MANY scientists and theologians have made the argument that Christianity is not at odds with the scientific world view. However, this claim is only partially correct. It is true that many portions of the Bible (for example, the Ten Commandments) do not make empirical claims and hence have no conflict with science, a field which concerns itself solely with those questions that are (at least in principle) of a testable nature. What’s more, in those sections of the Bible that do make empirical claims about the way things were or will be, if one is willing to apply a sufficiently metaphorical interpretation to the text then whenever science and Christianity appear to contradict each other we can simply loosen or relax the religious interpretation until the disagreement disappears. In other words, if religious writings are continuously reinterpreted so that they conform to our ever deepening scientific understanding of physical reality, then of course science and religion will remain mostly out of conflict.
As an illustration of Biblical interpretation adapting to science, consider Joshua 10:12-13, where the Bible says that the “sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” Many early Christian writers took this passage, and others, as irrefutable proof that the earth is fixed in the heavens and that it is the sun that travels around the earth. For example, around the year 1600 AD, in response to the scientist Galileo’s support for the heliocentric view of the universe, Cardinal Bellarmine wrote:
“I say that, as you know, the Council (of Trent) prohibits expounding the Scriptures contrary to the common agreement of the holy Fathers. And if Your Reverence would read not only the Fathers but also the commentaries of modern writers on Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Josue, you would find that all agree in explaining literally that the sun is in the heavens and moves swiftly around the earth, and that the earth is far from the heavens and stands immobile in the center of the universe. Now consider whether the Church could encourage giving to Scripture a sense contrary to the holy Fathers and all the Latin and Greek commentators.”
Today, however, the astronomical evidence for the earth’s movement around the sun is so strong that there is almost no one who doubts it, even among those who take the Bible to be an inerrant revelation of God’s word. It appears that in this instance there has been a shift of biblical interpretation over time to fit the scientific evidence.
The preceding argument may give the impression that the Christianity and science are not or cannot be in conflict (either because they deal with different subjects, or because interpretation adapts to harmonize with science). It is undeniable, however, that a strictly literal and inflexible reading of the Bible deeply contradicts science, and it is simply not possible to reconcile these opposing points of view. Below I have outlined a few of the most extreme examples of direct disagreement.
1. Evolution Vs. Adam and Eve
Scientists, supported by enormous amounts of evidence (including transitions in the fossil record, DNA similarities between species, experimentally induced evolution in laboratories, observed evolution of bacteria, and empirically validated prediction based in theory) argue that all life on earth evolved from microorganisms. On the other hand, according to the biblical story in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2:
a. God created plants (on the third day) prior to creating the sun and the moon (on the fourth day).
b. God created birds (on the fifth day) prior to creating land dwelling mammals (on the sixth day).
c. God created the first man from “dust of the ground”.
d. God created the first woman after the first man from the first man’s rib.
Each of these statements, when read literally, contradicts the available physical evidence, and hence is inconsistent with the scientific viewpoint.
2. The Big Bang Vs. Let There Be Light
The big bang theory for the development of our universe is now accepted as truth by nearly every physicist, supported as it is by a great deal of evidence (including the cosmic background radiation, the observed velocities of galaxies, the distribution of elements throughout the galaxies, and the distribution of galaxies throughout space). According to the biblical story in Genesis 1, however:
a. God creates the earth before creating “the light”.
b. The original earth (or perhaps the whole universe since the language is ambiguous) is covered in water.
c. God created a “firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” In doing so, He “divided waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament”. Finally, “God called the firmament Heaven”.
d. The heavens, earth, and life were created in just six “days”.
A literal reading of these statements clearly contradicts the scientific evidence for how our earth and universe formed.
3. An Old Earth Vs. A New Earth
Through the use of radiometric dating, scientists have been able to estimate the age of the earth to be within a percent or two of 4.54 billion years. A literal interpretation Genesis, however, tells us something very different. The book provides details about many of the descendants of Adam (the first man), including some information about the ages at which these descendants had children and died. A number of biblical scholars have used this information (combined sometimes with information elsewhere in the Bible) to construct accounts of how old the earth must be, with estimates ranging from about 6,000 to 10,000 years, in dramatic contradiction with the scientific estimate.
4. A Dry Earth Vs. A Flooded Earth
According to Genesis 6-9 God caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights, so that “every living substance” that he has made will be destroyed “from off the face of the earth”. The flood supposedly was so great that water covered every mountain on the planet. Scientists have found no physical evidence to support the claim that there was a massive flood that wiped out nearly all life from the face of the earth, and which would have caused substantial geological changes to the planet. What’s more, archeologists are aware of a number of ancient civilizations that survived through this period when the great flood was supposed to have occurred.
The Bible also claims that the boat that Noah built to survive the flood contained two of “every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings.” Today there are thousands of species of mammals, thousands of species of reptiles, and thousands of species of birds. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that there were only a thousand species in each of these groups in Noah’s day, the idea that he could have lived in a boat which contained at least two of each animal (in fact, he took seven of each “clean” animal ), is extremely hard to believe, especially considering that he had to store food for each, deal with their waste products, and prevent them from killing each other for the three hundred and seventy days of the journey, all in a time before electricity and refrigeration.
5. Laws Vs. Miracles
As far as scientists have been able to tell, the universe follows a set of immutable laws that are as true today as they were thousands of years ago. The Bible tells us, however, of a world where the physical laws that scientists repeatedly verify are every so often conspicuously violated by the will of God. The Bible tells of water being turned into wine, Jesus walking on water, the Nile becoming blood, Jonah living inside a fish for three days, Noah living to be 950 years old, demons being exorcised, and a few loaves and fishes feeding multitudes. Each of these events is incompatible with the laws of physics, as understood today by science.
The trouble with asking whether science and Christianity are inherently contradictory is that the answer depends on which definitions of “Christianity” and “contradiction” we care to employ. If the question is whether a literal reading of some passages of the Bible are at odds with Science, the answer is an unequivocal yes. On the other hand, there are of course many Christian beliefs that are related to issues (such as ethics) about which science has nothing to say. Finally, if we are willing to interpret the Bible as freely as we please, contradiction can be avoided. But then, of course, we are placed in the awkward position of choosing how literal each passage should be taken, leading to a multitude of possible biblical interpretations and little final consensus. Perhaps this partially explains why some Christian groups forbid condoms, while others don’t, some prohibit abortion, while others don’t, some forbid masturbation, while others don’t, and so on and so forth. Metaphorical interpretation can lead to enormous variety in beliefs.