Sunday, July 8, 2018

Scientific Predictions and the Bible: What to Expect

Does the Bible make scientific predictions that have been shown to be accurate? Or do Christians simply find supposed scientific facts in the Bible after they have already been discovered by scientists? Should we expect the Bible to make predictions about future scientific discoveries if it is the inspired word of an all-knowing God? These are important and challenging questions that would be answered very differently by believing Christians or non-believing skeptics. Some Christians will claim that the Bible makes amazingly accurate predictions about what science will discover while skeptics may claim that those predictions were only recognized after they were already discovered by scientists, and that there are no future scientific predictions being proposed based on the biblical text.

Let's start this discussion with 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. One thing I have learned about God over the years is that I am not able to predict what he should do or will do. I can only predict that God will always act in a way consistent with his character. In the Bible, the prophet Jonah also knew that God would always act consistent with his character, which is gracious and compassionate. Because Jonah didn't want God to act that way toward the people of Nineveh he initially refused to go to Nineveh to share God's message that they could avert judgement if they repented. When God did spare the city, Jonah was mad at God because God acted as he always does. Jonah said to God, "Isn't this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (emphasis added)." So when it comes to 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, all I can say for certain is that anything revealed should be consistent with the known character of God.

Because God is always truthful the ideas in the Bible should be true. For instance, the Bible does make accurate predictions about the future in regards to God's redemptive plan for humans, including predictions having to do with the coming Messiah that were fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. The Bible also makes clear predictions about the second coming of this Messiah that have not yet been fulfilled. But scientific predictions do not directly deal with God's redemptive plan for humanity and so do not fall into this broad category.

Another aspect of God's character and his redemptive priority is that he consistently interacts with people within their cultural setting in a language and context that they can understand in order to draw them to himself. Although God will often do things, and ask his followers to do things, that are counter-cultural, they are not culturally irrelevant or culturally unaware.

In addition, God is sovereign. He sets the rules and acts according to his plans. He does not do "dog and pony" tricks at the whim of skeptics simply to indulge their insincere questions. I know skeptics who would say that they would believe the Bible were true if it had made some fantastic prediction like that the proton is composed of three quarks. But is an obligatory response to that request consistent with the revealed character of God?

We know God is truthful so he must reveal truth and that he interacts in a culturally relevant manner. What information about quarks could God reveal to an ancient prophet 3000 years ago that would adhere to those principles? Would God invent words like "proton" and "quark" and have the prophet write them down. Would he reveal that within really small particles there are three even smaller entities? (As a particle physicist I might object to that statement saying that, in reality, the proton is much more complicated than simply being made up of three quarks. It could be argued that such a statement is not completely truthful). Would God say that the fundamental particles are quarks and leptons, again inventing words, and possibly being untruthful if one day we learn that those particles are composed of even smaller entities, perhaps strings. What would God have said that would be considered scientifically valid in the middle of the 20th century? If he had said there are twelve fundamental matter particles (six quarks and six leptons), the scientists of that day would have said the Bible is not correct since only the neutron, proton, and electron had been discovered. I think it is quite challenging to propose some scientific statement that could have been given by God to an ancient prophet that would be predictive, and yet still be relevant to all people in all cultures over all time. (Though I will discuss some examples in the next blog post.) Finally, since God's ultimate purpose is to redeem individuals and have a relationship with them, would any of the possible revelations about quarks really make any difference to the skeptic? As I have discussed in a previous post on Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence, Jesus said that if a person is not willing to accept the revelation already given in the biblical text by the prophets, then that person would not accept any level of evidence, even someone rising from the dead (Luke 16:19-31). Would a skeptic really accept an unambiguous scientific prediction in the Bible as proof of the message of Christianity, and then choose to wholly follow Jesus?

In a recent debate I listened to between two scientists, one an atheist and one a Christian, each was asked what evidence it would take to change their mind about whether or not their worldview is correct. The Christian listed a number of discoveries that would cause him to denounce what he currently believes about Jesus and the Bible while the atheist said that nothing could be discovered that would change his mind. For more than an hour the atheist had argued that science is superior to religion because scientists will follow the evidence where it leads and scientific ideas can change with new discoveries while religious dogma does not change. But then, ironically, that same person admitted that he was not really willing to follow the evidence where it led and that despite his grand rhetoric, he was entrenched in philosophical dogma regardless of the actual evidence. In contrast, we as Christians are not bound to any dogma, but are willing to follow all evidence to its natural conclusion. If what we believe is true and the Christian God is a god of truth then the evidence from science, history, philosophy, or whatever will ultimately lead to that God and agree with his written revelation. If it is shown that the biblical God is not the one true God, then Christians like myself would be happy to abandon a false belief.

So if the Bible is God's revelation to man and if the Christian God is real, then we would expect the Bible to be accurate when it discusses science, we would expect the scientific descriptions to be culturally relevant and we would expect any scientific revelations to be instrumental in God's primary goal of redeeming individual people so that they can have a relationship with him.

In the next blog post, we'll discuss how God might reveal undiscovered scientific facts to ancient people in a way consistent with the above requirements and we'll look at a number of statements in the Bible that mirror facts about nature that have been discovered by scientific inquiry.

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