In the eyes of many atheists, especially college students in mainland China, the Bible contradicts science. Examples such as Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei being persecuted by the Catholic Church usually comes to their mind. So, I think for the ministers from Campus Ministry in China have to study further to face the challenge, so that the students know there is no conflict between Science and the Bible, but conflict comes from the divergence of Hermeneutics and power struggle inside of Christianity itself.
Copernican debate is one of the most significant confrontations between theology and the natural sciences which took place during the sixteenth century, with the publication of Copernicus's heliocentric theory of the solar system. Up to that point, the generally accepted understanding was geocentric: the sun and every other heavenly body revolved around the earth. After all, even the Bible referred to the motion of the sun.
As the scientific merits of Copernicus' theory became apparent, a new threat seemed to be posed to the authority and reliability of the Bible. How could Copernicus's heliocentric theory be reconciled with the Bible's apparently geocentric outlook?
How can Joshua 10:12 be interpreted (…Joshua said to the lord in the presence of Israel: "Sun, stand still over Gibeon,…)? Did the Sun really stop? The conflict appeared between natural science and theology based on this verse, in the 16th Century (On the revolutions of the heavenly bodies by Copernicus).
Calvin insisted that not all biblical statements concerning God or the world were to be taken literally, for they were accommodated to the ability of their audiences. Scripture, in apparently speaking of the Sun rotating around the Earth, was simply accommodating itself to the worldview of its audience, not making scientific statements about the universe. It's not hard to understand, because modern people, including scientists, still often use unscientific language today. For example, we are used to saying "sunrise" and "sunset", although we know that the earth is not the center of the universe and the sun does not revolve around the earth. Even in some scientific reports, the words "sunrise" and "sunset" often appear.
God certainly has scientific knowledge, but the bible writers do not know about modern science. Does God need to explain everything to the audience in precise scientific terms?
Technical and popular languages serve different purposes. For example, A scientist uses technical language to communicate with colleagues and publish in professional journals. But in an ordinary conversation, the same individual uses everyday language. It is unreasonable to interpret the popular writing of the Bible as though its terminology were technical. It is equally irresponsible to find hidden references to modern science in the Bible. The Holy Spirit never intended to communicate such things through the biblical writers. And Galileo said that the Bible tells us "How to Go to Heaven, Not How the Heavens Go."
From what has been discussed above, we may draw a conclusion that only if a demonstrated scientific truth conflicts with the literal meaning of a passage can we question if it should be interpreted literally. And, sometimes, it depends on the kind of literature. It is generally recognized that Scripture contains figures of speech. One should take the literal parts literally and the figurative parts figuratively, being aware that the biblical writers use a variety of literary forms to convey God's truth.
"The stars will fall from the sky" defies science?
Now, let's look at the controversial text: "The stars will fall from the sky (Mark 13:25, NIV )" does this defy science? Atheists point out that ancient people thought stars were small objects hanging in the sky; therefore, Jesus "foolishly" said that the stars would fall to the ground when the world is coming to an end. But, stars visible to the naked eye are much larger than the Earth. So they think: "The stars will fall from the sky" defies science.
From the discussion above, we may safely arrive at the conclusion that "The stars will fall from the sky (Mark 13:25, NIV )" should NOT be interpreted literally. Just as Apostle Paul said, "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6, NIV)" In addition, scripture interprets itself, "Look in the scroll of the Lord and read: None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate. For it is his mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together. (Isaiah 34:16, NIV)"
So, I think the " stars" from Mark 13:25 and Matt 24:29 symbolizes " idols", the following scripture may support my viewpoint, "But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars…"(Acts 7:42, NIV)
Actually, both Mark 13:25 and Matthew 24:29 originally came from "The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Isaiah 13:10 NIV)
"What does the "sun" figuratively mean? Let us look at other scriptures, "But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. (Malachi 4:2 NIV)" "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. (John 1:9 NIV)", "When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12 NIV)".
From the above scriptures we can come to the conclusion that the " sun" in Malachi 4:2 symbolizes " Jesus Christ". He is the true God, we should worship and serve him only in my heart, soul, and my whole life. As for the "sun" in Matt 24:29 and Isaiah 13:10 symbolizes "gods", "idols", or "ruler of the world". Many times, in order to deify people, pagans made gods into images of people and imagined them as the stars. But they are not the true God. For example, the pharaoh called himself the son of the sun god, and subjected the people of Egypt to worship him as a god. Roman Emperors ordered people to worship him as god, Nero was more forthright, he described himself as the embodiment of the sun god. Actually, in biblical times, "sun", "moon", "stars" tend to conjure up "gods". All the false gods tried to replace the truth God, to tempt people worship to them (idols).
So, from the analyses made above one may come to the conclusion that, both Mark 13:25 and Matt 24:29 may be telling us, people will turned them from idols (gods) worship to serve the living and true God when Jesus Christ returns.
"The fires of God's judgment" in biblical prophecy should only be interpreted literally？
According to the prediction of the Scriptures of the Eschaton, there will be great distress, the whole earth is heading for extinction anyway, in a great fiery obliteration that will leave nothing of the present world in existence. In my experience, this view is very popular among Chinese house churches, and it is based on a misunderstanding of 2 Peter 3:10 (NIV): "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare."
Christopher Wright said, "At the time of KJV, the only available Greek manuscripts had the final verb of that sentence as 'will be burnt up', and so this thought entered Christian expectations. Much earlier manuscripts that have since been discovered indicate that the original word is 'will be found'. What this probably means is that as the purging fires of God's judgment do their work, the earth and all deeds done on it will be fully exposed and 'found out' for what they really are."
Not only so, other bible versions translated this passage in 2 Peter 3:10: "will be disclosed, NRSV ", "will be exposed, ESV". Therefore, the phrase "destroyed by fire" in 2 Peter 3:10 should be understood as " the word of God will destroy all the evil." Just as Christopher Wright said, "We are not leaving the created order for some other 'spiritual' order. Rather, we will be leaving the old sinful order of things and will find ourselves in a renewed, restored, redeemed creation…It is not the end of the planet, but the end of the old world order of sin and evil and the emergence of a new creation."
We may approach this problem from a different angle. The "fire" of "The fires of God's judgment" in biblical prophecy should only be interpreted literally？ Or should it NOT be interpreted literally? I think it may be interpreted figurative. Just as Apostle Paul said, "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)" In addition, scripture interprets itself, "Look in the scroll of the Lord and read: None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate. For it is his mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together. (Isaiah 34:16 NIV)
"The "fire" from both on OT and NT symbolizes "the word of God". I have a little list here, "Therefore this is what the Lord God Almighty says: 'Because the people have spoken these words, I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes.' (Jeremiah 5:14 NIV)", " 'Is not my word like fire,'declares the Lord , 'and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? ' (Jeremiah 23:29 NIV)", "Surely they are like stubble; the fire will burn them up. They cannot even save themselves from the power of the flame. These are not coals for warmth; this is not a fire to sit by. (Isaiah 47:14 NIV)", ""I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11, NIV)", " 'I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!' (Luke 12:49 NIV)", "There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. (John 12:48, NIV)"
Moreover, the original text root of the word "destroyed" in "be destroyed by fire" of 2 Peter 3:10 has the meaning of "release". And the original text root of "destruction" of 2 Peter 3:7 also has the meaning of "release". It's an echo of "that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:21 NIV)"
A conclusion can be drawn from the above, that we may not see these passages indicating an obliteration of the earth, but washing and cleansing it of the presence and effects of all sin and evil by the word to make it a holy new heaven and new earth. The Scope of God's redeeming work is as vast as the whole universe he created.
In addition, there are many passages in the bible that compare suffering to fire, like 1 Peter 1:6b-7: "…though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." Peter tells his readers that suffering is like a furnace of fire.
As the flame burns not the gold itself, but the impurities on it, so that the gold can be purified, becoming more pure and beautiful; In the same way, suffering destroys something within us and gives our life a chance to be purified. In the Bible, "fire" is undoubtedly seen as a purifying medium. Then Peter might have predicted the purification of the world by fire, not its destruction.
How can people around the world see the Christ coming with the clouds at the same time?
Another controversial text is "'Look, he is coming with the clouds,' and 'every eye will see him, even those who pierced him'; and all peoples on earth 'will mourn because of him.(Revelations 1:7, NIV)'"Many people question this verse and say, "Since the earth is round, if Christ were to descend over the northern hemisphere, he would be invisible to the people of the southern hemisphere. So how can Christ come to be seen around the world at the same time?"
I was even challenged to say, "If people around the world are going to see Christ coming with the clouds at the same time, then he has to be over at least three places at the same time. Can Christ be separated? And how big would he have to be to be visible at a distance?" A cloud is made of water. How can a man stand on it?
Not only that, when Christ come again, those who pierced him was already dead. How can the dead see the coming Christ?
The key to solving these problems is not to interpret this text according to its literal form. In the Bible, the word "cloud" is associated with the appearance of God's glory. Many verses (Exodus 16:10, 40:34, Matthew 17:5, Mark 9:7) use clouds as a symbol of God's presence and glory. The point of this verse is that John saw in the vision that the coming Christ was coming with glory.
Next, we take a closer look at the symbolism of the "cloud" in this verse according to the principle of "the scripture interprets itself". "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)" Clouds are symbolic of people who bear witness to Jesus Christ. Many witnesses were like the cloud, testifying to Jesus Christ and glorifying him; as "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:10-11 NIV)"
And if we look at the cloud formation process, something very interesting can be observed. In the bible, water symbolizes the fallen world and the unsaved (Revelations 17:15: "Then the angel said to me, 'The waters you saw, where the prostitute sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and languages." ) The sun's rays symbolize the truth, Jesus Christ (John 8:12). As the picture below shows, isn't the process of being chosen by God from the fallen world and finally being saved to become disciples similar to the formation of clouds? I agree the view of R. B. Y. Scott, this "cloud" is not a natural cloud.
This verse from John clearly combines the Old Testament passage Daniel 7:13 with Zechariah 12:10. In contrast to the humble nature of the first coming, John emphasizes that Christ will return with glory and openly, in all his glory and majesty. The coming of Christ is him coming into his own kingdom, in which all things are his, and in holy glory.
The other question (when Christ come again, those who pierced him was already dead. How can the dead see the coming Christ?) is not difficult to answer. A born-again Christian confesses: although we were not there when Jesus was crucified; But Jesus died for our sin, and it was our sin that crucified Jesus. When Christ come back in glory as a king, those who had previously ignored or opposed him will see that he is the master of the universe and will judge them. The world will turn away from their idols and repented of their sin before him, turning to him with all their hearts by the grace of God.
The Rapture with full of mystery and controversy
"The Rapture" is also a controversial topic. Once upon a time, my atheist friend asked me, "What would it be like to come home one day and see all my Christian family members taken, leaving me alone?" "If a Christian driver is suddenly taken above the Earth while driving a train, what will happen to the passengers in the train? Is not the world in chaos?"
In Christianity, theories and prophecies about "The Rapture" are fantasies. In fact, the word "rapture" is not used in the bible. Many of the concepts of "rapture" are derived from one passage, but many texts that have no mention of "rapture" at all are used to support this concept, which is clearly a misunderstanding.
"Rapture" is derived from translation of "harpazo", means "catch up", "take by force", "catch away" or "pluck". People who were close to Paul used this word to describe people who died early.
The main basis for the theory of "Rapture" is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever."
Just as we shouldn't take "Christ comes again with the clouds" literally, we should not take "left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." literally!
In interpreting this text, we cannot ignore the purpose of Paul's letter and the situation of the church of Thessalonians. Paul is talking about the glory of the return of Jesus the king, NOT the mysterious rapture of the saints.
Because the Thessalonians were concerned about the return of Christ, they thought they would see it within their lifetime. But they were worried for those who had died who would not be able to share in the glory of Christ's return. That is to say, some Thessalonians Christians were still under the influence of pagan ideas that death is an impenetrable barrier that prevents those who died before the return of Christ from experiencing his presence.
Paul describes the day of the coming of Christ in a poetic form, and he tries to describe the ineffable vision, which is a prophetic vision that is not expressed in crude and straightforward words. In fact, the detailed description itself is not important. Paul wants to emphasize that Christians are all in Christ, whether they are alive or dead. The relationship between those who love Jesus Christ and Christ is unbreakable. All believers in Christ will be "with the Lord forever" whether they are alive or dead at his coming. This brought comfort to the Thessalonians in their grief.
Biblical writers like Prophets use symbolic language or metaphor to make the congregation aware of the importance of predicted events in human history. Like the prophets, Paul sometimes also uses symbolic or metaphorical language, but not everyone is aware of this, and sometimes takes the metaphorical language of Paul's letters too literally.
The human language is very limited; it cannot fully describe the work of God, especially the coming of the glory of the Lord. Although this text describes what is real and will happen in the future, it does not mean that the description must follow its literal meaning.
Science may guide us to find a correct way to approach the Bible.
We conclude with one suggested step to make some headway to resolve science versus Christian faith issues. It would be to carefully consider biblical hermeneutics, and to be thoughtful in deciding the interpretive method used in reading the biblical passages that have been part of the historic creation-evolution controversy.
In 16th -17th century, with the appearance of the rationalism and scientific research in the Spring and Autumn Period, two extreme views appeared: rationalists casting doubts on the integrity and reliability of Holy Scripture; on the other extreme, the church determines that science is wrong.
We affirm that the doctrine of Inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith throughout its history. The content of our beliefs is the Bible; the standard for our beliefs is also the Bible, God's inspired, inerrant and infallible Word. The problem is how the bible 'interpreted'. What is the Bible author's aim while writing the text? "And how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15 NIV)" So, the aim of Bible writing is to make the reader come to have a saving relationship with Christ and a living experience of him; it is about the history of God's work to redeem mankind. But if we treat the Bible as a science text, we result in reaching a wrong conclusion. Moreover, the language expression of the biblical writer, it is familiar everyday expressions that the general public understood in ancient times. There is tacit communication between the biblical writer and his listeners. The language expression of the Bible is not precise and rigorous as Scientific language, yet it is still appropriate. In the middle Ages, the church in Europe interfered seriously with the advance of science. For example, The earth-centered view dominated European science until the Seventeenth Century, the Church's statement that the Earth was the center of the solar system, and all other planets and the Sun revolved around it. When Copernicus' and Galileo's began to overcome the ideas of the church, however, Copernicus's theory was banned by the Catholic Church in 1616 because it was said to be "pseudoscience". Galileo was accused of heresy in 1633 and forced to publicly recant his theories. It took the church more than 350 years to reverse its condemnation of Galileo. In 1992, Pope John Paul said the church's denunciation of Galileo's work had been a tragic error.
The miracle of "sun stop" of Joshua 10:12-13 brought about the conflict between natural science and theology based on this verse. But as described above, the language expression of the Bible is not precise and rigorous as scientific language, it is the familiar everyday expressions that the general public understood in ancient times. "This is indeed unscientific, but so is our ordinary language-like 'sunrise.' When we say the sun 'rose' we do not mean we subscribe to the pre-Copernican view that the sun revolves round the earth. Common sense should tell us not to interpret ordinary language as a claim to scientific accuracy."
Historical criticism of scientific method may guide us find a correct way to approach the Bible. Calvin insisted that not all biblical statements concerning God or the world were to be taken literally, for they were accommodated to the abilities of their audiences. Scripture, in apparently speaking of the sun rotating around the Earth, was simply accommodating itself to the worldview of its audience, not making scientific statements about the Universe. Therefore, we should spend considerable time learning the correct ways to study Scripture and derive the Spirit-intended meaning from a text.
Are there any consistent and objective guidelines for literal versus symbolic interpretation of Bible?"
When the biblical author claims he saw something in the external world with his own eyes, or that someone else did and told him, then we are to interpret it literally. On the other hand, when a thing is not visible to the eye, we cannot interpret it literally. Here are three such cases:
1. Sometimes the object in question is by its nature invisible, like God or the soul.
2. Sometimes the author claims to have 'seen' it only with the inner eye, in a vision or a dream.
3. And sometimes the author 'made it up'; it is fiction, like a parable….
Language that is not literal can still be true, and accurate, and extremely important. It is an elementary but common mistake to confuse the nonliteral with the nontrue or the nonimportant."
Behold R. B. Y. Scott. He Cometh with Clouds. NTS, 1958-9.
Christopher Wright. The God I Don't Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith. USA: Langham Partnership International, 2008.
Dyrness, A. William and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Global Dictionary of Theology. Downers Grove, IL:Inter Varsity Presss, 2008.
Hummel E. Charles. the galileo connection: resolving conflicts between science & the bible. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1986.
Kreeft peter and Ronald K. Tacell. Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1994. Adobe PDF eBook.
Lai John. Ten Steps Interpretation. China: New World Press, 2012.
Ma Lin-xian. Lecture on British Literature and Christian. China: Sichuan Press, 2013.
McGrath E.Alister. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2011.
Strong James. A Dictionary of Strong's Concordance Number of Literal Chinese Translation of The Old and New Testaments, China: CCC, 2012.
Yang Zhen. Christian history. Center for Chinese Research Materials, 1979.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
The author is a pastor in China.