Saturday, July 14, 2018

Scientific Predictions and the Bible: A Dual Fulfillment Proposal


It is often stated by Christians that the Bible contains amazing and accurate scientific predictions that have only been recently discovered by modern science. However, skeptics will claim that these supposed scientific facts were not really recognized in the Bible until after they were discovered by the scientific community. In my previous blog post I began a discussion that addresses the issue of scientific predictions in the Bible. I asked the question of what kind of scientific predictions we should expect to find in the Bible if it is the inspired word from an omniscient God. The only answer we can be sure of is that any scientific predictions should be consistent with God's character so they should at least be (1) accurate, (2) culturally relevant and (3) instrumental in God's primary goal of redeeming individual people so that they can have a relationship with him.

In regards to the third point above, I stated that the Old Testament made accurate predictions about the coming of the Messiah that were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. By observing one of those Messianic predictions in some detail, we might be able to get an idea of what to expect when dealing with scientific predictions. Consider the words of the prophet Isaiah who wrote, "The Lord himself will give you a sign. The virgin is going to have a baby. She will give birth to a son. And he will be called Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). The gospel of Matthew quotes this prophecy as being fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus when she was still a virgin. Matthew writes, "All this took place to bring about what the Lord had said would happen. He had said through the prophet, 'The virgin is going to have a baby. She will give birth to a son. And he will be called Immanuel.' The name Immanuel means 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23, NIV).

Scholars have pointed out that when Isaiah wrote his prophecy, he was most likely not referring to an actual virgin birth within his time, but rather a young woman who was currently a virgin, but would marry, and conceive a child in the usual way. After all, this was to be a sign to Isaiah's generation. But there are indications within the prophecy that there is more going on than simply a sign to Isaiah's generation through a usual birth. The baby will be called Immanuel, which means "God with us" as Matthew points out. Certainly the baby born in Isaiah's day was not literally "God with us." The Hebrew word translated virgin is almah which means a young woman or a virgin. Of course young unmarried women of that time were almost always virgins so the terms young maiden and virgin were virtually synonymous. When Isaiah's prophecy was translated into the Greek Septuagint Bible in the 3rd century BC, the translators chose to use the Greek word parthenos as the translation for almah. Parthenos explicitly describes a woman who has never had sexual relations. So even before Jesus was born the translators realized that something in the text indicated that there was more going on than simply a young unmarried woman eventually getting married and having a baby in the usual way. Matthew goes even farther than the translators of the Septuagint and realizes that Isaiah's prophecy is an accurate prediction that, concerning Jesus, means he was conceived not in the usual way, but by a special act of God. Indeed, an actual virgin conceived a child and gave birth by God's Spirit.

So what do we learn from examining this biblical prophecy about the birth of Jesus? (1) The original author may not have understood the full extent or ramifications of what he was writing. (2) The prophecy is accurate and culturally relevant to the original readers. (3) There is a broader and fuller meaning that the original writer did not fully understand, but was there due to the divine inspiration of the writer. (4) There are hints within the original writing that a broader meaning may be a part of the text. (5) An understanding of the complete and extended meaning of the original text was only fully established because of some other circumstance; in the case of Isaiah it was the actual virgin birth of Jesus. (6) In retrospect, the original passage does present an amazingly accurate statement that could only have come from divine inspiration. (7) The accuracy and predictive power of the original statement is actually enhanced by the later external confirmation because we see that the original statement was not only culturally relevant and accurate to the original readers, but also gains an enhanced and fuller meaning when viewed in light of the new external information.

Is it possible that scientific predictions in the Bible should follow this same pattern? I believe that is the case for certain statements in the Bible. And if that belief is correct then in some sense both the proclamation of the Christian that the Bible contains amazing scientific predictions and the criticism of the skeptic that the full understanding of those predictions only occurred after scientists discovered certain facts are true. I have never heard a Bible scholar suggest that scientific predictions may follow this same pattern as Messianic and other prophecies. And, in fact, when I teach biblical interpretation I always caution my listeners to carefully examine any idea that an individual claims is totally new and unique to him or her. So you should be cautious of this suggestion that certain scientific predictions may follow the same script as certain prophetic predictions, but I do believe it makes sense since the biblical pattern has a precedent.

Of course not all prophecies have this "dual fulfillment" as Isaiah 7:14 does. Some are straightforward and unambiguous, like Micah 5:2 which says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times." Similarly, there are scientific predictions that are straightforward and unambiguous and some that may fall in the "dual fulfillment" category. In the rest of this post, I'd like to discuss an example of the latter kind of prediction and in future posts I'll discuss some of the former and some other predictions that may fall into one of these two categories, or possibly a third category altogether.

The prediction I will highlight that seems to have a dual meaning is often presented by Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe. He claims that the Bible describes and predicts the discovery of the expansion of the universe. In an interview with John Ankerberg, he says, "But once you get past the books of Moses, you’ll see six different Bible authors speaking explicitly in great detail about the continual expansion of the universe; even the idea that the expansion is a surface phenomena rather than a volume phenomena, including all the dimensions. It’s based on this Hebrew verb natal, translated into English usually the “stretching out” of the heavens, but the word is actually more accurately translated 'the continual expansion' of whatever is being described."1 A list of the passages that describe the "stretching out" of the universe can be found at http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/Nave-html/Faithpathh/stretch.html. Here is the list and text of the passages reproduced.
  • Job 9:8 He alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea.
  • Psalm 104:2 The LORD wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent.
  • Isaiah 40:22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
  • Isaiah 42:5 This is what God the LORD says, the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it.
  • Isaiah 44:24 This is what the LORD says, your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the LORD, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself.
  • Isaiah 45:12 It is I who made the earth  and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts.
  • Isaiah 48:13 My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together.
  • Isaiah 51:13 that you forget the LORD your Maker,  who stretches out the heavens and who lays the foundations of the earth, that you live in constant terror every day because of the wrath of the oppressor, who is bent on destruction?
  • Jeremiah 10:12 But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
  • Jeremiah 51:15 He made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding.
  • Zechariah 12:1 The LORD, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person, declares: I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that sends all the surrounding peoples reeling. Judah will be besieged as well as Jerusalem.
Biblical scholars indicate the "stretching out" of the heavens in these verses is most likely just describing how the sky seems to cover the earth like a tent from our perspective not a prediction that the universe is expanding. But Dr. Ross makes a reasonable case that the Hebrew words do accurately describe the observed expansion of the universe. It seems to me that this is a good example of a statement that could easily have the same kind of dual meaning as Isaiah's prophecy concerning the virgin. The original author certainly did not know that the space-time fabric of the universe was expanding, but was inspired in such a way that these passages are an accurate statement about the heavens that seem to stretch out like a tent over our earth, and an accurate statement that the universe is expanding.

I believe that these statements that have a reasonable meaning for the original readers but then also seem remarkably predictive and accurate when it comes to modern science provide good evidence for the inspiration and authority of the Bible as the word of God. If the statement was not comprehensible by the original readers then God's word would have no cultural relevance. If the statement was inaccurate in the modern times, then God's word would not be true. With the additional understanding that the statement actually describes a fuller and richer truth than the original readers would have known, God's inspiration and knowledge is shown. Just as we acknowledge the inspiration of the word since Isaiah's young maiden was fulfilled in a real virgin, so we acknowledge God's remarkable inspiration when the heavens which appear as a tent to us are also being continually stretched out in cosmic expansion.

But what about cases in the Bible where the scientific prediction is clear and unambiguous and has only been scientifically verified recently? We will explore that question in the next blog post.

1https://www.jashow.org/articles/general/what-scientific-evidence-proves-god-created-and-designed-the-universe-bonusprogram-1/

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