Today I return to a question I introduced but didn’t answer in my January 22 column: What happens when our understanding of God’s creation and our understanding of his Word conflict – or at least appear to conflict?
In a recent issue of Science, a story titled “The Believer” documents the history of Thomas Ferguson, a lawyer-turned-archaeologist who set out to prove the Book of Mormon. It claims that people from Israel sailed to and settled in the Americas around 600 BC. In the 1940s to 60s, Ferguson led expeditions and built an institute of archaeology in Mexico in his quest for historical evidence for this arrival. “The Book of Mormon,” he argued, “is either fake or fact. If fake, the [ancient] cities described in it are non-existent. If fact – as we know it to be – the cities will be there.” By the end of his life, Ferguson had lost his faith, as the ruins he discovered proved to be inconsistent with the Book of Mormon. (Notably, however, his scientific work did open up in amazing ways our understanding of the early mid-America civilizations.)
Christians are not immune to a desire to “prove” the history described in the Bible. Think of the numerous Middle Eastern expeditions to look for evidence of Noah’s ark. However, unlike the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith said was a direct translation of gold plates shown to him by an angel, the Bible is a complex book of God’s special revelation to humans written over a long period involving multiple authors, revisions and genres. It was written and edited under God’s hand by the Spirit’s leading by individuals who lived before and after Christ walked this earth, died, arose and ascended to heaven.
Christians, in good faith, have differing ways of understanding God’s Word. We trust God’s Holy Spirit to help us understand, in a way that is relevant for today, this very special book. Our reformed understanding is that setting up science above God’s revelation as a way to prove the truth of Scripture would be a form of idolatry. We would be putting our trust and faith in the creation to prove what the Creator has told us in his Word.
Some stories in Scripture are open to various interpretations. For example, did the sun actually stand still for Joshua as described in Joshua 10:12-15, or is there another way to understand this military victory? Most Christians would agree that this event is not central to our faith in the Triune God, and our faith does not fall or stand on proving there was extra time on that day. There is a richness in Scripture, which we cannot fully comprehend, that permits any apparent conflict with science to be resolvable by different interpretations of either science or Scripture.
In contrast to such stories is the seminal event and miracle in Scripture: the death and resurrection of our Lord that we celebrate every Easter. From a human point of view, Jesus’ death is not unusual in itself, but his resurrection is remarkable, counter to most understandings of science – and yet, the belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is foundational to orthodox Christian belief. As a reader who enjoys science fiction, I have sometimes wondered if we could build a time machine, go back in time and space to Jerusalem, and witness the events of Good Friday and Easter. This would prove and confirm my faith, as well as giving me a better understanding than is possible from the sometimes confusing descriptions in Scripture. Jesus appeared to his followers, proving to them that he rose, but we need to accept their testimony by faith.
Our Lord says to Thomas his disciple, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet come to believe” (John 20:29). On these three days around which the whole Scriptures revolve, science is unable to speak. Science is silent before the empty grave.
We can only accept the gift of the death and resurrection of God’s Son by believing.