How can a person know what to believe? Repeatedly I have heard this question through the years but never more often than in recent weeks. The same radio and television stations that broadcast my messages also have been featuring individuals with doctorates (and others) who flatly, often adamantly, contradict me. These scholarly individuals assert, for example, that the Big Bang has been disproven, that new discoveries indicate dinosaurs and human beings coexisted, that geological and paleontological data prove that the entire fossil record and all oil and coal reserves were formed during the Genesis Flood, that science establishes the age of both the universe and the earth as younger than ten thousand years, and that the only valid interpretation of Genesis places creation of the sun, moon, and stars after creation of the plants and that all life on Earth was created within the six twenty-four hour days of one week. Their words sound as authoritative and convincing as mine, and the hosts interviewing them obviously are persuaded. Short of picking up advanced degrees in astronomy, geophysics, geology, paleontology, and theology -- or receiving a telegram directly from heaven -- how can we tell who is credible and who is not? Sincerity is not the issue.
First, I am encouraged that so many have taken the trouble to ask either in person or in writing. The easy thing to do would be to forget about science apologetics altogether or to decide what to believe on a superficial or subjective basis. Scripture exhorts us to do neither but to "test everything." Christianity must not promote or exalt "blind" faith. As Scripture records, God Himself offered substantiating evidence when His servants and spokesmen needed reassurance of His word's trustworthiness. God showed people He had the power to fulfill His promises. Those who needed a "reality check" received it. We see examples stretching from Genesis to Revelation, including Moses' "multipurpose" rod and Jesus' raising of the dead. We must not seek tests yielding absolute proof. Such proof is neither possible nor essential. God always leaves room for faith's exercise. But we are called to test matters that are testable, and the certainty of the results should determine the certainty of our assertions and of our decisions based on them.
Determining what kind of tests to apply may not be easy. Sometimes we can see a clearly relevant biblical test case, and sometimes we cannot. In matters that involve both biblical data and scientific or historical facts, the academic community, Christian and non-Christian alike, has developed over the past few centuries demonstrably effective and widely accepted truth-guards.
The primary approach is best summed up in the phrase "peer review." Peers are fellow scholars and practitioners in the discipline to which a particular claim (or test) belongs. Peers must include those who share some of the perspectives and presuppositions of a claimant and those who do not. For example, in testing the claim that the entire fossil record was deposited during a global deluge a few thousand years ago, a good question to ask would be how many paleontologists, both Christians and non-Christians, conclude based on research data that Noah's Flood is responsible for all prehistoric fossils. Are there some from both theological perspectives who accept this conclusion, or is there a noticeable unanimity in one direction or the other?
Another key question is this: How often have the claimants delivered their message to professional paleontologists (regardless of their theology), and what has been the response of the paleontologists to the message? The answers to these questions will be telling. They will indicate what level, if any, of scientific support exists for a claimant's assertions.
If the support from a cross section of scientists is either weak, one-sided, or nonexistent, the reason may be that a claimant's conclusions are rooted more solidly in ideology than in evidence. Some might say the lack of scientific support may just as strongly suggest that scientists are rooted in ideology more than in evidence. However, the false assumption behind this generalization is that scientists "all think alike" or share the same worldview or ideology.
For practicality's sake, we cannot conduct a survey of all the world's scientists for each question or claim that arises. However, a phone call to the relevant department(s) of a local university, to NASA's public information office, or to some other large government research facility, usually suffices. If these sources cannot help, they can usually direct us to other researchers or sources who can. Through today's communications technology, a scientist can make contact with virtually every other scientist in the world working in his or her specific discipline.
The situation is a little more difficult when the response from scientists is mixed. On some issues, such as whether the value of the Hubble constant (a measure of how fast the universe is expanding) is 50 kilometers per second per megaparsec, 80, or some value between 50 and 80, researchers are divided fairly evenly. This kind of split suggests much more study is needed before conclusions can be drawn with certainty. In other cases, where the split is extremely lopsided, the split may suggest something else.
For example, if we ask scientists about evidence for the big bang, about a tenth of a percent of researchers in nonsectarian institutions may respond negatively. A little further digging reveals that ideology sometimes interferes on the science side, too. The handful of astronomers who resist the big bang willingly tip their hand both in interviews and in writing that they have an aversion to any theory that demands a Creator and that makes the universe too young (only a dozen or so billions of years old) to support any hope of a nontheistic interpretation for life's origin. In other words, astronomers opposing the big bang reject it for ideological reasons. One also discovers that the most recent scientific paper opposing the big bang was published with a black border surrounding it and the word "hypothesis" printed all along that border.
DEMEANOR AND CONTENT
Demeanor of a claimant and the content of the message may give additional credibility clues. Oratorical skill and emotional fervor prove nothing. However, a person whose message is based more solidly on evidence than on ideology tends to express less emotion and to present more information in his or her talk. Emotionally expressive or not, this individual will typically present, with some respect, an overview of differing interpretations of the data and the basis for each of these differing views. This individual can be expected to make reference to the familiar scientific journals. If the talk or paper offers more opinion and rhetorical devices than information, we have reason to beware.
Another way to test a person's science-related claims is to look up at least some of the sources to which he or she refers. Those who misrepresent the truth either accidentally or deliberately often misunderstand or distort the source materials they quote. Testers with limited time and access may wish to enlist the help of a student, teacher, or librarian friend to do some checking.
A claimant's response to mistakes, his or her own and others', may give additional hints about credibility. Every speaker or writer makes at least an occasional mistake, misstatement, or misinterpretation. An individual to whom discernment of truth has higher value than being right or protecting an ideology is more likely to respond with some equanimity when an error comes to his or her attention. Heated emotion, either in defending or accusing, tends to suggest the opposite priority.
Because science has become so complex and technical, explaining various findings to a lay audience severely tests a speaker's or writer's grasp of the information. A claimant who cannot make clear how he or she arrived at certain conclusions may not have sound basis for those conclusions. Anyone whose goal is to impress and to persuade with technical jargon rather than to clarify should raise our suspicions. So should anyone who quotes only secondary material, interpretations of sources we are unlikely to examine for ourselves.
THE BEREAN ADVANTAGE
According to Luke in the book of Acts, "The Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." Checking and asking questions are commendable, not condemnable. The church will be strengthened as the number of Berean-type believers grows. For one, benefit by their challenges -- your challenges. No one but God stands above the need for review. Christians have everything to gain and nothing to lose in being reminded, as I often am, that our communication of data and of reasoning from data needs clarification. Think how many people have been turned away from Christ by churches and leaders who disallow testing and how many people may be turned back to Him when we demonstrate a willingness, even an appreciation of, challenges to our claims.