David Brown's website

Christian faith, reason and science

Christian believers have something of a love-hate relationship with science. Science reveals the wonder and beauty of the natural world: yet science is also seen as ‘making God redundant’, encouraging a purely materialistic view of the universe. The clash has become all the louder in recent years, with the vocal ‘new atheists’ demanding that you make a choice between science and God – and religious fundamentalists making the same demand, insisting that the Bible be taken literally and that for example – to quote the usual flashpoint – the evidence for evolution be rejected out of hand.

It’s also a clash that’s unnecessary and misconceived. Both the atheists and the Biblical literalists are trying to foist a false dichotomy on anyone willing to listen – while more rational voices are attacked from both sides.

But those voices need to be heard, and heard more loudly and confidently: not least in a community with a high regard for the Bible and for commonsense, such as the one with which many of the readers of this article are associated. Both extremes are sadly, fundamentally, wrong - and tragically wrong, because by trying to force people to choose, they drive the scientifically literate away from faith, starting from the earliest school biology lessons where evolution is a foundation principle, or geography where the study of landforms is based on simple geology, including the geological timescale. They bring religion into disrepute and expose Christianity to ridicule (and discredit science too, which upsets me as a scientist – but that’s another story). That alone is reason enough to push back against the literalists – keeping quiet for the sake of peace is a common response, but it ceases to be the right one when we lose much of a generation because we allow faith to be deprived of credibility.

Moreover, the literalists are contradicted by the Bible itself. If their assertions were correct, one would have to conclude that the evidence of the natural world – evidence of the great age of the earth and of long ages of gradual change and development – has a tendency to mislead the believer and should be treated with great caution. But Paul’s words in Romans chapter 1 take a very different line. Paul points his readers to the natural world for evidence of a creator God:

“...what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20, NIV)

- hardly advice he’d have given if studying the natural world would lead to unbelief.

Similarly, Psalm 19 asserts ...

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4, NIV)

The writer of Psalm 111 had a very positive point of view too:

“Great are the works of the LORD; they are pondered by all who delight in them.” (Psalm 111:2, NIV)

Those words represent the right spirit of scientific inquiry, and it’s uncannily apt that verse 2 was written above the entrance to Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, one of the most prestigious physics labs in the world. And as if in compliance with the words of the psalm, Job was challenged with looking at the world around him, a thunderstorm approaching, to perceive the greatness and power of God.

So the tone of Scripture is to see the study of the natural world – science – as something to be encouraged, something that can strengthen respect for and awe of God. The ‘science vs. God’ dichotomy is decisively dismissed.

Taking a cue from the Bible itself therefore, Christians can and should overcome their reluctance to look to science positively, and see whether the insights of science in fact underpin faith and suggest how problems can be resolved. There are good precedents. Many believers in earlier generations found it natural to appreciate more of God through science. Sir Isaac Newton is perhaps the preeminent example, but there are countless others. They included early Christadelphians, who took a close interest in the science of their day: some of it wasn’t very good science, reflecting as it did the thinking of its time, but that’s beside the point. With their desire to take a rational, logically thought-out approach to their faith, they welcomed science and used concepts from it – electricity, for example – to apply to faith and seek to understand God’s work in the world.

Once one has overcome the futile battle between the literalists and the atheists, faith becomes in some instances more plausible, not less. The idea of resurrection, perhaps, gains more credibility for anyone who’s seen a computer backed up and restored. If my laptop malfunctions, and I’m fortunate enough to have the services of a good IT technician, he can remove my hard disc, back up what’s on it, and in due course restore the data, settings, favourite websites and so on to a new computer. Not one atom of the original laptop need be present in the new, but to all intents and purposes it’s the same computer, with the same characteristics (except that it works!) And it doesn’t matter if a long time has elapsed between the demise of the old laptop and the restoration on to the new one. Such an analogy doesn't in any way diminish respect for the power of God - if anything, it's enhanced. We can only speculate as to what sort of ‘information transfer, backup and restore’ mechanism an omnipotent God might have at His disposal: but that He might have one is surely believable.

Let’s turn to physics. Contemporary physics has radically transformed the way we look at space and time. The first idea to think about is that the universe isn’t infinite. That’s not to say that it has an edge – a two-dimensional analogy would be the surface of a sphere, which has a finite area but no ‘end’: the early explorers needn’t have worried about sailing too far and falling off the edge of the world. It’s now well accepted that the universe started some 13.5 billion years ago in the Big Bang - a ‘moment of creation’ which we can scarcely begin to comprehend - and has been expanding ever since, as astronomical evidence shows it to be. Simplistically, we tend to think of the universe expanding ‘into something’, starting from an infinitely dense point, from the Big Bang onwards – but there wasn’t a ‘something’ into which to expand, as space itself came into being at that moment. Moreover, so did time as we understand it – so it probably isn’t possible to speak of ‘before the Big Bang’, because there isn’t, or wasn’t, a ‘before’ to speak of.

Because we’re so governed by the passage of time, it’s hard to imagine a ‘beginning’ of time itself. The physicist and philosopher Paul Davies, who explores the search for the ultimate meaning of life in the light of physics, offers a helpful explanation in his book “The Mind of God”. He explains that in normal life, we think of space and time as quite different – but things aren’t so simple or so intuitive when we reach into the very small, where the effects of quantum physics[1] become significant.

Now it’s a bit difficult to represent this on paper, so Davies takes it down to one dimension of space – a line. The line forms a circle, the one-dimensional analogue of our sphere or, in more dimensions, our finite universe. Imagine a circle that starts off infinitesimally small – a point – at the big bang, and then expands with time. Davies represents this by drawing a cone, with time increasing along the direction of the axis of the cone while its diameter represents space at a particular instant in time.

So far, so good. Now the brain-stretching bit. When we get very near the ‘big bang’, and to very small dimensions – of the order of 10^-35 metres[2] – space and time gradually become indistinguishable and instead of a cone with one time dimension (upwards) and one space dimension (around the circle) we can think of a two-dimensional space near the bottom of the cone. In one model, Davies explains, we can represent this by rounding off the apex of the cone as space and time merge. There’s no longer a specific point, a singularity, in time when the universe begins, a ‘big bang’ as we normally think of it: to quote Davies, “to put it another way, one might say that time emerges gradually from space as the hemisphere curves gradually into the cone.”

How does that help us understand more about God?

If we accept that God is the creator of the universe – we’ll set aside the question of how, whether by evolution or otherwise – and time as we understand it is an aspect of the physical universe, then God is creator of space and time. He is not Himself bounded by time and space – if ours were a one-dimensional universe, it’d be as if He had the whole of our cone within view.

It follows then that for God there isn’t a ‘before’ and ‘after’ – we can think of God as in a ‘timeless present’, with all of our space and time as a present reality. That’s quite a thought. It means that creation isn’t, for God, something that took place a long time ago; more soberingly, it means that the sacrifice of Christ isn’t a one-off event at a point in time for God, even if it seems like that – is like that – for us. God is revealed to us in anthropomorphic terms, as acting in time, waiting patiently as it were, because we couldn’t understand Him any other way (we even refer to God as 'He' with a capital 'H'): but that shouldn’t lead us to think of God simply as an old man with a beard sitting on a golden throne on a cloud somewhere.

What of Jesus? Jesus, the ‘word of God’, the intent and action of God translated into human form? From God’s perspective as it were, the mission and work of Jesus on earth is an ‘is’, not something He did two thousand years ago – and the same is true of his second coming and the Kingdom. And Jesus, when with God, is presumably also part of that timeless present. It’s perhaps misleading to think of Jesus as a man standing by the side of God, wondering from time to time (!) when His Father will send him back to earth. What is to us a moment in time is from God’s perspective a particular point on the equivalent of our cone – permanently ‘now’ before God.

At this stage, several things Jesus said start to make more sense. When in John 8 he said “before Abraham was born, I am” – not –“I was” – he was speaking the truth. Abraham’s lifetime – for a one-dimensional picture, imagine a horizontal stripe round our cone with the width of the stripe representing the duration of Abraham’s life - is as much ‘now’ for God as Jesus’ ministry or His second coming. And when in that amazing chapter, John 17, Jesus said

“And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began..........“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” (John 17:5, 24 NIV)

...we can now see what he meant.

We can go further. If God is not part of this physical universe of space and time, we can perhaps assume Jesus, in the presence of God, isn’t part of it either. And if we’re not thinking of two anthropomorphic beings, perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of Jesus as ‘distinct’ from God either – much less of the spirit of God as something, or someone, distinct from God the Father.

So perhaps the idea of Jesus and the Father being, as it were, part of the same ‘substance’, the same reality outside our space and time, isn’t as mistaken as we sometimes think it to be. This doesn’t mean accepting the un-Biblical concept of Trinity, but it does suggest that thinking of Jesus (excluding his ministry on earth) as a separate personality from God may be misleading too. The Bible describes Jesus as though he is a separate, physical being who intercedes with God to forgive sinners, and the picture is a comforting and accessible one – but perhaps that’s just what it is, a picture, a metaphor, useful to us because God’s reality is so ‘other’ that we couldn’t understand it otherwise.

The insights of physics and cosmology, far from clashing with faith, encourage us to come to terms with the idea that the universe we observe has an ‘origin’ and that if it also has an Originator, He is outside the created universe and therefore outside space and time – equally present at what, viewed from our perspective, is all time and all space. The physics and the cosmology still leave us struggling to find the concepts and the vocabulary to try and describe God, but they also serve the useful purpose of reminding us how strange, how far beyond our full understanding the universe is – let alone its creator. The familiar concepts of three-dimensional space and the constant flow of time serve us well – but at a deeper level, at the quantum or sub-atomic level, those concepts give way to something much less intuitive. A degree of intellectual humility is in order!

In the light of this, it’s no surprise that however we try and describe God, we’re inevitably reduced to metaphors and mental models – that’s the best we can do, bounded as we are by our physical space and time. We know no other framework in which to think. But that should be a warning. No description, no human understanding, of God can really do Him justice. It’s absurd to claim we have an absolute understanding, an absolute truth. None of our mental models, even those shaped and guided by the Bible – as they should be – will be perfect, and our understanding will be a pale reflection of the way God really is. That pale reflection isn’t something to get proud about; it isn’t something to ‘cast in stone’ – and it certainly isn’t a basis for dividing Christians from Christians and flouting the John 17 call for unity. Better to get on with learning from and trying to follow the values and principles of the man from Nazareth; with doing justly, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

David Brown     davidbrown.solihull@gmail.com

The author is grateful to Laurence Kimpton for helpful comments on a draft of this article

[1] Quantum physics describes the behaviour of matter and energy at the atomic or sub-atomic scale, where the ‘normal’ rules of large-scale physics cease to be a good description of how things behave.

[2] One part in 10 to the power 35 – that’s like a hundred-thousandth of a cubic millimetre compared to the volume of the Earth.

Science, time and God

A visual model of the expanding universe (after Paul Davies,
“The Mind of God” (Penguin 1993) p 65-66).
In the lower diagram, there is no well-defined ‘beginning’.