Tackling difficult questions
As I write, Noah’s ark has arrived for a three month stay in Ipswich docks. A half size replica of the vessel described in the Bible, this floating art exhibition will no doubt stir up some discussion and result in some emails in my inbox over the next few months!
Christians often hold different views on certain issues. As a science student, you may already have navigated questions on the origin of life on earth, and others related to your own subject – the Big Bang, AI, bioethics, and many others.
Some people will hold their views on particular issues very passionately, and you may do too. You might already have had late-night discussions on them, been accused – or accused others of – being a heretic, wondered which is the ‘right/sound/Biblically correct/evangelical view’, or perhaps even found yourself wrestling with serious doubts over a particularly difficult question.
So how can we tackle these issues well? How should we express our own views, or work alongside others who hold very different opinions on topics that matter to us? Here I will outline some main principles – both for dealing with scientific questions in particular, and also for dealing with difficult questions among Christians in general, and discussing them well. I’ll also point to some resources at the end where you can find potential answers to the most common questions on science and Christianity.
Your difficult questions
First of all, it’s good to look in a few different places for resources on the question. It’s tempting to try to find that one book to read, or talk to listen to, that will answer everything, but it probably doesn’t exist. We need to read, listen, watch, talk to people, expose ourselves to different views, and not be content with tackling straw men. We need to dig deeper into the Bible, learn the main principles of understanding and applying it to our own context, and read commentaries on the most relevant passages. We also need to make sure we understand the up-to-date science that’s relevant to the issue – which should be possible as you’re being taught by experienced scientists.
Thankfully, we can rely on God to help us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). We can pray, asking the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and discernment on the questions we are facing. We can also use other spiritual disciplines, such as fasting, to help us bring the issue to God and hear from him.
We mustn’t be afraid to express our views, or worry what people think of us. Others will probably share our dilemma or have been there before us – on similar questions even if not this particular one – and having someone to talk it over with makes a big difference. At times, you may be the only person in the room who has seen things from a particular perspective, so your contribution is extremely valuable.
It’s important to think and talk, but our values should also be reflected in what we do (Matthew 7:16-20). So if you’re wondering if we should take better care of creation, why not start doing just that? If you’re worried about a particular use of technology, why not write to your MP about it? Jesus didn’t say what he thought about every single issue of the day (or ours), but he demonstrated his values by his actions, treating people others rejected with dignity and kindness, for example.
Science and Christianity
When it comes to science, there are three main kinds of questions. First, there are ones about how the Bible relates to modern science. Some of these have been around for a long time, there are plenty of resources on them, and it should be reasonably straightforward to figure out where you stand – even if it takes some time. For example, what do the days of creation mean in Genesis 1-3, or how does the flood narrative relate to actual physical events? Most Bible commentaries will touch on these topics, so we can compare what different theologians think about them, exploring online to find out their views in a bit more detail if need be, or looking at some of the recommended resources below. Often these questions are not related to the core of Christian belief, so people often call them secondary or open-hand issues. People in our churches will hold a range of views on them, but we can still work together as the body of Christ.
In this category of Biblical questions, there are some tougher and more emotive ones - such as who were Adam and Eve, what happened to creation at the Fall, and why we suffer - that are much more testing. These questions may have an impact on the way we tell the gospel story, and opinions vary on whether they are primary or secondary issues. All the same, people in your church will probably hold a range of views on them. These are very live issues for experienced Biblical scholars, so you can’t expect to have everything sorted out. It’s good to know what the range of views is among theologians, so you can at least explain why these are difficult questions to answer.
Another category of questions are the broader theological ones that affect the way we live. These would include our attitude to creation care, sexuality, or war. The Bible was written in the context of the ancient Near East, so it takes some work to apply its principles to life today. Some of the questions we ask are not even tackled head on.
For example, slavery is openly condoned in the Old Testament, but with a massive difference to the way it has been practiced in many societies. ‘Slavery’ for the people of Israel was more of an indentured servitude, Old Testament Law states that slaves are allowed to run away, and the New Testament book of Philemon opens the door to the idea that it’s not ok for Christians to keep slaves. It took Christians a while to work out their response to slavery. What seems obvious to us now wasn’t so obvious to people in previous centuries, but eventually Christians (some of whom were slaves or former slaves themselves) played a major role in the abolition of the Afro-Caribbean slave trade.
So humility is key here. We need to keep reading the Bible, listening to wise teachers, trying to discern general principles and then applying them to our lives. This might take some courage, but also gentleness because these are often very sensitive issues upon which people have cherished views or make very key life decisions. We will all be wrong on at least some of what we think, so we need to keep learning from each other.
Finally, there are detailed practical questions, such as the use of new technologies in medicine and agriculture. The Bible doesn’t give precise instructions on anything to do with modern science, but it does give a very basic toolkit of principles that we can apply, such as valuing every person, tending and keeping creation, and relieving suffering. The result is that Christians very often come up with different answers to difficult questions in this area. Our own views, and the views of others may well change over time as our knowledge of God, his word and the technology available develops. There are some great people thinking about these issues, and some of whose work is included in the links below.
When Christians disagree
So you have found some answers and feel you have a view to share, but what do you do if you find people around you disagreeing with you, sometimes quite passionately?
To start with, when is the right time to discuss it – if ever? Paul advised Timothy, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels” (2 Tim 2:23, NIV). The gospel Jesus preached was political in a very general sense, and extremely controversial, but he didn’t always tackle specific issues. For example he demonstrated his love for all people, but he didn’t overtly speak out against the Roman occupation, or unjust treatment of women. That’s not to say it is wrong to campaign for justice in certain areas - this will be a very important calling for some Christians - but there is a time and a place for it. All of us are called to demonstrate the gospel in a very general way as Jesus did, which is very radical in terms of its impact on society!
If discussion is appropriate, then of course we need to listen well. It helps to be interested in other people, and their ideas. How did they encounter God? What’s their faith journey been like? You could also tell your own story. People listen better to stories than arguments, and if they hear about your faith journey they will probably find it easier to listen to you on other topics because they know what you each have in common.
Most importantly, we need to do everything with love. Jesus challenged individuals over their behaviour, but was usually very gentle about it. He treated them with great compassion, firmly at times, but always kindly – especially those who were very vulnerable and had been hurt by others. The only people he gave a hard time to were the hypocritical religious rulers.
In every discussion we need to make sure that God gets all the honour, not the one who wins the debate or appears to be most theologically correct. In Philippians 2:3 the apostle Paul says “in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”. It’s good to ask for advice, accept correction, and readily admit when you realise you were wrong. We will inevitably make mistakes, but what sometimes speaks loudest is the way we apologise.
Don’t forget to chill out, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Spend time doing other things together: worship, pray, play, eat, relax, have a laugh, study, and do some practical outreach activities.
Finally, keep the big picture in mind. Jesus spent most of his ministry preaching and demonstrating the gospel, which is plenty controversial enough without focussing on things we disagree on. Some of us will need to spend time on tough issues, or take a stand one way or another at different times in our lives. In the end, no one will have every detail of their thinking right – but we’ll find out the answers one day. Our primary mission is to put aside our differences and be the people of God together.
Commentary series by evangelical scholars, which are easy to get hold of:
The Bible Speaks Today (IVP), by a whole range of scholars
For Everyone (SPCK), Old Testament by John Goldingay, New Testament by Tom Wright
Straight to the Heart (Monarch), by Phil Moore. (Doesn’t cover every verse in each book, but picks up the key themes and passages.)
Help with specific science and faith questions:
bethinking – UCCF’s apologetics website has a science section
Christians in Science – especially ‘Thinking About’, ‘Being a Christian in’, and the student magazine
The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion – with short papers, hundreds of recorded lectures, and a section for churches
BioLogos - lots on how evolution & creation can relate to each other
The Christian Medical Fellowship – helpful in ethical issues