Science & the gospel, iii

  • Sumo

This series is to consider how faith in Christ transforms our view of science.

I’m using Two Ways To Live (TWTL) to shape the series: six TWTL points – six posts on science. Each point has an image in addition to short summary statements.

The third part of TWTL is:

God won’t let us rebel forever.

God’s punishment for rebellion is death and judgement.

God’s justice sounds hard, but ….



Did you know there are two types of death that science investigates? There’s necrosis (for example, when blood supply is cut off from part of the brain). And there’s apoptosis, also called ‘programmed cell death’ (the common example is the disappearance of a tadpole’s tail as the tadpole transforms into a frog).

This third point in our gospel outline concerns a type of death that science cannot investigate. This is death before God, death as punishment for sin, eternal death. Eternal death is not defined by biology – it has a cause more profound than the end of cellular process. This death is God’s just judgement.

it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement
Hebrews 9:27

The reality of God’s judgement is a sobering message, for science as much as for the rest of human culture. There are at least three consequences for science.

Firstly, we see that science has a limit. In the simple sense, this is because science is not the right tool for every investigation. Science is not the way to determine human justice systems, much less is science able to comprehend God’s justice.

More significant by far is the reality that, at the end of all things, science itself will be tested. Science and scientists will be judged by God. Science is not equivalent to ‘knowledge’, or ‘truth’. Science does forward some small part of total knowledge, but is itself subject to the One who truly knows. The One who truly knows is also the One who truly decides and judges and establishes eternal outcomes.

Good science, therefore, shows some humility as it recognises its limits.

Secondly, the certainty of judgement means that experiments are moral actions. Each experiment proceeds because the investigator thinks it an acceptable experiment. This is, to me, quite obvious. Yet it becomes important at times when scientists try to side-step ethical assessment, or speak as if moral questions have no place in the lab.

For example, some labs use human embryos for experiments. You might hear, ‘These cells were excess to requirement – other embryos had been successfully implanted into the mother – so they were going to waste.’ Such an attempt to sound outside the reach of ethical judgement only hides the ethical decisions already made. In this case, someone has already decided to form more embryos than will be implanted. This decision is ‘in case’ something goes wrong with the first implantation – but it actively hopes that a number of embryos will be excess. It hopes for some ’embryo wastage’.

Ethics does already feature in science, of course. While I was a lab worker, my boss made it very clear that I had a very important task: to ensure that every single animal cage had an ethics approval number attached at all times. If we were subject to a random check – as could happen at any time – having animals not covered by existing approvals would cause us serious trouble. What’s important is that science applies ethics everywhere.

Thirdly, there is no such beast as neutral science or a neutral scientist. All scientists have a personal stake in what they do, and one indication of this is the future judgement that God will deliver.

Interestingly, this is seen in the broader philosophy of science. In the last 50 years or so, those who ask the question ‘What is science?’ have demolished the idea of scientists as being disinterested. (Please note, disinterested is different from uninterested.) We understand that observation is ‘theory-laden’: the scientific team start with the idea, they do not discover the idea out of neutral data. Other point out that taking a reading changes the experimental conditions (feel free to read about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or the observer’s paradox in linguistics). Theologically, this this lack of scientific neutrality extends beyond the experiment and into the realm of our life before God.

To conclude, God’s future judgement may, at first, appear  to be disconnected from science. This is not the case at all. Rather, people who diligently seek out knowledge would be well advised to understand where their knowledge fits within the largest knowledge of all – the knowledge that God holds of all reality, the knowledge that he will employ at the final judgement.