In “Did the biblical concept of God evolve from polytheism?” I reprinted one of the opening statements from my 2013 debate book God or Godless authored with John Loftus. That was so much fun that I decided to add a second instalment. In chapter 14 Loftus’ debate resolution is “The biblical God is ignorant about science”. I’ve included my opening statement below.
The real question here is whether we can credibly believe that God revealed himself through a book that reflects a scientific view of the world that we no longer accept. And to be sure, we don’t accept the ancient Hebrew three-storied view of the universe. The biblical writers held to an obsolete science and the attempts of some conservative Christians to read biblical texts in a way congruent with contemporary science is naïve and harmful. The question is whether that obsolete science discredits the text’s revelatory status.
This question brings us to another: if God should not have used ancient Israelite science when revealing himself to the ancient Israelites then which science should he have used? I’m guessing that John thinks God should have used our science:
“In the beginning 13.7 billion years ago there was a cosmic singularity. After a period the energy cooled sufficiently and God formed subatomic particles…”
Yes, that’s how God should have done it, with Genesis 1 and 2 introducing Big Bang cosmology, Einsteinean relativity, quantum physics, plate tectonics and evolutionary biology. Give those ancient Israelites a real science education.
Alas, there are two glaring problems with this suggestion. The first is that such an account of the world wouldn’t have made any sense to the ancient Israelites. Can you imagine a person who considered a chariot cutting-edge technology trying to get their minds around E=MC2? If God had revealed himself to the ancient Israelites in the science of the twenty-first century, he would have ensured their inability to understand the text.
John might reply that at least we’d understand it. Perhaps, but this immediately leads us into the second problem. If the history of scientific progress to this point is any guide at all, scientific theories will continue to be revised year by year, sometimes to the point where they are replaced altogether. For example, it is only in the last ten years that scientists have stumbled upon dark energy, a mysterious entity which likely composes the bulk of what constitutes the universe. Even more bizarrely, some scientists are now arguing that all matter is really a holographic projection. This claim is linked somehow to the strange fact that black holes appear to record information about the things they consume on their surface like a magnetic strip. I don’t pretend to understand this but I do glean this lesson: while our view of the universe has things less wrong than the ancient Israelites, that hardly means we have things right. And this leads us back to the same problem. If God revealed himself in our science, then in a century people would reject the text for the same reason John rejects it today!
Forget the naïve assumption that God should have revealed himself in the science of our day. Let’s refashion the atheist’s objection to say that he should simply have revealed the way things are, period. For example, as we speak scientists are searching for the Grand Unifying theory which can reconcile the four fundamental forces (the weak and strong nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism) in a single parsimonious explanation. Let’s say that this is the GUT equation: S=WF / GR. So now we ask why God didn’t place S=WF / GR at the beginning of Genesis 1.
Unfortunately that suggestion encounters multiple problems. To begin with, what if we do not discover S=WF / GR for centuries or millennia to come? In that case we are suggesting that God should have privileged people in the distant future while leaving the rest of us in incomprehension. To compound the problem, what if human beings never discover S=WF / GR? What if the calculus behind it is simply too difficult for the human brain to grasp? In that case our demands on the revelatory text would have fated it to permanent irrelevance. Finally, even if some day far in the future a few scientists come to understand the truth of S=WF / GR, does it follow that they would then accept the Bible as revelation? Hardly. No doubt many would dismiss the fact that S=WF / GR appears in the biblical text as a fluke. Indeed, since the ancient Israelites didn’t know what S=WF / GR even meant, the atheist would probably claim that reading the GUT equation into the biblical text is as naïve as we consider reading contemporary cosmology into the biblical text.
Rather than fashion his revelation to meet the demands of the twenty-first century skeptic, God entered into history by accommodating to the limited horizons of the ancient near east while bringing a message of salvation history which would remain relevant for all people and all times.