Coming full circle
Creation magazine talks with German astrophysicist, theologian and philosopher ‘Stephan’ who operates a mission to Muslims in many lands.
This might be the most unusual interview article we have ever published—with a subject whose name or photograph it is wiser not to reveal. That’s because ‘Stephan’, as we will call him, who lives in southern Germany, operates an effective evangelistic ministry (both on the web and in person) to Muslims in some 20 countries.
For a follower of Islam to convert to faith in Jesus Christ is, according to Sharia Law, punishable by death. So the head of an organization effective in facilitating such conversions is at particular risk—and not only to himself and his family. Stephan’s concern when approached was that it would jeopardize the effectiveness of the outreach, including his personal trips to the Muslim world. But how did an ethnic German with a science doctorate come to be witnessing in Arabic in Muslim lands?
The answer is connected to how CMI came to hear about Stephan’s work in the first place. Creation magazine founder Carl Wieland’s father and brother-in-law were both born to ethnic Germans who had settled in what was then called Palestine.1 In the mid-1800s, during a time of upheaval in German Lutheranism, a millenarian sect who called themselves Templers2 emigrated to the Holy Land, where they built colonies that came to thrive. Stephan’s mother was born in Haifa, in what is now Israel.
Over the years, the group became theologically ultraliberal, though one small ‘wing’ (which eventually rejoined the Lutheran Church) held fast to the Bible. Its adherents were known by the others as ‘the churchies’.3 Stephan’s mother was part of this faithful group.
After the state of Israel was formed in 1948, most of the ethnic Germans, now unwelcome partly due to Germany’s disastrous Nazi episode, resettled in other countries, mostly Australia. (Many had already been deported there by the British in WW2.) But Stephan’s mother moved to Germany, where she married a youth evangelist. Not long after WW2, when Stephan was four, his parents were sent to Lebanon as missionaries “by a mission society formed near the biblical Mt. Carmel by the first generation of German settlers in Palestine, and reaching out mostly to local Arabs. Its work was temporarily interrupted by wartime deportation of the missionaries.”
Growing up in Lebanon meant that, like his mother, Stephan was fluent in spoken and written Arabic from an early age. His father had mastered the language too, along with training in Islamic/Arabic culture, etc.
Interacting with Stephan made it clear that he was no intellectual lightweight. He has qualifications in theology and philosophy as well as science. He teaches in four languages—German, English, Arabic, and French. As part of his extensive theological studies, Stephan can read and write Classical (biblical) Hebrew, Classical Greek, and Latin. He has also “attempted to grasp the basics in Akkadian, Middle Egyptian, Aramaic, Syriac, Russian, Urdu, and Indonesian.”
Science and astrophysics
In his teens, Stephan became a Christian. That same year, he says, “I fell in love with the stars and decided to become an astronomer.” His eventual doctorate in astrophysics was awarded for a thesis on the evolution of stars (‘stellar evolution’), which, he says, “is really the decay of stars.”
In that time, he had an office in an observatory near Hamburg. On the wall, he displayed a poster of a planetary nebula with the words: “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). His Ph.D. supervisor had fled communist East Germany, and Stephan says, “He did not have it removed because the churches there were the only organizations to permit thought outside of the ruling political dogma.”
“Most of my colleagues”, he says, “shook their heads and smiled when I would profess my faith in God as creator of the universe. My eventual decision to shift from astrophysics to theology was met with total lack of understanding.”
Nonetheless, though strongly believing that God had created everything, he would argue with biblical creationists, believing that he “could not deny evolution as science.” But, he says, “I never tried to reconcile evolution with creation. It was more two separate realms that were irreconcilable in my life.”
Theology and philosophy
Stephan’s thirst for deep understanding is evident in his journey. In his mid-20s, he already came to realize “the inherent philosophical limitations of science and even mathematics—e.g. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, which formally show that no axiomatic system at least as complex as arithmetic can prove its own consistency.”
Independently of his various degree courses, he also spent “eight years of philosophical study and eight years of religious studies, especially rabbinical Judaism and Islam and more recently Buddhism.” He knew of many apparent conflicts between secular wisdom and the Bible, but he also felt “that ‘personalism’ (the attempt to limit spiritual life to solely one’s own relationship with God) was no answer.” Instead, he chose to grapple with the issues head-on.
After earning a master’s degree4 in education, Stephan studied Protestant theology in Tübingen, Germany, where he was awarded a master’s in theology. Subsequently, a book he had written was accepted as equivalent to a Ph.D. for the purposes of entering a ‘habilitation’ process (a common European post-doctoral qualification). He later taught systematic theology at a major Swiss University (see ‘In the heartland of theistic evolution’).
In the 1980s, Stephan even gave some talks on evolution and the Bible. “Not knowing that evolution is a lie, I tried to explore the theological implications of the challenge that evolution posed for the Christian faith. One point I was not willing to give up was the doctrine of sin. I viewed the trench separating Christianity from evolution as rooted in our sinfulness, which for me formed the whole context of the debate.”
Stephan spent years genuinely seeking to philosophically reconcile what he calls “the gap between theology and physics, including the quantum world.” His habilitation project was meant to “bridge the gap between the physics of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and the theology of Karl Barth with the help of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.”
However, he says that he found it impossible to do so “without reducing the biblical God to being a part of this world.5 I was not willing to compromise concerning my faith in Him, so in mid-life, I aborted this project and decided to go into missions. I also consciously chose to turn my back on all academia, and focus only on the Bible and what it teaches.”
Loss of faith in evolution
It was only relatively recently that, starting with the reading of a creation science book, he says, “I also lost my trust in the scientific viability of evolution.” Soon after, Stephan discovered CMI’s website creation.com, which has been of great help to him in reconciling his faith in Christ and the Gospel with the ‘facts of science’.
(Later, through another person of ‘Palestinian-German’ stock, he learned of the similar roots of a CMI pioneer, mentioned earlier. This led to contact with CMI and ultimately to this article.)
Coming out on creation— to opposition
We were encouraged to hear that Stephan is now contributing to the creation-evolution battle in the German-language sphere. He is finding that “some dear fellow Christians are reacting with astonishing contempt to my findings about the scientific untenability of any doctrine of evolution. In Germany, the main barrier to the Gospel is the total and continuous bombardment by the media and the curricula in schools and universities that evolution is an incontestable fact.”
Stephan’s chief interest remains Islam, where “the main barriers to the Gospel are the flat denials of the Koran that Christ is divine, that He died on the Cross and that He rose from the dead.” A major hindrance often brought up in his work involves “the wars that ‘Christian’ states have conducted (during colonial times) and are currently seen to be conducting against Muslim peoples and states.”
His wife helps him extensively in the mission’s organizational work, and one of his two adult (believing) children is a physicist who, he says, “is excited about my discovering that evolution can be scientifically refuted.”
Evolution is seldom a problem for the Gospel in the Muslim world, he says, although what the Koran teaches about creation is very different to the Bible.6 Stephan is working on a study of the over 900 explicit Koranic references to creation, showing how these often directly confront “the biblical testimony on the creation of the heavens and the earth by the God of Israel.”
By contrast, in very secular ‘evolutionized’ Europe, he says, “the main hindrance to the Gospel is what I call ‘enlightened humanism’; the conscious or implicit disbelief in God as such (no God is needed to create the world). Or, what is even more dangerous, the reduction of the biblical God to the realms of human feeling and thinking, as is the tendency in ‘theistic evolutionary’ circles.”
It was encouraging to hear Stephan’s story; with a deep understanding of all that secular wisdom had to offer, he had in a sense come full circle to stand solely on the Bible. At the same time, he understands how important it is to defend against attacks on its authority in various contexts (1 Peter 3:15). We wish him and his vital ministry well.
In the heartland of theistic evolution
While teaching academic theology in Switzerland, Stephan “was part of an interdisciplinary research group of physicists and theologians at my university exploring the interface between these two disciplines.” He was also secretary of ESSSAT (the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology), organizing international conferences on science and theology. He says, “I had regular contact with people like Ian Barbour, Robert John Russell, John Polkinghorne, and Arthur Peacocke. All professed to be Christians, but were decidedly evolutionists. In these circles I never encountered the least trace of faith in a biblical creation. So I always felt deeply out of phase with them, because I had an evangelistic heart and was helping my father in his outreach to Muslims.” Of the many conferences he helped organize, each with about 120 attendees (mostly professors), he says, “I never met anybody who advocated a biblical view of creation—a pity, looking back.”
References and notes
- Then a part of the Ottoman Empire, after WW1 it became a British Mandate. Return to text.
- No connection to the Knights Templar, the group was called die Tempelgesellschaft (the Temple Society). Return to text.
- Literally die Kirchler. Relations on a personal level between the two groups remained good. Return to text.
- Degrees mentioned refer to the German equivalents. Return to text.
- Technically called ‘panentheism’, the view of Arthur Peacocke, for example; creation.com/templeton. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., The Koran vs Genesis, Creation 24(2):46–51, 2002; creation.com/koran. Return to text.