John Lennox on the quest for truth, Bondi Beach and the beauty of taxonomy

Editor of Eternity, John Sandeman, in conversation with John Lennox, apologist and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University.

Find out John Lennox’s itinerary for his Australian tour in August by scrolling to the bottom of the interview.

JS: Let me ask you to imagine you are talking to a young person who tells you they are finding it hard to choose between science and Christianity. What’s the first thing you want to say to them?
JL: The first thing I want to say to them is that they have been forced into a false choice. It is very odd that in the 21st century we are forced into that choice, whereas in the 17th century the greatest scientists that ever existed, Isaac Newton and so on, could not see that as a choice because it was their faith in God that drove their science.
So things have changed.

How would you explain that change?
I think the main problem is that people who ask us to choose between God and science, are mistaken about the nature of God in the first place. They tend to think that Christians believe in a God of the gaps. “I can’t explain it therefore God did it.” So like the ancient Greek god of thunder – when you do a bit of science that god disappears – they think that is exactly what Christians believe.

Now if you believe in a god that is simply a god of the gaps then of course you have to choose between God and science but that is because of the way that you have defined God. And so I need to point out to young people today, that the God of the Bible is not a god of the gaps – he is God of the whole show: the bits we do understand and the bits we don’t.

The second thing that I want to explain to people is that choosing between God and science is like choosing between an internal combustion engine and Henry Ford as an explanation for the Ford motorcar. Which is simply nonsensical. But the point is the different levels of explanation – there is a scientific explanation in terms of laws and mechanisms and so on, and then there is an agent explanation in terms of who designed it. So Henry Ford does not compete with the scientific explanation of how a motorcar works. He does not compete or conflict – he complements it. Likewise God as an explanation for the universe doesn’t compete with the scientific explanation. He complements it.

Do you think it is becoming harder to believe in God?
Not particularly, no. It is very hard to answer a question like that because it depends on what part of the world they are in.
In the Western world there is an enormous amount of peer pressure generated by atheists, and in that sense it is harder. Because you have more brushwood to clear away before people can understand what the real issues are.

Let’s talk about the other pieces of brushwood other than the God of the gaps problem…
If you are confining it to science, there is the view that science is the only way to truth. It needs to be pointed out that that’s nonsense because science does not deal with ethical questions. For instance it does not deal with questions of beauty and love and all the things that are important in life.
I think one of the problems is that science has attained such authority in our society because of technological spin-off that when a scientist makes a statement people think it is true.

I notice you have given talks on the subject “Is God Relevant” (at Hong Kong University not so long ago.)
I asked them “what things are relevant to life?” Many people think money is relevant, music is relevant, iPods are relevant. Things fall into relevance depending on what the issue is. An operation may not seem relevant if you are feeling very well but it is something that becomes massively relevant if you are ill.

When it comes to the God question, the question of relevance becomes subsidiary to the question of truth. If there is a god and if you are created in the image of God then life lived in its fullness will be by definition a life lived in relationship to God.Whether you feel that that is relevant or not is in a way irrelevant. The first question is, “Is it true?” Sometimes I illustrate this by saying to people, “If you are lying on Bondi Beach and I am looking from the cliffs above (I don’t think there are cliffs there) but if you are lying on a beach and I am watching from the cliffs above—you are enjoying the sun, you are feeling life is full, and everything is marvellous, but actually the sea has surrounded you so that your actual condition is one of extreme danger. Even though you feel perfectly okay…

If life at its best is a relationship with God and we don’t have that relationship then we are in serious trouble.

How do you start convincing people that God is true?
I would first approach the question of truth at the level of coherence. Does it cohere with reality? Does it make sense of what we see?
Here we are, people capable of doing science, capable of analysing the universe mathematically – that really is evidence for the fact that there is a rational mind behind it. That makes a lot of sense, you see.

So do people use arguments against God as excuses or because they have not seen Christianity lived out by their friends?
It is very easy to write it all off as excuses. There are thinking people out there with genuine questions. If they have been reading people like Dawkins and Hitchens they may have deep questions, so I think I have a responsibility to try to answer those questions and to give them some positive evidence for belief in God.
People who are using arguments as excuses are usually very easy to detect because they are not prepared to pursue answers, and their interest evaporates very rapidly.

What is the question that you get asked most often?
The one you asked first, and I was interested you asked it first. Why are we forced by Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the most famous living scientist, to choose between science and God? Or, “How can you as an intellectual believe in God?” Or, “Isn’t God a delusion like Santa Claus?” There’s a lot of psychological type argument flowing down from Dawkins and co. Inevitably you get asked the big question about suffering and evil.

And our person on Bondi Beach will have to face those questions?
They are going to run out of energy if they don’t get up and get food. You must begin to contextualise life and work and responsibility. So now you are building up a picture of life that is not only lying upon Bondi Beach. So you start to ask the bigger questions of human existence. What is human life for?

I would like to ask you what human life is, and what your profession as a mathematician has taught you about what human life is for?
The thing that gives dignity to human beings is that we are made in the image of God as rational, moral beings. We have an aesthetic sense, we have got curiosity – we explore – there is work, family life, relationships, friendships and so on. All of these are part of life but the highest element in life is that relationship with God, which we can have through trust in Christ. That gives us an ultimate purpose not only for this life but this life is not the end.

Now mathematics – if you go back to the Bible you will discover there is a mandate to do science. The original human beings according to Genesis were told to name the animals. And taxonomy is the fundamental intellectual discipline – giving names to things. And God said to do it. He did not say, “I am going to do it for you.” Part of the sense of fulfilment in life is exploring God’s universe. “Thinking God’s thoughts after him,” as the discoverer of the laws of planetary motion, Johannes Kepler, said.
And so for me the mathematical describability of the universe has always been an exhilarating thing.

I also think one gets purpose in teaching young people to think… I have gained enormous fulfillment out of that, but I would say that the highest thing is of course my relationship with God, not my relationship with mathematical theories.




4-7 August: KCC Oxygen at the Australian Technology Park, Redfern


8 August (morning): City Bible Forum radio talk

8 August (evening): ‘Cosmic Chemistry: Do science and God mix?’

9 August: Apologetics conference at Glenwaverly Church (morning)

10 August: Boroondarah Anglican churches (morning)


12 August (morning): CBMC Prayer Breakfast

12 August (evening): ‘Cosmic Chemistry: Do science and God mix?’

13 August: Adelaide University lunchtime event


18 August: ‘Cosmic Chemistry: Do science and God mix?’

19 August: University of WA (lunch time talk)

20 August: RZIM Youth Event


21 August: Evening dinner at Queensland Parliament

22 August (afternoon): Emmanuel College and AFES

22 August (evening): ‘Cosmic Chemistry: do science and God mix?’ )

23 August: New Life Uniting Church (evening event)


25 August: ‘Cosmic Chemistry: do science and God mix?’