Does This Book Agree With Science?
Religion has not always viewed science as its friend. In previous centuries some theologians resisted scientific discoveries when they felt that these endangered their interpretation of the Bible. But is science really the Bible’s enemy?
IF THE Bible writers had endorsed the most widely held scientific views of their day, the result would be a book of glaring scientific inaccuracies. Yet the writers did not promote such unscientific misconceptions. On the contrary, they penned a number of statements that not only are scientifically sound but also directly contradicted the accepted opinions of the day.
What Is the Shape of the Earth?
That question has intrigued humans for thousands of years. The general view in ancient times was that the earth was flat. The Babylonians, for example, believed that the universe was a box or a chamber with the earth as its floor. Vedic priests of India imagined that the earth was flat and that only one side of it was inhabited. A primitive tribe in Asia pictured the earth as a huge tea tray.
As early as the sixth century B.C.E., Greek philosopher Pythagoras theorized that since the moon and the sun are spherical, the earth must also be a sphere. Aristotle (fourth century B.C.E.) later agreed, explaining that the sphericity of the earth is proved by lunar eclipses. The earth’s shadow on the moon is curved.
However, the notion of a flat earth (with only its upper side inhabited) did not disappear completely. Some could not accept the logical implication of a round earth—the concept of antipodes.a Lactantius, Christian apologist of the fourth century C.E., ridiculed the very idea. He reasoned: “Is there any one so senseless as to believe that there are men whose footsteps are higher than their heads? . . . that the crops and trees grow downwards? that the rains, and snow, and hail fall upwards?”2
The concept of antipodes posed a dilemma for a few theologians. Certain theories held that if there were antipodeans, they could have no possible connection with known humans either because the sea was too wide to navigate or because an impassable torrid zone surrounded the equator. So where could any antipodeans have come from? Perplexed, some theologians preferred to believe that there could be no antipodeans, or even, as Lactantius argued, that the earth could not be a sphere in the first place!
Nonetheless, the concept of a spherical earth prevailed, and eventually it was widely accepted. Only with the dawn of the space age in the 20th century, however, has it been possible for humans to travel far enough into space to verify by direct observation that the earth is a globe.b
And where did the Bible stand on this issue? In the eighth century B.C.E., when the prevailing view was that the earth was flat, centuries before Greek philosophers theorized that the earth likely was spherical, and thousands of years before humans saw the earth as a globe from space, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah stated with remarkable simplicity: “There is One who is dwelling above the circle of the earth.” (Isaiah 40:22) The Hebrew word chugh, here translated “circle,” may also be rendered “sphere.”3 Other Bible translations read, “the globe of the earth” (Douay Version) and “the round earth.”—Moffatt.c
The Bible writer Isaiah avoided the common myths about the earth. Instead, he penned a statement that was not threatened by the advances of scientific discovery.
What Holds Up the Earth?
In ancient times, humans were perplexed by other questions about the cosmos: What is the earth resting on? What holds up the sun, the moon, and the stars? They had no knowledge of the law of universal gravitation, formulated by Isaac Newton and published in 1687. The idea that heavenly bodies are, in effect, suspended in empty space upon nothing was unknown to them. Thus, their explanations often suggested that tangible objects or substances held the earth and other heavenly bodies aloft.
For example, one ancient theory, perhaps originated by people who lived on an island, was that the earth was surrounded by water and that it floated in these waters. The Hindus conceived that the earth had several foundations, one on top of the other. It rested on four elephants, the elephants stood on an enormous tortoise, the tortoise stood on an immense serpent, and the coiled serpent floated on universal waters. Empedocles, a Greek philosopher of the fifth century B.C.E., believed that the earth rested upon a whirlwind and that this whirlwind was the cause of the motion of the heavenly bodies.
Among the most influential views were those of Aristotle. Although he theorized that the earth is a sphere, he denied that it could ever hang in empty space. In his treatise On the Heavens, when refuting the notion that the earth rests on water, he said: “It is not the nature of water, any more than of earth, to stay in mid-air: it must have something to rest upon.”4 So, what does the earth “rest upon”? Aristotle taught that the sun, the moon, and the stars were attached to the surface of solid, transparent spheres. Sphere lay nestled within sphere, with the earth—immobile—at the center. As the spheres revolved within one another, the objects on them—the sun, the moon, and the planets—moved across the sky.
Aristotle’s explanation seemed logical. If the heavenly bodies were not firmly attached to something, how else could they stay aloft? The views of the revered Aristotle were accepted as fact for some 2,000 years. According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, in the 16th and 17th centuries his teachings “ascended to the status of religious dogma” in the eyes of the church.5
With the invention of the telescope, astronomers began to question Aristotle’s theory. Still, the answer eluded them until Sir Isaac Newton explained that the planets are suspended in empty space, held in their orbits by an invisible force—gravity. It seemed incredible, and some of Newton’s colleagues found it hard to believe that space could be a void, largely empty of substance.d6
What does the Bible have to say on this question? Nearly 3,500 years ago, the Bible stated with extraordinary clarity that the earth is hanging “upon nothing.” (Job 26:7) In the original Hebrew, the word for “nothing” (beli-mahʹ) used here literally means “without anything.”7 The Contemporary English Version uses the expression, “on empty space.”
A planet hanging “on empty space” was not at all how most people in those days pictured the earth. Yet, far ahead of his time, the Bible writer recorded a statement that is scientifically sound.
The Bible and Medical Science—Do They Agree?
Modern medical science has taught us much about the spread and prevention of disease. Medical advances in the 19th century led to the introduction into medical practice of antisepsis—cleanliness to reduce infections. The result was dramatic. There was a significant reduction in infections and premature deaths.
Ancient physicians, however, did not fully understand how disease spreads, nor did they realize the importance of sanitation in preventing sickness. Little wonder that many of their medical practices would seem barbaric by modern standards.
One of the oldest medical texts available is the Ebers Papyrus, a compilation of Egyptian medical knowledge, dating from about 1550 B.C.E. This scroll contains some 700 remedies for various afflictions “ranging from crocodile bite to toenail pain.”8 States The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia: “The medical knowledge of these physicians was purely empirical, largely magical and wholly unscientific.”9 Most of the remedies were merely ineffective, but some of them were extremely dangerous. For the treatment of a wound, one of the prescriptions recommended applying a mixture made of human excrement combined with other substances.10
This text of Egyptian medical remedies was written at about the same time as the first books of the Bible, which included the Mosaic Law. Moses, who was born in 1593 B.C.E., grew up in Egypt. (Exodus 2:1-10) As a member of Pharaoh’s household, he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.” (Acts 7:22) He was familiar with “the physicians” of Egypt. (Genesis 50:1-3) Did their ineffective or dangerous medical practices influence his writings?
No. On the contrary, the Mosaic Law included sanitary regulations that were far ahead of their time. For example, a law regarding military encampments required burying excrement away from the camp. (Deuteronomy 23:13) This was a profoundly advanced preventive measure. It helped keep water free from contamination and provided protection from fly-borne shigellosis and other diarrheal illnesses that still claim millions of lives each year in lands where sanitary conditions are deplorable.
The Mosaic Law contained other sanitary regulations that safeguarded Israel against the spread of infectious diseases. A person who had or was suspected of having a communicable disease was quarantined. (Leviticus 13:1-5) Garments or vessels that came in contact with an animal that had died of itself (perhaps from disease) were to be either washed before reuse or destroyed. (Leviticus 11:27, 28, 32, 33) Any person who touched a corpse was considered unclean and had to undergo a cleansing procedure that included washing his garments and bathing. During the seven-day period of uncleanness, he was to avoid physical contact with others.—Numbers 19:1-13.
This sanitary code reveals wisdom not shared by the physicians of surrounding nations at the time. Thousands of years before medical science learned about the ways in which disease spreads, the Bible prescribed reasonable preventive measures as safeguards against disease. Not surprisingly, Moses could speak of Israelites in general in his day as living to 70 or 80 years of age.e—Psalm 90:10.
You may acknowledge that the foregoing Biblical statements are scientifically accurate. But there are other statements in the Bible that cannot be proved scientifically. Does that necessarily put the Bible at odds with science?
Accepting the Unprovable
A statement that is unprovable is not necessarily untrue. Scientific proof is limited by man’s ability to discover sufficient evidence and to interpret data correctly. But some truths are unprovable because no evidence has been preserved, the evidence is obscure or undiscovered, or scientific capabilities and expertise are insufficient to arrive at an uncontested conclusion. Might this be the case with certain Biblical statements for which independent physical evidence is lacking?
For example, the Bible’s references to an invisible realm inhabited by spirit persons cannot be proved—or disproved—scientifically. The same can be said of miraculous events mentioned in the Bible. Not enough clear geologic evidence for the global Flood of Noah’s day is available to satisfy some people. (Genesis, chapter 7) Must we conclude that it did not happen? Historical events can be obscured by time and change. So is it not possible that thousands of years of geologic activity has effaced much of the evidence for the Flood?
Granted, the Bible contains statements that cannot be proved or disproved by available physical evidence. But should that surprise us? The Bible is not a science textbook. It is, however, a book of truth. We have already considered strong evidence that its writers were men of integrity and honesty. And when they touch on matters related to science, their words are accurate and completely free from ancient “scientific” theories that turned out to be mere myths. Science is thus no enemy of the Bible. There is every reason to weigh what the Bible says with an open mind.
a “Antipodes . . . are two places that are exactly opposite each other on the globe. A straight line between them would pass through the center of the earth. The word antipodes means foot to foot in Greek. Two persons standing at antipodes would be closest together at the soles of their feet.”1—The World Book Encyclopedia.
b Technically speaking, the earth is an oblate spheroid; it is slightly flattened at the poles.
c Additionally, only a spherical object appears as a circle from every angle of view. A flat disk would more often appear as an ellipse, not a circle.
d A leading view in Newton’s day was that the universe was filled with fluid—a cosmic “soup”—and that whirlpools in the fluid made the planets revolve.
e In 1900, life expectancy in many European countries and in the United States was less than 50. Since then, it has increased dramatically not only on account of medical progress in controlling disease but also because of better sanitation and living conditions.
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A statement that is unprovable is not necessarily untrue
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Thousands of years before humans saw the earth as a globe from space, the Bible referred to “the circle of the earth”
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Sir Isaac Newton explained that the planets are held in their orbits by gravity