Almost 150 years ago Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The debate between science and religion has been fast and furious ever since. Darwin proposed that life on earth began hundreds of millions of years ago and developed by evolution through natural selection—a stark contradiction of the Christian fundamentalist view that God created everything in six literal 24-hour days.
Theologians had been arguing since the days of Augustine about how to rightly interpret the Creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, but Darwin’s revolutionary ideas gave the debate a new face. “If you don’t believe Genesis 1 is literally true, then you are questioning the whole Bible,” evolution’s opponents declared. “Reject evolution and you lock yourself into an anti-scientific worldview that blocks progress,” its supporters argued.
Have you ever wanted simply to talk about the issue in a calm and reasonable way, without being made to look foolish, ignorant or hostile either to the Bible or to scientific discovery? Perhaps such a conversation would go something like this:
Have you ever wanted simply to talk about the issue in a calm and reasonable way, without being made to look foolish, ignorant or hostile?
I’m confused. I’m not a theologian and I’m not a scientist. But I know what the Bible says about how life began, and I also know basically how the theory of evolution explains it. They can’t both be right, can they? So who do I believe — God or the scientists?
That’s a good question, but it isn’t quite as easy as that. This is not a straightforward “either/or” issue. There are many sides to it with a lot of misunderstanding thrown in, and it is quite understandable that you are confused, so let’s look at this broad question in some detail.
I have heard that some Christian denominations have dropped their opposition to the evolutionary theory and now accept evolution by natural selection as a valid explanation of the development of life.
It’s true that many major denominations have come to terms with Charles Darwin’s theory, in one way or another. The Church of England has officially apologized to him for the decades of misrepresentation. However, millions of Christians still firmly reject evolution in favor of an explanation based on a more or less literal interpretation of the Genesis 1 account of Creation. This is particularly true in the United States, where some surveys show that more than half the population claims not to believe in evolution.
There are two major schools of thought on how to resolve the conflict.
Really? What are they?
One is Creationism and the other is Intelligent Design. Creationism is a term to describe the belief that the Genesis 1 account of Creation should be understood in strictly literal terms. Creationists typically believe that the seven days in Genesis 1 were 24 hours in length, and they are adamant that anything short of this literalist interpretation necessarily leads to undermining the rest of the Bible.
The problem is that such an interpretation flies in the face of scientific research, and, for many, it defies common sense. Creationism is not allowed to be taught in public schools as an alternative to evolution, because it is considered a religious idea, not a scientific one. If we’re realistic, we have to admit that this is true. Creationism does not offer a proven, rigorous and valid scientific alternative to evolution, but is based on a single narrow interpretation of the first chapter of the Bible.
Many Christians prefer an alternative explanation, known as “Intelligent Design” (ID). Proponents of ID accept the findings of science, but argue that evolution cannot explain certain features in the development of life. These unexplained features, or “gaps,” are evidence of an “intelligent Designer,” they claim.
In an effort to skirt the ban on teaching religion as science in public schools, they do not insist that the Designer be called God. They thus hoped that ID could be taught in schools as an alternative to Darwinian evolution. But this was challenged in a historic case in York County, Pennsylvania, where it was ruled that Intelligent Design could not be classified as science, because it incorporated a supernatural element. Even though it did not specify the identity of the Designer, it was, in the court’s opinion, another form of creationism.
However, it isn’t just the courts who have a problem with ID. Many scientists who are also committed Christians (and there are many) point out that although ID may at first seem to be a plausible approach, it is dependent on an unstable “God of the Gaps” theoretical foundation.
Opponents of Darwin’s theory have always pointed out that there are inconsistencies and gaps that evolution by natural selection cannot explain. For example, they point out the lack of fossils of transition species. They also make the point that when you consider the mathematical odds against even one living cell being formed by a chance combination of non-living components, there has not been enough time for evolution to have taken place. In fact, they say, the odds are so great as to be impossible, no matter how much time elapses.
These are reasonable objections — there do appear to be “gaps” in the theory of evolution by natural selection. Opponents of evolution then seize on those “gaps” as evidence of the supernatural action of the Creator, who becomes “the God of the Gaps.”
The trouble is that any time further research fills in a particular gap, the “God of the Gaps” idea loses some of its force. Breakthroughs in scientific disciplines such as molecular biology have refined the theory of evolution by natural selection and have steadily eroded what once looked like irrefutable arguments against evolution. The “God of the Gaps” domain is steadily shrinking. Not all the gaps have closed yet, and there are still some important unanswered questions. But as new research continues to uncover answers, the traditional challenges to evolution are losing ground.
The development of species over vast periods of time tells us that God either created some form of evolutionary process in the beginning or continually created new species by fiat over billions of years. In either case, creation was no cosmic “accident.”
A growing number of believing scientists are recognizing that to fight a rearguard action for the “God of the Gaps” is not the right approach. A fact is a fact, even if it is an inconvenient one. And if the facts show that evolution is the most likely explanation for the development of species, they must come to terms with it. They call themselves Theistic Evolutionists.
“Theistic Evolution”! Sounds like a contradiction in terms.
Maybe, but it isn’t. Theistic evolutionists accept the findings of science, and see no contradiction between the theory of evolution and a proper understanding of the biblical account in Genesis 1. Some prefer the term "evolutionary creation."
But surely there is a contradiction. Evolution claims that species have evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Doesn’t this contradict what the Bible says—that God directly created each and every life form?
Not necessarily. The Bible only tells us that God is Creator; it says nothing about how he created. The scientific evidence does indicate that the various species of life have evolved over a very long period of time.
But how can we be so sure about that?
We can’t be 100 percent sure, of course. All science can do is study the evidence that has been left behind in fossil form and apply current knowledge and techniques, such as genetic science and the various radiometric dating methods, in order to form conclusions that seem in keeping with the evidence.
What theistic evolutionists are saying is that the revelation of the Bible in no way rules out the possibility of life forms evolving through time. Although the number of theistic evolutionists is still small, they have introduced some ideas that are worth considering. [Readers who would like to know more will find a short list of books on this topic in our book review feature.]
But why would God have used a process like evolution?
Why not? You could equally well ask, “Why did Creation take him six days? Couldn’t he have done it all in one instant?” But leaving the question of life for a moment, let’s take a look at the way God may have brought the universe into existence.
Most scientists believe that our vast universe came into being in one “big bang” some 15 billion years ago. Not all believe this, but let’s say for argument’s sake that this is when and how the universe got started. At the moment of the big bang and for some considerable time afterwards, galaxies, stars and planets did not exist. The universe evolved over billions of years to a kind of soup of hydrogen atoms, and then expanded over more billions of years during which galaxies, stars, planets and other elements of the universe came into existence. Thus the universe became what it is today through gradual development, the natural consequences of God’s original creative act. Perhaps God also did something like that with life on earth. The point is that a process like evolution need not contradict the reality that God is Creator.
But if you accept that the universe is 15 billion years old and that life on earth is billions of years old, doesn’t that contradict the biblical revelation in Genesis 1 that God created everything in six literal days or, as a few Creationists suggest, several thousand years?
It contradicts only if you insist on a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. And if you insist on a literal interpretation of this skeletal framework of days, this could only be six 24-hour periods.
The first problem with accepting a six-day creation is that it flies in the face of common logic and everything that has been discovered about how the universe came into existence and developed. (As you say, a few Creationists have stepped back from a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and have assigned a life to the universe in the tens of thousands of years. Their reasoning not only ignores science, but manufactures a new interpretation of Genesis 1 based on their own imagination.)
All theories of a “young universe” are contradicted by the evidence of astrophysics about the age of the universe and from geology and paleontology about the age of the earth. On the other hand, accepting an age of the universe in the billions of years does not contradict either science or the biblical witness. The Bible only says that God created all things that exist; it does not speak to the question of the manner of the creative process or how long the creative process took — or whether it is continuing even today.
Are you saying that a literal interpretation of the Bible is wrong?
It depends on the passage. Parts of the Bible that are intended to be understood literally should be understood literally, and parts that are intended to be understood figuratively should be taken figuratively. For example, some 40 percent of the Bible consists of poetry and metaphors.
It is a misinterpretation of the Bible to interpret poetic statements literally. For example, God is not a literal hen, rock, tower, or shepherd, even though the Bible describes him in such terms. Likewise, when Jesus said the Pharisees were blind guides and that they swallow camels, he did not intend for anyone to interpret his statements literally; he intended that they be interpreted figuratively. Nor did Jesus intend that people interpret his parables as literal stories of literal people; he intended them to be understood as parables—made-up stories that illustrate a point.
It is not watering down the Bible to read it the way it is intended. Poetry should be understood as poetry, metaphors as metaphors, similes as similes, and parables as parables. “Literal” and “true” are not the same thing, and the truth is, to interpret things literally that are not intended to be interpreted literally is to miss the truth completely.
I hadn’t thought about it that way. So give me an example of how Genesis 1 can be interpreted in a poetic or metaphorical way.
Think of the writer of Genesis 1 as living at a time when common oral (and eventually written) traditions included creation epics that presented visible phenomena, such as the stars, the planets, the sun, moon, land, sea and animals, as gods. Some of these creation epics began with a preexistent primordial mound out of which the first god springs, who then in one way or another produces the other gods. Another variation has the sea as the first god. Such epics were the standard approach to explaining the origin of the universe.
Contrast that with the Creation story in Genesis 1. It uses the standard style and genre of creation epics at the time. But using that standard style, it makes the radical declaration that the God of Israel, completely unlike all the gods of the nations, did not emerge from anything, nor was he ever part of the universe. Quite the contrary, this God created everything out of nothing simply by the power of his word. Each of the things thought of by the nations as being gods is systematically presented as having been created by this God and being declared “good” by this God, demonstrating his utter power over them.
Genesis 1 is about the Who of Creation, not the how. We should let the writer of Genesis 1 make his theological statement to us about who God is as Creator in contrast to the gods of the nations and not try to interpret him as providing us some kind of scientific police blotter of literal events and dates.
So should we be distinguishing between the fact that God created all things on one hand and how he might have caused it all to come about on the other?
Yes. There is a needless conflict between science and religion on the matter of the Creation. The biblical revelation tells us that the God who revealed himself to Israel and who has revealed himself to humanity in Jesus Christ is the Creator of all that exists. This revelation is not interested in detailing the physical processes he might have used to bring about this universe that humanity is part of and has, as God’s gift, both the capacity and the joy of studying and learning about.
This means that nothing factual that science can say about how the universe came into being or how the process of creation has unfolded throughout the history of the earth can contradict the biblical revelation—as long as the scientific speculation doesn’t conclude that God is not the Creator of all that exists.
But doesn’t evolutionary theory insist that everything came into existence without a Creator?
No. It’s true that some scientists claim that everything came into being naturally, spontaneously — without God’s original creative act. But that is a philosophical statement, not a scientific one.
On the other hand, many scientists do believe in God, and they do not discount the biblical revelation that God is Creator. They do their scientific work by studying the physical phenomena in the universe that are the result of God’s creative act. They accept that Genesis 1 tells us that God has created all things, but recognize that Genesis 1 does not tell us how the creation process has unfolded or how long it has taken to unfold. Scientists, using whatever evidence is available, seek to better understand the wonders of the amazing universe God has brought into being.
So where does that leave me — the average person? What is the proper approach for a Christian?
We suggest curiosity mixed with humility. There are strident and often angry voices raised on both sides of this question. They only make the argument increasingly bitter and the divide wider. The fact that many scientists can accept the findings of science that point to evolutionary changes in the forms of life, while remaining committed to their Christian faith, should be encouraging to the rest of us. It does not have to be an either/or argument.
In fact, it does not have to be an argument at all. Realistic scientists know that they might never uncover all the mysteries of creation.
“Take a long, hard look. See how great he is — infinite, greater than anything you could ever imagine or figure out!” (Job 36:26, Message Bible)
But as the Proverbs remind us: “God delights in concealing things; scientists delight in discovering things” (Proverbs 25:2, Message Bible). We may never fully resolve these questions in this life, but it is a legitimate and exciting quest, and we are discovering wonderful things along the way.
Grace Communion International, publishers of this magazine, sums it up like this:
“We believe that God gave the scientific record for human instruction and knowledge and that there is no conflict between the Bible and science. We believe that when the Bible and scientific discovery appear to conflict, that one or the other has been misunderstood. Therefore, we do not deny the evidence from science that indicates a long history of life on this planet. We believe that only God can create life, and that the Creator has not revealed exactly how he has done this.” (source)