Difficult issues series
When Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 it provoked a range of reactions from christians and from scientists too. Many christians were quite comfortable with the idea of evolution (though many others were not), and it wasn’t until about 60 years later that the more ‘hardline’ christian opposition to evolution began.
That opposition remains, mostly in the US, where it is reported that evolution is rejected by more than 40% of the population.
The challenge of evolution
Evolution challenges christianity on three levels:
- It is a challenge to the truthfulness of the Bible, or at least of Genesis. The stronger the doctrine a christian holds about the Bible, the greater will be the challenge.
- It challenges the truth of the christian view of the human race as made in the image of God, but “fallen”, that is, tainted and corrupted by sin ever since Adam and Eve.
- Evolution negates one of the formerly strong philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the design argument, based on the complexity of human life. Richard Dawkins has famously said that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”. (These days, the design argument centres on cosmology.)
Christianity has adapted easily to other challenges from science, such as the end of the flat earth and geocentrism, but evolution has been different.
Is evolution worth fighting over?
There are some good reasons to accept evolution and get on with life:
- The science is well supported, by scientists who are christians as well as non-believers. (For a summary of the evidence, see Evolution and christians). There are scientific organisations made up of christians – e.g Christians in Science, the American Scientific Affiliation, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and BioLogos. There are some well-known christian evolutionary biologists, include Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, Ken Miller, Jeff Hardin and Denis Alexander.
- It seems to me that Genesis reads like a folk tale or legend, rather than literal history – an aetiological myth that explains in imaginary form how the Hebrews saw themselves and their origins. This impression is confirmed by CS Lewis, an expert in ancient myth, while Old Testament scholars like Peter Enns tell us Genesis has similarities with the myths of other second century BCE Middle Eastern cultures.
- In the old evangelical phrase, “it isn’t a salvation issue”. We have more important matters to address.
However if christians accept evolution as true, they have to face some important doctrinal challenges.
A lot of christian thinking, and apologetics, is built around the idea that God created a perfect world, but human sin has corrupted human nature and affected the whole earth. Evolution challenges much of that.
We can still reasonably believe that people are inherently selfish (= sinful) but:
- we can see that selfishness comes from the nature of evolution and “survival of the fittest” as well as human choice, and
- evolution makes it clear that death, and selfishness were present in the world long before humans came on the scene.
Thus there probably wasn’t some primeval moral “fall” with deadly consequences, though there was certainly somewhere a first sin, and second one, etc.
There are several variations on how the doctrine of original sin is formulated, but it seems clear that, if we accept evolution, we are not all descended from one primeval couple. (DNA evidence indicates we may all be descended from a single female and a single male, but they didn’t live at the same time. It seems that the human population always numbered at least several thousand, otherwise we wouldn’t have the genetic diversity we have today.)
Therefore, whatever view we hold about human sin, we didn’t inherit anything, let alone sin, from just one couple. This doesn’t worry me a lot as I never felt the doctrine of original sin had a lot of Biblical support or made a lot of sense.
How the New Testament views the Old
Jesus talks at one point (Matthew 19:14) about how God originally made people male and female, and Paul builds some doctrine on the idea of Adam as the first man (Romans 5:12-19, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49). This seems to many to be a telling point, but can be explained in two ways:
- Denis Lamoureux and others argue that Jesus and his apostles were human beings of their time, and though they were inspired by God, they still used the language, culture, thought forms and understanding of the natural world of their time. Some christians may feel that this threatens Jesus’ status as son of God, but Philippians 2:6-8 makes it clear that Jesus gave up his divine power to become human.
- Peter Enns, Richard Longenecker and others have documented the fact that first century Jews were much more flexible and creative in how they interpreted and applied the Old Testament than we are today. It was quite possible (and there are some clear examples in the New Testament) that they would use a story that was legendary, or apply a story quite out of its original context, to make an argument.
It therefore seems quite reasonable to suppose that these New Testament references don’t establish the literalness of the Adam and Eve story, though doubtless many christians will find this difficult.
A new understanding of the Bible
All this must, if accepted, change how we view the Bible. Evangelical christians have tended to regard the Bible as an inerrant guidebook of faith and behaviour – at least, that is what they say, although in practice most christians emphasise some teachings and gloss over or explain away others. However scholars tell us that the Old Testament doesn’t present one clear and unambiguous set of teachings, but is more like a dialogue between several different viewpoints.
It seems to me that this is more like how we should see the Bible in the light of evolution. It is still the scriptures inspired by God for our edification, and gives us historical information about Jesus, and about God’s dealings with his people. But it includes legend as well as history, and is less like an infallible rule book and more like a gold mine of ideas and experiences which the Holy Spirit uses to bring us closer to God. Paul says we now walk in the new way of the Spirit, no longer by the written code (Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6). For more on this, see How to interpret the Bible?.
Christian responses to evolution
Many christians (e.g. Answers in Genesis) believe the Bible cannot be interpreted in the way I have described, and so hold to a literal, historical view of Genesis 1-3 – the world was created in 6 literal days something like 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, and Adam and Eve, the tree and the snake were all literally true. Some accept an older date, interpreting the days figuratively, but hold to the rest. This view entails rejecting virtually all of the science of evolution
It seems to me that this is building too much on a slender foundation. The early chapters of the Old Testament look like they are legendary and the evidence that they should be interpreted literally is quite weak. Creationism seems like it is being faithful to the scriptures, but it requires us to ignore strong scientific evidence to uphold a belief that isn’t at all certain.
Intelligent Design (ID) is the view that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” This view is inferred from “the informational properties of natural objects”, leading to the conclusion that the “form of information which we observe is produced by intelligent action, and thus reliably indicates design”. Thus intelligent design is compatible with evolution and an old age of the earth, it simply argues that natural selection cannot explain all the design in nature.
ID claims to be science rather than religion as creationism is. However ID seems to me to falter at three points:
- ID builds its case for design on reasonable inference, but in science that is just the way a hypothesis is formed. To be truly science, a hypothesis needs to make a prediction that is falsifiable, which is then tested by observation. So far, it seems ID hasn’t been able to do this. Even if it was true that God intervened supernaturally at several points in the evolutionary process, I can’t see any way this could be proven – naturalist scientists could always argue that there is indeed a natural explanation even if it isn’t yet known. So it seems that ID may always remain an un proven hypothesis.
- It is hard to see why God would use a hybrid process like evolution with occasional supernatural interventions, which has the appearance of God designing a process that he didn’t quite get right, and had to correct it along the way. It seems more likely that, if God wanted to use an evolutionary process, he would set it up at the beginning (i.e. at the big bang) so that stars, planets (at least one of which was habitable) and human life would form naturally.
- ID claims to be science, but evolutionary scientists sometimes accuse ID of being creationism and religion in disguise. It certainly seems like ID proponents could have mixed motives. However it is fair to say that some naturalist scientists are prone to draw unscientific conclusions against religious belief which also cannot be called scientific, so both “sides” may be guilty of using science to further their religious or anti-religious purposes.
This view (promoted, for example by BioLogos) accepts the science of evolution as being the way God chose to create the universe and life, and seeks to use science to better understand God’s creation. It faces the problems I have outlined squarely and seeks to develop answers that are scientifically and theological sensible.
It seems to me that this is the only view we can reasonably adopt.
So why the fuss about evolution?
Your answer to this will depend on what view you hold.
If you are sure a literal interpretation is the only way Genesis can be interpreted, you have little choice to oppose evolution, even though this will cut you off from the possibility that God has something more to teach you on this, and even though it is likely to lead many of those who you lead to abandon their christian belief as they grow older because they see evolution and the Bible as in opposition, and they see science as having the strongest evidence.
I would encourage you to think again, and to pray about this matter.
The church has changed course many times in the past, on ethical, theological and scientific matters, and looking back it seems to me that many of the changes have been led by the Holy Spirit, because they have strengthened the church in the end. (I’m thinking here of things like slavery, apartheid, geocentrism, war, the Reformation and the modern missionary movement.)
Jesus was a radical in his time, accused by some of bringing ungodly new ideas, and he certainly began a movement that soon looked quite different to the Judaism of his day.
But if you can accept evolution as true, or even as a possibility, there is little need for a fuss. We can get on with obeying the things that are very clear, and our thinking about Genesis 1-3 can be given lower priority.
Read more about the evidence for and against evolution, and check out further references, at Evolution and christians.
Who were the first human beings?