Taking the Bible seriously January 11, 2014

This article appeared in the December 2013 evangelistic issue of UK monthly “Evangelical Times”.

Taking the Bible seriously

By far my worst subject at Secondary School was ‘Religious Instruction’. I was at or near the top of the class in most other subjects but I simply couldn’t get my head around religion. But all this changed at the end of my first year at university where I was studying for an honours degree in physics. I was suddenly seized with an overpowering desire to read the New Testament. This was really strange because no one suggested that I should read it and certainly nobody put pressure on me to do so. My family were not religious and I didn’t even own a Bible. So I borrowed a pocket New Testament from a friend and began to read, often into the late hours of the night.

      It was utterly gripping. I read it straight through as I would read a novel, but quickly realised that this book was unlike any other I had ever encountered (and I had read a large amount of classical and modern fiction as well as philosophy and science). The New Testament resounded with the ring of truth. It wasn’t fiction and, although historical, it wasn’t just history. To this 19 year old science student it was alive with what I can only call ‘spiritual truth’ — a new perception of reality that enlightened and liberated my mind but also warmed my heart. Most of all, the Christ whose story it tells became for me a living person with whom I began to converse silently — the first time in my life that I had ever prayed. I had come to know Jesus Christ not just as an outstanding figure of history but as a living presence. All that happened over 60 years ago but the passage of the years has not dimmed that first perception of the glory of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.

So why take the Bible seriously?

Obviously, this experience goes a long way towards explaining why I take the Bible seriously. But what about you? Why should anyone else who has not had such an experience follow my example? The answer is found in the Bible itself. Psalm 19:8-9 says, “The commandments of the Lord are pure, enlightening the eyes” (‘commandments’ here refers to the Scriptures as a whole). The apostle Paul underlines this claim when he talks about “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened” in Ephesians 1:18. Put simply, the Scriptures claim a unique ability to give us understanding of things we otherwise could not know. It’s like a blind person suddenly receiving the gift of sight and seeing colours and the faces of loved-ones for the first time — except that the ‘sight’ that concerns us here is the understanding of spiritual realities to which we would otherwise be blind.

      Of course, we understand many things without the help of the Bible. As a scientist my research led to an understanding of things in my field of study that were previously unexplained. It is common experience that by learning, reading and experience we constantly expand our understanding of the world around us. But there are some really important things that no amount of merely human enquiry can reveal. Let’s look at three of them.

Understanding ourselves 

Writing in 1734, the poet Alexander Pope described the contradictions of human nature with eloquent clarity. Man is, he writes;

“In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself, abused or disabused;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The depressing fact is that everything Pope said nearly 300 years ago is still true! As a race we continue to notch up amazing achievements in the arts, science and technology — yet never has there been more fear and doubt about where mankind is heading or uncertainty about what it means to be human. To an impassionate observer we are indeed “the glory, jest and riddle of the world”.

      The Bible, however, has a clear explanation for our confusion and inconsistency. Made in the image of God, man retains a nobility of nature and purpose that leads to great achievements. But as a race in rebellion against our Creator we can and do plumb the depths of sin, wickedness and depravity. All this the Bible explains in its opening chapters and the theme runs through the whole book. Without this perspective on human sin we can never understand ourselves — our triumphs and our failures —or recognize our need to be reconciled to God.

Understanding creation

Without the enlightenment provided by the Bible we cannot fully understand the world around us. This is the central theme of my book “Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything” and obviously I cannot convey its contents in a few paragraphs. But let me just give you a few pointers to whet your appetite.

      Until about 100 years ago astronomers believed the universe to be eternal, a static backcloth to our existence here on earth. But Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1916) showed that this was impossible — the universe could not be ‘standing still’.  At first Einstein rejected this result and added a fudge-factor to his equations to allow for a static universe (something he later described as his “greatest blunder”). 

      But by the 1920s experimental observations of the light spectra from stars finally proved that we live in an expanding universe and this in turn led to the current belief among cosmologists that the universe must have had a beginning. Yet this is something the Bible has taught for the past 4000 years in its familiar opening words; “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. Furthermore, although science proposes theories about how the universe might have begun, it can never answer the ‘why’ question — ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’

      It is only since the rise of modern science that we have understood that the physical universe operates according to specific ‘laws of nature’ — laws that are mathematical, elegant and self-consistent. Indeed, science could not exist unless this were so since its whole purpose is to discover and understand these laws.

      What science cannot do, however, is explain where these laws came from or why our minds can comprehend them. The Bible provides us with a simple answer; the laws were put in place by a Creator whose law-giving nature is taught throughout the Bible. He is the God “in [whom] we live and move and have our being” and who is continually “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Acts 17:28; Hebrews 1:3). And if, as the Bible declares, man is made in the image of the law-giver, it is no surprise that we have the capacity to understand, at least in part, the laws he has designed.          

Understanding Christ

As my Bible reading progressed I began to understand what brought Jesus to earth 2000 years ago. He said, “I have come to seek and to save those who are lost” — by which he meant those who are estranged from God. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead”, but I came to understand that it isn’t God who is dead but we who by nature are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). I recognised myself to be a sinner — just the kind of person Christ came to ‘save’ (that is, to forgive and reconcile me to the Creator I had so long ignored). Jesus Christ did not come just to reform mankind, as many think, but to transform those who come to him in faith. How does he do this? By raising us from spiritual death and imparting to us spiritual life. So Paul continues, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4). This spiritual  ‘salvation’ he obtained for all who trust in his atoning work by his crucifixion and resurrection.