreting one or both passages. We know from church history and our own experience that we misinterpret Scripture sometimes.

In the same way, we trust that God doesn’t teach contradictory things in nature and Scripture. God is the author of nature. Science is an interpretation of nature. At the cutting edges of science, scientific theories are often wrong or only partially correct. But as scientists gather more evidence and crosscheck each other’s work, a consensus forms. When scientists of many religions and worldviews have worked for years and come to agreement, it is worth taking their findings seriously.

When it looks as if there might be a contradiction, we should dig into science and biblical interpretation. We can ask about the strength of the scientific evidence and whether there is a consensus among scientists. Galileo’s initial discovery was preliminary and debatable, but today it is abundantly confirmed. We can ask about the context of the Bible verse and learn from biblical scholars about the original language and culture. In the case of Psalm 93:1, the context of the next line is a parallel statement that makes the meaning clear: “Your throne was established long ago” (Ps. 93:2). This parallel shows that the intended meaning of “fixed” is secure and enduring, not a lack of physical motion. Some modern translations even render verse 1 as “The world is established, firm and secure” (NIV).

This strategy doesn't resolve everything. Christians will still disagree about science and about biblical interpretation. But Christians can agree that nature and Scripture each should be taken seriously, and that science and biblical interpretation are both fallible. And Christians can point skeptics to a richer understanding of what Christianity teaches about God, nature, and science.

Don’t be discouraged by the tension. While some of these tension points are tough nuts to crack, our hope is in the God who created the natural world and inspired the Bible. The deep truth of God’s character underlies both. In fact, we can rejoice because these tension points are opportunities to correct and expand our understanding, to learn more truly and deeply all of who God is.

About the Author

Deborah B. Haarsma is President of BioLogos (biologos.org). She and her husband, Loren, are scientists who together wrote the book Origins (Faith Alive, 2011). They are members of Neland Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (9)

Comments

Thanks, Deborah, for trying to add some clarity to the seeming contradictions in the Bible or between the Bible and science (“an interpretation of nature”). The Christian understanding is that God has given two revelations of himself, nature and the Bible. In theory, they should be in complete agreement with each other, if both are true. But, of course, the reality is there are many contradictions, which either cast suspicion on creation (nature) or the Bible.

The problem, as most see it, is with Scripture. If the Bible was the only Scripture in existence, that might help. But in actuality, nearly every religion has their own God inspired Scriptures, just like Christianity, and therefore are absolutely true, just like the Bible. And yet, all these different Scriptures have huge differences with each other. Christians may claim the Bible as the one true revelation from God, while, at the same time, Muslims claim the Koran as God’s one true revelation. Every religion does this, casting suspicion on all these so-called revelations from God, including the Bible.

It might seem that there is much greater consensus among scientists, especially as they dismiss religion and the supernatural from their findings. Whereas there is little consensus from the various religions of the world, especially as to the nature of God and his relation to nature and humankind. So theologians of nearly all religions, including Christianity, have their work cut out for them as they attempt to interpret their Scriptures in ways that coincide with the facts of nature and science. We see that with the attempts of Christian theologians as they attempt to explain a six day creation, or the temptation of the very first humans on earth (Adam and Eve) by a snake or serpent creature, or a world wide flood, or the stopping of the sun from its rotation around the earth for a day, or the walking of the Jews through a parted Red sea. And so many more.

So Deborah, there is more to this problem of contradiction between to Bible and nature than meets the eye. So if there is a problem of contradiction, and there is, it’s with the Bible and all other manmade so called Scriptures. Thanks though, Deborah, for your explanation.

Thank you for an important article.  The author makes clear, we can get either our understanding of the Bible or Science wrong.  The article accurately reminds us that in the early 1600s Science was telling us something that contradicted our reading of the Bible.  But in the early 1900s Science (eugenics) was telling us that the black race was inferior to the white race-- and they had skull measurements to prove it.  I am so grateful for our CRC Colleges (ops-- Universities) and the professors and instructors there who can help us navigate this.  As an alumnus of Calvin, I was taught to "think critically."  We need our Religion and Theology professors to help us see when we get the Bible wrong, and we need our Science teachers to not only tell us what Science is saying, but to critically examine the its findings.  For example, an important question is, who is paying for the "scientific" studies, and do they have a vested interest in the outcome?  We can get it wrong in either our understanding of the Bible or our understanding of Science.

Thanks, Douglas, for your comment. You are right in saying the author (Deborah Haarsma) is suggesting that either our understanding of Scripture or nature (creation) can be wrong. She makes that pretty clear. I was suggesting something very different, which cast doubt upon her premise. I was suggesting that the Bible is no more the revelation of God than is the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the sacred writings of the Hindus, or any other claimed Scripture of other religions. Other religions, just like Christianity, claim that their Scriptures are inspired by God and therefore absolutely true. But Christians reject such claims by other religions, just as other religions reject the Christian claim to have the only written inspired word or revelation of God. What makes our claim any more valid than the same claim made by other religions? It could be that the religions of the world, including Christianity, do not agree with each other (or Christianity) on their basic teachings such as the nature and character of God and his relationship to humankind, how to find acceptance with God, the nature of sin, the origins of life and the human race. And yet all religions claim that they have the true word of God. In that there is little agreement among religions (including Christianity), it’s obvious that such Scriptures are no more than the human thoughts of different people at different times and places from within different cultures and really have nothing to do with being a revelation of or by God. And to most people, this increasingly includes the Bible.

So how one interprets their Scriptures, or the Bible, does not impact one’s understanding of nature, or the scientific understanding of nature, or the true character of God, because the Bible or the Koran or the Book of Mormon, or the Hindu Vedas, are not a second revelation of God, but human thoughts about God.

Roger Gelwicks,

Why would you post on a Christian denomination's website with non-Christian comments about the Bible? This isn't the place for discussions like that.

I would like to point out, that while I agree with much of what was written in this article, it ultimately never actually answers the question "What do we do when the Bible seems to disagree with science?"...

I would like to humbly submit the Belgic Confession here, which definitely says that Creation is one of the means by which we know God, but it also says that "God makes himself known to us MORE CLEARLY
by his holy and divine Word".

And also

"

Therefore we must not consider human writings—

no matter how holy their authors may have been—

equal to the divine writings;
nor may we put custom,
nor the majority,
nor age,
nor the passage of times or persons,
nor councils, decrees, or official decisions
above the truth of God,

for truth is above everything else.

For all human beings are liars by nature
and more vain than vanity itself.

Therefore we reject with all our hearts
everything that does not agree
with this infallible rule"

Thus, I would suggest that, when Bible and science appear to disagree... we should go with the Bible and wait patiently for science, through the scientific method, to arrive at the Bible's truth in time.

We also need to separate objective science from “politicized” science, as much as we can. Science with a political agenda is likely to be even MORE opposed to Scripture that objective science.

 

Example:

 

I attended all of the Climate Witness Project’s “Cooler / Smarter” sessions a few years ago, which were funded, organized, and presented by the CRCNA and the Office of Social Justice. The sessions operated on the presuppositions that (1) global warming is happening, (2) it is being caused by humans, (3) it is going to have devastating effects on humanity and the environment, and (4) it is every Christian’s moral duty to reduce CO2 emissions. It was made VERY clear at the first session that no viewpoints would be allowed questioning any of these 4 presuppositions during any of the sessions.

 

One of the books promoted by the CRCNA/OSJ’s Climate Witness Project was A CLIMATE FOR CHANGE by Katherine Hayhoe. I was curious, so I read the book. (Note that Hayhoe’s book came out in 2011, and these Climate Witness seminars took place in 2019.)

 

In her book, Hayhoe stated that scientists predicted that summer Artic sea ice would be completely melted away by 2015 or 2016. And that polar bears would face extinction. These are just 2 examples of “science” from the book. But it was politicized science.

 

What does God’s Word say? Genesis 8:22 says: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

 

So in 2011, “scientists” said summer Artic sea ice would completely disappear in just a few years. And polar bears would be extinct. And church leaders submitted to the authority of the scientists (rather than to God’s Word), and promoted the politicized “scientific” ideas as moral truth.

 

What really happened?

 

The summer Artic sea ice did NOT disappear. It reached a “record” low in 2012 (record is in quotes because satellite tracking of Artic sea ice only began in the 1970’s). Since then, summer Artic sea ice area has actually been INCREASING. Last year the smallest it got was about 1.44 million square miles. Meaning Hayhoe and the politicized scientists were only wrong by 1,440,000 square miles. Not bad at all, right?

 

And the polar bears? Are they facing extinction due to global warming, as the politicized “scientists” predicted?

 

The US Geological Survey and polar bear “expert” zoologist Dr Susan Crockford have published a study showing that polar bear populations have been INCREASING every year since 2005. And in 2018 the number of polar bears reached the highest point since they became an internationally-protected species in 1973.

 

In fact…get this…indigenous Inuit leaders in Canada have officially asked the Canadian government to start limiting the polar bear population because there are TOO MANY polar bears!

 

So, we should trust God’s Word at all times. While also exploring and learning from unbiased science. But we should avoid politicized “science” (i.e. science with an agenda) like the plague!

Thanks, Trevor, for sharing your concern in regard to my comment.  Please realize that Christianity can be defined very broadly by different people.  Certainly not all Christians define Scripture in the same way as you might.  To come to different conclusions, say in regard to abortion, homosexuality, or women in office, requires different rules of interpretation and even different understandings of Scripture.  That doesn’t eliminate such people from the Christian faith, whichever view they may take.  So although we may not see eye to eye on the Bible, hopefully, our dialogue helps to sharpen our understanding of God and his ways.

Roger,

"To come to different conclusions, say in regard to abortion, homosexuality, or women in office, requires different rules of interpretation and even different understandings of Scripture."

I'd agree with this statement, although with the caveat that multiple denominations exist so that diverse Christians, while still being brothers in Christ, could each worship according to their beliefs without harming the conscience of the other. Thus the CRCNA has long ago made it's beliefs about the nature of scripture a confessional and firm standard.

With that said, the belief system you articulated concerning scripture would not only put a person outside of the confessional beliefs of the CRCNA, but would put a person outside of Christianity altogether.

Trevor, as to the diversity of those claiming to be Christian, there is a considerable percentage who do not believe Jesus is God.  They see Jesus as a good example to follow, but dismiss his claims to deity, as well as his so called miracles.  Check it out on Google.  Many such Christians see the miraculous Bible stories as legend.  So again, I point out the broad definition by which many understand Christianity.  Bible legend goes a long way in explaining the inconsistencies of the Bible, which are otherwise difficult to explain.  Thanks, Trevor for your input.

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