Robert (Bob) White is professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University and a Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 2018 was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in recognition of a lifetime’s achievement in research. His work has focused on volcanoes and earthquakes and the dynamics of the Earth’s crust, in particular when continents pull apart to create new oceans.
Science can never tell you why God made the world. Science and faith are complementary; they are different ways of looking at the same truths.’
Bob White was brought up in a church-going family and attended church every week. But it wasn’t until he arrived at Cambridge University to read Natural Sciences that he met people who talked about knowing Jesus Christ in a personal way. ‘At first I thought it was a bit weird to be talking about having a relationship with somebody who was dead and somebody who was God,’ he remembers. ‘But I was impressed by the way these same people behaved. They were friendly, supportive and loving towards me. What I didn’t realise until later was that they were modelling the love of Jesus. It was the reality of their love which made me think: “There is something to their lives that is different from mine”.’ It was a Sunday evening sermon by the late Revd John Stott, that prompted White to respond and become a Christian. ‘It was not a big emotional moment; it was more an acknowledgement that Christianity made sense of the world, made sense of my experiences, made sense of my interactions with science and my personal interactions with other people, in a way that nothing else did.'
White sees no conflict between science and faith. ‘They are just different ways of looking at God’s world,’ he says. ‘Some people talk about science as explaining how things work and faith as explaining why things work. Science can never tell you why God made the world. Science and faith are complementary; they are different ways of looking at the same truths.’
White finds that his work enhances his faith. ‘As a geophysicist I spend my life talking about things in millions and billions of years old, yet humans have been around only for the last little fraction of that time. This makes me realise that God considers humankind as very special. The (Bible book) Psalms talks about God flinging stars into space. Science tells us that we need the billions upon billions of other stars in the billions of other galaxies so that conditions for life here on Earth are just right. Science also tells us that our bodies contain carbon and other atoms that were created in stars billions of years ago. All that time was needed to get things just right for humans to live here on Earth. That is awe-inspiring.’
God, natural disasters and suffering
Natural disasters leave a trail of death and destruction and cause many people to question the existence of a loving God. Bob White says earthquakes and volcanoes are not bad things in themselves. ‘If it weren’t for earthquakes and volcanoes, we wouldn’t have all the nutrients that we need to survive. It is because the Earth is mobile and things move around that the Earth is not a dead, sterile planet. The oceans contain nutrients which allow things to grow. Volcanoes are very fertile areas...they are a positive part of the planet’s make-up.’
'God made a good world but we are not free of the consequences of our actions.'
And he points out that human error or greed can magnify the suffering of natural disasters: in the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, ancient minarets survived but modern tower blocks collapsed. Investigations afterwards showed builders had cut corners to save money. The blocks had not been properly built.
A perennial question to Christians is why does God allows suffering. For Bob White, part of the answer is that God did not create humanity as puppets. ‘He chose to make the world one where we have the ability to respond to him,’ he says. ‘But humankind has chosen not to respond to God. One of the consequences is that the whole of creation – including the natural world – is somehow out of kilter with God because of humankind’s sinfulness (wrong doing). God made a good world but we are not free of the consequences of our actions. God also offers hope in the form of a new heaven and a new Earth where, as the Bible puts it, for those who have put their trust in him, there will be no more crying and no more pain.’
For Bob White this new heaven and Earth are real, not a metaphor. ‘Obviously…it is describing things that are beyond our experience. But it uses very down-to-earth terms. It says that there will be meadows, trees, animals and people… there will also be a city. The Bible even gives a sense of continuity between this world and the next… It means that what we do now, in this world, has eternal significance. I imagine the physical world of the new creation will be rather different from this one. After all, the only person who has come back to this world from the next – Jesus himself – could walk through walls. But he also did normal things – he ate meals and chatted with friends.’
One subject Bob has worked on over the years is climate change and he is adamant that it is to be taken seriously. ‘The Earth is already hotter than at any time since humans first walked on it. It is getting warmer faster than it has in the past. The prosperous, high-income regions such as Europe and North America have caused the problem, yet the poorest nations in Asia and Africa will be among those to suffer worst. Britain is responsible for about 3% of the world’s global warming pollution. We should be setting an example and encouraging other countries to change their habits too. It is time for the Christian community as a whole to wake up and get their MPs to push for measures that will slow global warming.’
Creation and evolution
Bob White believes that the six-day story of creation set out in the Bible book Genesis is a literary device not a scientific account of how the world came into existence. ‘The message of Genesis is that God is creator and that he purposely made a perfect universe,’ he says. He believes that evolutionary scientific theory is a ‘very powerful’ way of explaining the relationships between all living organisms. ‘But I believe passionately that humans are more than just animals. We are animals plus we’re made in the image of God. To me, it means we have some of those attributes that God himself has, such as the ability to love and be loved, great creativity and a concern for justice. My faith depends on knowing that God is sovereign, that he made this world, and that he will remake it in the fullness of time, as a new heaven and a new Earth. It’s important that God created it, because the alternative is that life is random and meaningless. To live with that kind of hopelessness would be dreadful.’