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Does the Bible harmonize with scientific truths about the natural world? Is it accurate when it mentions matters of science? Doesn’t the Bible conflict with established scientific facts, like creation vs. evolution or the age of the earth? Doesn’t the Bible contain scientific impossibilities like a global flood, resurrection, and converting water into wine?
The conflict between science and the Bible has been bitter, especially in the last 150 years. Most reasons for this hostility relate to what one perceives to be the nature and procedure of either domain. For many, the alleged conflict is resolved by separating the two spheres entirely. This is sometimes done by limiting the role of religion or the Bible to matters of faith and science to matters of fact. Specifically, some Christians in science argue that the Bible tells us “Who and Why” (God), and science deals with “How.”
However, this neat separation of the domains of science and the Bible is unsatisfactory since the Bible does not so limit itself to questions of Who and Why. It often makes assertions of fact about the scientific world. Neither does science limit itself merely to questions of How. It also deals with origins (see Origins, Science of).
From a Christian perspective the relation between the Bible and Nature is the relation between two revelations of God, special revelation and general revelation (see Revelation, General and Revelation, Special). The first is found in God’s revelation in Scripture (see Bible, Evidence for) and the latter in his revelation in Nature. Between these two, when properly understood, there are no conflicts, since God is the Author of both, and he cannot contradict himself.
However, since scientific understanding is merely a fallible human understanding of Nature and since Bible scholars have only a fallible interpretation of infallible Scripture, it is understandable that there will be contradictions in these areas. The situation can be diagrammed as follows:
← no conflict→
← some conflict→
Biblical theology involves human understanding of the biblical text. As such, it is subject to misunderstanding and error. Likewise, science is fallible human attempts at understanding the universe. So conflict is inevitable. For example, most scientists believe the universe is billions of years old. Some Bible scholars hold that it is only thousands of years old. Obviously, both cannot be right.
Principles of Reconciliation. Before areas of specific conflicts are noticed, several guidelines are useful to the nature and procedure of both disciplines.
Either Group Is Subject to Error. Informed persons from both sides, both Bible interpreters and scientists, have made mistakes. Many Bible scholars once believed the sun revolved around the earth (as did many scientists); some believed the earth to be square. But they were wrong. Likewise, the model of an eternal cosmos has been discarded in favor of the big bang model. Evolutionary theories about inheriting acquired characteristics have been overthrown (see Evolution, Biological; Evolution, Chemical).
Either Group Is Subject to Correction. Another important principle is that both areas are subject to correction by the other. For example, scientific fact has refuted the flat-earth theory. Hence, any interpretation that takes verses about the “four corners of the earth” as literal depictions of geography are wrong. Science has proven them wrong.
Likewise, scientists who insist that the universe is eternal hold a theory that has been proven false, both by science and in critiques by Christians (see Creation, Views of; Evolution, Cosmic; Big Bang Theory).
Not all conflicts are so easily resolved. Very few things are proven with certainty in science. Some things are only probable or highly probable. For example, that the earth moves around the sun is not absolutely proven. This theory fits the facts as they are known and is a highly probable scientific interpretation of Nature that conflicts with a disputable interpretation of Scripture, then we should assume the latter is wrong. And vice versa. For example, macro-evolution is disputable and the creation of the universe, first life, and new life forms is highly probable. Hence, creation should be accepted as true and macro-evolution rejected (see Evolution).
The Bible Is Not a Science Textbook. One principle that some overzealous Christian apologists sometimes forget is that, while the Bible makes no scientific mistakes (see Bible, Alleged Errors in), neither is it a science textbook. It does not speak in technical scientific terms nor with precision. It uses round numbers. It employs observational, rather than astronomical, language (see Bible, Alleged Errors). The Bible only affirms partial truths in the various areas of science. It does not teach much geometry, any algebra, or trigonometry. One cannot assume conflicts without taking these factors into consideration.
Science Is Constantly Changing. Science understandings change continually. That means an apologist of years ago who succeeded in reconciling the Bible to some view of science might have been absolutely wrong since there wasn’t a real conflict to reconcile. Perfect conformity may be wrong today as well, since science may change tomorrow. Given that science is a tentative and progressive discipline, never reaching a final conclusion on everything, it behooves us not to assume that there are scientific errors in the Bible unless
- something is known for certain to be a scientific fact, and
- it conflicts with an interpretation of Scripture that is beyond all doubt.
For example, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Bible teaches that a theistic God exists (see Theism). Hence, one would have to prove that it was a scientific fact beyond all uncertainty that God did not exist in order to show a real conflict. It is unlikely that real conflicts between science and the Bible will ever be demonstrated. Some apparent conflicts deserve note, along with some probable and even highly probable views of modern science that find an amazing parallel in the Bible. It is to these that we first turn.
Bible and Science Converge. Given that not much scientific information was known in Bible times, the Bible speaks with considerable scientific credibility, an evidence of its supernatural nature.
Origins. Universe had a beginning. The very first verse of the Bible proclaims that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” It was common in ancient views to consider the universe eternal, yet the Bible taught that it had a beginning. This is precisely what most scientists now believe in accepting the Big Bang theory. Agnostic astrophysicist Robert Jastrow wrote that “three lines of evidence—the motions of the galaxies, the laws of thermodynamics, and the life story of the stars—pointed to one conclusion: All indicated that the Universe had a beginning” (God and the Astronomers, 111).
Order of events. Genesis 1 also indicates a progressive creation, universe, followed by formless earth, followed by what happened to give form to the earth. This is a much more scientifically sophisticated conception than held by the common ancient creation story. The Bible affirms that God said in the beginning, “Let there be light. And there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Jastrow wrote of the parallel of this statement with modern science, “the details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commence suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy” (ibid., 14).
No new matter is being created. The Bible declared from the beginning that creation is complete. God rested from his work (Gen. 2:2) and is still at rest (Heb. 4:4f.). In short, no new matter (energy) is coming into existence. This is precisely what the First Law of Thermodynamics declares, namely, that the amount of actual energy in the universe remains constant (see Thermodynamics, Laws of).
Universe is running down. According to the second law of thermodynamics, the universe is running out of useable energy. It is literally growing old. This is precisely what the Psalmist said: “In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded” (Ps. 102:25–27).
Genesis declares that life first appeared in the sea (Gen. 1:21), and only later on land (1:26–27). This accords with the view that multicellular life teamed in the Cambrian waters before it multiplied on land.
Life produces after its kind. In Genesis 1:24 God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” According to agnostic paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, “Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless” (Gould, “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” 13–14). In that fossil record, as in Genesis, human beings were the last to appear.
Humans made from the earth. Unlike ancient myths or the Qur’an, which claims that humans were made from a “clot of congealed blood” (see Sura 23:14), the Bible states that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Further, it adds, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). According to science, the constituent elements of the human body are the same as those found in the earth.
Earth Sciences. Water returns to its source. Scripture affirms that “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again” (Eccles. 1:7; cf. Job 37:16). While the author may not have been aware of the exact process of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, his description is in perfect harmony with these processes.
The earth is round. Isaiah spoke of God who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” (40:22). This is a remarkably accurate description for an eighth-century B.C. prophet (see Isaiah, Deutero). And Solomon had given the same truth in the tenth-century B.C. (Prov. 8:27).
The earth hangs in space. In an era when it was common to believe the sky was a solid dome, the Bible accurately speaks of God spreading out the northern skies over empty space and suspending the earth over nothing (Job 26:7).
The Bible is not only compatible with true scientific findings, but it anticipated many of them. Scientific knowledge is compatible with the truths of Scripture.
Other scientific findings. Many other things discovered by modern science were stated in the Bible hundreds and even thousands of years in advance. These include the fact that: (1) the sea has paths and channels (2 Sam. 22:16; Ps. 8:8; Prov. 8:28); (2) the sea has boundaries (Prov. 8:29); (3) life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11); (4) disease can be spread by physical contact (Lev. 13).
Alleged Conflicts. Genesis 1–2. The most frequently cited example of conflict between science and the Bible is over the doctrine of creation. There is conflict over the origin of the universe (see Origins, Science of); conflict over the origin of first life, and the conflict over human origins. A forceful attack against the Bible from the scientific standpoint is found in the book The Bible, the Qur’an and Science by Muslim author Maurice Bucaille. Some of the following specific examples of alleged conflict are cataloged by Bucaille. A strong Christian response to this work appeared in William Campbell, The Qur’an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science.
Days of Genesis. It is argued by critics that, since the “days” of Genesis are obviously twenty-four hours long, the Bible is in conflict with modern scientific dating which has proven that the origin of the world and life took a much longer period of time. But it has been shown in the article Genesis, Days of, that the Hebrew word for “day” can mean era or eon, and that if “solar days” are in view they need not have been successive twenty-four-hour periods. Also, scientific dating methods are built around two unprovable presuppositions: (1) that the original conditions were pure and uncontaminated and (2) that the rate of change has not fluctuated since the original conditions.
Genesis 1:2. Genesis 1:2 has been called “a masterpiece of inaccuracy from a scientific point of view” (Bucaille, 40). Bucaille cites the fact that Genesis 1:2 mentions water in an early stage of the earth’s history, yet he insists, “to mention the existence of water at this period is however simply pure allegory” (Bucaille, 41).
This is a strange charge, for Bucaille himself admits that “there is every indication that at the initial stage of the formation of the universe a gaseous mass existed” (ibid.). Yet water itself has a gaseous state known as vapor. Further, scientific views change. The theories of today are often discarded tomorrow. So, even if there were some theory today that holds there was no water in the initial states of the universe, it remains highly theoretical. Further, there was water in the early stages of earth’s history, at least in the form of vapor. This is one reason life as we know it is possible on earth, but not on other planets in our solar system. So in his haste to find errors in the Bible Bucaille has made one of his own.
Genesis 1:3–5. About Genesis 1:3–5 Muslim critic Bucaille affirms, “it is illogical, however, to mention the result (light) on the first day, when the cause of this light [the sun] was created three days later” (ibid., 41).
But the sun is not the only source of light in the universe. Further, it is not necessary to understand the text as saying the sun was created on the fourth day. It may have been only made to appear on the fourth day, after the mist of water vapor had cleared away so that its outline became visible. (The Hebrew word for made, asah, occurs about 1200 times in the Old Testament. It has a wide range of meanings, including: did, made, show, appear, reveal, and made to appear.) Before this its light may have been shining through, as on a misty day, without observers on earth being able to see the outline of the sun.
Genesis 1:14–19. Many would agree with Bucaille that “to place the creation of the Sun and Moon after the creation of the Earth is contrary to the most firmly established ideas on the formation of the elements of the Solar System” (Bucaille, 42).
Again, there are two problems. One is to assume that even the most prevailing scientific ideas are to be taken as absolute fact. Indeed, it is strange that Muslims use this argument, since they too point to the mistake of theologians who once assumed that the almost universally prevailing scientific view of a geocentric (earth-centered) universe was a scientific fact. In like manner, prevailing scientific ideas about the origin of the sun and moon could be wrong.
But, as we have seen above in comments on Genesis 1:3–5, it is not necessary to believe that the sun and moon were created on the fourth day. Rather, for whatever reason (perhaps as the original vapor disappeared), their form may have only become visible from the face of the earth on the fourth day.
Genesis 1:19–23. Critical scholars find two things unacceptable in Gen. 1:19–23: “the fact that continents emerged at the period in earth’s history, when it was still covered with water” and “that a highly organized vegetable kingdom with reproduction by seed could have appeared before the existence of the sun” (Bucaille, 42).
The first point is unsubstantiated, and the second one was answered under Genesis 1:3–5. Who finds it acceptable that God created seed-bearing plants early in earth’s history? Nontheistic evolutionists who reject God and his special work of creation might find it difficult. It should not be unacceptable to a Muslim, such as Bucaille, who claims to believe the Qur’an. The Qur’an affirms that God created the world and all that is in it in a few days. The contradiction here is between the Bible and a prevalent scientific hypothesis (see Denton; Johnson; Geisler, chaps. 5–7).
Genesis 1:20–30. Bucaille insists that this passage contains unacceptable assertions that the animal kingdom began with creatures of the sea and winged birds. However, birds did not appear until after reptiles and other land animals (ibid., 42–43).
The Bible does not actually say that God created feathered birds before reptiles. It refers to winged creatures (Gen. 1:21). This is often translated “birds” (i.e., flying animals) but is never rendered “feathered creatures.” And, according to science, winged creatures did exist before feathered birds. Their mention with the “great sea creatures” is an indication that the reference is to winged dinosaurs. Bucaille here assumes an evolutionary scenario. But evolution is an unsubstantiated hypothesis. To offer as scientific proof that “numerous biological characteristics common to both species makes this deduction possible” is to make a fallacious deduction. For common characteristics do not prove common ancestry; it may indicate a common Creator. After all, there is a progressive similarity in automobiles from the first ones to current ones. No one, however, believes that one evolved from another by natural processes.
Finally, some contemporary scientists are questioning the long-held assumption that all winged creatures appeared after reptiles. Some fossils of flying marine animals have been found in earlier strata that were commonly assigned to the origin of reptiles. In any event, there is no contradiction, except between theories of science and some misinterpretations of Genesis.
Genesis 2:1–3. Commenting on the biblical teaching that God created in six days (Gen. 2:1–3), Bucaille contends that “today we are perfectly aware that the formation of the Universe and the Earth took place in stages that lasted for very long periods.” This was shown above to be without grounds in the article Genesis, Days of.
Genesis 2:4–25. Bucaille adopts the outdated view that Genesis 2 contradicts the account given in Genesis 1. The charge here is that Genesis 1 declares that animals were created before humans, while Genesis 2:19 seems to reverse this, saying, “the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field … He brought them to the man to see what he would name them,” implying Adam was created before they were (see Adam, Historicity of; Garden of Eden).
The solution to this problem, however, becomes apparent when we take a closer look at the two texts. The differences appear from the fact that Genesis 1 gives the order of events; Genesis 2 provides more content about them. Genesis 2 does not contradict chapter 1, since it does not affirm exactly when God created the animals. He simply says he brought the animals (which he had previously created) to Adam in order that he might name them. The focus in chapter 2 is on the naming of the animals, not on creating them. Thus, Genesis 2:19, stressing the naming (not the creating) of animals, simply says: “Now the Lord God [who] had [previously] formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field … He brought them to the man to see what he would name them.”
Genesis 1 provides the outline of events, and chapter 2 gives details. Taken together, the two chaps. provide a harmonious and more complete picture of the creation events. The differences, then, can be summarized as follows:
Once this is understood, the two texts are perfectly complementary.
Genesis 2–3. Many Bible critics have charged that there is no scientific evidence that the Garden of Eden ever existed, as the Bible maintains. But besides being an argument from silence which is a form of the fallacy of the argument from ignorance, this is not true. There is ample historical and geographical evidence for the existence of a literal Garden of Eden.
Genesis 4. The problem here is that the Bible says Cain married when there was apparently no one to marry. Cain and Abel were the first children born to Adam: There were no women for Cain to marry. There was only Adam, Eve (Gen. 4:1), and his dead brother Abel (4:8). Yet the Bible says Cain married and had children.
Although this is a favorite of Bible critics, the solution is rather simple. Cain married his sister (or possibly a niece). The Bible says Adam “begot sons and daughters” (Gen. 5:4). In fact, since Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5), he had plenty of time to produce plenty of children. Cain could have married one of his many sisters, or even a niece, if he married after his brothers or sisters had grown daughters.
As to the subsidiary problem of forbidden and genetically dangerous incest (Levit. 18:6) if Cain married his sister, the solution is not difficult either. First of all, there were no genetic imperfections at the beginning of the human race. God created a genetically perfect Adam (Gen. 1:27). Genetic defects resulted from the Fall and only occurred gradually over long periods of time. Further, there was no command in Cain’s day not to marry a close relative. This command (Leviticus 18) came thousands of years later in Moses’ day (ca. 1500 B.C.). Finally, since the human race began with a single pair (Adam and Eve), Cain had no one else to marry except a close female relative (sister or niece).
Genesis 5. The problem of the long lives of people before the flood is obvious: Adam lived 930 years (Gen. 5:5); Methuselah lived 969 years (Gen. 5:27), and the average age of those who lived out their normal life-span was over 900 years old. Yet even the Bible recognizes what scientific fact shows, namely, that most people live only seventy or eighty years before natural death (Ps. 90:10).
It is a fact that people do not live that long today. But this is merely a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. No scientist has shown that it is impossible for someone to live that long. In fact, biologically there is no reason humans could not live hundreds of years. Scientists are more baffled by aging and death than by longevity.
Second, the reference in Psalm 90 is to Moses’ time (1400s B.C.) and later, when longevity had decreased to seventy or eighty years for most, though Moses himself lived 120 years (Deut. 34:7).
Third, some have suggested that these “years” are really only months, which would reduce nine hundred years to the normal life span of eighty years. However, this is implausible. There is no precedent in the Hebrew Old Testament for taking the word year to mean “month.” And Mahalalel had children when he was “only” sixty-five (Gen. 5:15), and Cainan had children when he was seventy (Gen. 5:12); this would mean they were less than six years old—which is not biologically possible.
Fourth, others suggest that these names represent family lines or clans that went on for generations before they died out. However, this does not make sense. For one thing, some of these names (e.g., Adam, Seth, Enoch, Noah) are definitely individuals whose lives are narrated in the text (Gen. 1–9). For another, family lines do not “beget” family lines by different names. Neither do family lines “die,” as each of these individuals did (cf. 5:5, 8, 11). Furthermore, the reference to having “sons and daughters” (5:4) does not fit the clan theory.
Fifth, it seems best to take these as years (though they were lunar years of 12 × 30 = 360 days).
The Bible is not alone in speaking of hundreds of years life spans among ancients. There are also Greek and Egyptian records of humans living hundreds of years.
A related problem noted is that in Genesis (6:3) God decided just before the Flood to limit man’s life span to 120 years. In Genesis 11:10–32, however, the ten descendants of Noah had life spans from 148 to 600 years (Bucaille, 39–40).
Even on the assumption that 6:3 refers to the life span of Noah’s descendants, it does not say that this shortening of life would take place immediately. It may refer only to the eventual life span of the postdiluvians. Indeed, Moses, who wrote these words, lived to exactly 120 years (Deut. 34:7).
Furthermore, there is no need to take it as a reference to the life span of individuals after the flood at all. It likely refers to the length of time humankind then had left before God would send his fatal judgment. This fits better with the immediate context that speaks of how long God would exhort humankind to repent before he sent a flood.
Genesis 5; 11. Critics claim that the Bible makes a scientific error when it dates humankind around 4000 B.C. But the Bible nowhere gives any such total of years. In fact, there are demonstrable gaps in the biblical genealogies. Hence, it is impossible to obtain a total of years from Adam to Abraham. The Bible has accurate outline genealogies in which there are demonstrable gaps (see Genealogies, Open or Closed).
Genesis 6–9. The flood story has been charged with scientific improbabilities, including the fact that there is no geological evidence, and it would be impossible to get all the animal species in the world in such a small boat. But it has been shown (see Flood, Noah’s) that there is evidence for a flood, and that the size of the ark was huge, sufficient to house the kinds of animals that could not survive the flood.
Genesis 30. According to Genesis 30, Jacob seemed to accept the unscientific view of his time that prenatal influence on a mother affects the physical characteristics of the unborn. For he got streaked, speckled, and spotted kids by placing stripped rods before the parent goats while they mated (Gen. 30:37).
While the spotted kids were not born because of Jacob’s scheme with the rods, there is a scientific basis for his results. “[T]o the casual observer they were of solid color, for all the spotted goats had been removed; but their hereditary factors or genes for color were mixed, the condition which the geneticist calls heterozygous.” For “breeding tests have shown that spotting is recessive to solid color in goats, making it possible for a goat to have spots that can be transmitted, although they do not appear to the eye” (ASA, 71).
God blessed Jacob, in spite of his scheme to get his crooked uncle’s livestock. The Lord revealed to Jacob in a dream the real reason the kids were born that way: “Look up and see that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled or spotted, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you” (Gen. 31:12, emphasis added).
Exodus 14. According to this account of the crossing of the Red Sea, the massive group of fleeing Israelites must have had no more than twenty-four hours to cross through the portion of the Red Sea which God had prepared. However, according to the numbers given, there were some 2 million of them (see Num. 1:45–46). But, for a multitude of this size, a twenty-four-hour period is just not enough time to make such a crossing.
It should be noted that, although the passage may give the idea that the time that the nation of Israel had to make the crossing was short, this is not a necessary conclusion. The text states that God brought forth an east wind which drove back the waters “all that night” (Exod. 14:21). Verse 22 seems to indicate that it was the very next morning when the multitude of Israelites began their journey across the sea bed. Verse 24 then states, “Now it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the Lord looked down upon the army of the Egyptians.” Finally, according to verse 26 God told Moses to “stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians.” There is no time reference to this command, however, and it is not necessary to conclude that Israel had completed their crossing that very morning.
A twenty-four-hour crossing is not as impossible as it may seem. The passage never states that the people crossed in single file, or that they crossed over on a section of ground the width of a modern superhighway. In fact, it is much more likely that God prepared a section several miles wide. This would certainly fit the situation, since the camp of Israel on the bank of the Red Sea probably stretched out for three or four miles along the shoreline. When the time came for the people to cross on dry ground, they probably moved as one magnificent throng, moving as a great army advancing upon the enemy lines. The Red Sea stretches some 1450 miles, and averages 180 miles wide. If this great multitude crossed in such a manner as described, to cross a distance of 180 miles in a twenty-four-hour period they would have had to move at about eight miles an hour. This would have been a reasonable pace and sufficient time to cross over the long and narrow body of water.
Leviticus 11. In Leviticus 11:5–6, two animals, the rock hyrax and the rabbit, were designated as unclean by Leviticus because, although they chew the cud, they do not divide the hoof. But, modern science has discovered that these two animals do not chew the cud. Thus, the Bible would appear to be in error at this point.
It is unfair to impose a modern scientific understanding on the ancient phrase “chew the cud.” Rabbits do not chew the cud in the technical sense, they engage in a chewing action called “refection,” which looks the same to an observer. This is known as “observational language,” and we use it all the time, especially when speaking with people who are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of a subject. For example, we use observational language to talk about the sun rising and setting. The description is not technically correct by modern scientific standards, but it is functionally useful for the level of understanding of the pre-scientific common person. The biblical phrase should be taken as a broad, practical observation that includes both the modern technical definition of cud chewing or rumination, as well as other animals, including rabbits, that appear to chew the cud. They are listed with animals that chew the cud so that the common person could make the distinction in everyday observation.
This is a good example of why the Bible has no factual errors, but it is not a scientific textbook in the modern sense. The distinctions being made in Leviticus were practical, not scientific. They were to help people select food. Animals which chew the cud are identified as ruminants from “to ruminate,” which is the action of regurgitating food into the mouth to be chewed again. Ruminants normally have four stomachs. They were normally “clean,” acceptable food for the Israelites. Neither the rock hyrax (translated “rock badger” in the nasb) nor the rabbit are ruminants and technically do not chew the cud. However, both move their jaws in such a manner as to appear to be chewing the cud. Even the Swedish scientist Linnaeus originally classified them as ruminants.
Refection is a process in which indigestible vegetable matter absorbs certain bacteria and is passed as droppings and then eaten again. This process enables the rabbit to better digest it. The process is similar to rumination.
Leviticus 13. Leviticus 13 lists “leprosy” as an infectious disease that can contaminate clothing. However, leprosy is a disease caused by a bacterium and does not affect inanimate objects such as garments.
Bible scholars have observed in response that this is simply a matter of the use of a word changing over time. What in modern times is called leprosy is known as Hansen’s Disease. This is not the same type of infection that is described as “leprosy” in the Old Testament. The bacterial disease now identified as leprosy does not produce the symptoms described in various Old Testament passages. The Hebrew term tsarath, translated “leprosy,” is a more general term for any serious skin disease or sign of infection or defilement on the surface of inanimate objects. The defilement on garments, or walls as in Leviticus 14:33–57, was probably some type of fungus or mold. Garments found to be infected were burned (Lev. 13:52). Infected houses were cleansed. If the infection could not be eradicated, the houses were demolished and the ruins were taken outside the city (Lev. 14:45).
Numbers 5. Here Moses allegedly commanded the practice of a superstition that has no basis in science. The accused wife was found guilty after drinking bitter water only if her stomach swelled. But, both the innocent and guilty wives drank the same bitter water, which shows that there was no chemical or biological basis for one swelling and the other not.
In response, several things are of importance. First, the text does not say that the difference in the guilty woman’s condition had a chemical or physical cause. In fact, it indicates that the cause was spiritual and psychological. “Guilt” is not a physical cause. The reason the belly of a guilty woman might swell can be easily explained by what is known scientifically about psychosomatic (mind over matter) conditions. Many women have experienced “false pregnancies” where their stomach and breasts enlarge without actually having any baby growing in their uterus. Some people have even experienced blindness from psychological causes. Experiments with placebo pills (sugar pills) indicate that many people with terminal illnesses get the same relief from them as from morphine. So, it is a scientific fact that the mind can have a great effect on bodily processes.
The text says the woman was placed under an “oath” before God and under the threat of a “curse” (vs. 21). If she was guilty, the bitter water would have worked like a psychosomatic lie detector. A woman who really believed she would be cursed and knew she was guilty would be affected. But those who knew they were innocent would not.
Finally, the text does not say anyone actually drank the water and experienced an enlarged stomach. It simply says “if” (cf. vss. 14, 28) she does, then this will result. No doubt just the belief that this would happen and that one would be found guilty would have convinced the woman who knew she was guilty not to subject herself to the process.
Joshua 6. Joshua 6 records the conquest and destruction of the city of Jericho. If this account is accurate, it would seem that modern archaeological excavations would have turned up evidence of this monumental event. However, no such evidence from Joshua’s time has been unearthed.
For many years the prevailing view of critical scholars has been that there was no city of Jericho at the time Joshua was supposed to have entered Canaan. Although earlier investigations by the notable British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed the existence of ancient Jericho and its sudden destruction, her findings led her to conclude that the city could have existed no later than ca. 1550 B.C. This date is much too early for Joshua and the children of Israel to have been party to its demise.
However, recent reexamination of these earlier findings, and a closer look at current evidence indicates that not only was there a city that fits the biblical chronology, but that its remains coincide with the biblical account of the destruction of this walled fortress. In a paper published in Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 1990), Bryant G. Wood, visiting professor to the department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, has presented evidence that the biblical report is accurate. His detailed investigation has yielded the following conclusions:
First, the city which once existed on this site was strongly fortified, corresponding to the biblical record in Joshua 2:5, 7, 15; 6:5, 20.
Second, the ruins give evidence that the city was attacked after harvest time in the spring, corresponding to Joshua 2:6; 3:15; 5:10.
Third, the inhabitants did not have the opportunity to flee with their foodstuffs from the invading army, as reported in Joshua 6:1.
Fourth, the siege was short, not allowing the inhabitants to consume the food which was stored in the city, as Joshua 6:15 indicates.
Fifth, the walls were leveled in such a way to provide access into the city for the invaders, as Joshua 6:20 records.
Sixth, the city was not plundered by the invaders, according to God’s instructions in Joshua 6:17–18.
Seventh, the city was burned after the walls had been destroyed, just as Joshua 6:24 says.
Although some dispute that these are from the right time period, there is evidence that they are (see Wood). At any rate, the possibility that this is indeed the remains of Joshua’s Jericho has not been disproved. Hence, no scientific disproof of the biblical story of Jericho has been made. What is more, even if there were no present or remaining evidence does not prove that it did not occur. It is possible that the evidence may have been destroyed or be in another place. The argument that “No evidence exists, therefore, there is none” is tenuous at best. It involves the argument from ignorance fallacy.
Joshua 10. During the battle with the kings of the land, God gave Israel the power to overcome their enemies. As the armies of the people of the land fled from before Israel, Joshua sought the Lord to cause the sun to stand still so that they might have sufficient daylight to complete the destruction of their enemies. But critics insist that there are at least two scientific errors here. First, Joshua is affirming wrongly a geocentric (earth-centered) view of the solar system. Second, even if one accepts that this occurred by the earth halting in its spin on its axis as it moves around the sun, this would only cause greater problems. For example, such slowing would cause things on earth to fly off into space.
This argument is based on the unproven assumption that miracles are not possible (see Miracle; Miracles, Arguments Against). The God who made the sun and the earth can certainly make the sun to shine on it longer in one day if he wishes to do so. Some orthodox scholars (e.g., Robert Dick Wilson of Princeton) held that the Hebrew word dom (trans. “stand still”) can be translated “be silent,” “cease,” or “leave off.” Thus, they take it to mean the sun ceased to pour down its intense heat so the troops were able to do the work of two days in one. This view would involve no slowing down of the earth on its axis. However, it is hard to reconcile with verse 13 which states that “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”
Further, even if the earth did slow down in its rotation, it is not necessary to conclude that the earth’s rotation was completely halted. Verse 13 states that the sun “did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” This could indicate that the earth’s rotation was not completely halted, but that it was retarded to such a degree that the sun did not set for about a whole day. Or, it is possible that God caused the light of the sun to refract through some cosmic “mirror” so that it could be seen a day longer. If the earth’s rotation was completely stopped, we must remember that God is not only capable of halting the rotation of the earth for a whole day, but he is also able to prevent any possible catastrophic effects that might result from the cessation of the earth’s rotation. Although we do not necessarily know how God brought about this miraculous event, this does not mean we cannot know that he did it.
The phrase “the sun stood still” is no more unscientific that the phrases “sun rise” and “sun set” used by scientists (meteorologist) every day as they report the weather. It is simply an observational statement from the vantage point of a person on the face of the earth which is, after all, where we are. In short, there is no scientific proof that Joshua did not get about an extra day of light to finish his battle.
1 Kings 7:23. Some critics have alleged a scientific error in Scripture since according to 1 Kings 7:23, Hiram constructed a “Sea of cast bronze ten cubits from one brim to the other; it was completely round. Its height was five cubits, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.” From this report we learn that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter is three to one. However, this is an inaccurate value of pi which is actually 3.14158, etc.
Apologists have offered two possible solutions to this problem. Harold Lindsell writes that 1 Kings did not error in the use of pi. For if the ten cubits width of the bronze container is measured from outside brim to brim and the circumference is only of the water which is the inside of the container, then pi would be 3.14. In this way the inside measurement of the container would be less than 10, thus accounting for how the circumference of the water (or the inside of the container) would be only 30 and still be 3.14 times the diameter of 9.58 (= 30.0).
There are two difficulties with this view. First, one has to assume a width of the bronze container of 21 cubits, which is not stated in the text. Second, one must assume that the diameter is measured from the outside but the circumference from the outside. But this seems unusual and is not mentioned in the text.
Round Number View. According to this view, it is characteristic of the Bible to speak in round numbers (see Bible, Alleged Errors in), and 3 is the rounded number for 3.14. The biblical record of the various measurements of the different parts of the temple are not necessarily designed to provide precise scientific or mathematical calculations. Scripture simply provides an approximation. The evidence seems to support this view. The rounding of numbers or the reporting of approximate values or measurements was a common practice in ancient times when exact scientific calculations were not used. The Bible uses round numbers elsewhere (cf. Josh. 3:4; cf. 4:13; 2 Chron. 9:25; 13:17). Even 3.14 is not precise. Nor is 3.1415, since pi goes on indefinitely without coming out even. So even “scientific precision” is a relative term with pi. But 3 is relatively correct, since that is what pi is for all practical purposes. And that was sufficient to make a pool by the ancient temple. To get a man on the moon takes more precision. But it is anachronistic to superimpose this kind of mathematical precision on the Bible.
2 Kings 20. In response to Hezekiah’s prayer, God instructed Isaiah to prophesy to Hezekiah that God would add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life (2 Kings 20:11). When he heard this, Hezekiah asked for a sign to confirm God’s promise. The sign was that the shadow would retreat ten degrees. This would involve making the shadow go backwards instead of forward as the sun set. But critics insist that it is not scientifically possible for shadows to retreat. In order to do so, the earth would have to suddenly reverse its spin.
This objection has the same problems as does critics’ complaints about the sun standing still in Joshua’s time. In a theistic (see Theism) universe there is no reason that a miracle like this could not happen. It is credible to believe that some miraculous events have occurred (see Miracles, Arguments Against), including creation out of nothing (see Creation, Views of).
The retreat of Ahaz’s sun dial was undoubtedly a miracle. Things like this do not occur naturally. Indeed, Hezekiah realized that it would not be a miraculous confirmation of God’s promise if the sign involved some phenomenon that could be explained (2 Kings 20:10). It was the miraculous nature of the event that qualified it as a sign from God. Any attempt at an explanation of how this was accomplished would be pure speculation. Although God can employ the forces of nature to accomplish his purposes, he can also accomplish his will in a way that transcends natural law. The Bible does not indicate precisely how God did this, but this is not uncommon for miracles which involve the direct intervention of God. As to whether God miraculously reversed the earth’s spin on its axis or the shadow of the sun (say, by refraction) need not concern us. It is sufficient to note that God can perform miracles, and this was clearly a miracle.
Job 38:7. Many Bible critics believe that the Old Testament errs when it speaks of the firmament as a solid dome. Job speaks of God who “spread out the skies” like “a cast metal mirror” (37:18). Indeed, the Hebrew word for the “firmament” (raqia) which God created (cf. Gen. 1:6) is defined in the Hebrew lexicon as a solid object. But this is in clear conflict with the modern scientific understanding of space as nonsolid and largely empty.
It is true that the origin of the Hebrew word raqia meant a solid object. However, meaning is not determined by origin (etymology), but by usage. Originally, the English word “board” referred to a wooden plank. But when we speak of a board of directors, the word no longer has that meaning. When used of the atmosphere above the earth, “firmament” clearly does not mean something solid (see Newman).
The related word raqa (“beat out, spread out”) is correctly rendered “expanse” by recent translations. Just as metal spreads out when beaten (cf. Exod. 39:3; Isa. 40:19), so the firmament is a thinned out area. The root meaning “spread out” can be used independently of “beat out,” as it is in several passages (cf. Ps. 136:6; Isa. 42:5; 44:24). Isaiah wrote, “So says Jehovah God, he who created the heavens and stretched them out, spreading out the earth and its offspring” (Isa. 42:5 nkjv). This same verb is used of extending curtains or tents in which to dwell, which would make no sense if there was no empty space there in which to live. Isaiah, for example, spoke of the Lord “who sits on the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in” (Isa. 40:22 nkjv).
The Bible speaks of rain falling through the sky (Job 36:27–28). But this makes no sense if the sky is a metal dome. Nowhere does the Bible refer to little holes in a metal dome through which the drops fall. It does speak figuratively of the “windows of heaven” opening for the Flood (Gen. 7:11). But this should probably not be taken any more literally than our idiom, “It is raining cats and dogs.”
The creation account speaks of birds that “fly above the earth across the face of the firmament” (Gen. 1:20). But this would be impossible if the sky was solid. Thus, it is more appropriate to translate raqia by the word “expanse” (as the nasb and niv). And in this sense there is no conflict with the concept of space in modern science.
Even if taken literally, Job’s statement (37:18) does not affirm that the “skies” are a “metal mirror,” but simply that they are as [or like] a mirror. It is a poetic comparison that need not be taken literally, any more does the statement in Proverbs 18:10 that God is a “strong tower.” Further, the point of comparison in Job is not the solidity of the “skies” and a mirror, but their respective durability (strong [chazaq]).
Jonah 1. Many people have difficulty believing that a person could live inside a whale for three days and nights. The problem of breathing, to say nothing of the gastronomical processes would surely have been fatal well before three days.
Again, the event is presented as a miracle (Jonah 1:17; cf. Matt. 12:40). The God who created Jonah and the whale could preserve Jonah’s life in the whale. Second, Jonah and his prophetic ministry are mentioned in the historical book of 2 Kings (14:25). There is archaeological confirmation of a prophet named Jonah whose grave is found in northern Israel, from which Jonah comes. There are even credible stories from modern history of persons who have survived in whales without any special divine intervention.
A strong argument for the historical accuracy of Jonah is that it was attested by Jesus, the Son of God (see Christ, Deity of). In Matthew 12:40, Jesus predicts his own burial and resurrection as a sign to the doubting scribes and Pharisees on the order of the sign of Jonah. Jesus says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” If the tale of Jonah’s experience in the belly of the great fish was fiction, then this provided no prophetic support for Jesus’ claim. As far as Jesus was concerned, the historical fact of his own death, burial, and resurrection was on the same historical ground as Jonah in the belly of the fish. To reject one is to cast doubt on the other (cf. John 3:12).
Jesus went on to mention the significant historical detail. His own death, burial, and resurrection was the supreme sign that verified his claims. When Jonah preached to the unbelieving Gentiles, they repented. But, here was Jesus in the presence of the very people of God, yet they refused to believe. Therefore, those of Nineveh would stand up to give testimony against them at the judgment, because the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah (Matt. 12:41). If the events of the book of Jonah were merely parable or fiction, and not literal history, then the men of Nineveh did not really repent, and any judgment upon the unrepentant Pharisees would be unjust and unfair. Because of the testimony of Jesus, we can be sure that Jonah records literal history.
Conclusion. All attempts to convict the Bible of a scientific error fail. Both Nature and Scripture are revelations of God, and God cannot contradict himself (see God, Nature of; Truth, Nature of). Conflicts that exist are not between Nature and Scripture but between fallible understandings of one or the other of them, or both.
By Norman L. Geisler
- L. Archer, Jr., An Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties
- ASA authors. Modern Science and the Christian Faith
- Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur’an and Science
- Campbell, The Qur’an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science
- L. Geisler, and T. Howe, When Critics Ask
- J. Gould, “Evolution’s Erratic Pace,” Natural History (1972)
- Haley, An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible
- Jastrow, God and the Astronomers
- ———, “A Scientist Caught Between Two Faiths: Interview with Robert Jastrow,” CT (6 August 1982)
- Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible
- Nahn, Selections from Early Greek Philosophy
- Newman, The Biblical Teaching on the Firmament
- Ramm, The Christian View of Science and the Bible
- Ross, Joshua’s Long Day and Other Mysterious Events (video)
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 691–700.