What if I accept theistic evolutionism?
Theistic evolution is not the solution to the apparent conflicts between biblical and scientific interpretations of origins. Here’s why.
Christians are frequently faced with a faith dilemma: on the one hand, they have the biblical teaching that God is the Creator of the universe, including the Earth and all that it contains; on the other hand, every day they face the common teaching that life is the result of unguided chemical processes and that biological diversity arose through millions of years of evolution. The clash of ideas is confusing, and many conclude that science and belief in the Bible are in conflict (at least over the issue of origins) and that there is no way to harmonize them.
Yet some have tried to harmonize the two contrasting views. One way to resolve this tension is to hold that religion1 and science are separate realms of knowledge, and the two cannot be compared and contrasted – thus making room for contradiction. Galileo Galilei stated it this way: “The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.”2 If science and religion function within their own realms and do not interact, there can be no conflict. Many scientists have embraced this approach, despite the fact that it does not solve the seeming contradictions and does not answer the questions. Recently, Stephen Jay Gould, an atheist paleontologist, defended the separation of religion and science, for they – he argued – pertain to different realms of knowledge that do not (and should not) interact.3 Philosophers and scientists have argued that this is not a neutral position. In fact, it only allows science (facts and interpretations) to trump religion (faith) every time they encounter each other. Furthermore, such a dichotomous approach provides scientists with an easy way to supplant the authority of religion (the Bible in particular).
Another approach is to accommodate the claims of both science and religion, in what is called theistic evolution. This view tries to harmonize the biblical interpretations with the scientific interpretations, by claiming that evolution is God’s method of creation: God created the universe and life, but He used the processes of evolution through millions of years to accomplish his goals.4 Many Christians see this alternative as the solution that explains how matter evolved into complex life, maintaining at the same time God’s authority over nature. This view has been widely accepted in the Christian academic world, in spite of the fact that it presents insurmountable theological and scientific problems.
This article deals with some of these theological and scientific problems.
The problem of incompatibility
Theistic evolution requires a profound change in the way we view and interpret the Bible. The Bible doesn’t suggest or even hint at the possibility that God used the slow death-driven process of Darwinian evolution to create life as we know it. On the contrary, it speaks clearly about the mode and timing of creation: God created life by fiat5 over the span of a week. The idea that the days of the Genesis account of creation represent millions of years of evolution comes not from the Bible, but from outside of it. For theistic evolution to work, the Bible must be viewed as a book of myths rather than a historical record of divine action in the world.
Second, theistic evolution changes the way we think of inspiration, because it challenges the validity of the Bible as the inspired word of God. The Genesis account clearly indicates a literal, six-day, recent creation. The rest of the Bible – including the book of Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles and the book of Revelation – clearly affirms the content of Genesis. If the Bible affirms God as Creator, from where do we get an evolutionist God? God would have been a liar when stating in Genesis and in other parts of the Bible that He created the world in six days when in fact He did not.
Third, theistic evolution requires that we view the Scriptures in a different way than Jesus did. Jesus always spoke of the Genesis account as literally true, not a myth. Thus, theistic evolution changes the way we consider Jesus’s teachings, because it challenges His statements on creation. He referred to the Creator and to the beginning, when God “made them male and female” (Mark 10:6)6, a clear reference to the creation account. If we accept theistic evolution, we would have to reinterpret Jesus, and if we question Jesus’s statements on creation, what happens to the credibility and value of His other statements? What about His miracles? Are they to be reinterpreted?
Fourth, theistic evolution changes the way we consider sin, suffering, and death. In an evolutionary scenario, death of multi-celled organisms would have existed for more than 600 million years. Death and suffering would be part of God’s plan for creation and population of this world. Death would not be related to sin; it would not be the wages of sin, but the result of struggle for survival; it would not be the last enemy to be triumphed over (1 Corinthians 15:26), but a natural part of life. If death were not the result of sin, the death of Christ on the cross requires major reinterpretation.
Fifth, theistic evolution changes the way we think of God’s character. How could a God who notes when a sparrow falls (Matthew 10:29) have used an evolutionary process based on suffering and death? How could the God of Lazarus and the good Samaritan, and the healer of lepers and the blind, have used a system to create ever more fit organisms using those same destructive elements of nature to eliminate the sick and the weak among us? God would have been working against His own methods by healing people who, according to the evolutionary theory, should have been eliminated.
Sixth, theistic evolution changes the way we see evangelism and the great controversy. According to Revelation 14:6-7, the message of the remnant includes the affirmation that God is the Creator: “Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth – to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people – saying with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.’” If God did not create by fiat, but used evolution to create life’s diversity, why should we preach the “eternal gospel,” which is the message of Creation? What eternal gospel should be preached according to theistic evolution? Where is the hope that God will destroy death and the struggle with sin will end forever? Invoking an immortal soul does little to help in wringing good news out of theistic evolution.
Seventh, theistic evolution changes the way we see heaven and salvation. Jesus promised that He would return and live eternally with us in the new home He is preparing (John 14:1-3). In the book of Revelation, there is the promise that there will be no more tears or death (7:17 and 21:4). If suffering and death are the way to improve nature, why does God promise to do away with them? If God’s ultimate goal is to provide a better world for people, why does He promise to destroy and restore the Earth, instead of letting evolution accomplish that? Or is it that God realized that evolution can’t do it, and He is providing another solution? Did God fail in His initial plans to use evolution as a creative force? If the Earth and its inhabitants are the result of millions of years of evolution, God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17) makes no sense. Will God need millions of years to create the new Earth and the New Jerusalem?
Theistic evolution is in clear contradiction to the book of Genesis and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. It suggests that God created using death, pain, struggle for survival, and suffering. It suggests that God deceived us with the Bible. If God did not mean what He said, why did He not say what He meant? An evolutionary perspective of origins will always have difficulty accommodating biblical statements about creation, the Fall, and the Flood. For instance, theistic evolution is an attempt to distance God from suffering and death, but it actually makes Him the author of it. In addition, it makes Him remote and denies divine action. Accepting theistic evolution will affect doctrines based on the historical understanding of Genesis 1-11, including marriage, sexuality, human nature, origin of sin, redemption, etc.
The idea that God created life on earth using the processes of mutation and natural selection has numerous scientific problems. The difficulties arise from the implausibility of the theory to explain features that we see in both the fossil record and living nature.
First, if God created through gradual evolution through millions of years, we would expect to see the gradual appearance of organisms in the fossil record. The bottom layers of sediment would contain a low diversity of simple fossil organisms, and the upper layers would have diverse fossils representing highly complex organisms. This would be consistent with a model of gradual appearance of both diversity and complexity of life forms.
But that is not the case. The fossil record shows the sudden appearance of complexity and diversity in the bottom sedimentary layers. A dramatic example of this is called the “Cambrian explosion,” which represents the abrupt appearance of fossilized organisms in rock layers near the bottom of the geological column. Most of these Cambrian organisms are interpreted as ocean bottom dwellers. There are other organisms buried in rocks below the Cambrian layers (called Precambrian or Ediacaran fauna), and those are puzzling for evolutionists as well, because they also appear abruptly in the fossil record and are not apparently related in any way to the Cambrian organisms. So how did both the Precambrian and the Cambrian fauna become fossils? We don’t really know. Their sudden appearance does not fit well within an evolutionist model, but they might be explained within a flood model, in which these organisms were among the first to be buried at the onset of the worldwide flood of Genesis.7
Second, gradual evolution, either guided or unguided by God, implies the existence of numerous intermediate or transitional forms in the fossil record. If evolutionary change has happened, then we should be able to see numerous transitional organisms from ancient to modern forms. Again, the fossil record does not support this. What we see is a sudden appearance of life forms at different levels of the sedimentary record. True, different groups or organisms appear at different levels – for example, amphibians appear in lower layers than reptiles, and the latter appear below mammals. But this does not necessarily indicate gradual evolution from amphibians to reptiles to mammals. For that, the record should show a smooth transition between the different groups of animals and plants. We would expect to find hundreds or thousands of transitional forms. But they do not exist. Some have been suggested,8 but the few questionable transitional forms emphasize their rarity in the fossil record, rather than their pervasiveness.
A third scientific problem for theistic evolution arises from the complex nature of biological structures (molecules, cells, and organs). The study of metabolic pathways – the integration of information and function in cells – has led many scientists to believe that at least some systems inside cells are irreducibly complex, with properties indicating they are unlikely to have been produced by direct successive stages of acquisition mediated by natural selection. A series of numerous positively-coordinated mutations and other genetic changes would be necessary to produce such structures. Also, the intermediate fossils would be imperfect or less fit than their contemporaries, and by evolutionary standards they should have been eliminated by natural selection. Why would God create imperfect, unfit, incomplete structures or organs that need improvement by mutations? Why would God create through such a process when He can do it by fiat?
These are some of the theological and scientific problems of theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is not the solution to the apparent conflicts between interpretations of science and the Bible. It creates bigger problems than it solves, because it demands a rethink of every aspect of our Bible-based faith. In other words, it is not a viable alternative biblical position; it is a completely different view of reality, God, Scripture, humanity, salvation, nature, good, and evil. A better solution is to say: here are the problems with current science if we accept the biblical model of creation, and here are the theological problems if we accept the Darwinist models of origins; instead of losing our faith in one or another, or both, let us delve into the difficult questions through the study of Scripture and science, and let the Holy Spirit guide us in both. In life, imperfect knowledge and imperfect minds inevitably lead to tensions in our understanding of reality. The question is, what tension are we willing to live with? All live by faith: Christians by one faith, Darwinists by another. It is better to recognize this than to embrace a false solution like theistic evolution.
Raúl Esperante (Ph.D., Loma Linda University) is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- In this article, I use the terms religion and faith interchangeably and in reference to Christian belief in the Genesis account of creation.
- In a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), Galileo was quoting “something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree.”
- Gould coined the term NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) to indicate that science and religion each have a “legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and these two domains do not overlap. See Stephen Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002).
- Some accommodate the Bible account with evolution, indicating that the days of creation were not literal 24-hour days, but millions of years — the so-called Day-Age Theory.
- By fiat means that God created by command or act without further effort.
- All Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
- The Bible says, “On that day all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.” Bible scholars suggest that the “fountains of the great deep” refer to submarine sources of water that flooded the ocean floor. It is possible that such processes killed and buried many organisms, which would be the first layer, in the fossil record formed during the Flood.
- For example, the amphibian-to-reptile transition, or the reptile-to-mammal transition, or the horse sequence. Some paleontologists indicate that the alleged intermediates are not transitions but mosaics, which consist of forms with mixed traits that do not show a linear change from one group to another.