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New Exhibition on the Bible and Science Opens in Nation’s Capital

John G. West
Credit: All photos by John West.

WASHINGTON DC — A sweeping new exhibition on “Scripture and Science” opened last week in the nation’s capital at the Museum of the Bible. Hundreds of people attended the gala opening, which featured astronaut Jeffrey Williams, among others. 

The exhibition showcases a number of intriguing artifacts, including Galileo’s personal copy of Nicholas Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and even a chalice used by astronaut Buzz Aldrin to celebrate the Christian sacrament of communion on the moon in 1969.

Tracing the development of science over two millennia, the exhibition challenges the popular misconception that the relationship between the Bible and science has been dominated by conflict rather than cooperation.

“While there is this persistent myth that there is this ongoing conflict between faith and science, we highlight the ways that the Bible has left an impact on some of history’s greatest thinkers — scientists [and] natural philosophers,” explained the exhibition’s curator, Dr. Anthony Schmidt, in his remarks at the opening. “And we show how Biblical faith in doing so left an imprint on the development of science itself.”

Far from being an impediment to science, the Bible encouraged and nourished science, according to the exhibition. The entrance to the exhibition includes a quote from historian of science Peter Harrison emphasizing the point: “The Bible played a significant role in the scientific revolution… and influenced the emergence of modern science in a variety of ways.” 

As the exhibition points out, the Bible’s account of the creation of the world led its most ancient commentators “to believe creation was no accident. God created the world according to a plan, which moved in a purposeful, linear direction. This orderly beginning revealed God’s care and wisdom and established a regularity in nature essential for scientific inquiry.” These ideas of purpose and regularities in nature gave inspiration to many early scientists.

“Scripture and Science” is organized around six key questions: How did it all begin? What keeps the universe running? How did life begin? What makes me human? What can we accomplish? And how will it all end?

A theme running throughout the exhibition is how often the teachings of the Bible and the findings of science have converged in interesting ways.

The Universe Had a Beginning

In the “How did it all begin?” section, the exhibition tells the story of how science came to replace the ancient pagan belief that the universe is eternal with the idea that it had a beginning. The Bible famously teaches that God created “the heavens and the earth” at a point in history. But the modern scientific proposal that the universe had a beginning came from Belgian Catholic priest and scientist Georges Lemaître in the 1930s. His theory later became known as “the big bang.” 

The exhibition explains that the big bang theory “was controversial, not just because some favored other theories, but because some believed it sounded too much like the biblical account of creation. It ultimately became the established model most scientists use today.”

The exhibition goes on to note that the big bang clearly raises questions with metaphysical implications: “If the universe has a beginning, what could cause all space, time, and energy to come into existence? … Did our universe emerge from an older one by natural laws? Or, as some believe, does modern cosmology point to a special act by a creator[?]”

The exhibition quotes famous NASA scientist Robert Jastrow describing how striking he found the idea that the universe may have had a beginning. A committed agnostic, Jastrow nevertheless acknowledged that the big bang had “a very strong theological flavor to it.” 

Jewish astronomer and physicist Arno Penzias, meanwhile, declared in an interview that “the best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five Books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.” The exhibition notes that Penzias won the Nobel Prize “for discovering cosmic microwave background radiation. The radiation was precisely what we should observe if the universe began” in the way Lemaître proposed.

A Super Intellect Monkeyed with Physics

The “What Keeps the Universe Running?” section of the exhibition investigates the exquisite fine-tuning throughout nature that makes life possible. Again, there has developed a striking convergence between the Bible’s view that nature reflects the rational workings of God and modern scientific discoveries showing the exquisite fine-tuning of nature for life. The exhibition highlights the views of prominent scientists of all religious persuasions who thought that fine-tuning points to an intelligent cause behind the universe.

For example, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton stated in a 1940 speech: “The chance of a world such as ours occurring without intelligent design becomes more and more remote as we learn of its wonders.” Atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University similarly declared: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.” And Christian physicist Charles Townes, another Nobel laureate, observed: “Increasingly, science is showing how special our universe and we are, which has raised questions about whether it was indeed planned or influenced.” 

Scientists shown in the exhibition discussing the theistic implications of fine-tuning include astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow and co-author of The Privileged Planet; research scientist Leslie Wickman; and astronomer Deborah Haarsma, President of BioLogos.

The Question of Life

The next section of the exhibition is “How did life begin?,” which delves into thorny questions about the origin of the first life and its subsequent development. This section initially explores the continuing mystery of the origin of the first life, an issue Darwin did not address in his books (although in a famous letter he speculated about life arising in “some warm little pond”). Experts featured here include Stephen Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell and Director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture; biochemist Fuz Rana, President of Reasons to Believe; and historian of science Edward Davis, an emeritus professor at Messiah College.  

This section of the exhibition highlights the massive amounts of biological information encoded in our DNA and raises a critical question: How did that information originate? Meyer is shown arguing that it points to an intelligent cause: “To build a living system we need matter and we need energy, but we also need information. Whenever we find information, and we trace it back to its ultimate source, we always come to a mind, not a material process.”

This section of the exhibition also explores debates sparked by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The coverage of the Darwin debate by the exhibition is refreshing for multiple reasons. 

First, the exhibition doesn’t over-emphasize the importance of the Darwin debate. As the overall sweep of the exhibition shows, the relationship between the Bible and science is a vibrant one that has involved significant areas of agreement. The Darwin debate shouldn’t be allowed to crowd out that overall story. 

Another refreshing feature of the exhibition’s coverage of Darwin is its acknowledgment that the historical controversy over Darwinian evolution was scientific as well as metaphysical. As a result, the exhibition includes examples of notable scientists who disagreed with Darwin on key points, including Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection, and Catholic zoologist St. George Jackson Mivart, whose bestselling critique of Darwin — On the Genesis of Species — is one of the artifacts displayed. The exhibition also highlights the backstory leading up to Darwin: Scientists and theologians before Darwin who explored what they thought were clear features of intelligent design in the natural world. These thinkers included English scientist John Ray, whose 1691 book, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, was a virtual catalog of examples of design in nature.

A final reason the exhibition’s treatment of Darwin is refreshing is that it gets right the central controversy over Darwin for people of faith. The central issue wasn’t length of time or even common ancestry. It was whether complex life developed without specific guidance from God.

Despite disagreements about how life developed, the exhibition shows that both the Bible and science have given people plenty of reasons to look at living things with awe and wonder. On the science side, one of the displays showcases a smattering of natural marvels scientists have uncovered in recent decades: gears in plant-hopping insects, mathematical patterns embedded in plants and animals, molecular transport machines operating inside our cells, and navigational systems in birds and butterflies. 

Humans Are Unique

The next section of the exhibition is “What makes me human?,” which explores how both the Bible and modern science have helped us better understand the uniqueness of humans in the natural order. As the exhibition points out, humans are rational beings, whose use of symbolic language outstrips anything seen in other animals. Humans are moral and social beings, debating and defending concepts of justice and human dignity. Humans are creative beings, whose capacities for art, music, storytelling, and tool-making reach far beyond the capacities of other animals. Finally, humans are spiritual beings who engage in worship and design and build amazing sacred spaces such as cathedrals. 

Nancy Pearcey, a professor at Houston Baptist University and author of Total Truth, is shown in this section explaining how crucial the Biblical concept of humans created in the image of God has been to our understanding of human dignity. 

Another display in this section highlights how the Biblical understanding of humanity was used to challenge scientific racism, telling the heartbreaking story of young African Ota Benga, who was put on display in a cage at the Bronx Zoo as an evolutionary missing link. As the exhibit points out, many Christian clergy challenged this display based on their Biblical understanding of the value of all human beings regardless of race. African-American minister James Gordon appealed to the public on behalf of Benga and other blacks in America: “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”

The exhibition’s next section, “What can we accomplish?,” further expands the story of humanity’s unique capacities by showcasing humans’ transformative uses of technology to advance medicine, agriculture, electronics, power generation, and more. This section highlights the many Jewish and Christian scientists inspired by the Bible who were responsible for pathbreaking innovations that have changed our world for the better.

Nature’s End

The final section of the exhibition addresses the topic, “How will it all end?” Both scientists and the Bible have predicted a cataclysmic end to our current universe, with the Bible offering hope of new heavens and a new earth and eternal life. 

In the New Testament, Jesus warned his disciples that no one knows the time of his return or the end of the age. That hasn’t stopped some of his followers from from making such predictions, including famous scientists like Isaac Newton, although Newton was humble enough to discount his speculations.

At the same time, a number of prognosticators claiming to speak for “science” have made stark predictions of world-ending catastrophes that turned out to be catastrophically wrong. The exhibition notes several of these embarrassing fails, including a 1967 book that predicted starvation for the entire planet within a decade, a University of California professor who predicted in the 1970s that pollution could lead to a new ice age by the year 2000, and a University of Arizona biologist who predicted in 2016 that humans would go extinct in less than a decade because of climate change. (The clock is still ticking on that prediction.)

One key point emphasized in this final section of the exhibition is the danger of scientific hubris. Whereas the Bible teaches that God will create a new heaven and earth, many scientific materialists in modern history have attempted to hijack science to create their own utopias by human power. As the exhibition points out, these scientific efforts to create heaven on earth generally didn’t turn out so well. The example highlighted by the exhibition is the crusade to apply the principles of natural selection to human society through the so-called science of “eugenics.”

In the final expert interview of the exhibition, humanities scholar Melissa Cain Travis, author of the new book Thinking God’s Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibility, provides a fitting wrap-up. She debunks the “widespread idea, especially in popular culture, that when it comes to the relationship between science and the Christian faith, what we’re dealing with is a zero-sum contest.” In her view, “that idea is rooted in a bankrupt philosophy known as scientism.” In fact, argues Travis, 

when Scripture is properly interpreted and scientific information is correctly understood, there will be an exquisite harmony or even a synergy in the areas where the two overlap. The great Johannes Kepler said it very well. He said natural philosophers or those who study nature are like priests in God’s grand cosmic temple, and through their discoveries they’re able to share in God’s own thoughts.

According to Travis, the harmony of science and religion over the past several decades has resulted in a “wonderful cumulative case for a creator from fields such as biochemistry, cosmology, particle physics, the geosciences, neuroscience. As the great 20th-century intellectual G. K. Chesterton remarked, this grand diversity of evidence makes the case for God all that stronger.”  

“Scripture and Science” is a visually striking, content-rich, and multi-layered exhibition that is well worth a visit — or two. While its main points can be absorbed in an hour, the exhibition could keep a curious person occupied for much longer than that if they had the time. “Science and Scripture” is currently scheduled to run through January 15, 2024.