Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution


For too long Christians in North America have thought the Bible was in conflict with biological evolution. Yet many orthodox Christian theologians of the nineteenth century (including Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield) saw no conflict in principle.

The Manufactured “War” between Science and Religion

This famous “war” of science and religion (of which the creation-evolution battle is the most prominent example) is a relatively recent invention, manufactured from the atheist side by John William Draper (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874) and by Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896), and on the Christian side by fundamentalists who misread the Genesis creation accounts as scientific.

But this is a serious genre mistake. Many atheists treat “science” as a full-fledged worldview that claims to tell us that there is nothing to reality but the natural world and that the scientific method gives us all the valid knowledge there is. Likewise many Christians treat the Bible as a science textbook, when the point of creation accounts in the ancient world (of which Israel was a part) is to explain the meaning of life and how we are to live.

Of course, the issues are a bit more complex than that. But to find out more you will need to attend an important conference that is coming to the Buffalo, NY area on September 18-19, 2015.

Genesis Recast—The War with Science Is Over

This is the provocative name of the conference, which will headline John Walton, Old Testament professor from Wheaton College, on how the read the Genesis creation accounts. His orthodox Christian faith in connection with his expertise in the Bible and the ancient Near East admirably equips him to guide us in how the interpret the Genesis creation accounts in line with their original intent.

Of course, we need to go well beyond a declaration of “peace” between the Bible and science.

The Positive Role of a Biblical View of Creation

The biblical view of creation claims that the cosmos is “very good” (Gen 1:31) and is imbued with God’s wisdom and order (Prov 3:19-20). Indeed, the wisdom literature of the Bible encourages us to understand the world, in which God’s wisdom is embedded, that we might live better in it.

Furthermore, God’s creation of humanity in his own image, with the task to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and tend the garden of creation (Gen 2:15), implies an exalted role for human beings, which includes the possibility of science. As stewards of earthly life, we are commissioned with a vocation that encompasses (but is not limited to) the scientific understanding of the world in which we live.

Not only can the world be studied scientifically, but a biblical view of God’s good creation suggests that human knowledge of the world (while not infallible) is possible and (when proper testing is in place) is reliable and trustworthy.

So far from being threatened by evolution, Christians who embrace a biblical understanding of creation may see the hand of God in the deep time of the cosmos and the complex processes of biological evolution. In fact, we may be in awe of the amazing creativity of this great God of ours.

Living with Unanswered Questions

Does this mean that we’ve solved all problems of how theology and the Bible relate to what we are learning about the cosmos and the evolution of life on this planet? By no means. I myself am working on these issues and have lots of questions. But whoever said that we would have all the answers, especially within our lifetime?

Expecting all the answers now is a decidedly modern form of hubris.

Instead, Christians need to learn the virtue of patience, and to take a long view of things. If we trust in the God of creation, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, we can learn to live with the unanswered questions we have—indeed, to love the questions, as Rilke suggested, until that day when we live into the answers.

More Information on the Genesis Recast Conference

While John Walton is the keynote speaker for the Buffalo conference, there are other speakers, addressing issues relating to the New Testament, genetics, and implications for the church. You can find details about the other speakers on the conference website, as well as in my previous post on the subject.

Registration is so cheap as to be ridiculous. If you live within driving distance, there is no excuse not to go, since a conference of this caliber won’t come this way again in a long while.

I hope to see you there!

If you need flyers (4×6) or posters (13×19) for your church or organization, let the conference organizer know [iyouthguy@gmail.com], and he will send them to you.

The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 1

I’ve been interested in the question of how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering for a long time. This is sometimes called the theodicy problem—from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Many writers through history have tried to “justify” God in light of the reality of suffering.

My own interest in this question is based both on theology and personal experience.

First of all, I am drawn to the Bible’s theological vision of a good creation. Having written quite a bit about God’s creational intent for the world’s flourishing (in articles and books), I am keenly aware of the need to grapple with the reality that the world does not at present match up with that ideal.

But it isn’t just that the world (out there) doesn’t match up to this ideal. Around the time I was coming to fully embrace a positive biblical vision of a good creation (having just completed a book on the Christian worldview), my life began to experience serious dissonance from this vision. As a result, I found it difficult over a period of some months to trust in God’s goodness. (I’ve recounted some of this story in a previous blog post.)

During this time I was introduced to the psalms of lament as a powerful resource for renewing trust in God in the midst of suffering. One outcome of this experience was an essay I wrote on the problem of suffering and evil that contrasted the attempt of classical theodicy to “solve” the problem with the more experiential approach of the lament psalms (“Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense”). Another was the book that Brian Walsh and I wrote on Christian faith in a postmodern world.

The Question of Evolution and Evil

I’m now being pressed to think further about suffering, given what I’ve come to understand about the evolutionary processes uncovered by various sciences (including paleontology and genetics). I am interested in how we might think about the Bible’s presentation of origins (origin of the world, of humans, of evil) in light of cosmic, biological, and human evolution.

I will be presenting a paper that explores the origins of human evil in Genesis 3 in light of human evolution at a conference called “The Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” next March in Chicago.

One facet of this issue is the reality of death and suffering prior to the origin of human beings. It seems undeniable to me that that biological death, animal predation, and natural disasters all predate humanity. We are latecomers on the scene, and plants and animals (from bacteria to dinosaurs) were subject to death by extinction, predation, accident, disease, or simply old age (if they were lucky) long before us.

This means that we can’t reasonably attribute these factors to the results of human sin (a “curse” on nature). Indeed, my own re-reading of Genesis 3 and other biblical texts has helped me realize that the common Christian assumption that nature was systemically affected by of human sin isn’t clearly supported in Scripture. (I’ll get to the origin of this idea later.)

Even with this realization, questions remain. This is where Ronald Osborn’s thoughtful new book comes in.

Ronald E. Osborn. Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

With vivid prose and an engaging perspective, Osborn addresses the problem of animal suffering for Christians, whether of “creationist” or evolutionary persuasions.

The book is tendentious (in the best sense of that term), arguing both for and against particular positions with passion and verve, yet it does not in the end come to a clear or unambiguous position on its primary topic, namely animal suffering. But the book certainly made me think, which (in my opinion) is high praise.

Osborn on Literalism

There are two prongs to Osborn’s argument, which make it, in effect, two books, or at least a book with two purposes, and two audiences. Part 1 (nine chapters) attempts to help conservative Christians move out of narrow literalism in their reading of the Bible’s creation narratives (by literalism he means an approach to the text that assumes a simple correspondence between what the Bible says and concrete realities in the external world); this approach tends to be associated with a young earth and treats the Noahic flood as the explanation for the fossil record.

Osborn is uniquely qualified to address this sort of literalism, since he was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Although he doesn’t go into details about this, it was the founder of the SDA church (Ellen G. White) who popularized the view that flood geology (and not deep time) decisively explained the current fossil record (this having been revealed to her in a vision, in which she claimed to have actually observed the flood).

This interpretation of the fossil record (along with its assumption of a young earth, and the lack evolutionary descent) informed the hermeneutics of William Jennings Byran, the famous prosecutor in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Byran had read SDA literature on this topic). To this day, many in the SDA church are principled defenders of young earth creationism.

Since I do not count myself among those who read the Bible this way, I was less interested in part 1 of Osborn’s book. Nevertheless, there are some good chapters here. These include chap. 2: “Unwholesome Complexity,” which shows just how certain creationist readings end up tying the reader into interpretive knots, and chap. 6: “The Enclave Mentality,” which is perceptive about absolutism and the demonization of the other often found in fundamentalism.

I was particularly taken with the author’s characterization of the anxiety of a literalist reading of Scripture as “a high-stakes game of Jenga” (p. 45), where if you touch one of the bricks near the bottom the entire theological edifice might collapse. However, Osborn’s rhetoric in this section of the book can be dismissive at times, and might put off some readers who need to grapple with the important issues he raises here.

In my next two posts I will address part 2 of Osborn’s book, which explicitly addresses how we might think theologically about animal suffering.

The Truth Is Out There—Living with Unanswered Questions, Part 3

In my last post I noted that my questions often leave me perplexed, and even confused. But I’m not in despair.

Like Mulder of the X-Files, I believe “The truth is out there.”

That doesn’t mean that I will find it; but I’m sure going to try. I’m on a quest, and this quest has led me to try to puzzle out this world, and in the process to study theology, philosophy, and the Bible—as well as to take human experience seriously.

The Need for Faith

I’ve found that the quest for truth requires two things.

First, it requires a certain faith. You have to believe that it is a worthwhile quest and that you won’t come to the edge of the world and fall off; you won’t fall into the unknown, never to return. This means that the fearless quest for truth—motivated by doubt, by what you don’t know—is nevertheless undergirded by trust or faith. (Is this faith in God? It is at least faith in the trustworthiness of reality.) The quest for truth (to use Augustine’s idea, made famous by Anselm) is “faith seeking understanding.”

However, there is no guarantee that throughout this quest for understanding your faith will remain unchangeably the same. Hopefully it will deepen and become more mature.

The Need for Humility

The other thing the quest for truth requires is the humility to realize we don’t have all the answers, and might never find all the answers. There are no guarantees for success in the quest.

Plus, we could always be wrong—in anything we currently believe. This is not a matter of psychological doubt (of actually doubting any particular belief), but simply the logical possibility of being wrong. There is no belief that I currently hold that is strictly “indubitable,” that I can’t doubt, that isn’t subject to the possibility of change.

Of course, I would need to be shown (in a manner that convinces me) that I need to change my belief on a particular matter. But I have to be open to that, in principle.

The Problem with Fundamentalism

The alternative to acknowledging the possibility of being wrong is fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism isn’t a matter of any particular beliefs, but rather a way of holding to beliefs. A person who doesn’t actually think they could possibly be wrong (not that they are wrong, that they could ever be wrong)—that person won’t give another person’s viewpoint the time of day. They might even believe the other person has no right to their beliefs, since they contradict what is obviously true.

Fundamentalists of a philosophical type (typically called foundationalists) tend to label people they disagree with as irrational. I’ve met such people and been so labeled (when I was in grad school).

Fundamentalists of a political or religious type tend to regard people they disagree with as evil. In its mild form, such people are thought to have ulterior motives; in its extreme form, they are “of the devil.” I’ve encountered religious fundamentalists and had the latter phrase applied to me (by a prominent church leader, in public).

Given the problems of fundamentalism, I’m fine with the possibility of being wrong; I’m even fine with doubt.

I’ll talk about the positive role of doubt in my next post.