As a skeptic, I never personally expected the Biblical prophets (or Jesus Himself) to proclaim scientific truths still inaccessible (and unintelligible) to their audiences. As I read the Bible for the first time, its purpose seemed clear enough: Explain the nature of God, outline the fallen condition of man, and describe the overarching plan to reunite God to the rebellious beings originally created in His image. There are good reasons, in the context of the ancient audience described in the Bible, for God to limit any discussion of science. For this reason, I didn’t expect the Bible to be scientifically insightful or prophetic. I did, however, expect the Bible to be scientifically consistent. In other words, I expected the Biblical text to reflect the truth about the world around me, even if it didn’t explain minute scientific details to an audience clearly incapable of understanding such claims. Scientific consistency was far more important to me than scientific revelation.
This was important to me because I observed the scientific inaccuracy of other ancient religious worldviews. As A.A. MacDonell observes in “Vedic Mythology”, the Hindu scriptures (the Vedas and Uparushads) considered “all the objects and phenomena of nature which man is surrounded, (were) animate and divine.” This included the sun, moon, earth, clouds, rain, rivers, seas and even rocks. According to these ancient religious documents, these objects were alive. Writers of the Buddhist canon also ascribed life to non-living objects like the sun, moon, lightning, rainbows, and mountains. The Taoist and Confucian writings of China contained similar claims. The Quran, the scripture of Islam, written 1,500 years after the Hindu scripture, did not (to its credit) contain many of these ancient superstitions. But its observations of the universe were also questionable at many points. The Quran spoke of seven literal heavens, and these heavens were described as material. These heavens were also said to contain lamps or stars whose main purpose was to be “darted at the devils.” In addition to this, Mohammed said “the sun sets in a sea of black mud.” The descriptions and observations of other religious books are also filled with similar mythologies. It is striking, however, that the ancient contemporary of these mythologies, the Bible, is scientifically consistent (if not always scientifically revelatory). Here are just a few examples:
What is the Shape of the Earth?
While the Bible does describe the “four corners of the Earth,” it uses this expression to describe the expanse of directions available (north, south east and west) rather than to claim the Earth is flat. In fact, while other primitive cultures described the Earth to be flat, the Bible consistently described the Earth as spherical:
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there: when He set a compass upon the face of the depth
How is the Earth Seated in the Cosmos?
Primitive cultures saw the flat earth as something like a table top. The earliest of thinkers and writers tried to understand just how this flat earth was held in place related to the cosmos they observed. Most described this support as some sort of man, elephant, turtle or catfish. A number of ideas such as these were proposed, but the Bible made a striking and remarkable claim:
He spreads out the northern [skies] over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.
Is there a Beginning to Time and Matter (a Cosmological Singularity)?
Philosophers throughout the ages have given great thought to the nature of space and matter in our universe. Many ancient Greek thinkers posited matter and form were eternal and without inauguration. Yet the writers of the Bible consistently claimed all space, time and matter had a beginning; a point at which everything came into being at the will of God. The Standard Cosmological Model (accepted today by the majority of physicists and cosmologists) is the “Big Bang” Cosmological Model. This description of the universe is consistent with the teaching of the Bible:
In the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth.
1 Corinthians 2:6-7
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
Is the Universe Something That We Should Fear?
Early religious thinkers were amazed (and often frightened) by what they observed in the skies. Many ancient cultures feared the sun, moon and stars and described them as living beings. The writers of the Bible took a calm approach to the cosmos, consistent with our current understanding of the universe:
…And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens, although the nations are terrified by them
Are There Valleys in the Seas?
Ancient societies had little information about the ocean floor. Until modern times, people actually thought the ocean bottom was sandy, saucer shaped and deepest at those points furthest from the coastline. The Biblical authors, however, correctly described the nature of the ocean floor:
Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses (valleys) of the deep?
The great deep engulfed me, weeds were wrapped around my head. I descended to the roots of the mountains…
Are There Springs and Fountains in the Sea?
The Biblical authors also described “spring” and “fountains” in the sea floor, a feature of the ocean undescribed by many other ancient cultures, but consistent with what we know today (like the springs discovered off the coast of Ecuador in 1977 at an ocean depth of 1.5 miles):
Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky.
I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep
Is There Something Called the Hydrologic Cycle?
Ancient cultures were often so mystified by the weather that they attributed mystical or divine forces to everything they saw. In China, Taoist scripture regarded the rainbow as a deadly rain dragon. In Confucius scripture, the goddess of lightning, Tien Mu, flashed light on her intended victims to enable Lei Kung, the god of thunder to launch his deadly bolts with precision. But the Bible authors described the complete hydrological cycle in a measured and accurate way (in spite of the fact they could not observe the evaporative process necessary to complete the cycle):
He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight
He draws up the drops of water, which distill as rain to the streams; the clouds pour down their moisture and abundant showers fall on mankind
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again
Is There Something Called “Entropy”?
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is a relatively recent observation in the field of science, especially considering the long history of human thinking here on planet Earth. But the Biblical authors wrote in a manner consistent with this law, in spite of the fact their observations of the unchanging night-time sky (and its constellations) should not have revealed this information:
In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.
The Biblical text is scientifically consistent, even if not scientifically exhaustive. Perhaps this is why Christianity continues to endure, in spite of our growing understanding of the universe and the molecular world. We would expect God’s Word to be consistent with the world we observe, even if there might be good reasons God would not reveal every detail to the ancient eyewitnesses.