by Paul Priest | 28 April 2022 |
I am a Bible believer. But I also believe in dinosaurs. I have seen their bones.
Science says the dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago. My church says life was created in six days, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. My church bases this belief on their interpretation of Genesis 1 and the fourth commandment in Exodus 20.
I have long argued that science and Scripture should agree because they have the same author. Yet modern science does not support the church’s interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2.
It could be that my assertion is wrong. But it could also be that the church’s interpretation is wrong. Central to this debate is the reliability of science.
The antiscience of young earth creationism
It appears that young earth creationism represents the thinking of the majority of Adventists. Young earth creationism rejects scientific evidence of an old earth and old life. It insists that Scripture—or rather, their particular interpretation of Scripture—must always have authority over science.
Gerhard F. Hasel writes,
Whenever biblical information impinges on matters of history, age of the earth, origins, etc., the data observed must be interpreted and reconstructed in view of this superior divine revelation which is supremely embodied in the Bible.
Leonard Brand, a presenter at a 1981 Geoscience Research Institute (GRI) workshop for academy science teachers, said, “If science and Scripture disagree, go with Scripture because it is God-inspired.”
This view seems based on the beliefs that, first, the Bible read in its most obvious sense must be true. And second, that because of sin nature is corrupted, in a state of decay, so it gives unreliable information and cannot be used to inform us of what happened in the past.
The reliability of science
Nature’s operation is governed by the laws God created at the beginning. Neither sin nor decay can change those laws. The only reliable way of knowing nature is by observing it. Since Galileo, our knowledge of nature has progressively increased. This evolving knowledge is based the fundamentals of the scientific method.
The acronym “FLinCHeRS” is a good way to remember these fundamentals.
- F: Falsifiability: It is impossible for a claim to be true under all conditions. There are always consequents that results if a claim is true. Science looks at those consequents to see if they occur. If they don’t the claim is falsified. Falsifiability guarantees that if the claim is false the evidence will prove it false. If you can’t test the consequences, the truth of the claim cannot be known. An untestable claim is meaningless. Science works by trying to prove a claim false. Trying to prove a claim true is pseudoscience.
- L: Logical: Logic provides rules for argument and how to tell whether a conclusion is true or not.
- C: Comprehensive: All evidence must be considered. Using only solicited evidence is propaganda.
- H: Honest: If the evidence contradicts the claim, one must abandon belief in the claim.
- R: Repeatability: All observations and experiments must be and have been repeated. Repeatability protects against error, bias and fraud.
- S: Sufficiency: The truth of a claim must be based not only on the absence of disconfirming evidence but also on the presence of confirming evidence.
These fundamentals of science make science self-correcting. They also make the testimony of nature reliable. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God.”
God’s three witnesses
Hebrews 1:1-2 lists three witnesses that God has provided, from ancient times to the present:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe (NIV).
The three witnesses are Scripture, Christ, and creation. Of the third, Romans 1:20 says that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” can be seen in His creation—that is to say, because of the witness of nature, all people who ever lived, including those who have no knowledge of Scripture or of Christ, are “without excuse.”
The witness of nature must be reliable, or God would be unjust to hold every human that ever existed accountable on the basis of the testimony of nature. If nature were not a reliable witness, people would have an excuse for unbelief.
The assumed conflict
I believe that conflict between science and Scripture is actually between science and the Bible writers’ understanding of the universe.
- For example, the Bible writers saw the earth as flat (Dan. 4:10-11; Matt. 4:8; Lk 4:5). Science has shown it is an oblate sphere.
- They taught a geocentric solar system; that is, the sun, moon, and stars orbit the earth (Eccl. 1:5; Ps. 6:6). Science has shown that the earth orbits the sun. The earth’s rotation creates the illusion of the motion of the sun, moon, and stars.
- The ancients thought the blue sky was held up by a solid dome—the firmament—that arched from one edge of the flat earth to the other (Gen. 1:6; Job 37:18). Science early on proved that such a dome doesn’t exist.
- The ancient people also thought that the sun, moon, and stars were inside the firmament dome. Yet logically the sun, moon, and stars had to be created after the firmament because they are located in it.
These views are based upon incomplete observations made thousands of years ago. These well-meaning observers had no telescopes, nor any of the other modern extensions of our senses that we have.
This shows that truth about nature must always be considered relative, because it is based on our ability to observe and measure. As our methods of observation and measurement improve, our understanding of nature must change.
Consider the flat earth. Isaac Asimov explains that early civilization developed in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, where the earth certainly appears very flat. A flat earth requires that the curvature be 0° to the mile; the curvature of the earth is actually 0.0001260 to the mile, which is quite close of 0°, but not 0°. 0° wasn’t easily measured by the techniques available to ancient people. Thus their observations of a flat earth weren’t so much wrong as they were incomplete.
Kepler was the first scientist to formulate laws describing the motion of the planets. Kepler’s laws were replaced by Newton’s laws. Newton’s laws were in turn shaped by Einstein’s theories.
This does not mean that Kepler’s or Newton’s laws were wrong. Kepler’s laws still describe the motion of the planets. We still use Newton’s physics to calculate the launch of a rocket. Neither Kepler’s or Newton’s laws were wrong in an absolute sense. Newton’s law of gravity contains Kepler’s laws as a special case.
In science the new law that replaces the old often contains some truth of the old law. Think of Kepler’s law as a first approximation, and Newton’s laws as a second approximation, and Einstein’s theory of gravitation as a third, in the same way that a flat earth is a first approximation, a spherical earth a second and an oblate spheroid earth a third.
Is nature subject to Scripture?
Nowhere does Scripture teach that nature or science must be subjected to the scrutiny of Scripture. On the contrary, Scripture says, “The heavens declare the glory of God…” (Ps. 19:1-4). God declares that the witnesses in the sky—the sun and moon—are faithful (Ps. 89:37). “Speak to the earth, and it will teach you….” (Job 12:8).
These texts are saying that the truth revealed in nature is completely reliable. Those who reject the witness of nature are declaring God’s creation an unreliable witness.
However, many Adventists reject the science behind radiometric dating of rocks, the age of fossils and geological formations, and the science of macroevolution, because these contradict the six-day creation 6,000 years ago.
Creation is about function
The Hebrew word tob, used seven times in Genesis 1 is, according to Fritz Guy, incorrectly translated when it is rendered as “good.” Tob actually means “function”: each of its uses is saying that what God created was functioning as He intended (Guy 156). God looked at the world and declared that it was working as He intended it to.
John Walton highlights the Hebrew verb bara, used in verse 1 and verse 27, which is translated as “made” or “create” in our English Bibles. It is used about 50 times in the Old Testament, and deity is always the subject or implied subject, which says that “bara” is a divine activity. Walton asserts that the object of the verb “bara” in most of its 50 uses “requires a functional understanding”; thus Genesis 1 is about the creation of a functional world (Walton 36-45).
And, indeed, life is made to function. All life consists of cells; there are no exceptions. Each cell is surrounded by a cell membrane which encloses the cytoplasm, which consists of several organelles such as nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, etc. Each organelle within the cell has a specific function. If any single organelle ceases to function, the cell dies. Multicellular organism consists of cells which are formed into tissues, which form organs, then organ systems. Each system, organ and, tissue has a specific function. In most cases, if any organ or tissue fails the organism dies.
Life exists in communities, called ecosystems: prairie, desert, ponds, ocean. Each ecosystem contains characteristic plants and animals. Each creature has a specific function or niche within the ecosystem. Plants, for example, are designed to remove CO2 and replace it with O2.
Again, the emphasis is on function. And among the functions of nature is to participate in creation.
Life creates life
In Genesis 1:11 and 1:24 God commands the earth to bring forth. “And God said, ‘Let the land produce….’.” The earth is literally commanded here to participate in creation! Creation responds. “The earth brought forth…” (v. 12 NASB). Notice that these verses hold true regardless if God formed plants and animals from the earth all at once, or if they resulted from long ages of evolution.
Again, in Genesis 1:22 God commands the created life forms to “Be fruitful and increase in number….” Ronald Osborn in his book Death Before the Fall clarifies that Genesis 1:22 implies “an incomplete or still empty creation with ecological niches waiting to be filled by living creatures—again, not instantaneously …, but by the animals themselves through the procreative processes that will extend across time” (Osborn 26).
Richard Rice (God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will) explains that in creation God gave the earth the capacity for self-creation. Consequently, the future of the earth “was left open to any number of courses that the creatures, man in particular, should select.” Genesis 2:1,2 does not imply that creative activity had stopped. Rather, it means the earth now had everything it needed to function as God intended in self-creation. Says Dr. Rice, the command to “be fruitful and multiply” sets up the living organisms to participate in creation (Rice 37).
Self-replication with variation.
One of the consequences of the command to be “fruitful and multiply” is death. The world could not be functional, as Genesis says it was designed to be, if birth is allowed but death is banished. In such a world, species would overpopulate their ecosystem and run out of food. Death prevents that from happening. A world where creatures can reproduce but not die cannot exist. Consequently, death has existed since the beginning of life, and fossils confirm it.
Sexual reproduction and death are components of the command to be “fruitful and multiply,” making it possible for nature to evolve and create. For an organism to participate in creation or evolution, Christopher Davis explains, first, you must have a living organism. Second, that organism must be able to reproduce. Third, there must be a method for variation (Davis 137). Scripture testifies to the first two. The science of genetics confirms the third.
Life could be described as self-replication with variation.
The source of variation is changes in DNA, from recombinations or mutations in the DNA code. Once the DNA is altered it can be passed from one generation to another. This is called “descent by modification” and it is the definition of evolution. The processes of mitosis, meiosis, spermatogenesis and oogenesis you learned in high school biology describe the mechanics of variation.
The question that nature asks of every variation is, does it aid in an organism’s ability to function in being fruitful and increasing in number, or does it diminish an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce? If it reduces an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce, nature will select against it. This is called “natural selection,” a term coined by Charles Darwin.
Therefore sexual reproduction and the variation, produced by changes in the DNA, and death for variations that don’t work in the ecosystem are precisely what makes all life participate in creation. Natural selection acts on the variation that exists in a population.
To return to Hebrews 1:1, we have three witnesses. God is the source of all three: Scripture, Jesus, and nature. I have argued here for the reliability of science based on the scientific method and Scripture. Many of the seeming contradictions between the Bible and science are due to incomplete observations, and can begin to be resolved with a proper interpretation of Scripture.
Seen in that light, science and the Bible do not disagree. Their agreement testifies to the existence of God.
- Asimov, Isaac. The Relativity of Wrong. New York: Windsor Publishing, 1989.
- Brand, Leonard. “Creation Workshop for Secondary Science Teachers.” Geoscience Research Institute Creation Workship. Loma Linda, CA: GRI , 1981.
- Davis, Christopher S. Designed to Evolve. MOTIF PRESS, 2015.
- Guy, Brian Bull and Fritz. God, Sky & Land. Roseville, CA: Adventist Forum, 2011.
- Hasel, Gerhard F. “The Meaning of the Chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11.” Origins 7, no.1 (1980): 57-70.
- Osborn, Ronald E. Death Before the Fall. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.
- Rice, Richard. God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1985.
- Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
- White, Ellen G. Selected Messages Book 1. Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2006.
- Whorton, Mark S. Peril in Paradise. Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 2005.
Paul Priest earned an Ed.D. from Loma Linda University with emphasis in science education. He taught for 22 years in Adventist academies, and 22 years in public school. He lives in southern California.