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:
- Change over time.
- Changes in regard to culture and education.
- Microevolution. Microevolution refers to change within an animal Genus (e.g. Wolves and Coyotes are in the same Genus). An example would be one bear ancestor evolving into several species of bears, or multiple species of fish evolving from one fish ancestor, or the potential for evolutionary change demonstrated in animal breeding. Most of the empirical evidence for evolution supports microevolution, whether it is Darwin’s finches, fish in Lake Victoria, guppies in Trinidad, peppered moths, or viruses and bacteria developing resistance to drugs etc.
- Descent with modification. Descent with modification is a relatively uncontroversial idea. After all, we see it taking place in our own family tree.
- Macroevolution. Macroevolution is the idea that all existing species are mostly the result of random mutation and natural selection (Neo-Darwinism), tracing their origin to one or several common ancestors. You and I share a common ancestor with slugs and other bugs.
- Evolution is an unguided purposeless process that without foresight or intention created the incredible diversity of living organisms on our planet.
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):
- There is a problem with macroevolution involving the probabilistic resources of our universe. The probabilistic resources of our universe refer to the maximum amount of events that could have occurred in our universes' history. In regard to the emergence of the first cell, the idea of probabilistic resources refers to the amount of opportunity available for necessary proteins or genes to have arisen by chance. The probabilistic resources of the universe were calculated by Dr. William Dembski in this manner: He multiplied the number of elementary particles (10 to the 80th power), by the number of seconds since the Big Bang (10 to the 17th power), by the number of possible interactions between the molecules per second (10 to the 43rd power) to arrive at the number 10 to the 140th power. According to Dembski, any odds bigger than that is beyond the probabilistic resources of the universe to account for by chance alone. Now, it has been calculated that the odds of arriving at one simple, functional protein, requiring 150 amino acids correctly sequenced, are 10 to the 164th power (Dr. Fred Hoyle made this calculation. Others have offered similar calculations). Imagine having a bike lock with a hundred and fifty rows and twenty numbers in each row (There are twenty different amino acids used to form proteins in life, called left-handed peptide bonds). What are the odds of you spinning the lock and the numbers randomly line up to unlock the bike? The astronomical odds of that are fairly easy to calculate. And, so the argument goes, because we are speaking about the beginning of life there is not enough time for chance alone to produce a one celled organism that can mutate and replicate, allowing evolutionary theory to take over. In fact, to arrive at a minimally functioning cell you would need 250 proteins on average. This means that the odds of one simple cell forming, by time and chance alone, are 10 to the 41,000 power; that is, 10 with forty one thousand zeroes after it! This clearly exhausts the probabilistic resources of the universe and it is, therefore, impossible for time and chance alone to produce a minimally complex cell, even if the calculations above are off by a bit.
- Scientists have examined up to forty thousand generations of bacteria in a test tube, which is the equivalent of a million human years. The bacteria have evolved. No one denies that. But the bacteria still remain bacteria. These experiments have shown that evolution, in many ways, is better at breaking things than making things. Some scientists believe these types of empirical tests show the limits of genetic mutation and natural selection in producing significant evolutionary change.
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:
- Explain the purpose of Genesis one. It is not intended to be a scientific handbook, but that doesn’t mean that Genesis is not true or factual. It is a fact that God created everything, it is a fact that God created men and women in His image and it is a fact that we are to represent God’s character, care and concern to creation. It seems to me that this is the main point of Genesis one and it is true in all it intends to teach.
- Point out the various meanings of the word evolution. Christians don’t have to automatically oppose any mention of the word. A pertinent question to ask would be, ‘what do you mean by evolution?’ The first four meanings of the word listed above are easily compatible with almost any reading of Genesis one or two.
- A Christian may express some theological, or even scientific concerns, with embracing macroevolution, while fairly acknowledging that some brothers and sisters in Christ, like those names listed above, accept the whole theory as God ordained and God sustained. And in doing so these Christians don’t violate any of the doctrinal statements found on our churches website. Your pastor doesn’t embrace this perspective personally and I am currently doubtful about its legitimacy. But many of my favourite apologists and Christian writers embrace it.
- Help people understand that, strictly speaking, evolution doesn’t equal atheism and that describing the process as purposeless and unguided (meaning 6) taints the empirical data with philosophical prejudices that are unwarranted. For an example, take Richard Dawkins' book, The Blind Watchmaker. It is beautifully and brilliantly written, but the fundamental premise of this entire book is flawed from a Christian perspective. It is, however, a flawed philosophical premise not necessarily a scientific one. There may be some correct science throughout the book but the philosophical conclusion being drawn (e.g. there is no creator) is erroneous and doesn't legitimately claim the authority of science. In this instance atheism is being brought to the biology and then read out of the biology. The unjustified atheistic bias of a scientist doesn’t hold the same weight as a well-tested scientific theory and they should not be confused.
- Contend for whatever understanding you hold in regard to Genesis one and two with humility and charity and don’t forget that pointing people to Jesus Christ is the most important thing.
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