How can I reconcile stories from the Bible with science?

The Bible contains many stories that contradict each other, and that very fact tells us something important.

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- Dr. Francis S. Collins on Faith and Science

What's most important in stories about miracles?

Facts, truth, faith

Written By William A. Kolb

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21

The story of the multiplication of the fish and the loaves takes place when Jesus withdraws to a deserted place, most likely to deal with his feelings of deep loss after hearing about the death of John the Baptist, his friend,colleague and cousin. The story is contained in all four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Biblical scholars tell us that that is significant and indicates a higher probability that the event, or an event on which the account is based, really took place, factually and historically.

We are very interested in whether a biblical event really took place. Ever since modern research resources, including archaeology, have been available to us, we have sought out evidence about this or that miracle or meeting or conversation portrayed in scripture. Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus was an account of just such an exploration. That book was published early in this fast-fading century. Over the decades that have passed since then, many theologians and biblical scholars have realized that there is much in the world of faith that cannot be pinned down as linear fact, and that there is much that is rich and powerful in mystery, that which cannot be explained by the mind of man or woman.

This morning’s Gospel account of the fish and the loaves is one that is often explained by various theories that tend to deny that this was a miracle and can’t really be explained. Feminist theologian Rosemary Reuther, for example, believes that the great abundance of bread and fish came from the foresight of the women present, whose food baskets were not taken into consideration because the women were not taken into consideration (notice how this reading ends, with "and those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children," as if they weren’t really present.)

Another popular scenario is that one boy offered his fish and loaves, carefully packed away in his coat, and with that, more and more people in the crowd brought out the food they were keeping for themselves.

I wonder what is more important: the factual accuracy of the story or the Truth of God that the story tells? Must we know HOW God does God’s works, or is it our greater yearning to know that God is able to do and does great works? Must we, in our pride of thinking we can get our mind around anything and everything, refuse to see the truth that God is beyond our ken, beyond the grasp of our minds?

Let me share with you a theory that someone came up with many years ago. It suggests that there are four stages of faith, four points on our journey of understanding and believing:

1. Believing nothing, or not caring about the whole subject.

2. Black and white; crystal clear; right for me; perhaps right for all.

An example of this second stage came recently in an e-mail received at our Web site ( since "booting up" our Internet operation we have been receiving more and more correspondence from people all over the country).

In this case, the person writing in was responding to a piece of our content; his question was, "If God is not a punishing God, then what did Jesus die to save us from?"

Wouldn’t it be great if everything were black and white, if good people were all good and bad people all evil, if life were sure and structured and absolutely predictable and dependable? Life is just not that way, and faith designed for that kind of world won’t hold up in the real world.

3. Doubt —if you are here, welcome to the club—you are not alone. It has been said that faith is committed doubt.

How can we not doubt?

The old question, If God is all good and all powerful how can we have tragedies in this life, especially when they come to those who are young, those who are innocent, those who are clearly good people, even saints?

Again, we are assuming that our human minds are capable of fully comprehending the mind and nature of God.

But as we try to comprehend, how can we not have doubts when we have or see such great pain and suffering as the tragic murders in Atlanta this past week? Or the increasing incidence of children shooting children all over our country? Or all the horror and loss and pain of all the wars of our century?

Doubt, however, has its upside: doubt is the beginning of moving to a stage of faith that grows out of our own experience, rather than faith that comes from what we have been told.

4. Life is not black-and-white but gray. … I don’t understand (God is beyond our ken), but I believe.… I don’t much care how it was possible that Jesus rose physically from the grave and my rational mind cannot get around such a possibility, but I believe that God is, and that God can do anything and that’s enough for me. That is a rock on which I can live and on which I hope I can die.… I don’t know if Jesus did a miracle with the loaves and fish or if it happened some other way, but I know that Jesus multiplies all kinds of things when we let him, like love and spiritual growth and healings of spirit and even sometimes body, and that’s good enough for me.

I believe it was St. Augustine who said, "For years I tried to understand so that I could believe; one day I believed and now I understand."

The deepest Truths are not dependent on facts. If all we have in our lives is facts and other data, we are poor. Spirit and truth are more important and more powerful at a deeper level than any facts.

This truly mystical event, the miracle of the loaves and fish, is, at its heart, about the great Truth that God is gracious and generous, that his love for us is never-ending, and that he is always ready, able and yearning to feed us all that we need for fullness of the life that God wishes for us to have.

In one of the peaceful and powerful resurrection appearances in scripture, Jesus cooks breakfast for Peter on the beach, and tells him, and by implication He tells us, to feed his sheep. When we are fed then we can feed others. God is always waiting to feed us with loaves and fish, with
love and peace, with comfort and inner strength. May we always be willing partakers of His food and may we in turn be ready to feed others, all our lives long.


Copyright ©1999 Rev. William A. Kolb

Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee.