Has Scripture ever preceded science’s knowledge of reality?
“Over the years, I’ve repeatedly challenged people to give me a single verified fact about reality that came from scripture or revelation alone and then was confirmed only later by science or empirical observation. …I’ve never had a credible response.”[i]
- Jerry Coyne
Jerry Coyne, a retired University of Chicago biology professor, has issued a challenge. As a scientist and an atheist, he believes the only way to gain reliable knowledge of our universe is through the methods of science.[ii] To him, religion is incapable of doing so.[iii] Thus, his challenge – show me any verified fact about reality in scripture that preceded science’s knowledge of it.
First, it’s important to know that Coyne’s definition of reality is a narrow one – what can be known about the physical universe and confirmed by the methods of science. So, if you can’t observe it or test it, Coyne seems to ignore it.[iv]
It's also surprising that Coyne hasn’t heard a credible response to his challenge, because it’s not at all difficult – there are so many topics from which to choose.
What has scripture revealed before science?
There are many things about the physical universe that were revealed in scripture (the Bible) before scientists were able to confirm them. Here are just a few.
A beginning – The first book of the Bible, Genesis, conveys that the physical universe had a beginning.[v] This idea was strongly opposed by leading scientists in the 1800s and early 1900s.[vi] They saw the universe as eternal and infinite – it couldn’t have had a beginning.[vii] However, the discoveries of Edwin Hubble in the 1920s, Penzias and Wilson in the 1960s, and others since have altered scientific consensus. There was a beginning. They now call it the big bang.
The standard model of particle physics states that there was a beginning. And, yes, the Bible conveyed this before scientists were able to infer it from evidence.[viii]
The physical came from the nonphysical – The Bible conveys that everything – matter, energy, space, time, and laws – was created from nothing.[ix] In other words, the physical came from the nonphysical.
Even atheist scientists – like Lawrence Krauss[x] and Peter Atkins[xi] – acknowledge that current evidence suggests the physical universe began from “nothing.”
The Earth was covered by water – Genesis also conveys that the primordial Earth was covered entirely by water.[xii] Recent scientific discoveries suggest this was the case.[xiii] In addition, one study suggests that earth’s water could be older than our fully-formed sun. And, that is what Genesis also conveys.[xiv]
Phases of creation – Genesis describes (at a high-level) the phases of the formation of the universe, earth, and life. It calls these phases “days.” Some believe these to be six literal days (though in days 1 through 3 there was no discrete sun by which to measure time) while others see them as undefined periods of time.[xv]
In either case, a chronology is described in the Bible: matter (an unformed earth), water, light, earth’s atmosphere, oceans and dry land, plants, a fully-formed sun and moon, birds and fish, land animals, and then people. Everything didn’t appear at the same time.
Modern scientific consensus is that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, the earth and sun formed about 4 billion years ago, dry-land appeared about 2½ to 3 billion years ago,[xvi] plankton (small sea organisms) appeared possibly 800 million years ago[xvii] an explosion of animal-life appeared rapidly about 500 million years ago[xviii] and modern man is about 150,000 to 200,000 years old.[xix] Dates are being fine-tuned but it’s noteworthy that the basic phases found in the Bible are similar.
People are composed of dust – The idea that people are made from the same elements as the Earth doesn’t sound very flattering. Yet that’s what Genesis conveys[xx] and what science has since confirmed.
We are composed of about twenty-seven elements. Nineteen of them are known to be essential to life and another seven might be.[xxi] By weight, we are 98.7% oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus.[xxii] But, even tiny amounts of trace elements like zinc are crucial to human life. Scientists have only learned this in the past few hundred years.
The Earth is a circle – The Bible states that Earth is a circle.[xxiii] It does not call it flat.[xxiv] Science has confirmed this – it is a sphere.
An expanding universe – The Bible says God stretched out the heavens.[xxv] That the universe has expanded and is still expanding was discovered by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s. Did the Bible just use a lucky metaphor? If it did, was it equally lucky in saying the universe will someday end with the heavens being rolled up like a scroll?
The elements will melt – Great scientists of the early 1900s believed the universe would have no end. Isaiah, an 8th century BC Jewish prophet said the stars will one day dissolve and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll.[xxvi] And, the Apostle Peter, an uneducated 1st century fisherman said:
“The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. …That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.”[xxvii]
This was 2,000 years before scientists realized that under intense heat, atoms “melt” into a plasma.
What are points of disagreement?
Are there still points where scientific investigation and the Bible do not yet fully converge? Yes. However, the convergence that has occurred in the last 200 years has been significant.[xxviii] Perhaps the biggest remaining divergence is related to the origin of man.
Common ancestry – The Bible says mankind shares common ancestry – everyone on earth descended from the same man and woman. This is where the Bible and scientific knowledge only partially agree.
Genetic studies do suggest that every human on earth descended from the same woman and the same man. Various studies suggest the common man was 59,000 years ago and the common woman was 143,000 years ago.[xxix] And, other studies suggest that modern people may possess small amounts of DNA from other ancient humans. Genetic studies are new and just one avenue of research. However, it’s clear that a lot more research is needed.
Biologists – whether theists or atheists – hold a wide range of opinions on human origins. Who is correct? Let’s hold this subject for a future blog.
What are we to make of this?
The Bible is not a science book. It doesn’t claim to be. It is often focused more on what God did than how He did it. However, some of its claims do have scientific implications. And, now, many of these claims are being evaluated and confirmed with the tools of science.
Physics, astronomy, geology, chemistry, and biology are confirming many statements in the Bible – made thousands of years ago. Are there still points of divergence? Yes. However, if the Bible was just a collection of myths, would the divergences not be increasing rather than decreasing?
Jerry Coyne is a highly credentialed biologist. However, he is incorrect in saying that knowledge about the universe found in scripture has never preceded science’s confirmation of it. It very often has.
About Jerry Coyne
Jerry Coyne earned a PhD in biology at Harvard University. He was a professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago for twenty-four years and retired in 2015. His worldview includes atheism and determinism. In retirement, he continues to be an active advocate of Darwinian Evolution and an opponent of Intelligent Design.
Copyright 2023 Patrick Prill
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[i] Jerry Coyne, Faith vs. Fact – Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016), 91. [ii] IBID, xii. [iii] IBID, xii, xvi. [iv] IBID, 29. Coyne states that truth is “what exists in reality and can be verified by rational and independent observers.” Yet his own independence is brought into question when he states “the progress of science has required shedding all vestiges of religion, whether those be the beliefs themselves or religious methods for finding ‘truth’.” Other scientists would not agree that atheism is required for the progress of science. page 257. [v] Genesis 1:1 [vi] Julius Robert Mayer, a father of modern thermodynamics, proposed the idea of the big bang in the early 1800s. He called it the Ursache – “the cause.” However, his paper was rejected by Annalen der Physik und Chemie. Michael Guillen, Five Equations (New York, NY: Hyperion, 1995), 190-191. [vii] Ludwig Büchner and Ernst Haeckel maintained that the law conservation of matter and energy was evidence that the universe was eternal and infinite. Büchner further maintained that matter is full of life. See: Riddle of the Universe (1900) and Force and Matter (1891). [viii] Scientists can’t actually recreate the conditions of the big bang and observe it. They also can’t actually prove what happened. The laws of physics break down within a fraction of a second of the event and scientists lack the ability to “test” it. [ix] Isaiah 44:24-25 Psalm 33:6-9, Jeremiah 10:12, Revelation 4:11 [x] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing (New York, NY: Atria, 2012), 23, 142-143. [xi] Peter Atkins, On Being (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2011), 14. [xii] Genesis 1:1 and 1:9 [xiii] https://astronomy.com/news/2020/03/ancient-earth-may-have-been-a-water-world-without-any-dry-land and https://www.science.org/content/article/ancient-earth-was-water-world [xiv] Genesis 1:1-18 [xv] The New Testament conveys that God does not mark time as people do: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” 2 Peter 3:8 (NIV) [xvi] https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/earths-first-continents-may-have-appeared-earlier-than-previously-thought [xvii] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/plankton.htmlorganisms#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20only%20place%20where%20temperatures,appeared%20there%2C%E2%80%9D%20he%20said. [xviii] https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2019/february/the-cambrian-explosion-was-far-shorter-than-thought.html [xix] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC33358/ [xx] Genesis 2:7 [xxi] https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/ce/docs/OLLI/Page%20Content/CHEMISTRY%20OF%20ATOMS%20AND%20MOLECULES%20OF%20OUR%20BODY.pdf [xxii] https://askabiologist.asu.edu/content/atoms-life [xxiii] Isaiah 40:22, [xxiv]We use the idiom, the “four corners of the earth,” to denote the expanse of the earth, though we do not believe it to be flat. The Apostle John did the same. (Revelation 7:1) [xxv] Jeremiah 10:12 and 51:15, Psalm 104:2, Isaiah 45:12 and 51:13 [xxvi] Isaiah 34:4 [xxvii] 2 Peter 3:10 -12. [xxviii] Jerry Coyne readily acknowledges that scientific knowledge is provisional; it continually changes as we learn more about the universe. However, the Bible hasn’t changed. Though theologians’ views of the meaning of the Bible may be informed by scientific discovery, key areas of convergence are occurring because recent scientific discoveries are confirming statements in the Bible. [xxix] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429904-500-found-closest-link-to-eve-our-universal-ancestor/ and https://www.science.org/content/article/eden-chronicles-tracking-y-chromosome-adam