What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? Jesus, Science and Research II (What If– 12)

As noted in the previous blog, the Greeks made an advance toward modern scientific research in seeing the world as something that ought to be understood. This was a big step in the direction of scientific research, rejecting the ideas that the world was the abode of gods that should be left alone, or that it was an illusion. But the Greek advance in scientific thinking never produced a scientific revolution because they despised matter and manual labor. These are two things you have to be engaged in and with, in order to advance scientific knowledge. In seeing matter and manual labor as goods Jesus set the table for a major change in people’s thinking.

The first impact of Jesus’ attitude toward the world was on the church. If God made the world and declared it good, science (based on scientia, the Latin word for knowledge) is simply “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” in the words of Johannes Kepler. And if human beings are designed in the image of God, then they are to be as thoughtful and creative as God is. So the seeds of the “Scientific Revolution” were planted in early universities, which were all grounded in Christian principles and idea. As noted, these included freedom of thought and inquiry (not just rote learning), but also the dignity of labor and positive view of natural world. These “Jesus ideas” laid the foundation for what would later become known as scientific method.

To some degree the dominance of the medieval church and general ignorance of the Bible held the potential for scientific advances back until the Reformation rediscovered and again promulgated the teachings of Jesus. With the Reformation came an explosion of science. A number of factors were in play. It was a time of spiritual revival and intense Christian belief. Protestant society was open to reading, learning and independent thought. But the Reformation added one further ingredient, the idea that human beings are essentially sinful. If human hearts are sinful and perverse (Jer 17:9), then ideas cannot merely be asserted, they need to be demonstrated. Science, then, needs to be based on replicable experiments, where ideas are held accountable to data. Because even the results of experimentation can be manipulated, the only safety was to subject the results of science to Scripture. And so the Reformation came up with the idea of the two books of revelation, the Bible and the evidence of the natural world. The words of God and the works of God should be in harmony.

If one has any doubts about the impact of the Reformation on the development of the scientific revolution, one need only look more closely at the kind of people who laid the groundwork for modern science. Virtually all scientists until 1750 were fervent, believing Christians, including the key founders of scientific research. The names are legendary, their Christian commitments, not as well known. We can start with Isaac Newton (who studied at Cambridge University). He is widely considered the father of calculus, the laws of motion, and the binomial theorem, all foundational to scientific research. Less well known is that he took time to write commentaries on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. He studied Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. There is no better window on his Christian commitment than his own diary, where he puts in writing his innermost thoughts. There you will find lines like the following: “We are in . . . his son Jesus Christ, this is the true God.” “Christ died for our sins.” “Christ hath loved us and hath given himself for us.” Newton was clearly no secular humanist. He was driven and motivated by his relationship with Jesus.

Johannes Kepler is thought of as the father of modern astronomy, celestial mechanics, and even the pinhole camera. Interestingly, he began his studies to become a pastor, but he was too good in math and his teachers quickly urged him to consider moving in that direction. It is a good thing for human history that he did. But he never abandoned his commitment to the gospel and kept it in mind as he pondered the universe. In his diary you will find statements like, “Before the universe was created, there were no numbers except the Trinity. . .” Like Kepler, Blaise Pascal was a committed Christian. He was also the father of geometry, physics, the scientific method, and the mechanical computer. His commitment was put on record in his diary: “Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you . . . . Jesus Christ . . . may I never be separated from him.”

The Royal Society of Great Britain was the first great scientific association. Yet its founder were not only Christian, 62% of them were Puritans, the strictest branch of English Christianity. And the founder of most branches of science were not only Christians, they were creationists. To believe that God created the universe does not mean you will do bad science, some of the greatest of scientists had no problem integrating their Christian beliefs with their scientific endeavors. The list of names is extensive, I will share only a few. The following scientific disciplines were founded by committed Christians: Antiseptic surgery (Joseph Lister), bacteriology (Louis Pasteur), calculus (Newton and Leibniz), celestial mechanics (Johannes Kepler), chemistry (Robert Boyle), comparative anatomy (George Cuvier), electromagnetics (Michael Faraday), galactic astronomy (William Herschel), genetics (Gregor Mendel), glacial geology (Louis Agassiz), isotopic chemistry (William Ramsey). No less an authority than Rodney Stark affirms that 51 of the 52 most influential scientists of the Scientific Revolution were committed Christians. At least half of them would be what we might call “born-again” believers, active and devoted followers of Jesus.

With all these historical facts in mind, it is fair to wonder if science as we know it would exist had Jesus never been born. Had Jesus never existed would there be an internet, cell phones, cars, airplanes, central heat and AC, electric lights? I suspect the world would be a very different place if Jesus had never been born. Much of what brings us comfort and joy in today’s world we ultimately owe to Jesus.

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