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.
Interesting post, Dr. Myre. There were a couple of points I took issue with:
First of all, I think that stating “Darwinism… becomes a horror when applied at the social level.” (and then referencing Hitler) is somewhat unfair. It’s the equivalent of me saying that Christianity clearly provides inferior morals, and then referencing the Spanish Inquisition. While I agree that the Eugenics movement was horribly flawed and unfair, and I shouldn’t even have to mention that Hitler was a monster, I disagree that those philosophies are a natural, logical extension from Darwin’s writings. (Although the practitioners claimed exactly that, in precisely the same way the Spanish Inquisitors claimed to be doing God’s will).
Secondly, your statement that “those who do not accept God as the agent of creation are left without a good explanation of our purpose and meaning in life,” is similarly flawed. I do, in fact, have what I believe to be a good explanation of my purpose and meaning in life, and I feel it is all the more meaningful in that I had to discover it for myself, as opposed to having it imposed upon me from an interpretation of a text. I don’t believe that everyone shares my purpose and meaning, and I’m OK with that. But I still believe it is good.
Thank you for your response. You last point first: I am sure that you do have an explanation for your own meaning and purpose in life. I was listening to the Atheism Tapes and one of the interviewees was speaking about how he found meaning in his work, his family, his friends, etc. without any need for an appeal to the divine. I can see where he (and you) are coming from. However, what troubled me about his words, in particular, is that I don’t see how someone with a really crummy life can find any meaning. It seems easy for comfortable atheists to say that their lives have meaning in a world without God, but I don’t see how the life of a child who is washed away in a tsunami could have meaning for them. As a Christian I would insist that every life has eternal significance; that no suffering goes unremarked by the divine creator. For me, that is one of the meanings of the cross.
Now to the first point: I should more appropriately have said “materialism” or “a materialistic view of evolution” rather than “Darwinism.” If we are simply the product of random physical processes, natural selection (involving survival of the fittest) and deep time, then I don’t see any other logical extension other than to say that if your life is getting in the way of mine I have every right to get rid of you. You have the same right to try to destroy me, and whoever wins, wins. We are, after all, merely highly evolved animals. I was also fascinated in the Atheism Tapes that all of the speakers seemed to think that morals were intuitive in some way. They did not explain why. One even went so far as to say that “people will usually do the right thing.” I think he was referring to “right things” being the sort of actions I would consider moral. However, that is not my experience of people. I don’t know what protected world he is living in, but it is not the world that I am living in. I think that most people have an immense capacity for selfishness.
As for the Spanish Inquisition, yes, Christians have done horrible things in the name of religion. That is one reason we continue to make the claim that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – including us. The fact remains that at the heart of the Christian faith is the claim that God gave up power to enter this world, was willing to suffer and die as an act of love and forgiveness, and rose to new life so that we would know that pain, suffering and death have been overcome. It is clear to many Christians today that God was not with the Inquisitors, but with their victims. The point of Jesus coming was not to give us a new set of morals, but to give us a path towards becoming transformed into the image of God.
I think that if atheists are fully honest with themselves and others they will admit that, although they personally hold a set of morals and find it more comfortable to make up their own personal meaning, there is no real reason to do so. You are a simply an animal who has been randomly spawned. Good just means “whatever is good for me” and bad is “whatever is bad for me.” This may be very uncomfortable to well-meaning atheists, but as far as I can see it is the only logical conclusion to their beliefs.
I am sure you don’t see it this way, but maybe it will help you understand why, for me, an atheistic viewpoint is so full of despair.
We are just animals, but we are moral animals. There are people who really believe that good is “good for me,” that bad is “bad for me,” and that they have the right to get rid of anyone who’s in their way – they’re called poli… I mean, psychopaths. There is physically something wrong with their brains. Properly functioning brains distinguish between good and bad and generally try to do good, though not always successfully.
It’s true that there’s nothing about the physical world (I’m not speaking for Todd here, just giving my own opinion) that mandates good behavior. That’s because morality doesn’t come from outside the human brain. It comes from inside. I distinctly remember, when I was still religious, wondering what it was that made good good and bad bad. That is, why is murder bad? Is it because god said it was bad? What if god asked me to do something horrible, like take my son to the top of a mountain and kill him? Would that action then become good because god had commanded it, or was it still bad, and if so, why?
I decided I didn’t care what god thought. Murder was bad, and I wouldn’t obey any sort of order to the contrary, and what made god’s opinion definitive anyway? And there was no “real” reason. That is, I couldn’t look at the world, and say, “this is true, and that is true, and therefore murder is bad.” It was just a natural revulsion based primarily on empathy (which psychopaths lack). I think this is the sort of intuition the people on the Atheist Tapes were speaking of. The world isn’t just made of dry facts – there are also human emotions and impulses, many of which are pro-social (though it’s certainly true that many others are anti-social). We are not Vulcans.
What would you say is your “real reason” to do good instead of bad? For some Christians it’s fear of punishment, but I don’t think that’s your reason. But if you were so inclined, couldn’t you, as it were, give god the middle finger? Why don’t you?
As for the meaning of life, I’m not sure why that meaning has to be bound up in one’s material circumstances at a given point in one’s life. Couldn’t it be something along the lines of “to contribute something brilliant and beneficial to the world”? Or “raise awareness of tsunami-resistant architectural techniques”?
I take issue with your statement that if I’m truly honest with myself that I have to admit that there is no real reason to hold morals, other than my personal whim. I believe you are arguing against a strawman atheist that you have built up in your head. Why don’t you ask me what I base my morals on, instead of assuming that I must logically go to a selfish view? I try hard to be honest with myself. One of the reasons is because I don’t have the certainty of a book backing me up, so I’m forced to reexamine why I believe what I believe.
It doesn’t take a particularly “advanced” morality to extend a “darwinistic” moral view beyond the self. Worker ants in an anthill will not ever reproduce directly themselves, but yet they still provide value to their selves and to their societies by working for the betterment of their hive. I don’t see why I’m forced to adopt the view that what is good for me in a narrow personal sense is good for my genes, and damn the rest of humanity? I share 99-odd percent of my genes with everyone here. I’ve got quite the vested interest in seeing this human civilization thing work out.
As for purpose in suffering, it’s hard for me to find much. I don’t think a martyr’s life is much of a life, and it does bother me that so many seek to assign glory to needless sacrifice. But I, personally, seek to minimize suffering in the world. I don’t think there’s much redeeming good in a child dying in a tsunami, and thus I try to make these occurrences less frequent. And things are getting better. Fewer people, as a percentage of all living, go hungry each day. We’ve conquered diseases that have killed humans for millennia. We no longer live in a world in which it is assumed that people are the property of their divine-right king. In the last 500 years, we have discovered truths about stars, galaxies, atoms.
The universe is full of amazing things, and I hope to bring even more amazing things into it. I don’t see that this view is full of despair at all.