Science and the Bible

Dr. James R. Adair

Origins of the Conflict

Ever since the end of the Middle Ages (which coincides with the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century), some Christians have had problems accepting the teachings of science. The origins of modern scientific thought go back to the Renaissance, when people rediscovered the teachings, art, and thought of the ancient Greeks and, of equal importance, began to see the importance of thinking for themselves, outside the restrictions of external authority structures.

The first major figure whose scientific views conflicted with the official position of the church was Nicolaus Copernicus, who published an anonymous work claiming that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system. (The traditional, earth-centered view was associated with a second-century Egyptian natural philosopher named Ptolemy.) Copernicus died (1543) before his work was widely enough known, or widely enough associated with him, to cause him personal problems. However, his book On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was added to the Index of Forbidden Books maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, and Christians were forbidden to read it.

Galileo Galilei built telescopes and began looking through them at the heavens. He was familiar with the work of Copernicus, and his own studies confirmed the heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the solar system. However, in 1616 he was forbidden from teaching the truth of the Copernican view, though he was allowed to teach it as a hypothesis. In 1632 Galileo published a book called Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (i.e., those of Ptolemy and Copernicus). Although the title of the book made it sound as though the two views would be treated as having equal validity, it is clear that Galileo favored the Copernican view. Galileo was forced by the church to recant his beliefs, and his Dialogue was added to the Index. Galileo himself remained under house arrest until his death eight years later, but he nevertheless maintained his views in private.

Both Copernicus and Galileo considered themselves to be Christians, yet they knew that their beliefs conflicted with the official teachings of the church on matters of science. Almost everyone today, Christian and non-Christian alike, accepts the scientific validity of the theories of Copernicus and Galileo (but see for a contemporary Christian "scientist" who disputes this!). Biblical passages that at one time were interpreted as proving that the earth was stationary (Ps 75:3) or that the sun revolved around the earth (i.e., it rose and set) (Ps 50:1) were reinterpreted by Christians, explaining the language of the Bible as figurative rather than literal. The problem, Christians began to see, was not with science, nor with the Bible, but with improper interpretations of the Bible, for example, forcing it to be literal when it should have been taken figuratively or phenomenologically (i.e., describing events as they appear from a human perspective, like the "rising" of the sun).

Slowly but surely, the Christian acceptance of modern science attracted more and more adherents. Some scientists, like Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal, dabbled in theology as well as science. Most others remained loyal to the church. Even though the church itself failed to remove Copernicus's and Galileo's books from the Index for centuries, the opinion of most Christians, including those in positions of authority within both Catholic and Protestant churches, was that science and the Bible were fully compatible.

A second crisis between science and Christianity arose in the mid-19th century, when Charles Darwin published his book The Origin of Species. In his earlier life Darwin had studied for the ministry, but he became engrossed in the idea of biological evolution after serving as the resident naturalist aboard the Beagle as it sailed around the world, stopping in such places as South America and especially the Galapagos Islands. On this voyage Darwin encountered evidence of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present. For example, he saw fossilized bones of long-extinct animals, and on different Galapagos islands he observed differences among various species of birds that were obviously closely related, yet distinctly adapted to their environments. Darwin also read with interest the work of the geologist Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology), who claimed, based on his scientific studies, that the earth was much older than the 6,000 years calculated by Bishop Ussher based on biblical genealogies and a literal reading of scripture.

Reaction to The Origin of Species was mixed. Most scientists, including devout Christians, had long been convinced from a study of the increasingly large fossil record that evolution was a fact, but they had been unable to explain it satisfactorily. Darwin's proposal of descent with modification as a result of natural selection seemed to fit the evidence better than any other previous theory. Many scientists agreed with the concept of evolution, but they doubted that natural selection was a sufficiently powerful factor to drive species to change over time. Such large-scale changes, they argued, were driven primarily by factors internal to living beings that led to advancement up the evolutionary ladder; natural selection worked only on the margins, leading primarily to evolutionary dead ends. Still other scientists opposed Darwin's theory because it seemed to conflict with two biblical principles: immutability of species and the relatively young age of the earth.

Advances in knowledge in many scientific fields over the next 150 years--genetics, paleontology, molecular biology, subatomic particle physics--have generally confirmed both the age of the earth (put by scientists at about 4.5 billion years) and Darwin's theory. Most Christians worldwide today see Darwin's theory as compatible with both the fossil record and with Christianity. They have modified their interpretations of the Bible to accommodate the theory of evolution. For example, the Roman Catholic Church officially acknowledged in 1950 that the theory of evolution was not in conflict with Christian doctrine (Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis). In 1996 Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said,

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.
Most scientists who identify themselves as Protestants also accept Darwin's theory as foundational to the modern, scientific study of biology. Other Christians continue to oppose the theory itself, some of whom also reject the idea that the earth is billions of years old. We will deal with these two subjects separately.

Ages of the Universe and the Earth

Prior to the rise of the modern sciences of astronomy and geology, most Christians believed that the earth was created about 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. For example, the Venerable Bede dated the creation of the world to 3952 B.C.E., Joseph Scaliger dated it to 3949 B.C.E., and Archbishop Ussher dated it to 4004 B.C.E. (or, to be more exact, 9 a.m., Oct 3, 4004 B.C.E.). These dates were based on tracking genealogical material in the Bible. Other people, who relied on observations of the world around them, believed that the earth was much older. The 18th century Russian naturalist Mikhail Lomonosov thought that the earth was several hundred thousand years old. A contemporary French scientist, Comte du Buffon, estimated the age of the earth at 75,000 years, based on the rate of cooling that he had measured. British naturalists William Smith and John Phillips observed the deposition of fossils in regular strata throughout Britain and estimated the age of the earth at 96 million years. Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology, introduced the principle of uniformitarianism, that is, that the processes that are currently going on in the earth have been going on more or less unabated since the earth's creation. This principle led to even older estimates of the earth's age, with many scientists in Darwin's day accepting an age of as much as 400 million years. The most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth's age is about 4.5 billion years.

While geologists were looking down at the earth, astronomers were looking up at the heavens. Improvements in optics after the time of Galileo made possible stronger and stronger telescopes, and scientists began observing the universe more closely than was possible at an earlier time. Through careful observations and measurements, they were able to determine that the universe was expanding, and measurements of the red-shift in the visible spectrum of stars at the edge of the visible universe eventually led scientists to estimate the age of the universe as between 13 and 15 billion years. Subsequent measurements of other types, for example, based on observations of the relative frequency of radioactive elements with extremely long half-lives, generally support this date.

Modern scientists can point to many examples that demonstrate that the ages of both the earth and the universe are much older than the 6,000 or so years that one would derive from a literal reading of the Bible. These examples include:

  1. red-shift of light from distant galaxies: suggests an age of the universe of between 13 and 15 billion years
  2. radioisotope dating: based on observed ratios between different isotopes of radioactive elements, dates some rocks on earth older than 4.4 billion years (examples: carbon-14, uranium-thorium, potassium-argon)
  3. plate tectonics: the slow movement of plates of the earth's crust floating on the underlying magma require the age of the earth to be at least 1 billion years old (also called continental drift)
  4. optically stimulated luminescence: method of dating materials based on stored ionizing radiation, can date items more than 300,000 years old
  5. thermoluminescence: method of dating materials based on stored nuclear energy, can date items more than 80,000 years old
  6. archaeomagnetism: based on observations of reversals in the earth's magnetic field (evidenced in rocks containing iron), capable of precise age measurements up to 10,000 years, but geomagnetic reversals are observable in rocks dating back more than 100 million years
  7. electronic spin resonance: based on observations of unpaired electrons trapped in crystal lattices, can date items at least tens of thousands of years old
  8. pollen analysis: tracks existence of particular species of plant pollen, which can be preserved for up to 400 million years
  9. ice core dating: samples earth's atmosphere at dates up to 650,000 800,000 (updated May 2008) years ago, for Antarctic samples
  10. linguistic diffusion: recent studies of modern language diffusion suggest a date of at least 10,000 years for the closest possible common ancestor
  11. soil creation by earthworms: suggests an age of several tens of thousands of years for current soil levels, assuming no erosion
  12. erosion rates: erosion rate of Colorado River into the Grand Canyon indicates an age of several million years
  13. molecular clock: genetic technique used to measure distance from common ancestor, indicates common ancestors of related species at tens of thousands of years, to hundreds of millions of years for distantly related species
(For an explanation of several of these topics, see The Record of Time: Chronometric Techniques, Part 1 and Part 2.)


Much Christian opposition to the theory of evolution is based on either a faulty understanding of science or a questionable interpretation of scripture. For example, some Christians oppose the theory of evolution on the grounds that it is just a theory. This comment betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of modern science. Unlike math, which allows theorems to be proven logically, "proof" in science is based on testing hypotheses and, ultimately, creating theories. So-called "laws," like the Law of Gravity or the Laws of Motion, are really just theories that have been supported repeatedly by experiment. In this sense, the theory of evolution may also be called a law, because repeated experiments have confirmed various aspects of it, while also modifying or building on aspects of Darwin's original model. When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859, his was only one of a number of competing hypotheses, and although his ideas gained quick and widespread notice, they were not universally accepted in the scientific community. However, the emergence of the field of genetics in the early 20th century, coupled with Watson and Crick's discovery of the DNA molecule in the 1950s, confirmed Darwin's theory to an amazing degree, so that Darwin's theory is now considered the foundational principle of modern biology.

Christian opposition to evolution based on the idea of a young earth is both a misinterpretation of scripture and a willful rejection of compelling scientific evidence. The young earth view is based on a literal reading of Genesis 1, where God creates the earth in six days. Young-earthers interpret these as six 24-hour days. However, it is perfectly possible to read this material in a figurative or poetic sense, thus allowing creation to occur over a much longer period of time. Various methods of using radioisotopes have been developed over the past few decades, for example, Carbon-14, Uranium-238, Uranium-235, Thorium-232, Potassium-Argon, Rubidium-Strontium, and Argon-Argon dating. All of these dating methods, as well as other scientific data (see above), such as measuring the most distant visible objects in the universe by measuring the Doppler shift in their emission of electromagnetic waves, confirm the ancient age of the earth and the universe. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence, it is clear that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in some way other than literally. If Genesis 1 is read as a literary-theological work whose purpose is to portray the order and beauty of God's creation, all difficulties with a 4.5 billion year old earth and a 14 billion year old universe disappear.

Many Christian opponents of evolution try to poke holes in the theory in one way or another. One of the most common attacks is based on the fossil record, which by its nature is incomplete. Opponents often cite the absence of intermediate forms as evidence against the validity of evolution. Aside from the logical weakness of an argument from silence, the fact of the matter is that with every new discovery, more and more of the fossil record is filled in. To give one illustration of this phenomenon, anti-evolutionists twenty or thirty years ago railed against the possibility of whales evolving from land mammals that returned to the sea, because no fossil evidence of species intermediate between the ancestral land mammal and modern whales had been found. In the last twenty-five years, however, numerous fossil finds have filled in the gaps in the fossil record, and the lineage from Pakicetus through several species to the toothed and baleen whales of today is now well documented. In addition, DNA analysis shows that whales' closest living non-marine relative is the hippopotamus, and scientists now classify whales, hippos, and their kind as a single order: Cetartiodactyla.

In fact, many independent lines of evidence support the theory of evolution, including the following:

  1. vestigial organs & structures: nonfunctional parts of the body that no longer play an active role but nevertheless indicate evolutionary history, such as the human appendix or the hind limbs of whales
  2. morphological similarities: structural similarities between both closely and distantly related organisms
  3. embryology: evidence of ancestry in embryological development, such as gill slits in mammals
  4. genomic similarities: similarities in the chromosomes and DNA of both closely and distantly related organisms
  5. observable evolution of viruses & bacteria: rapid reproduction makes evolution observable (e.g., the variants of the flu or AIDS viruses)
  6. fossil record: provides evidence of both evolutionary relationships among species and relative age (based on strata)
  7. explanatory power of theory: evolution's power of explanation and fulfilled predictions have increased support for the theory over the past 150 years.

Intelligent Design and the Question of God

Much attention is currently being paid to a concept that is called by its proponents the Intelligent Design (ID) Theory. The most basic summary of ID is that biological organisms are so complex that they cannot have developed by chance, so they must have had a designer. Although advocates of teaching ID in the public school avoid saying so, it is clear that for the vast majority of them, that designer is the God of Christianity.

How should a Christian who is committed to both good theology and good science assess ID? First, it must be said that all Christians, both advocates and opponents of ID, believe in an intelligent designer. The question is not whether God is ultimately responsible for the design of the universe but whether ID, as presented by its proponents, offers a necessary or even reasonable alternative to evolution. In my estimation it does not, for the following reasons:

  1. ID is not a scientific theory
  2. ID is not a scientific hypothesis
  3. ID is a philosophically-based critique of evolution
  4. ID imposes limits on God's intelligence and power

First, despite the fact that it is sometimes called Intelligent Design Theory, ID is not a scientific theory, for it has not been through the rigorous process of scientific testing that is required for a hypothesis to become a theory. In fact, since it does not offer testable hypotheses concerning its claims, it is not even a scientific hypothesis. Instead, it is a philosophically-based critique of evolution. Now, there is nothing wrong with critiquing existing scientific theories; advancements in science cannot be made without insightful critiques. However, many of ID's critiques of evolution are simply recycled creationist critiques from the 19th and 20th centuries that have failed to carry any weight with the scientific community in the past. Other critiques, such as pointing out the gaps in current knowledge that certainly exist, are inconsequential without a scientifically testable alternative, which ID does not provide.

Finally, although ID criticizes the classical theory of evolution for eliminating God from the equation, it is not true that the theory of evolution eliminates the possibility of God. Although many scientists do reject the idea of God outright, many others see no contradiction between evolution and the idea of God. The book Bios, Cosmos, Theos, edited by Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, consists of a series of interviews with sixty leading scientists, many of them Nobel laureates, about religion and science, and none the scientists represented in the book finds God incompatible with science. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, discusses the relationship between religion and science in Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution, and he too believes that God and science are compatible. In fact, it can be argued that ID itself imposes limits on God's intelligence and power that the classical theory of evolution (which has no reference to God, positive or negative) does not. ID insists that biological life is so complex that it could not have arisen by ordinary physical processes such as genetic mutation and natural selection. But in saying this, it implicitly limits both God's intelligence and power. Is God not capable of producing a set of natural laws and an initial set of data that would lead to the formation of the universe and the earth as we know it? Is God not capable of designing the atom in such a way that chemical reactions combine with radiation to form larger molecules such as proteins, the building blocks of life? Is God not capable of creating a system of organic and inorganic compounds, physical conditions, and extraterrestrial encounters (e.g., meteor collisions with the earth) that could take advantage of natural selection to produce the family tree of all life on the planet? A God who is incapable of these things might be intelligent, but such a God would be limited. This is not the God that most Christian theology proclaims.

A Thorny Question, the Origin of Human Beings

If Genesis 1 is read theologically rather than literally, many questions concerning both the age of the universe and the origin and development of life are resolved. One question that remains, however, involves the origin of humankind. Direct creation of a single man and woman, as a literal reading of Genesis 1 suggests, appears to be an easy solution, at least on the surface. Indeed, one could argue that God used natural processes to create the rest of the universe but created humans as an act of special creation at a certain point in the not-too-distant past. This solution, however, does not address many pertinent questions raised by science (not to mention the age-old question, where did Cain get his wife?!). Four important questions are:

  1. How does this interpretation of the Bible correspond to the fossil record?
  2. How does this interpretation of the Bible explain the genetic similarity between humans and other organisms?
  3. How does a fairly recent special creation (or a fairly recent worldwide flood) correspond to evidence of modern human occupation of different parts of the world?
  4. How does a fairly recent special creation (or a fairly recent worldwide flood) account for molecular evidence that suggests a "Mitochondrial Eve" who lived about 100,000 years ago?

Since the initial discoveries of ancient, human-like skeletons in the Neander Valley in Germany in the 19th century, paleoanthropologists have uncovered a vast quantity of remains that appear more or less human. Scientists group the more primitive remains into genera called Australopithecus, Paranthropus, Ardipithecus, and Sahelanthropus. More advanced remains are called Homo. Even within Homo scientists find many distinct species, including H. habilis, H. erectus, H. ergaster, H. rudolfensis, H. heidelbergensis, H. antecessor, H. neanderthalensis, H. sapiens (modern humans), and the recently discovered H. floresiensis, a diminutive specimen who survived until as recently as 13,000 years ago on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Modern humans overlapped chronologically with both Flores and Neanderthal individuals. Were all of these species human? Were only some of them, and if so, which ones? An important question to answer first is, what makes us human? From a theological perspective, one could argue that it is the image of God that makes us human. If so, could the image of God have been present in any of the other species listed here? These are questions that Christians must try to answer in the light of the scientific evidence.

In 2003 the Human Genome Project completed its mapping of the complete human genome and published the results. In 2005 a similar mapping of the chimpanzee genome was released. Depending on how one calculates similarities and differences, the two genomes differed by only 1.2% to 2.7%. In other words, human and chimpanzee DNA are between 97.3% and 98.8% the same. Genetic similarity is used as a tool by molecular biologists to construct family trees of related species, a technique known as cladistics. What is the significance of the human-chimpanzee genome similarity from a theological perspective? Questions of origin aside, are there implications for humans' ethical treatment of chimpanzees or other genetically similar creatures?

Most special creation proposals posit a creation sometime within the past 10,000 years, perhaps accompanied by a more recent worldwide flood. However, archaeological evidence suggests that modern humans have inhabited the continent of Australia constantly for between 40,000 and 60,000 years, and the American continents for at least 13,000 years. Furthermore, linguistic diversity suggests that human languages separated from one another at least 10,000 years ago. Can recent special creation proposals account for this data?

Molecular biologists who study the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of humans have compared the mtDNA of thousands of subjects all over the world. Unlike nuclear DNA, mtDNA is transmitted only from mothers to children, without contribution from the father. These scientists' studies strongly suggest that a common female ancestor, nicknamed "Mitochondrial Eve," lived in Africa between 100,000 and 150,000 years ago. Interestingly, "Y-Chromosome Adam," who passed his Y chromosome to all currently living males on the planet, is estimated to have lived between 60,000 and 90,000 years ago. These hypotheses do not claim that Mitochondrial Eve or Y-Chromosome Adam were the first human female or male, but only that all living humans (in the case of "Eve") or all living males (in the case of "Adam") are descended from these individuals. In other words, they are the most recent common ancestors. Can recent special creation proposals account for this data?


Science clearly raises a number of important and interesting questions that students of the Bible and theologians must consider thoughtfully. If Christians want the world to consider their ideas about religion seriously, they must themselves consider the evidence of science seriously. It is detrimental to the Christian cause for Christians to ignore science or, worse, to misrepresent it. It is far better to claim ignorance of a particular scientific topic than to repeat the claims of so-called experts without investigating the issue oneself. In regard to evolution in particular, the following facts are pertinent:

Avoiding these facts, ignoring them, or denying them only hurts the cause of Christianity among people who wonder if Christianity is relevant for today. These are facts that Christians must acknowledge and deal with from a Christian perspective, both for our own intellectual integrity and for the sake of our Christian witness. (For an extensive list of creationist claims and scientific answers, see the Index to Creationist Claims.)

Science is not the enemy of either Christianity or the Bible. As Christians, we have both reason and faith. The two need not be in conflict. The only aspect of the modern theories of origins of the universe and evolution, as they are sometimes portrayed, that is contrary to the Bible is the idea that either must have occurred in a universe without God. Nothing about either cosmology or evolution disproves the idea of God. In fact, one could argue that creating a universe and establishing its laws in such a way that evolution could occur requires a much more powerful and infinitely more intelligent God than one who simply created everything as it is today.

Many Christian scientists embrace both their Christian faith and scientific theories of cosmology and evolution. That is, they accept the factual, testable aspects of these theories, but they also acknowledge a real and tangible role for God in the process.

Many books that extol a positive relationship between science and religion have been written in recent years. In addition to Cosmos, Bios, Theos and Finding Darwin's God, which have already been mentioned, Diarmuid O'Murchu, a priest and social psychologist, discusses the implications of quantum theory on theology in Quantum Theology. Granville C. Henry, in his book Christianity and the Images of Science, looks at several different scientific issues, including evolution, Einstein's theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics from a theological perspective. Philosopher Phil Dowe, in Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking, argues that science and religion are neither antagonistic nor unrelated to one another but are rather complementary. Physicist and theologian Ian Barbour, in When Science Meets Religion and many other books, discusses the interface between science and religion and finds that the two have much to offer one another in the search for ultimate truths. One of the most recent books on the subject is The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, the project that mapped the genes on human chromosomes. Other recent books include:

In conclusion, it is instructive to remember the words of Pope John Paul II, a firm believer in the authority of scripture: "In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences" (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996).

© 2008, James R. Adair, Jr.