Science and Religion

A Physicist Believes. It is actually easier, says the author, for a scientist to believe the Bible than for a nonscientist.

John Mclntyre is professor of physics at Texas A&M University, and was in charge of research on the linear accelerator at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, when he became a Christian.

A myth abroad in our time goes something like this. Back in the past, before man understood the world around him, he explained the unknown in terms of supernatural events. But now, "modern man" has outgrown the need for the supernatural. As science has more and more explained the physical world in natural terms, the need for the supernatural has disappeared. It follows, then, that because of science the supernatural features of religion are erroneous, and that orthodox Christianity, for example, is hopelessly unscientific.

Until a few years ago my feelings about Christianity were vaguely in ac cord with the myth. But then I had opportunity to study the Bible in a serious way. I found to my astonishing that a scientific training was not a hindrance but rather an asset to understanding the Bible and believing what it said. I have therefore put down the thoughts and arguments that occurred to one scientist as he examined the Biblical evidence for the claims of Jesus Christ.

Let me begin by briefly stating my previous views. I felt that Jesus was important in history, that He had preached and lived according to the highest ethical standards and that God expected me to live according to these standards. Also, in a strangely uncritical and optimistic manner, I believed that if I lived a reasonably righteous life on earth, God had prepared a wonderful heaven for my future. I had also learned that salvation, redemption, sin, atonement, and particularly the devil and hell, were concepts of an earlier era which modern man had outgrown.

I must confess that the basis for these beliefs was purely faith, faith in the declarations of the men in the pulpit whom I heard week after week. Certainly no material evidence existed for any of them. Even the documentary evidence was strange, for the Bible, the sole piece of documentary evidence, was quoted with approval when it spoke of Jesus' life and teachings and about heaven, while the statements of the same Bible, even the words of Jesus Himself, about hell, the devil, salvation, and atonement were considered erroneous. Thus even the documentary evidence for my earlier beliefs was contradictory. It is now difficult for me to understand how I ever could have subscribed to such a strange mixture of teaching.

And then my eyes were opened. I began to attend a home Bible class where the Bible was studied in the same critical manner that I was accustomed to in my daily work in physics. The class assumed the Bible to be consistent and understandable, just as the scientist considers nature to be consistent and understand able. We wrestled with portions that were difficult to understand or to reconcile with other parts of the Bible and compared them carefully with other pertinent Bible passages. We considered a scriptural difficulty a challenge to the understanding and an opportunity to modify our present incomplete ideas, rather than evidence that the Bible was in error.

This approach to studying the Bible closely parallels the scientist's attitude toward nature. He expects, even welcomes, difficulties, and finds persevering study rewarded by deeper understanding. In brief, a person should investigate God's Word, the Bible, with the same methods (even excitement) that he would use in investigating His handiwork, the physical world around us.

Such a study of the Bible quickly led me to realize that the message of the Bible deals with man's rebellion against God (sin) and God's method of reconciliation with man (Christ's atoning death on the cross). The dealings of God with man in the Old Testament (with the recurring theme that "someone is coming"), the ethical teachings of Jesus (such as the Sermon on the Mount), which can drive honest men to despair, the voluntary death of Jesus and His resurrection, His last instructions to His disciples, Paul's interpretation of all this, and finally the Revelation of John, all combine to reveal a cosmic drama from which one cannot pick out pieces of his own choosing.

To a physicist, a theory that will cor relate so many facts in so magnificent a manner is irresistible. It was this feature of the Christian gospel, coupled with the knowledge of my wickedness in God's sight and my need for a Redeemer, that convinced me of the truth of the Christian message—only through Jesus Christ are men reconciled to God.

In recalling my decision to trust in the Christian gospel, I am aware that I can be criticized for not having been objective, for having acted without the facts. For the only new fact that had been introduced to explain my belief was an acceptance of the Bible. Nevertheless, it doesn't follow that this procedure is unscientific. The Newtonian theory of gravitation, for example, accounted for all the available experimental data at the time when Einstein introduced the more "elegant" theory of relativity. It was a sense of "fitness" or mathematical "beauty" that drove Einstein to propose an apparently unneeded theory. Later, more careful experiments, which were designed to differentiate between the theories of Newton and Einstein, agreed with Einstein's theory. Similarly, I was convinced of the Bible's description of God and man, primarility because of a strong feeling of its Tightness and fitness, before I had investigated carefully the evidence for its reliability.

Of course, the evidence for the reliability of the Bible must be considered. My own investigations since that time have convinced me that the Biblical records are accurate and trustworthy. For example, the entire New Testament was written during the lifetime of those who knew Jesus. Historical names and places which can be checked—and there are many—agree with accounts of secular writers. As for the Old Testament, thousands of archeological finds corroborate the Biblical documents. It is there fore intellectually reasonable to believe that the Biblical records are accurate.

Nevertheless, we must admit that during our skeptical moments the Christian gospel seems almost too fantastic to believe. Did God, the Creator of the universe, ever really become a Man and die on a cross so that men might be reconciled to Him? The best answer to this doubt is to recall that the Man who lived the most perfect life and taught the most glorious precepts is the Man who has made the claim to be God.

Of course, many other reasons also support belief in the Christian gospel. I would like to present here four reasons which especially appeal to me just be cause I am a scientist. I feel that these reasons actually make it easier for a scientist to believe in the gospel of Christ than for a nonscientist.

Beautiful Explanation. I have already mentioned the first reason which appeals to a scientist: The Christian gospel is a beautiful explanation of a great many facts, ranging from the evil nature of man to the striking order in the universe. The scientific mind is restless about unrelated facts, and even welcomes in complete scientific theories if no better ones can be found. Thus, a scientist is attracted by the extensive, logical, and profound system that represents the Christian view of the world.

Ethical Standard. The second reason why Christianity appeals to a scientist is closely related to the first. The best ethical standard that we know is the Christian standard. Now the humanist says that this is a useful standard, but he doesn't want it encumbered by needless Christian theology. In this respect the humanist is like the engineer who uses the laws of nature discovered by the scientist, but who isn't concerned about the reasoning that led to these laws. Thus it would be perfectly possible that a hundred years from now the atomic theory of matter could have been for gotten, and yet engineers could still build perfectly respectable nuclear reactors, although, of course, the reactors would no longer continue to be improved.

The practical man, therefore, is satisfied with the results of science or theology, whereas the scientist and Christian are more concerned with understanding what lies behind the practical results. And the Christian knows too that his life can't be improved by working only with the practical results, the Christian ethics, but that he must make contact with the source of these ethics, Christ Himself. Therefore, by the very nature of his inquiring mind a scientist is led to look for something beyond humanism, and his search should lead him to Christ.

Strange Character. The third reason that the Christian gospel appeals to a scientist is more negative: It is the strange character of the gospel story it self. The nonscientific man is accustomed to thinking in concrete terms, and does not easily tolerate violations of "common sense." The scientist, on the other hand, has learned to trust in abstract theories far removed from the multitude of experimental facts upon which his theories are based. The curvature of space and the breakdown of the concepts of space and time in the interior of the atom have shown that nature can not be described in a superficial way. Thus when the Christian gospel insists on a seemingly complicated procedure for God to deal with men, the scientist is apt to be more open-minded than the man who is accustomed to thinking in terms of the world that he sees.

Difficult to Reconcile. The fourth reason for a scientist to believe in Christianity is closely related to the preceding reason. Many Bible passages are difficult to reconcile. To give one example, there are many statements about the free will of man and his responsibility to God, as well as many seemingly contradictory statements that emphasize the sovereignty of God and the predestination of man. Both kinds of statements have been written by Paul, even in a single Epistle. Now if Paul were inventing his exposition of the gospel, he wouldn't be expected to contradict himself in the course of a single Epistle unless he were a fool (which is seldom claimed). On the other hand, if these truths were revealed to Paul he would state them as he did.

But how can truth be self-contradictory? In recent years physicists have found that truth as seen in the physical realm can seemingly be contradictory. By applying the usual concepts of space and time to the interior of the atom, physicists found basic contradictions between experimental facts. One experiment showed that an electron was a wave extending over a region of space, while the next experiment showed it to be a particle not extending over any space. Two more contradictory descriptions of an entity would be hard to imagine. Finally, as formulated by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, physicists concluded that there is a limit to the knowledge that can ever be obtained about an electron; the electron can be described equally well as a wave or as a particle, depending on how the experimenter examines it.

The physicist is therefore not surprised to learn that outwardly contradictory situations can exist in God's dealings with men: The free will of man can be a valid description of man's responsibility without limiting the sovereignty of God. And the physicist marvels at the integrity of Paul, who faithfully recorded seemingly irreconcilable truths.

Major Roadblock. One scientific trait, however, makes it difficult for a scientist to become a Christian. This trait is the habit of detachment. In his professional work the scientist is always the ob server, never the participant. In this role he isn't called upon to make any personal commitment, but rather he pro poses tentative explanations for the results of his experiments. Such an attitude is disastrous for one searching for the truth of the Christian gospel. While some light is given to those seeking the truth ("Seek and ye shall find"), the Bible is clear that the unbeliever isn't going to understand very much about the spiritual truth it declares.

For example, speaking of Christians, Paul says, "Now we have received not the spirit of the world but the spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God." And this Holy Spirit of whom Paul speaks is received only when a per son has believed in Christ.

It is therefore necessary for the scientist to go beyond his habit of not committing himself. He must place his trust in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who can save him from the punishment of God that he deserves. When his trust has been placed in Christ, further light will be forthcoming, and increasingly the new believer will find that his trust has not been misplaced.

Becoming a believer is much like be coming a swimmer: Preliminary investigation can take a man only part of the way; eventually he must get into the water. A step has to be taken in faith toward Christ and then the believer finds that his faith has not been misplaced. Peter expressed exactly this situation when he said to Jesus, "We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God."

A man must believe before he can know. As a scientist I found it difficult to believe in this way, but having commit ted myself I can testify that (as always) the Bible is right, and that since believing I have been given new light which has increased my faith in the gospel of Christ.

I strongly urge you, therefore, to weigh the claims of Jesus Christ. This can be done, for example, by reading the Gospel of John, which was written that "you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31, R.S.V.). Reading the Gospel of John led me to turn to Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord. Since turning to Him I have watched with wonder as prayers have been answered (John 14:13), as anxieties have fled away (Phil. 4:6, 7), and as fellowship with other believers has become mine (John 15:12).

For what more could a scientist wish than that the most wonderful theory he could ever imagine be validated so completely in the laboratory of life?

 

Reprinted by permission from HIS, student magazine of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, 1961.

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John Mclntyre is professor of physics at Texas A&M University, and was in charge of research on the linear accelerator at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, when he became a Christian.

May 1979

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