Why is the universe orderly? Why does it follow physical laws? Why is it susceptible to mathematical description? Why is the universe intelligible at all? Why, if there is not a God and we simply evolved by natural processes, do we have the ability to detect the laws that govern black holes, which has absolutely nothing to do with our ability to survive and reproduce? These are all mysteries on atheism or lucky accidents that make possible the success of science. The existence of God, however, makes great sense of all of these realities.
Well-known philosopher, Richard Swinburne, writes, “I am not postulating a ‘God of the gaps,’ a god merely to explain the things that science has not yet explained. I am postulating a God to explain why science explains; I do not deny that science explains, but I postulate God to explain why science explains.” The existence of God explains the law found in nature and the reliability of our reason in studying it. For these types of reasons there should be a deep harmony between science and Christianity.
Is evolutionary theory in conflict with Biblical Christianity, which affirms that the Bible is God’s word? Depending on your level of interest, it may be beneficial to simply skip to the end of this article to read my suggested approach to dealing with evolution and Christianity.
Evolution and Christianity
When it comes to evolutionary theory it matters what you mean by the word evolution. I’ve read about at least 6 different meanings of the word that are used in popular literature, though many of the meanings can overlap. Here they are:
Most Christians, including young earth creationists, believe in the first four meanings of the word evolution without any problem. The controversy starts with number five and belief in macroevolution. The problem is not one of logic. Evolution is a biological mechanism. God creates and sustains biological mechanisms; they do not replace him. Logically speaking, God could have created through an evolutionary process. There are some conservative Christians who hold this position, including Alister McGrath, Francis Collins, Dennis Alexander, Bruce Walke, Dinesh D’Souza, and C.S. Lewis (though there is some evidence to suggest that Lewis grew increasingly skeptical towards the theory as he grew older). I have greatly benefited from reading the theological writings of these men.
Still, the concept of Macroevolution remains controversial for many conservative Christians. There are two main reasons for this: first, many Christians believe the science is not there to prove macroevolution. The fossil record is not compelling and the genetic evidence can be given multiple interpretations. Though there is plenty of evidence for microevolution these Christians contend that the evidence for macroevolution is underwhelming and any new genetic evidence claimed for macroevolution can be reasonably attributed to a common designer rather than common ancestry. There are some empirically based critiques of evolutionary theory that attempt to point out the limited power of genetic mutation and natural selection to produce the new genetic information required for the diversity of life-forms on planet earth or the information content of DNA. Here are two examples of critiques: one is directed towards the beginning of life and the other is directed towards the limits of change that can be produce by genetic mutation and natural selection (if you are not that interested I would really skip this part):
I am not a biologist so I can’t evaluate these scientific claims and what is written above is hotly disputed in the literature and there are counter arguments and critiques. For further research I suggest, Signature in the Cell or Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, by Michael Denton, The Edge of Evolution, by Michael Behe, Darwins’ God by Cornelius G. Hunter, or God and Evolution, edited by Jay Richards.
The second reason Christians reject macroevolution is the difficulty in reconciling the Biblical teaching to some versions of evolutionary theory. This is a strong objection for those who hold to the inerrancy of scripture. For further research see Should Christians Embrace Evolution? edited by Norman C. Nevin. For attempted reconciliations of macroevolution and Christianity that are compelling see The Language of God, by Francis Collins, Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? by Dennis Alexander, or Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? by Daniel Dennet and Alvin Plantinga.
Meaning Number 6
The 6th meaning claims that evolution is an unguided purposeless process that without foresight or intention created the incredible diversity of living organisms on our planet. To be clear, this meaning of the word evolution is in conflict with Biblical Christianity and this is often how people, particularly atheists and young earth creationists, speak of evolution.
However, the conflict here is not between the Bible and science because meaning number 6 has smuggled philosophical ideas into this statement of biology. In claiming that evolution is an unguided process they are assuming that either, there is no God to guide evolution, or that if God were to guide evolution it would be obviously apparent to all. Both are theological or philosophical assumptions brought to science, not read out of science. This goes beyond the empirical data and is a faith-based position based on someone’s philosophical perspective that doesn’t have the same weight or authority as a well-founded, testable scientific hypothesis.
Before this understanding of evolution can be justified the proponent should provide convincing reasons for why there is no God. Until he or she has engaged in this philosophical task of refuting the good reasons to believe in God, in addition to providing a compelling case for atheism this last understanding of evolution is, in my opinion, unfairly biased and unwarranted. And it is little good to state that evolution looks random and unguided (to some). If God exists then situations, or events, that look random to us due to our limited cognitive capacities, may have a meaningful part to play in God’s providential purposes for our life, or life in general. If a person protests, ‘there is no evidence for God’s providential arranging of the world’ the conversation has moved in a profitable direction, far beyond the jurisdiction of science, by unearthing the philosophical position influencing the above description of evolutionary theory.
I think we can say empirically that observable evolution is random in the sense that nature itself didn’t know or foresee what it was producing (how could it), but that doesn’t mean that the God of nature, who sees the beginning from the end, didn’t know what He was intending to produce through various mutations and such. All this being said, meaning number 6 is not compatible with the Biblical doctrine of creation, but here the conflict is not between science and the Bible it is between theism and atheism.
Here is an approach to the issue of evolution that I am tentatively suggesting:
The above approach provides people with a helpful framework to engage the issue of Biblical theology and evolutionary theory. In addition, it is understandable for the layperson, and acceptable to the specialist. Moreover, this manner of proceeding doesn’t require the pastor to go out on a limb by making authoritative pronouncements on issues they don’t really have time to fully comprehend. Lastly, it leaves freedom for Augustine’s maxim to be liberally applied: ‘in the essentials unity, in the non essentials liberty, and in all things charity’.
I hope it helps more than it hurts.
For further reading: Timothy Keller does a good job at unpacking all of the various issues related to the Bible and evolution in the article Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople