We are sometimes told that the modern mind cannot accept the 2,000-year-old Gospel of Jesus Christ. I first heard the Gospel as a practicing physicist, and I find this opinion about the “modern mind” hard to understand. For when I first examined the gospel message I found that it appealed to me in the same way that physics had first appealed to me. In fact, I concluded that my training as a physicist had given me a viewpoint and a manner of thinking that made acceptance of the Gospel particularly easy.
The way I began to study the Bible was through a Bible class in a home. Here, for the first time in my experience, the Bible was examined seriously. I’d been brought up in a church where the Bible was up on the pulpit, but somehow the preacher and the congregation never really got into what it said. The people in the class took it seriously, and I found that they looked at the Bible in the same way that I looked at nature in a laboratory. It was considered to be reliable and important. If something didn’t seem quite right, they didn’t throw the whole thing away. They studied it carefully, compared different parts, crosschecked things, just as the scientist does in the laboratory. The difficulties were taken as a basis on which to learn more. Everyone seemed to believe that problems could lead to new understandings.
Now, this is a very scientific point of view. Professor P. A. M. Dirac, winner of a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum mechanics, makes this clear in commenting on the quantum theory:
Scientists have learned to live with difficulties; we expect them. Thus the difficult things in Scripture were not the problem for me that they are for many people.
As a result of this inductive Bible study, I also saw the Bible message as a whole for the first time. Now it is hard for me to see how anybody can miss it, though I did for many years. The message is simply that back in the beginning (and we don’t know the details at all), man turned away from God. He was made to be in fellowship with God, but he rejected this fellowship. We have the story of the Garden of Eden. We see over the centuries how rejection of God got man into trouble over and over again. But God, who created man in his own image and loves him, determined to do something to restore this fellowship. He did this by coming himself. We say by “sending his Son,” but after all God and the Son are the same. He came himself, though in a sense that we don’t really understand. He didn’t pick somebody else to bear this burden but came himself and took on himself the punishment deserved by man. Because of this we can once more have good relations with God; we can have a new birth. We can be new people, no longer out of fellowship with God, no longer estranged from him.
Then we go on, and at the end of the Bible we have the Tree of Life again; we have God and Satan, the same cast we saw at the beginning, and the drama is completed. Those who are in fellowship with God are united with him forever. It’s a tremendous—let me use the word—“theory.” It encompasses history; it encompasses our own lives, our own thoughts. It explains the tragic history of man—terribly clever, yet somehow never able to prevent things from falling into ruin. Most convincing of all, we see a change in the lives of those who have become new creatures in Christ.
It was the attractiveness of this very comprehensive and beautiful theory, plus the fact that everywhere that I could test it in my own experience it rang true, that led me to become a Christian. There are difficulties. But this theory certainly explained a lot of things. A scientist doesn’t throw away a good theory because of a few difficulties.
I think that at this point it is perfectly understandable for people to demur. They can say, “well, you’re not very objective. You accepted this theory just because it seemed like a nice theory. Isn’t that wishful thinking? Are you going to believe in things simply because they are appealing?”
Let me appeal to scientific advances that are based on precisely this principle, that we want the world to be very nice and pleasant and that it’s right to construct theories that are this way. The first example is Einstein’s theory of general relativity, a theory of gravitation. Physics really began with Newton’s theory of gravitation, by which he could explain the orbits of the earth and planets. His theory was so good that we can use it to predict eclipses to a hundredth of a second. In fact, Newton’s theory was essentially perfect. As far as anybody knew, it explained everything.
Then why did Einstein produce another theory? Because he didn’t like the looks of Newton’s theory; it wasn’t quite symmetrical. One had to put in several assumptions, and these could be removed. Hence Einstein developed a new theory called “general relativity.” Of course, it had to predict everything Newton’s theory did, because Newton’s theory was right. But it also predicted three more things, things that were deviations from Newton’s theory. They were so small nobody had ever found them. But physicists scurried to their telescopes to see whether they could find them and apparently have found all three. Einstein was right; his theory was better. And the basis of the theory was just that it was a beautiful theory. It was what scientists call “elegant.”
My second example concerns the quantum theory. Professor Dirac wrote:
Professor Dirac says that if you have to choose between exact agreement with experimental data and the beauty of a theory, you choose the beauty of the theory. This is the way a scientist looks at nature. And this is how I responded to the Gospel. Here is a theory that is really beautiful; it explains so many things.
Yet what about the evidence? I really believed for the first time when I sat down and read through the Gospel of John one night. I was compelled to believe that this man Jesus was what he said he was. But then I got very concerned about being objective and began to look into the evidence for the reliability of the Bible. I was very pleased, actually, just as Einstein was when they tested his theory, to find out that the Bible is indeed reliable. For example, there are literally hundreds of archaeological discoveries that make contact with Old Testament history, and we’re told that not one discovery has conclusively disagreed with the Bible. This is remarkable, almost unbelievable. A lot of things are still unexplained, of course; we don’t know, for example, just how the world was created by God. But a tremendous amount is verified.
We also find that the New Testament stories of Christ were written within the lifetime of the people who knew him, all within the first century. It would be like historians writing about the First World War between 1940 and 1980. Historically, then, the evidence is very good that what we have in the Bible now is accurate. It is as accurate as a historical record can be. In thinking back about my decision to believe, however, I realize that I really believed before I knew these things. And I think that Einstein also believed in his theory before the tests were made.
Another aspect of the Christian message that appeals to the scientist is that both the physical world and the Christian Gospel have certain peculiar characteristics. We find when we study the atom that we get down to a little particle called the “electron.” I said “little particle,” but it turns out that this “little particle” isn’t always a particle. Sometimes it is like a wave. A particle is something that is right here, exactly, and a wave is something that is everywhere. Two things could not be more different from each other; yet both these descriptions fit electrons. The electron is sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave. It depends on how one looks at it. When it zips through a geiger counter and the geiger counter goes blip, there goes a particle through the counter. But sometimes the electron diffracts around things and spreads all over, then it looks like a wave.
There is nothing mysterious about all this; it’s just part of nature. But it is very complicated, and when we try to speak of something as small as the electron in terms of particles and waves that we see all around us, we find out that these limited concepts of ours just aren’t adequate. Actually the electron is different from either a particle or a wave; but we must use human language and haven’t lived inside an atom, and so are limited in our description of what happens.
PREPARING THE CROSS
Long ago when the earth was bare
He fed the soil.
And with His breath
Blew Life into a tree.
Then He hid the crooked wood
Beneath a cloak of leaves
And the thorns
Beneath the rose.
And He made
and the priest.
And gave to them
And a lamb.
And then He waited …
DANIEL J. CALLAGHAN
The physicist isn’t terribly surprised, then, when he runs into paradoxes in the Bible. For example, predestination and free will could not be more different from each other. In predestination everything is determined, while with free will man can choose to do what he wishes. What really brings the problem to a head is that Paul writes about both. In fact, he writes about predestination in the ninth chapter of Romans and free will in the tenth. There they are, and unless Paul is a fool we have to recognize the force of both positions. To me, this is one of the best signs that Scripture is a revelation. A man writing from his own knowledge just would not clearly contradict himself; Paul obviously was writing down things he didn’t completely understand. Certainly, no theologians since then have really understood these things.
This comparison between science and theology can be made even more precise. When we look at things from God’s point of view, we find the sovereignty of God and predestination. What he says is going to be done is done. When we get around on the other side and look from man’s point of view, we see that we have free will. It’s very much like the matter of the electron: what the object looks like depends on the experiment one does. Thus, there is something in the Christian Gospel that is very similar to what we find in nature, and as a scientist I find this reassuring. The Gospel may be very complicated and not readily understandable, but it shows signs of having the same Maker that nature has.
There is one point, however, at which I think the scientist is at a disadvantage in responding to the Christian message. One has to believe the Gospel. He can’t just say, “Yes, that looks very nice. I’ll write a book about it. I’ll discuss some reasons why a scientist is attracted to the Christian Gospel.” That is the natural response of a scientist: to set up his experiment on Christianity, get back, keep hands off, and see what happens. But he does not become a Christian by doing that. He has to take a step forward and say, “Yes, I believe it; I’m going to commit my life to it.”
The Gospel does promise that if we believe, then we will begin to accumulate evidence. Let me quote Peter here. When everybody was turning away from Jesus, he said to his disciples, “Are you all going to leave me now?” Peter answered, “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” The disciples believed first, and then they were convinced. It’s a bit like learning how to swim. One may be pretty sure he can do it, but in order to know he has to jump in. In responding to the Gospel one has to say, “All right, it’s very convincing; I’m going to commit my life to this.” Then, when he opens the Bible, he begins to understand things he didn’t understand before. He can begin to pray in a different way. Events fall into place, and his assurance grows.
It was about ten years ago that I made this decision for myself, and I have never had reason to regret it. Since then I’ve learned more and more about the Gospel and therefore about myself, other people, and the purpose of life. The promises of God have been kept in my own experience; I’ve seen prayers answered, have had warm fellowship with other Christians, have experienced “the peace that passeth understanding.” What more could a scientist want than to have the most beautiful theory he can imagine validated so completely in the laboratory of life?
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
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