Can Christianity and Science Coexist?
Popular opinions can be like overgrown vegetation blocking our view of reality. One overgrown opinion says Christianity and science are mutually exclusive and so must be in conflict with each other. But they aren’t. Christianity and science can coexist, and it doesn’t take settling the creation versus evolution debate to see it.
We can cut back much of the overgrowth obscuring our view by identifying the kinds of truth statements people can make. These statements, defined by analytic philosophers, include the analytic, synthetic, and meaningless. I’ll explain the definition for each and offer alternative names that help me keep the definitions of these statements straight.
Analytic statements are statements that are true by definition. If you know the meanings of the words in the statement on their own, then you can see the truth of the statement in and of itself, all without looking anywhere else to know if it is true or false. For that, I call them definitional statements.
Here’s a classic example, “All bachelors are unmarried men.” You know this sentence is true because, by definition, bachelors are unmarried men. Another example from mathematics, 2 + 2 = 4. If you know what “two,” “plus,” and “equals” mean, then you know this is true. You don’t need to look anywhere beyond yourself to know for certain.
Definitional statements give absolute, certain knowledge. They state facts. But, they can’t make value judgments. Is it good or bad that a man is unmarried? They also do not say much else about the observable world. 2 + 2 = 4 is a true statement whether or not what’s being added together exists in reality.
Synthetic statements are truth claims that can be proven true, and just as important, proven false, by synthesizing the statement with evidence in the observable world. If it corresponds, it’s true; if it doesn’t, it’s false. For this reason, I refer to them as evidential statements.
For example, “The key is under the mat.” You know this statement is true or false by seeing if what was said matches with the observable evidence in reality. You go over to the mat and lift it. If the key is there, it’s true; if it’s not, it’s false.
Evidential statements tell us more about the world than definitional statements. But these statements can only give knowledge to a probable degree. Doubt always remains. Maybe the key is there, but we can’t see it for some reason. Maybe a reliable source told us the key was under the mat, but there’s a chance they’re lying. It’s always possible we’re missing something.
Though evidential statements only provide knowledge to a probable degree, we’re dealing with a sliding scale of probability — from a high degree to a low one. In life, we make decisions, from the most basic to the most lasting, lacking specific knowledge about the outcome. We make them based on the high degree of probability we’ll succeed.
Likewise, we know what happened in history only to a probable degree. We can’t know with absolute certainty if Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. There is always a chance it was a different day. But, based on the historical evidence we have, there’s a high degree of probability he was.
Meaningless or nonsensical statements are statements that don’t fall under the previous two headings. They’re not meaningless per se, but they’re not true by definition nor can they be verified or falsified by looking at evidence. They are, as I call them, unverifiable statements.
Here are a few examples. “Little by little, day by day, what is meant for you will find its way.” “Each year’s regrets are envelopes in which messages of hope are found for the new year.” “Beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.”
Many unverifiable statements sound true, but they communicate no discernable truth. The claim isn’t true by the definitions of its words. Nor can we investigate the evidence.
How Christianity and Science Coexist
Equipped with knowing the differences between statements, we can prune the wild brush. We can snip “scientific” vines covering up science, and we remove “Christian” branches obscuring the reality of the Christian faith. Only then, do we begin to see the clearing where Christianity and science coexist.
One of those vines is a common cultural assumption that science provides absolute, certain knowledge, or that science makes definitional statements. But the scientific method can only make evidential statements; it gives knowledge to a probable degree, but not a certain degree. We can’t test all possible hypotheses because there can always be another one.
Another vine is the common argument against religion that science has proven miracles impossible. This claim sounds scientific, but at its root, this argument makes a claim about the nature of reality that can’t be proven empirically. As Tim Keller writes, “It’s one thing to say that science is only equipped to test for natural causes and cannot speak to any others. It is quite another to insist that science proves that no other causes could possibly exist.” To make such a claim is to impose on science a philosophical presupposition, or a view of the world needed beforehand, for an argument to make sense. In this case, the presupposition used is naturalism, which holds that everything can be explained by a natural cause and that physical matter is all there is.
An obscuring “Christian” branch is that the majority of religious claims are unverifiable statements. Craig Parton lists several in his book, Religion on Trial: “Brahman is All.” “Muhammad caused the moon to come down and pass through his tunic. This occurred so quickly that no one noticed that the moon was missing.” “The burning of my bosom confirms to me that Mormonism is true.” None of these are true by definition. Nor can we verify or falsify them by observing the evidence.
Even well-meaning, Christians make unverifiable statements in defense of the Christian faith. None more telling than a line from the hymn, “I Serve a Risen Savior,” by Alfred Ackley: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.” There is no way to know if this is true or false. The truth of Jesus’ resurrection is not knowable by examining the heart.
The faith of the Christian is founded not on unverifiable statements like Ackley’s, but on an evidential truth statement that can be tested and known to a high degree of probability. This is where Christianity differs from other religions. And the founding evidential statement is not, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The foundational assertion of Christianity, the one on which the truth of the whole thing rests is, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified…has risen; he is not here” (Mark 16:6; see also Matt. 28:6 and Luke 24:6).
Paul points out the foundational nature of Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. He writes that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain (v. 14). If Jesus remained dead, then our faith is worthless, and we’re still in our sins (v. 17). If we put our hope in Christ only for this life, we should be pitied more than everyone else (v. 19).
The truth of Christianity, the validity of our faith is grounded in the historical evidence that leads us to conclude Jesus physically rose from the dead. Namely, the historically reliable manuscripts of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Christianity be damned. But praise be to God! “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has also come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20–22).
With the overgrowth cut back, we see science and Christianity together in the clearing. Christianity and science can coexist because both make the same type of assertions: evidential statements. These are claims we can test externally and find to be true or false to a probable degree. It’s in this clearing where the tension between the two eases, and the truth of the Gospel also comes into view: Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God, who died for you and the forgiveness of your sin, and He rose from the dead to give you life everlasting.