Friday, June 21, 2019

Scientific Errors in the Bible?

I’ve recently had an interesting conversation with a young Muslim man in Afghanistan. It went in a number of directions, but started with a simple question. He asked,

Why does the Bible have scientific errors?

That’s a fairly broad question and not something I could totally cover in a short space, but fortunately, he offered an example he was curious about. A Muslim scholar and debater named Dr. Zakir Naik has on some occasions accused the Bible of incorrectly describing the moon. According to him, a verse in the Bible says,

God created the sun and gave it its own light to rule the day and created the moon and gave it its own light to rule the night.

Through contemporary science, we know that this is not the case. The moon does not have its own light, in the sense of producing it as a light source. Instead, it reflects the light of the sun. So with that being so, is the Bible not in error in its description?

Accurate Understanding

Before we get into this discussion, I have to point out that Naik’s statement was presented to me as a quote. My questioner literally introduced it with the phrase, “and I quote.” I’ll take their word for it that this is a direct citation, but that presents the first issue in responding to it. That sentence nowhere appears in the Bible.

Two verses have a similar sentiment, at least. The first, and the one I assume Naik had in mind, is Genesis 1:16, which says,

God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night—as well as the stars.

The other possibility is 1 Cor. 15:41, where the Apostle Paul writes,

There is a splendor of the sun, another of the moon, and another of the stars; in fact, one star differs from another star in splendor.

Again, the former reference is more likely the source of Naik’s quote. Compare them with each other and you will note the similarities. But far more important are the differences. The actual Bible does not say anything about the moon having “its own light.” Nor is that a valid reading from the original Hebrew. So it seems as though confusion has risen from the fact that the Bible has been added to incorrectly (note also that the Genesis passage does not use the words “sun” and “moon,” which is less to the point but does illustrate the unfounded additions).

How big of a difference is it, though? Some might say it is not much of one. The moon is still called a “light” in Genesis. I have to say, however, that the distinction is a vital one. There is nothing in the biblical text to suggest the moon produces the light that it emits. It does, however, emit light. So the Bible’s description, rather than being erroneous, is accurate. The moon is a light, in that it gives light. Nothing is said about it being its own light.

Furthermore, there is no need to force modern categories onto the ancient text. The point this verse is making is that the sun and the moon are different and serve different functions of illumination. This can be illustrated with an experiment. Tonight, as long as it is not cloudy, go outside and stare at the moon to see what you can discern on its face. Then, the following morning, stare at the sun to see what you can make out on it. The difference between the light of the moon and the light of the sun should be quite evident then! (Disclaimer: do not actually stare at the sun. That would be foolish, and you get my point).

Everyone knows that the moon reflects the light of the sun. We have known that for a long time, since that is why it has phases. Earth’s shadow “turns down” the moon because it blocks the sun. It is common sense. But so is the fact that the moon illuminates the earth in a way that the sun and the stars and planets do not. The Bible points out this fact and says that God made it so on purpose. He could have created the earth without the moon, but He put our satellite there so it can give us a way to see in the dark. It is a sign of His care and forethought.

Christian Framework

This is a fairly easy charge of scientific error to counter, but it is still an opportunity to explain what we have to do in the case of harder questions. Certainly, there are places where modern science and the Bible are not in agreement. Aside from specific examples, there is the broad question of whether it is necessary to have a supernatural origin for the universe. Technically, science cannot answer that question. It is restricted to the observable by definition. But science is often used to argue that we only need to find answers in the observable, so it is certainly a point of tension. And at such points, as a Christian, I must place the word of God ahead of human descriptions.

That does not mean I am always going to be able to harmonize the differences. I am not a scientist. I am, for better or worse, a theologian. As a result, my definitions are theological. All the evidence we have points to the fact that Jesus was executed by being nailed to a cross for an unfounded charge of blasphemy and insurrection. The evidence also says that, three days after His death, He came to life again. This was all according to predictions He had made beforehand. As a result, every claim and teaching He made during His ministry was validated.

Among these were numerous claims that the Scriptures were accurate in their descriptions of nature and of history. He validated it as God’s truth. That gives it primacy of place in evaluating other claims. That does not mean we are forbidden to attempt to understand the Bible on modern terms. But it does mean that if there is ever an irreconcilable difference between the Bible and science, then I must assume the error is in the finite understanding of the latter. It all depends upon Jesus. That might be a strange notion to those who are not ready to admit what He has done, but at the very least, it is consistent. His resurrection is the lens through which everything must be viewed, if we are to see it accurately. And that is why I do not have to fear scientific inaccuracies in the Bible. Understood correctly, there are none to find.

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