I first started looking at this issue five or six years ago. In preparing for that first sermon, I started at the beginning, determined to give all points of view a fair hearing. As is true with most debates, I discovered that this one is far more complex than I had imagined. I had the idea that the debate was between those who insisted on a literal interpretation on one side and those who were complete atheists on the other. I didn’t realize that most of the people who call themselves creationists actually accept that the world is billions of years old and that the account in Genesis is open to interpretation. I also learned that many scientists are committed Christians who challenge at least some of the tenets of evolution.
These are some of the things that I began with: First, how we interpret Genesis as Christians.
1) The first way to look at Genesis is to say that “Day” means a 24 hour period of time. “Young earth creationists” hold this view, also believing in a literal fall, no animal death before the fall and a flood that covered the entire earth. The problems with the 24 hour period are overwhelming from a scientific point of view, and the adherents of this position agree that the scientific evidence is against them. But there are also problems from a biblical point of view. This text reads like poetry or like liturgy, not like a science textbook. Is it reasonable to interpret literally a text that was meant to make a theological point? If you want other texts where “day” means something other than a 24 hour period you can look at 2 Peter 3:8 where it says that to the Lord, a thousand years is like a day. And certainly in the numerous texts in the Old Testament that talk about the “Day of the Lord” there is no question that “day” means something like the beginning of a new age. Some have pointed out that it is difficult to talk literally about a day being 24 hours when the sun and moon had not yet been invented.
2) Another way to look at Genesis one is to say along with 2 Peter, that the day refers to an undetermined period of time and that the basic order of creation in Genesis 1 is correct, but that we do not understand the time frame. The “Old-earth creationists” hold this point of view. In other words, the “days” simply mark the phases of God’s creating work. (Some with this point of view believe that the formless void was the time of the dinosaurs and the fall of Lucifer and that the account in Genesis 1 talks about God’s redemptive work in creation. In other words, God had to save the world from chaos and recreate it after it got messed up.) Old-earth creationists point to the fact that the basic order of creation is quite similar to the one that the evolutionists come up with – starting in the sea and moving upward, so to speak.
3) The third way to read Genesis 1 is theologically. This is to say that the most important point is that the text itself is not concerned with time-frame but with asserting that God is creator, not just of the people of Israel, but of the whole universe. It uses the language of poetry and worship, not the language of science and we should not confuse the two. Genesis addresses the fact of God’s creation, but not the how.
Most of those who take this view of Genesis are called theological evolutionists. They accept the theory of evolution and either believe that God used evolution as a method of creation or that God put into creation in the beginning all that it needed to evolve into what we have today.
Having looked at the ways of understanding the biblical text, let’s look briefly at the science. There are really two kinds of evolution that people talk about: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution has been seen by anyone who has ever done experiments with fruit flies in biology lab or anyone who has ever had to take several different kinds of antibiotics, because whatever bug they have has become immune to the one they started with. Everybody, and I mean everybody, accepts microevolution; it is clear to all that species do change over time in response to their environment, that genetic mutations are responsible for those changes and that some of the changes are more useful for survival than others. So far, no problem. The problem arises with macroevolution—the theory that we all come from a common ancestor, that natural selection and survival of the fittest can account for all the diversity and complexity of life and that one species can evolve into another. Evolutionists believe that random mutation, natural selection and “deep time” can also account for the structures of society as well as the biology.
While it is widely held, the standard theory of macroevolution has been called into question by some scientists who are biochemists and physicists. They argue that we have not been able to show in the fossil record that one species has actually developed into another. They see new life forms coming in jumps, not gradually as one would expect with evolution. They find it improbable from a statistical point of view that random mutations could account for the complexity of the systems that they study. They argue that we need a theory of intelligent design, not from the standpoint of theology, but in order to more adequately explain the science. John Haught, on the other hand, does not agree that “intelligent design” is science, but is still in the realm of theology. He argues that we need to develop a theology of evolution. I am still reading and wrestling with Haught’s books; he is not an easy read!
Where is the big argument between science and religion? I would argue, along with others, that there are two arguments: not between science and religion, but one argument on the scientific level between scientists with different points of view and another argument on the philisophical or theological level between people with vastly different ways of looking at the world.
The science I can adress. If we (as Christians) are people who believe in the truth, and we are, then we should be open to whatever good science discovers, understanding that good science is always sceptical of its own answers. Don’t ever believe a scientist that tells you that he or she is completely convinced of the validity of a theory. At that point he stops being a scientist. The truth will never hurt us and will always be a positive. In fact, I discovered that even some of those who hold to the literal interpretation of Genesis 1 are more concerned with the truth and are willing to change their position if they are convinced by the science that they are wrong because they serve the truth.
What those in the creationist camp are really concerned about, however, is not the science of evolution, but the world-view of evolutionists. This is a world-view that does not allow for God’s action in the world, that does not even accept that God exists. But do not be misled into thinking that just because a scientist makes a statement that the statement is about science. For instance, Carl Sagan says at the beginning of his series on the Cosmos something to the effect that “the universe is all there is and all there ever has been and all there ever will be”. That is not a statement of science, but a statement of faith.
So these are some consequences of what I believe:
1) We must do our science while holding firmly to our theology of creation. We cannot give that up and we must insist that the question of God’s action be left open. This is not only good theology, but possibly good science as well.
2) We must do our theology while taking full account of the best science. In order to maintain our credibility as rational people, we must not give in to a world-view that no longer makes sense. In this case, taking a fair look at evolution is not only good science but good theology as well. After all, if we truly believe that God created the world, then discovering how God created and continues to create is an act of praise and worship.
3) We cannot allow God to become a “God of the gaps.” If God is only useful for explaining what science hasn’t discovered yet, then we have a poor theology and a weak view of God.
Finally, I want to tell you why I think this whole issue is important—because it has deep implications for how we live our day to day lives and how we make decisions as a society.
1) Darwinism on the level of biology, particularly the notion of survival of the fittest, becomes a horror when applied at the social level. Marx, Hitler, and the Eugenics researchers all believed in what was called Social Darwinism; that the “fit” will survive and should be encourage and that the “unfit” will be less functional and should be discouraged from reproducing or even gotten rid of. This view leads to a belief in a superior race, that some races are less highly evolved than others. It leads to forced sterilization of the “unfit” (with the government deciding who is unfit), and in the end to subjugation of peoples and to extermination. This world-view has no point of contact with Christian beliefs. If Genesis 1 says anything, it is clear that humanity as a whole has been given the image of God and that no human is to be set above another human in the cosmic scheme of things.
2) Darwinism is a miserable and illogical foundation for an ethical system. If our selves and our societies are simply the random result of natural forces then it is possible to come up with a theory of why we take care of those to whom we are related-after all they also carry our DNA. But it is difficult to explain self-sacrifice and compassion for the widows, orphans and aliens among us. It is difficult to see how we could love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And yet that is what we are called to do as Christians.
3) Lastly, those who do not accept God as the agent of creation are left without a good explanation of our purpose and meaning in life. We are left with a universe swirling around us and the only purpose we seem to have is to make sure our DNA gets continued.
This is basically where I started from for my sermon. I will be posting more on how I read Genesis. And I hope in the future, as I develop a deeper understanding of the theology of evolution, to be able to write more about that as well.
A few more notes and definitions:
1. Some background on Genesis:
Scholars often refer to Genesis 1:1-2:4a as the first creation story, finding a second creation story beginning in Genesis 2:4b. They separate these two stories because the name used for God is different in each and because they seem to give us two different pictures of the order of creation. For instance in the “first” story, human beings are created after the plants and animals. In Genesis 2:5-7, on the other hand, it says that there were no plants yet when God created Adam, the person. The usual explanation for there being two stories is that they came from two different groups of people among the Israelites; when the scriptures were collected, they kept both stories since both were inspired and each one contained an important truth about God that needed to be included. Theologically, we need both of these stories in order to have a full view of how God works in creation.
2. Terms used in the debate over creationism versus evolution.
Three kinds of creationists:
a) Young earth creationist: One who believes that the earth is no more that 10,000 years old, that no animal death occurred before the fall (which they take to be literal) and that the flood covered the entire earth and can account for the whole of the fossil record.
b) Old earth or “Progressive” creationist: One who believes that the earth is several billion years old, that a “day” in Genesis refers to a long period of time, that the flood only covered part of the earth.
c) Theistic evolutionist: One who believes in the doctrine that God created the earth but that evolution can be used to explain how creation happened. Some believe that God gave nature everything it needed to evolve and others believe that God has been involved on a continuing basis in evolution.
Intelligent design: The scientific theory that the evidence for creation (and evolution) can best be explained by assuming that it is the result of a purposeful design and not simply random.
Microevolution: The observable fact (with which no one disagrees) that living things do evolve (or adapt) in response to their environment using the mechanism of genetic mutation.
Macroevolution: The theory that all life has a common origin, that species evolve gradually over time with a gradual process, that natural selection and survival of the fittest plays a role in which organisms survive to pass on their genes.
Evolutionism: (also called naturalism or atheistic evolution) The world-view that all matter and all life is the result of completely natural processes, that no God or other designer exists, and that macroevolution explains not only all biological complexity and diversity, but the complexity and diversity of society as well.
Good books on the subject:
Three Views on Creation and Evolution edited by J.P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds and published by Zondervan.
Evolution From Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation , and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett, published by Abingdon Press.
The Origin of Species by Darwin (if you want to go back to the source that caused all the fuss)
God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, and Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God and the Drama of Life both by John Haugh
Sorry for the length of this post! Just wanted to get it all said.