03 May 2009

Why Evolution Matters (Part 1 of 3)

I participate in a semi-regular gathering called The Alchemists Guild: university students, faculty, clergy, and interested folk discussing faith and science over delicious soup provided by the Lutheran and Episcopalian University chaplains who host us at their student center near campus. The sessions have been moderated by my biologist/priest friend Lucas Mix, and our invited guest speakers have included priests, professors, and students. One such professor, a friend of Lucas’, was an atheist who took the issue of the evolution/creation debate very seriously. He told us that as a science educator, he sees creationism as a threat to good science education, and that as an atheist he is baffled as to why so many Christians find the theory of evolution incompatible with their faith. I’m sure he is not alone in wondering this, and I’m also sure that there are many Christians who cannot understand why he feels so threatened by their belief. In the next three posts I’ll attempt to explain why the issue of evolution comes up more than any other in the conflict between science and Christianity.

When I was an undergrad chemistry major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a local Baptist church brought Ken Ham and a few of his colleagues to campus for a three-day creation science festival. Most of the talks focused on showing scientific and historical proofs for the Biblical accounts of creation and Noah’s flood as well as poking holes in evolutionary theory, but the single most interesting talk I saw that weekend was entitled “Why Christians find the Creation/Evolution Issue so Important”. In this talk (of which I still have an audio copy that I listen to from time to time) Ken Ham argued very convincingly that accepting an ancient earth and evolution by natural selection is incompatible with Biblical Christianity. He didn’t go so far as to say that if you cannot be a Christian if you believe in evolution – just that your theology is inconsistent and incorrect.

Let me explain why: Self-titled Bible-believing Christians believe that God created the world perfect and without evil or death over the course of six 24-hour days. Humankind was created with free will and initially lived in harmony with God and nature as an immortal being. Humankind lost immortality when Adam and Eve, the progenitors of all humanity, deliberately disobeyed God and ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their punishment for this disobedience was to be cursed with mortality and pain. The promise given at the time of this judgment was that this curse would someday be overturned by one of their descendents. This descendent would turn out to be Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ (The Anointed One, or The Messiah). Jesus was the human incarnation of God, born of a virgin impregnated by the Spirit of God. Jesus, having no physical father, was unstained by the hereditary evil that Adam passed on to all his progeny. Jesus lived a sinless life, but was killed by crucifixion despite being innocent of any crime. God accepted the death of the innocent Jesus as the payment for all the sin and evil of all humankind in all history. The Christians that believe this reading of the Bible believe that eternal life awaits all who believe that Jesus is God, is still alive, and will come again someday to judge everyone who has ever lived.

Evolution by natural selection is problematic because it requires death in order to work. Suppose you take the creation story in the book of Genesis as allegorical, that Adam and Eve represent the first hominids to possess intelligence. You could even believe that God breathed an immortal soul into them in an act of supernatural intervention into an otherwise natural process spanning the 3 billion years or so of evolution. But if God used evolution by natural selection to create mankind, then God purposely created death and used death to create. If death was created by God before mankind ever existed and before Adam and Eve ever sinned, then God, not humankind, is responsible for mortality. It is then not clear why God had to come to earth in the form of Jesus and die a sacrificial death to defeat death if death is not the penalty for sin (as is taught in other parts of Christian scripture). This version of the story also casts doubt on the character of God. Why would God use billions of years of evolutionary dead ends, extinctions, predation, and parasitism to create human kind? And why would he create us like we are, imperfect and falling apart from the day we are born? And after all that, why would God blame death on our disobedience?

Some Christians try to be creative with their reading of Genesis to try to make it fit the claims of modern science. What if each of the creation days was actually a very long period of time? That doesn’t really work – not only does the story not really line up with the history of life as told by evolution, but plants get created on day three and the sun doesn’t get created until day four. Light gets created on the first day, but how could there be light and no sun? You could say that the light emanated from God himself, but now we have a mixture of natural and supernatural causes and it’s unclear which type of cause is the best explanation for which part of natural history.

This unwieldy mixture of natural and supernatural really is the problem in the end. The Bible-based theology outlined above is based on the simple belief that the Bible is the infallible words of God. Once that is accepted, the rest of the story is the clear, logical, and internally consistent result of a literal reading of the Bible. As soon as one attempts to call any part of the Bible allegorical or not literally true, it is difficult if not impossible to objectively decide where to stop. What about Noah’s flood? God’s constant miraculous intervention on behalf of the Israelites? The miracles and resurrection of Jesus? It calls into question why one would continue to hold on to beliefs that had their genesis in Genesis if one is willing to dismiss any part of their belief system that comes into conflict with the findings of modern science.

When I first heard Ken Ham explain that it is not possible to be a consistent, Bible-believing Christian and still accept evolution by natural selection, I felt forced to immediately agree with him. But my agreeing with him did not have the effect I imagine he was going for. If I could not be both an evolutionist and a Christian, I decided, then I must not be a Christian. I’ve since changed my mind on that issue, but I’ll deal with that in part three of this series.



  1. Hi Kristian,
    Regarding making distinctions between interpreting Genesis (esp. ch 1-11) and the rest of scripture, I like how Paul Seely puts it:

    Perhaps it should be added that there are two issues involved. Science as such and historicity. My belief is that the science in the Bible is always the science of the times. It is always accommodated by God. I have tracked this in my studies from Genesis to Revelation. Or to put it in other words, God had no intention to reveal scientific truth in Scripture and did not do so.

    Historicity is a separate, if overlapping, problem. Biblical historians say or imply that they got their historical facts from human sources. Accordingly, their history can be no better than their sources, and this is why Gen 1-11, which evidences being based in part on outdated Mesopotamian sources, is so bad, later Genesis based on oral traditions and Kings based on royal chronicles is better, and the Gospels based on eye-witness accounts are best of all. This also answers the question of how we can with logical consistency make a separation between Gen 1-11 and what follows.

    Divine revelation was saved for matters of faith and morals

    Seely and Denis Lamoureux (an Evangelical scientist and theologian) make similar points repeatedly in many of their articles and books.

  2. Thanks, Steve, I'll check those authors out. Seely's approach appears to offer a fairly simple and objective way to deal with more scientifically problematic scriptures differently than others. I don't think this approach would fly with Ken Ham and others who say that Scripture must be taken as a whole and that Scripture should only be interpreted by Scripture, not by science or history (see this book review http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/33.63.html). As I outline here, the theology espoused by "Bible-believing Christians" requires a literal Genesis. So the question is: do they have the correct theology?

  3. Hi Kristian,
    Trusting God's Word and interpreting God's Word are two different things. So I think it is unfair to equate "Bible-believing" Christians with a "literal" interpretation of the bible. (You may want to check out my post Literal or Liberal? Our only choices for interpreting the Bible?. The real question is: Do Ken Ham & Marcus Ross etc have correct biblical interpretation? I think that the many (probably the majority) of Evangelical biblical scholars would say they do not. If their biblical interpretation is poor, it is no surprise that their theology is also weak (but unfortunately swallowed whole my a large chunk of Evangelicals in the pew). I would go so far as to say their theology is IMO dangerous - dangerous to the gospel of the risen Christ.