If we had perfect knowledge, our science and our theology would never be in conflict because the same God who reveals Himself through Scripture has also revealed Himself through creation, and God is not in conflict with Himself. Thus, when we see conflict between our best theology and our best science, this is merely an indication of our lack of complete understanding. As one well-known Christian geologist states,
Because Scripture and the created universe are both God-given, they cannot be in conflict. They form one comprehensive, unified, coherent whole that is an expression of the character and will of our Creator and Redeemer, who is the author of both. Nature and Scripture form a unity, because God himself is One.… The Bible and nature sometimes seem to be unrelated to one another, in competition with one another or even in conflict with one another. Such disjunctions, however, lie not between the Bible and the created order, but rather between human understanding of the Bible and human understanding of nature. It is human interpretations of God-given data that lead into discrepancy, conflict and disagreement.1
We hope to have a greater understanding and to have some (though perhaps not all) of our questions answered at the second coming of Christ. But, until then, how should we live with unanswered questions?
1. Recognize that every discipline has its own unanswered questions.
In theology, Christians struggled for hundreds of years to understand exactly who Jesus is. It was clear that Jesus was a human being who got hungry and suffered pain, as do all humans. It was also clear that Jesus was divine, and accepted the worship of those He healed. But how could Jesus be both human and divine at the same time?
This is a great mystery. Although the Christian church was able to define this mystery with the statement by the Council of Nicaea that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, it did not explain how one person could be both divine and human simultaneously.
Science also has its unanswered questions. For example, what is light? For centuries, physicists struggled to understand the character of light. Some experiments indicated that light is made up of discrete particles, while other experiments showed that light is spread out in waves. It was not until the development of quantum mechanics in the twentieth century that scientists understood light to be a quantum mechanical “wave-packet” that can exhibit wavelike or particlelike features, depending upon what experiment is selected. However, this only defines the mystery, and does not completely answer the question, because it is not clear exactly what quantum mechanics tells us about the nature of reality.
Most scientists and engineers are willing to accept the results of quantum mechanics without thinking too much about the philosophical questions of what light really is. Quantum mechanics explains the results of our experiments extremely well, and has been successfully used for the development of many important technological devices, such as the laser, the transistor, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and perhaps high-speed quantum computers in the future. However, this still leaves unanswered the question of what real existence light has prior to being measured in an experiment. The answer to that question is unimportant for the development of technology, but leaves a big mystery for any attempt to describe the reality of light. For this reason, the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics has been characterized as the “shut up and calculate” interpretation, meaning, do not worry about the philosophical ramifications of quantum mechanics, just use it.
Both theology and science have unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions, mysteries that we can barely comprehend. But these are mysteries worth struggling with and trying to understand, because they point to some of the most important and fundamental truths about God and reality.
Given that each discipline itself has unanswered questions at its core, we should not be at all surprised to find that attempts to reconcile science and theology would lead to additional unanswered questions. This does not mean that science and theology are at war, and that one side must win and the other lose. Rather, this is another indication that God and reality are greater than we can comprehend. We need to recognize that these “conflicts” may point to important underlying truths. Resolution may not come easily, and these conflicts may not be completely resolvable in this life, but it is worth the attempt to better understand both God and His creation.
2. Investigate the ramifications for each discipline when accepting the “truths” of he other discipline.
It is important to ask what the ramifications would be to our theology from accepting current scientific theories. Theologians, after the time of Galileo, found that no fundamental theological principles were violated by accepting that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the earth. Biblical statements that appeared to be in conflict with a moving earth (such as Joshua’s command that the sun stand still) were reinterpreted without damaging either the important points being made in the text or the underlying theology.
In cases like this, a clear understanding of Scripture can resolve conflicts. In other cases, the prevailing scientific theory may be found to be incompatible with Scripture. But in either case, the examination process will help reaffirm the most important theological points. This does not mean that all scientific theories must be accepted by theologians, or that science should trump theology. But in some cases, conflict can be avoided by recognizing that an apparent conflict need not exist.
Likewise, it is important for Christians who are scientists to investigate the ramifications of Christian beliefs for science. Some of the best science comes from individuals willing to think “outside the box,” and investigate nonconventional hypotheses and theories. The greatest accomplishment of nineteenth century physics was James Clerk Maxwell’s development of electro-magnetic field theory. Maxwell, a devout Christian, credited his understanding of the dynamic relationship of the triune God as an “analogical truth” that helped him develop his dynamic electromagnetic field theory. “It was not that Clerk Maxwell imported theological conceptions as such into his science, but that it was the slant of his deeply Christian mind informed by faith that exercised a guiding role in the choice and formation of his leading scientific concepts.”2
3. Keep the discussion going.
In both theology and science, some of the most important truths arise out of conflict and contradiction. The proponents of Christ’s humanity and His divinity both had to be heard. We would never have developed a complete picture of the nature of Christ if one side had been allowed to defeat and silence the other. Likewise, we would never have developed quantum mechanics if the scientists who believed that light was made up of discrete particles had been allowed to defeat and silence the scientists who believed that light was made up of waves, or vice versa. Even though, in some cases, we may not see how our understandings of science and theology relate to each other, we cannot afford to silence either voice.
Recognizing the need for science and theology to talk with each other, Albert Einstein said: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”3 That is, science must ultimately look outside itself to religion for a sense of meaning, and religion ultimately includes all reality (not just the spiritual) and thus should not ignore the physical world.
This relationship has been embraced by the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne:
People who are seeking to serve the God of truth should welcome all truth from whatever source it may come, without fear or reserve. Included in this open embrace must certainly be the truths of science. In the case of the scientists, the same insight implies that if they want to pursue the search for understanding through and through—a quest that it is most natural for them to embark upon—they will have to be prepared to go beyond the limits of science itself in the search for the widest and deepest context of intelligibility. I think that this further quest, if openly pursued, will take the enquirer in the direction of religious belief.4
4. Recognize what is most important.
Although we would like to have all of our questions answered, Jesus made it clear that He came to heal and to save, and that this is more important than answering our questions. When His disciples met a man blind from birth, they asked Jesus why he was born blind, whether it was because of his own or his parents’ sin.5 Jesus’ response was to tell them that the man’s blindness was not due to either. But He did not provide an answer to the underlying assumption that adversities such as this man’s blindness were a judgment from God because of sin. Rather, He simply stated that God’s glory would be manifested through the man’s blindness, and then healed the man. Solving the problem was far more important to Jesus than providing an explanation as to why the problem existed in the first place. As the theologian Thomas Tracy states,
The good news proclaimed in the New Testament is that God has acted to liberate and redeem, not that God has offered us a satisfactory accounting of why things are as they are.… We long for both liberation and comprehension, though neither is within our own power, and it is no surprise that the promise of God’s unfailing love is a matter of more urgent concern than the prospect of a fuller explanation.6
As the gospel writers proceed to recount the sufferings and death of Jesus, no explanation is given as to why sin, suffering, and death exists, but only that through Jesus’ suffering and death, we might be saved. Ellen White wrote,
It is impossible to explain the origin of sin so as to give a reason for its existence.… Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it, is to defend it. Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.7
Thus, although we would like to discover the answers as to why the world is the way it is, ultimately the gospel message is that the world needs redemption, and there is a better world waiting for us. Salvation is more important than explanation.
Frank Hasel makes the point: “In science as well as in theology, humility is one of the rarest, yet most important, characteristics and presuppositions of those engaged in the study of both.”8 Science provides powerful tools to understand the intricate details of God’s creation. However, as scientists push the edges of their discipline to search for a more complete picture of the universe, they come to realize their limitations, recognizing that even their explanations reveal an underlying reality that remains inexplicable. Thus, the true scientists are constrained by their discipline to be humble.
Theologians are similarly constrained by their discipline. The Bible provides a reliable and trustworthy account of how God has interacted with mankind throughout history and provides all that is needed for salvation. But that does not mean all questions regarding the nature of God are answered. There is always something more for the theologian to learn about God.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa. 55:8, 9, ESV).
The theologian’s striving for a complete picture of the transcendent God also requires humility.
We see enough to have certain knowledge regarding what God has revealed about Himself and His creation. However, the picture is still but a shadow of the reality. We look forward to the time when we will see clearly a more complete picture and join our disciplinary perspectives, for to learn about God’s creation is also to learn about God.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor. 13:12, KJV).
1. Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks, and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 483, 484.
2. Thomas F. Torrance, Theological and Natural Science (Wipf and Stock, 2002), 15.
3. Albert Einstein, “Science and Religion”; in Ideas and Opinions, 3rd ed. (Three Rivers Press, 1995), 46.
4. John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (Yale University Press, 2007), 109, 110.
5. See John 9.
6. Thomas F. Tracy, Lawfulness of Nature, in Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil, vol. 1 (Vatican Observatory Publications, 2007), 155.
7. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Pacific Press, 1950), 492, 493.
8. Frank M. Hasel, “How to Deal With Open Questions: Facing the Challenges Between Faith and Science,” Ministry, vol. 79, no. 7 (July 2007), 21–23.