Einstein’s scientific theories are famously difficult to understand for most people and he is quoted as saying that explanations should be “as simple as possible … but no simpler.” Simple explanations are hugely attractive and simplicity is often seen as a characteristic of a theory’s validity. And yet, Einstein’s warning is also valid, for when an explanation becomes too simple, as it may, then it can cease to be an explanation at all.
Theological theories are no less prone to the dangers of over simplification and when they mutate into doctrines then they risk becoming unhelpful. The current pandemic of Covid-19 caused by the corona virus can be explained scientifically but it is also raising theological questions. Questions like, “Why is this happening?” or “Where is God in this disaster?” are receiving public explanations from respected Christian leaders and apologists.
I fear, however, that some of these are just too simple and raise more questions than they answer. Of course, such questions are neither new nor specific to the corona virus. The “standard” answer being given – that we live in a “fallen world”, is also not new, but I believe it needs to be re-examined in the light of Scripture and the teaching of Christ.
The idea of “the fall”, as is well-known, is based mostly on the first three chapters of Genesis and an enigmatic passage in Romans chapter 8, where Paul speaks of Creation being subject to futility and, in the context of hope of future glory, its being “set free from its bondage to decay.” (Romans 8:21)
The Genesis message is of a world made “good” by its Creator and yet now, in our experience of natural disasters or a pandemic, it looks far from good. The simple conclusion is that a world that was once perfect has been spoiled as a result of human sin – the curse put upon the ground by God following Adam’s disobedience. The explanation is thus that suffering, including the present pandemic, is God’s response to human sin. “Simples” as Orlov the meerkat would say!
Following St Augustine, the Christian church has gradually taken this idea to be a basic doctrine rather than just a theological theory. But is it really biblical? How does it fit with the rest of the Bible and, more importantly, with what Christ says about human suffering? The truth is that there is very little else in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, to support the idea and it has no place in Jewish theology.
The book of Job is pretty clear that poor Job did not suffer because of his sin. Nonetheless the idea persisted that human suffering from such things as congenital blindness (John 9:1,2) or being killed by a collapsing tower (Luke 13:4) are divine punishment. And yet, Jesus explicitly rejects this simple explanation. Things are more complicated and more subtle than that. Jesus tells us that these things are opportunities to experience the grace of God’s work in our lives. (John 9:3)
We are not given tidy explanations of why the world is the way it is.
Genesis teaches us that the world was made good, and good in the sense of being fit for purpose rather than perfect as we might understand perfection. The whole of the Bible is surely an account of how men and women experience God’s grace in the ups and downs of life, its pain as well as its joys. It is by finding the grace of God in an uncertain world that faith grows to maturity. Job was given no simple answer to his question, “Why is this happening to me?” Instead of reasons he finds a relationship with his Creator and vindication of his faith that his redeemer lives and that in his flesh he shall see God. (Job 19:26)
This pandemic, like so many things in life, presents us with a puzzle, but we are reassured by Paul that, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [or in a riddle] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Christ, above all, teaches us that our faith is not a matter of knowing what we cannot understand; it is, instead, trust in a loving God who will make all things well. Our task is to work in the suffering world using God’s gift of science and show the love of Christ to all.
A number of CiS members took part in Justin’s survey. (Justin spoke at our AI conference in Bristol 2018. ) To read his findings or download the PDF please click here.
Sir John Houghton CBE FRS
Sir John was a former vice-president of Christians in Science and we extend our sympathy to his family and friends.
He was born in Wales to strict Baptist parents but made his own deep Christian commitment as a student at Oxford University where he studied physics. He went on to a have a distinguished scientific career that included leading the department of Atmospheric Physics at Oxford and directing the Meteorological Office.
His research pioneered observations of the earth’s atmosphere from space and he was one of the group of scientists who first recognised the threat posed by global warming as a result of increased carbon dioxide emissions. He went on to lead efforts to understand the science of climate change and to present to governments the evidence that human activity was responsible and that action was needed.
He played an important part in establishing the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, where he led or co-led the Science Working Group. He was lead editor of the first three IPCC reports that proved to be so influential in moving the world towards global agreements to tackle climate change. This work, building a unique relationship between political policy and scientific rigour, was carried on in the face of powerful factions in the fossil-fuel industries protecting their vested interests.
Sir John never shirked from declaring his faith in Christ and he was an embodiment of the CiS statement of faith. “As a steward of God’s world, I accept my responsibility to encourage the use of science and technology for the good of humanity and the environment.”
His granddaughter, Hannah Malcolm, has written movingly, “He faced a lifetime of lobbyists and corporations trying to undermine his work, question his motives, and distract from evidence. … But my other consistent memory will be his deep faith that he was doing work in service of the God he loved, and in service of the world he loved.” He was co-chair of the IPCC when it shared, with former vice-President, Al Gore, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in bringing the challenge of Climate Change to the world’s attention.
Sir John Houghton will be remembered for his gracious, wise and courageous witness as a scientist and a Christian who had the courage to speak inconvenient truth to power.
We have a fantastic set of resources for your church, entitled “Thinking About…”
Science raises some issues that the church can find difficult or ill-equipped to address. Christians in Science have produced a series of introductory leaflets on these topics that are written by Christians who are professional scientists. They are specifically designed to help Christians that do not have a scientific background understand better the relevant science, and any issues that it presents for the Christian.
Each leaflet outlines the basic science behind the topic, how it relates to the Christian (biblical) understanding of the world and suggests some other resources for those who want to take it further.
Currently we have 16 titles in the “Thinking About…” series listed below. These are available to view online, or download as PDFs. Alternatively email Abigail, our Development Officer, email@example.com to order free copies!
A small sample of the titles:-
Samuel James Taylor Dec 13 1929 – 22 Jan 2020
James Taylor was born on Dec. 13, 1929 in Carrickfergus, N. Ireland. His parents were both teachers working for the Ulster based Quo Iboe mission in Nigeria and he spent most of the first 12 years of his life in Africa, tutored by his mother. He returned to Ireland with his family just after the start of the 2nd world war in a convoy to complete his school education. He finished school by 16years age and got a scholarship to Cambridge but was initially unable to take it, going first to Queens University to do his BSc in physics and mathematics, then to Peterhouse, Cambridge to complete a PhD in Pure Mathematics. For the third year of his fellowship he visited Princeton, meeting Einstein who by that time was in his twilight years. While in Cambridge he rekindled his relationship with my mother, Maureen Scott and proposed to her by mail. They were married in 1955.
James’ first appointment was in Birmingham as mathematics lecturer, followed by chairs at Westfield College, Liverpool University and, after taking early retirement from the UK, Charlottesville, Virginia. During this time he took sabbaticals to Cornell University, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan, University of Minnesota, as well as shorter academic visits to Wuhan, Paris, Vancouver, Canterbury, New Zealand and Sydney, Australia. Over his career he wrote two text books and authored many mathematical papers including several with Paul Erdős, mostly far beyond the comprehension of non-mathematicians!
As well as being a mathematician and a scientist, James always maintained an evangelical Christian faith. Wherever they were, my parents sought out local believers and became active supporters of the local church. They founded a bible study group when the family lived in Northwood and became very involved with Crusaders when they lived in Radlett. James never found any contradiction between Biblical teaching and a scientific view of the world, and instead embraced science as evidence for God. He was always ready to discuss thorny subjects such as Darwin and evolution with skeptics. He was also very interested in education and was a particular advocate for bright but under privileged children.
Following retirement my parents moved to Sevenoaks. They continued to enjoy travelling, visiting old friends, family and colleagues. James continued to advance the Christian faith at almost any opportunity, making a final challenge to those without faith on his 90th birthday, less than two months before he passed away at Pembury on the Weald Hospice on 22 Jan, 2020. He is survived by his wife, Maureen, 4 adult children, 17 grandchildren and six greatgrandchildren.