Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 7: If Evolution is Messy, can Creation be Good?

April 2, 1999

Deborah and Loren Haarsma

Theological issues raised by an old earth and evolutionary creationism tie into bigger theological questions such as: What is the nature of sin? Why does God allow so much suffering? Why does God sometimes work so slowly to achieve His purposes? These questions were around long before science, and tbey don't have tidy answers, but there are many good resources for wrestling with them. Studying these issues can bring new insight into God and his revelation, which can make your own personal faith stronger and more mature. We don't offer complete answers here, but we hope our ideas point in a useful direction.

Practical issues:

1. Young-earth vs. progressive vs. evolutionary creation: how do you decide what to think? Do you even need to decide?
--You can decide not to decide -- not all Christians are called to work through the details of these issues, and it's not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith
--You can put off deciding until later.
--If you want to decide, give yourself time, information, and discussion with others.

2. What should be taught about origins in the public schools?
--The science of microevolution should be taught, and distinguished from macroevolution.
--The science of macroevolution should be taught, since it is an important and useful scientific theory.
--Both the weaknesses and strengths of macroevolution should be taught.
--Evolutionism should not be taught in the science class. (Discuss evolutionism and other worldview interpretations in philosophy or religion classes.)

Further reading:
For teachers and parents: Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, published by the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).
For pastors and churches: God Did It, But How?, also published by ASA.

Issues of animal evolution:

3. Why would God use such a long, indirect process to create modern plants and animals? Why not just say the word and have them come into being (creation by fiat)?
Here's some possibilities:
-- God likes process. Consider the slow development of each new human being, each of our spiritual lives, the long history of the church, the long history of the nation of Israel, etc.
-- God fixes our sinfulness not by instantly changing us (like we were a machine), or starting over (like we were a mistake), but by patiently teaching us (like a parent with a child).

4. An old earth requires animal death before humans sinned. Is this in conflict with the Bible?
Even before modern science, many theologians wrote that animal death was a normal part of creation:
--Genesis 3:17-18 and Romans 8:18-23 talk about the negative effect of human sin on the creation, but they do not specifically refer to animal death. (They do refer to human death and spiritual death).
--Worship passages (in Psalms and elsewhere) include reference to predators (lions, etc.)
--Does "animal death" include low-level life like insects and bacteria? Even in a 6-day creation, these would have died before human sin.
--Animals, like plants, are finite, with a temporal beginning and end. Death makes room for new animals to appear.

Then what is the "groaning of creation"? Here's some ideas:
--We abuse creation sinfully. We mis-use it and destroy parts of it.
--Creation was supposed to be a place for humans to love and glorify God, but it can't do what it was created to do because we aren't doing what we're supposed to do.
--All of creation is supposed to glorify its Creator, and we are in some sense the personal voice for the rest of creation. We're not doing our job properly.

5. Are natural disasters, harmful mutations, disease, and parasitism a result of human sinfulness, or part of God's original creative plan? (see also questions 7 and 13)
--Some argue that nature is too "ugly" for a loving God to have created it:
Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

(Excerpted from "'So Careful of the Type?' But No" by Alfred Lord Tennyson.)

--There are many examples in science of something which looks awkward/ugly at first, but looks sensible/beautiful in the big picture.

General relativity is much more complicated than Newton's gravity, but solves some fundamental problems which Newtonian dynamics cannot.
Insects lay thousands of eggs each generation, but this "wasteful" system allows rapid adaptability.
Cancer cells use mechanisms which normally promote cell repair and growth.
Parasitism and symbiosis both arise by similar adaptive mechanisms.)
--Mutations can be harmful. But they increase genetic variability and variety in a species, allowing species to adapt to changing environmental conditions. This seems like good design on both the "micro" and "macro" scales. Is the life of an animal (or human) with a harmful genetic defect "not worth living"?
--In our own lives, some incidents seem bad in the short term, but later we see a bigger picture; we see what good things God accomplished through it. That's part of faith.

6. Doesn't evolution reward selfishness? How could God use a selfish system to create something good?
--Sometimes "selfish" behavior is rewarded in evolution, but sometimes "altruistic" behavior is rewarded. (e.g. risking life to protect young, or warning the herd of a nearby predator)
--Some biological instincts are unambiguous (e.g. revulsion to spoiled food). But for complex social behaviors, animals display competing behavior options. (e.g. immediate pleasure-seeking vs. working for long-term survival; indiscriminant mating vs. pair-mating for life) Perhaps these competing behavior options in social animal groups formed "raw material" for moral choice in humans -- moral choice made possible by increased intelligence, self-awareness, and social awareness.
--Christians have always said

(1) Our sense of morality is "hard-wired" into our biological nature (but it has been marred by sin)
(2) God revealed absolute standards for moral behavior.
So general revelation and special revelation work together. Whether God accomplished the "hard-wiring" of our moral sense via creational fiat or via natural evolutionary mechanisms, God was sovereign over the process. God's spoken revelation gives it all the more significance.

Issues of human evolution:

7. Doesn't the Bible teach that humans were originally immortal, living in a pain-free Eden?

Immortal? If Adam & Eve were already immortal, why was a "Tree of Life" needed? (Gen 3:22). The punishment for disobeying God was spiritual death, not immediate physical death.

Pain-free? If there was no pain in Eden, why does God curse Eve by saying "I will increase your pains with childbearing." (Gen 3:16). Pain is an important tool for survival, health, and safety.

Work-free? God worked during creation. Humans are commanded to subdue and rule the earth (Gen 2:28), which takes hard work. Work was a good part of creation even before sin.

As Christians in a sinful world, we know that death is not the end for us, that pain warns us about physical danger, that pain can turn us towards God instead of away from God, and that work is good.

8. If humans evolved by the same process as apes, how can humans be more significant?
This is similar to questions of significance raised in week 4. Even though humans are vastly smaller and younger than the universe, we are significant because: God chose to speak to us, God himself became human in the person of Jesus, and Jesus died to restore humanity to himself. All of the same reasons apply here. Our significance is based not on how humans came into being, but how God has related to use since then.

9. Could the human soul have been formed by evolutionary mechanisms? In what sense are we "made in the image of God"?
--Some "soul" qualities could have been created through evolutionary processes:
verbal ability, tool-making ability, complex inter-personal interactions, perhaps even self-awareness and empathy. Some other mammals have these to a much lesser extent. With human babies, we see the gradual development of these abilities over time.
--Other "soul" qualities require God's supernatural intervention:
the establishment of a personal relationship between creature and Creator; moral accountability; life after death. God decided when, in human history, to begin such relationships and accountability.

10. Why not just believe that God miraculously intervened to create humans with souls?
That's theologically and scientifically possible, but there is some data to consider:

Humans and primates share more DNA similarities than are required for similar function
There have been several species of hominids over the last five million years with steadily increasing brain size, improved tool-making ability, and more modern brain structures.
There is more genetic variability within the human population than would be expected from a recent single pair of parents.
--Simply hypothesizing that God miraculously made the first human beings may remove some theological questions, but only by raising some new ones. (Why all of those hominids? Why the similarity in human/primate non-coding DNA? Is God creating the "appearance of age"?)
--Whether God made the first humans by fiat or by evolution, the act of God stepping into history and starting a personal relationship with us gives us particular significance.

11. Were Adam and Eve actual historical persons? How did sin spread through the human race?
--There are scriptural reasons which have long suggested to some theologians that Adam and Eve were not the only human beings at the time:

Who was Cain worried would kill him? Where did Cain get his wife?
Genesis seems primarily concerned with a history of Israel and the surrounding lands.
Christ brings salvation to all humanity as a representative, so could Adam as representative bring Original Sin to all?
--The doctrine of Original Sin primarily is meant to teach that all humans are sinful from birth, and no one can be righteous apart from Jesus Christ. Christian theology agrees on this, but there is a range of theological opinion about just how original sin affects us and is transmitted from generation to generation.
--Genesis 3 and following chapters seem set in Mesopotamia 6000-7000 years ago. Human settlements are dated older than that all over the globe. Here are four ways theologians have resolved this:
(1) The Garden of Eden story is historically accurate and happened about 6000 years ago. Adam and Eve were specially created as representatives of humankind. Their descendants mixed with the rest of humanity.
(2) The Garden of Eden story is historically accurate, but happened much earlier. Original Sin was passed only to Adam and Eve's descendants, but their descendants have since mixed with the rest of humanity.
(3) There was a specific historical "first sin" in humanity's earliest parents, long ago, which began humanity's sinful status. The actual historical details are unknown. The Garden of Eden story is like a parable, re-telling the story to teach the theological point that humans made a deliberate choice which resulted in sin. Elements of parable: "Adam" = "man"; talking snake; Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; Tree of Life. These suggest symbolism in the story.
(4) The Garden of Eden story is a literary genre common to the Ancient Near East. It was not intended to teach historical details, but rather theological truths about our human condition: We are sinful; it is our fault, not God's. There did not need to be a specific "first historical sin" for this condition to come about.

--You may not need to decide personally which of these is best. Each one seeks to preserve the essential teachings of Original Sin. If you do need to decide, give yourself time, information, and discussion with others.

12. What about other events in Genesis 3-11? Are these actual historical events or not?
We don't know. These chapters do appear to be a different literary genre from later chapters. There is a bit of other literature from Mesopotamia at that time (e.g. The Epic of Gilgamesh) with some similar features (kings who live for thousands of years, a global flood). We don't know of strong reasons either to insist upon the historical accuracy of these chapter or to deny their historical accuracy. Consult with Old Testament scholars.

Does this affect our relationship to God?

13. Isn't the whole picture of evolutionary creation just too messy and painful for God to use? How could God declare such a system "good"?
Philip Yancey addresses the theological "problem of pain" in his book, Where is God When it Hurts?
--Pain is a useful signal that our body is injured/diseased. (It's a good thing "in the big picture.")
--God can use painful incidents to point us back to Him (sometimes better than anything else could).
--God listens to our cries of suffering (e.g. the book of Job).
--God allies himself with the poor and suffering in society.
--God participated personally in our suffering through Jesus' Incarnation and Crucifixion
--God calls on his church to relieve the suffering of others.
--God will set all things right in the end, in the new creation.

I Corinthians 13 say that when all other things pass away, "And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love." What does that imply about our future life in the new creation that faith, hope, and love will remain? This "painful" world seems to be a good place to learn those characteristics.

"The image Jesus left with the world, the cross, ... is proof that God cares about our suffering and pain. He died of it. ... And thus the cross, an eternal stumbling block to some, became the cornerstone of our faith. Any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God's system ultimately leads back to the cross."
Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts?

14. How do I worship a Creator who used a long, indirect process rather than a miracle to make each lifeform?
If you are used to worshiping with the mental image of God specially creating each animal in 6 days, but then decide on an intellectual level that God used progressive creation or evolutionary creation, you may need to revise your worship attitudes. Here's some suggestions:
--Praise God for

the beauty of the world (the "awe" response is valid even if there's a scientific explanation, recall week 1)
the intricate system God made and the fine-tuning of the overall design
God's attributes (faithfulness, beauty, and power) displayed in nature
God's patience and his value of "process" in our lives
the fact that God's revelation & care come even before we have things figured out scientifically or theologically.
--Focus on the theological lessons of Genesis 1 (recall week 5): God's sovereignty, the worth of creation, the worth of humanity, worth of marriage and family, worth of work, worth of rest.

Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma

Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?", Last updated April 2, 1999