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Can a scientist believe in God?

December 2005 | by Sheena Tyler

Research zoologist Sheena Tyler examines the evidence.

I still remember the day when, returning from a University hockey match, student vet Cynthia asked to talk with me about God. She shared two things I’d never heard before.

Firstly, she said that God had a plan for my life. I challenged her statement but the depth of her conviction unsettled me. Secondly, she said, ‘God is like a gentleman’. I took this to mean that it’s all about a personal relationship with him. I was intrigued.

For the next hour I had a great debate – not with her, but with myself. I was 95% sure that there was no God. But as a scientist I was trained to consider alternative hypotheses. There was a 5% possibility that she was right!

A better plan?

It occurred to me that I could research the evidence but that sooner or later I would have to take a step of faith to truly test these ideas. I held back. Suppose God had something in mind for me that I didn’t like? But I had to admit that, if God was there, his plan was likely to be better than mine!

Curiosity got the better of me, and I decided that night to ask God (in the person of Jesus Christ) into my life. I knew that it must be on his terms and in his way. I was immediately overwhelmed by the presence of God, so much so that I sank to my knees. I felt a new kind of deep joy and love.

But was this ‘religious experience’ merely subjective – a trick of my imagination? I was cautious and sceptical. Over the next three years I sought to discover what, if any, was the factualevidence on which Christianity was founded.

Accurate prophecies

Firstly, I looked at Bible prophecies and archaeological evidence. To my surprise, I discovered that the Bible contains numerous prophecies which were fulfilled in accurate and dramatic detail – often hundreds of years verifiably afterwards.

Prophets predicted, for instance, that the wicked city Nineveh and its impregnable fortifications would be overthrown by floodwaters; and that Babylon would be besieged and never re-inhabited.

The birth of Jesus was foretold too – without a shred of doubt many hundreds of years beforehand. The Old Testament predicted that he would belong to the tribe of Judah; that he would be a descendant of King David; that he would be born in Bethlehem (fulfilled because Mary and Joseph had to attend a Roman census there at the time of the birth); and that kings from the east would bring him gifts.

It was also prophesied that he would heal the blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The prophet Isaiah described (more than 700 years in advance) that Christ would die for us: ‘He was crushed for our iniquities … for the transgressions of my people he was stricken’ (Isaiah 53:5,8).

The Old Testament even predicted that when he died they would cast lots for his clothing and bury him in a rich man’s tomb. Indeed there are signposts to Christ throughout the whole of the Old Testament.

Evidence for the resurrection

Secondly, there was the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead. The case was argued convincingly by Frank Morison – a lawyer who set out to disprove the resurrection and instead found compelling evidence forit!1

For myself, the testimony of Jewish historian Josephus (who was not sympathetic to Christianity) was crucial. He lived at the time and reported the crucifixion and resurrection events.

I tried to propose alternative hypotheses of my own – for example, perhaps the ‘resurrected Jesus’ was another person, intent on deceiving the world! But these alternatives all failed because I could not get around the supernatural element in Jesus’ life. The miracles of Christ were an obstacle because, to remove them from the narratives, my scissors would have to snip out a third of the pages.

The Bible and life on earth

Thirdly, as a zoologist, I found that scientific data support the biblical account of life on earth. In the fossil record there is a profound absence of transitional forms between the basic types of living things (a ‘basic type’ contains all organisms that share a similar body form or plan).

The basic plans of animals with hard body parts appear abruptly in the ‘Cambrian’, the lowest fossil-bearing rock layer, which extends globally. I found a book by Duane Gish, called Evolution, the fossils say no!2, very illuminating in this regard.

I would add that natural groupings (such as the cat family or the dog family) are in general readily apparent to the eye. Within such families, cross-breeding (hybridisation) can occur.

For instance, in the Anatidae(ducks, geese and swans), which comprises 148 species, over 400 hybrids are known between species and over 300 between genera. But there are no hybrids outsideof these natural groupings – suggesting that only creatures within a group have similar ‘pathways’ of embryonic development.

This is consistent with the Bible’s idea of basic created types or ‘kinds’. Not only are these mentioned in the creation story in Genesis 1, but examples are given in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (generally at the ‘family’ level).

This suggests that in the beginning God created basic types with a capacity for variation within the type (explaining the variation we see in nature and in fossil history) but not outside it (consistent with the absence of transitional forms between the different types).

Can we trust the Bible?

But all these evidences could collapse like a house of cards if the authenticity of the Bible itself is suspect. Could it all be a fable exaggerated over the centuries? So, a fourth line of enquiry became my prime focus, and one week in particular it became a burning issue.

I was so eager to get to the bottom of this one because I felt my whole direction in life hung upon it. I came across a book by Professor F. F. Bruce, The New Testament documents: arethey reliable?3

Some say that the New Testament was written many centuries after the events surrounding Jesus and the Apostles. But this book showed me that this was not the case. A thread of continuity in written records can be traced back to the first eye-witnesses – the disciples themselves.

There was no room for legends or exaggerations here. Verse after verse – hundreds of them – were quoted from Scripture in detail by the Apostolic Fathers in the first and second centuries (the original, dated manuscripts still exist).

These early ‘patristic’ writings include detailed references to the resurrection and Christ’s miracles. Crucially, the Scripture verses quoted are unchanged between then and now.

Eyewitnesses of the resurrection

Moreover, the apostle Paul tells in the New Testament how over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus, and that most of them were still alive when he wrote. Archaeological evidence (such as scrolls buried in dated tombs or pots) indicates that the New Testament writings were widely disseminated while such people were still alive – so there was ample opportunity for sceptics to cross-examine the living witnesses.

During that crucial week in my search for truth, a student friend told me about a new Bible school that was opening. I wasn’t interested at first but she was strangely persistent. She said that a world-famous speaker was coming to open the college – a certain Professor F. F. Bruce!

‘When’s he coming?’ I asked with sudden fascination.
‘This week!’ she replied.
‘And where is this Bible College?’
‘Don’t you know?’ she replied.
‘It’s here, on the same street where you live!’

The full implications sank home. The exact week I had faced these all-consuming issues, God had brought a world expert on these verysame issuesnot only to the same citybut to the very same streetI lived on.

I was in awe. God knew that my quest for truth was a genuine hunger and that I could probe as deeply as I liked – I would find my faith was founded on the facts of history. But much more important was the fact that I had encountered the God of history, who was there waiting for me.