This question is important for the Church today and on the face of it seems to be fairly straightforward. But my professional training is in philosophy, and true to the stereotype of philosophers, the first thing I’d like to do is complicate the question by analyzing the terms.
What is the question?
“Can” Christians believe in evolution? Well, a lot of them say they do, so in that sense the answer is “yes they can.” But we’re really interested in whether they should. That is, are there fundamental tensions or even contradictions between Christianity and evolution such that people cannot consistently adhere to both?
Next, can “Christians” believe in evolution? I won’t get into the business of who is and isn’t a genuine Christian here, but of course the range of Christian positions we admit will have an effect on how we answer the question. For this essay I’ll limit that range to Christians who take the Bible seriously as authoritative and inspired by God.
Now we get to the trickier parts of the question: “believe in” and “evolution”. Both of these terms can be taken in different ways. To me “believe in” sounds more like the profession of faith than the acceptance of some scientific data. I believe in Jesus; I don’t believe in photosynthesis in that sense. And “evolution” — especially when it is coupled with “believe in” — is too often taken as an all-encompassing worldview. The worldview of evolution (or evolutionism) generally involves commitments to naturalism and to human existence being accidental and purposeless. So if our question means “Should Bible-believing Christians have faith in evolutionism?” then I think the obvious answer is no.
But if instead the question is understood to mean “Should Bible-believing Christians accept the scientific theory of evolution?”, my answer is yes. I think evolution as a scientific theory is true, and since all truth is God’s truth, it shouldn’t cause a problem for true Christian faith.
The science of evolution
The scientific theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the natural causes of the development of life (including humans). Notice that having a scientific explanation for some phenomenon does not mean God had nothing to do with it. For example, knowing the biology about where children come from does not alter our belief that children are a gift from God, that God knit them together in their mothers’ wombs. So too, the fact that we’ve discovered natural causes for the development of life does not mean God had nothing to do with it.
What is this scientific explanation? The big picture of evolution is that all life forms on earth have common ancestry. That does not mean current species evolved from each other: whales did not evolve from hippos, nor did humans evolve from chimpanzees. Rather, common ancestry claims that for any two organisms, if you go back far enough in their family trees, you’ll come to a population of organisms from which they both descend. For whales and hippos, that looks to be about 55 million years ago; for humans and chimps, it is 6 or 7 million years ago.
So how does it work? Zooming in a bit on the picture of evolution, there are two key components to the explanation: variation and selection. That is to say, offspring differ slightly from their parents (variation), and only some of those offspring go on to have offspring of their own (selection). There is vast agreement today on this much of the picture among professional scientists in the fields of biology and medicine (99% of them agree),1 and the evidence for it today from genetics alone is overwhelming.2 This basic picture is corroborated through the fossil record (yes, there are now lots of transitional fossils), comparative morphology (the shape of organisms), and biogeography (the distribution of species around the world).
The disagreements among professionals come when we zoom in even further to ask how the variation and selection take place. There is a popular or lay-level understanding of evolution according to which random genetic mutations are the only source of variation, but all evolutionary biologists today recognize there are several mechanisms for variation and argue over the relative importance of these. There are similar kinds of arguments over selection, but again, common ancestry is a settled issue among professionals in the field.
Evolution and the Bible
So, what do we Christians do with this? Some believe the scientific picture contradicts what is in Scripture, and since God is responsible for Scripture in some sense (God inspired it), it is difficult to believe that God would allow things to get into the Bible that aren’t true. Okay, but don’t we also believe God is responsible for the natural world (God created it)? And it is equally difficult to say God would have put things there that aren’t true. There must be a way, then, to reconcile the truths in Scripture with the truths in the natural world.
First, remember that although God is the “author” of both Scripture and the natural world, we finite and fallible humans are the ones interpreting these “books”. And throughout history, there are clear examples of us getting things wrong: geocentrism (the theory that the earth is stationary and in the center of the universe) is an easy example of our error we’ve made in the past in both biblical interpretation and science.
Next, just like in evolution, the further we “zoom in” on the specifics of our interpretations of Scripture, there is less consensus. Yes, all humans sin and Jesus must save us. But does Scripture demand that Adam and Eve were the only two humans initially created? Genesis 1 suggests maybe not, as does Cain’s fear about being sent away. And yes, God providentially guides the world and guarantees the final outcome. But does God dictate all the details of how things develop, or is there room for some contingency among an evolving creation?
These (and many more) can be tricky questions, and we would be wise to discuss them openly and graciously with each other. I’m convinced the essentials of Christian doctrine are not called into question by evolution, and there is enough flexibility among less central doctrines to find ways of harmonizing them with the truths of science.
This article is the 3rd of 4 in a series that addresses the relationship between faith and science. We invite readers to study and evaluate the claims of the authors in light of Scripture, and also to review previous posts on iAt that address various Christian perspectives on this topic.
See for example, Daniel J. Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2010) and Graeme Finlay, Human Evolution: Genes, Genealogies and Phylogenies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). ↩
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As a christian, I believe that the world was created along with all life and humans. I also believe evolution is currently happening as we have observed it, and the theory of evolution and natural selection just makes sense. I believe God made all animals and humans, but I also believe animals can evolve, speciate, and that humans will look very different in 20,000 years than they do now
Some Christians can and do believe – this isn’t a salvation matter… as the Bible states: we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). So regardless of what some may think, the final word and authority is that salvation comes only by the grace of God and by placing our faith in His Son Jesus. Can I get an AMEN?! This brings me to my 2nd point: the Bible’s authority. What does the Bible actually say about the origin of life and the origin of… well, everything? The Bible actually says that God created everything, including life on earth in 6 days, and rested on the 7th day. Some may wish to believe the days weren’t what you and I think of as a ‘day’, but if we go on to read Exodus 20:8-11, we see that it was commanded to observe the Sabbath and specifically in v.11 this is done on the 7th day because God rested on that day after 6 days of creation. No matter how you try to mix, twist, distort, etc… what Genesis 1 is about, it was 6 days. Now unfortunately for proponents of evolution, the Bible places life being created on days 5 and 6. Simply put, the order of life showing up and the lack of time between their creation precludes the modern models of evolution from being a possibility. To be a little bit frank/blunt here – Jesus actually affirms what Genesis says when he referenced it as stated in Matthew 19:4 when He stated that we were made male and female from the beginning. Does Genesis mention man and woman as being part of the initial events during creation? Yes, in fact it does (and Jesus would know, He was there). All things were made through Jesus, He IS the word made flesh. So this really becomes an authority issue: Is the word of God your authority? I think we’re all quick to stand up and shout YES and AMEN to that when it comes to salvation not being of our own work but rather by faith in Jesus, but some reading this this will scoff at the idea if we say God’s word is also the authority when it comes to our origins as well. God bless!
Christians outside the US generally do not have a problem with evolution. The historic and cultural reasons for Christians, primarily Protestants, having such difficulty with the age of the earth and universe, or evolutionary processes, has to do with their attachment to certain assumptions, or idols if you will. This should be the main points to address in any therapeutic interventions, not “harmonizing” Christianity with science — that is liable to generate the greatest reaction against science on the basis of “the authority of scripture,” and nothing good ever comes from a rival authority dissing match.
Biblical chronologies were taken literally by Europeans for a long time, and then suddenly this became untenable with geological studies in the Victorian era. It was not terribly ignorant to assume a young earth; the Greeks and Romans imagined the world was only a few centuries older than their recorded memories went, and they were scandalized by Semitic peoples with much longer memories. Age presents an argument for authority in imperial societies, and when they are shown to be a doomed drop in the bucket they tend to handle it poorly. Americans, in particular, may suffer from religious and secular historical teleologies that lean apocalyptic and exceptionalistic — history moves toward their validation as God’s chosen, or second most chosen nation, a status proved in bloody struggle and conflict. Being right is proved cosmically by being rich, by winning a conflict, or by merely surviving as the last man standing.
As for evolutionary processes, the mechanistic thinking of early modernity inclined Europeans to think of natural processes as “blind.” As well, the association of alternative ways to image the creator in all things with pagans, heathen, infidels, etc. helped paint western Christians into a corner of metaphysics or ontology where the only way God can be real is if he is real in the reductive materialist sense a tree or dog or person appears real, not as some vitality within, or the totality of a living system in its wholeness. This too is the outworking of nominalism that set western science on a course that theology rooted in the old classical-medieval world could not follow. It is amusing but sad that today’s protest against evolution is mostly from Protestants who do not understand it is Catholic assumptions that are holding them back — assumptions Catholics have reformed out of their thinking.