How Christians Can Believe Evolution
Are You a Christian Confused About Creationism?
Growing up in California, I was taught Creationism in church and Evolution in school. Creationism was a new movement in the 1970s, so it wasn't too sophisticated, but mostly I remember being taught that the flood accounted for most of the things scientists said was evolution.
In the 1980s, I read Philip Johnson's book, Darwin on Trial, which taught that we should be skeptical of scientists who were biased and against Christianity. Yet what I had learned about evolution and just the fact that no one seemed to deny that dinosaurs did actually exist at one time made me wonder if that was the right interpretation of the facts. What is the truth? After marrying a scientist in the 1990s, I decided it was time to investigate.
How Christ and Nature Fit TogetherClick thumbnail to view full-size
4 Christian Views on Evolutionism
First of all, I soon learned that there were not just two sides in this debate. It helped me to understand that Christians had several different views on the issue and that Young Earth Creationism (the idea that the earth is only about 6000 years old) is only one of them.
Many of these positions have had careful theological and scientific thinking which I can't reproduce in full here, but I will give some of the outlines of a few of the major positions (there are many variations within these positions).
- Young creationists or Old Earth Creationists, who believe the earth and the universe were created 6000 years ago in 24 hour days. They interpret the first 11 chapters of Genesis literally.
- Old creationists believe the earth is old and that the early chapters of Genesis refer to spans of time rather than specific 24 hour days.
- Intelligent Design theorists believe that evolution did happen as scientists describe it, but that at certain times God intervened, and that we can identify these moments by looking for "irreducibly complex" parts of creation (things which can't have come about only by evolutionary processes).
- Theistic evolutionists believe that God used the mechanism of evolution to create without any particular intervention. They believe that the first 11 chapters of Genesis should not be read as a scientific document. Instead, they see that the main point of this text is to indicate that the God of Israel and Christians is the Creator of the Universe and unlike any other gods. Theistic evolutionists also vary in the amount of agency they believe God had in evolution. Some think he had none at all, and others think he moved within evolution. This is particularly true in the case of the creation of man and the fall of Adam and Eve, which some theistic evolutionists see as something outside the process of ordinary evolutionary time (I believe C.S. Lewis was in this category).
Did God Use Evolution?
Evolution as a Mechanism? If you'd asked me what I thought about this at 33 (1993), I would have told you (and actually did tell my scientist husband during our first year of marriage) that I thought God probably used the mechanism of evolution to do some part of creation. However, I also believed that God was big enough to have made the heavens and earth in six literal days if he wanted.
As a molecular scientist, my husband had a hard time figuring out how everything alive had marks of the evolutionary process in their DNA if there was no evolution. However, like me, he had spent a lot of time in Creationist churches and didn't want to think that the facts of science contradicted the Bible. For a long time, he just kept his faith and science in separate compartments, like a lot of people. Together we decided to try to find ways we could put the two together.
Searching for an Answer
Our Search through the Literature of Science and Religion: During our first year of marriage, I actually did read the Philip Johnson book, Darwin on Trial, out loud to my husband as we discussed this issue. He was critical of Johnson's deep skepticism about the scientific community. He told me, "Scientists have to prove what they say, and they are always looking to disprove other scientist's work. That is the nature of scientific inquiry."
Yet both of us had grown up in the California Creationist culture and held a sort of dichotomy of belief in our minds. I'm convinced now that many people grow up that way and that it is all right to not resolve this issue quickly, or maybe even at all. However, I think that sometimes this issue can shipwreck a person's faith, or perhaps prevent a seeker from being able to put their faith in Christ.
For a while after our marriage, we tabled this issue, but it kept on coming back in talks with students and questions with people who found out my husband was a scientist. Especially when they found out that some of his research focused on the evolution of viruses. So with the help of some funding from the University, he studied the issue more in depth. He attended a conference which was aimed at letting Christian scientists talk through this issue and study it together. He learned a lot, and I did too since I read most of the books he purchased for the conference an afterwards.
Is Intelligent Design a Good Option?
We read books by some of the scientists who have asserted the theory of Intelligent Design. Some of them worked at our University and we had lively and interesting discussions with them. In fact, we had one important ID scientist visit our home church group for a while, and at another point, my husband was involved in panel discussions with ID scientists. Although we were attracted to the ID ideas, we ultimately concluded that their arguments tended to put God in a box.
While I think it is possible that God did intervene in a miraculous way in the evolution of life, just as he today intervenes in miraculous ways in our life, I don't think that is his usual way of operating in the world. Nor do I think it is really useful to try to "prove" God's existence through describing "irreducible complexity" because I think the basis of our life with God is faith, not irreducible scientific proof. In essence, I think it may not be a useful thing to try to prove God in creation.
The Scripture very clearly points out that we should be awed by the majesty of the night sky, the seasons and the details of nature. As we stand looking at the mountains, the ocean or the night sky away from the city, we all feel a sense of the majesty of God and the smallness of our own selves. That is a proof of God imprinted in our souls and visible to us every day. I'm not sure searching for a proof beyond that is useful. Moreover, as my husband has pointed out, some of these things which seem impossibly complex have been found, after further scientific investigation, to have a good explanation.
Is Theistic Evolution Possible?
Studying Creation and Evolution Helps Ground our Faith Further
My husband and I read books by theologians, scientists, and scientist-theologians (like John Polkinghorn). In the beginning, I was curious, but afraid, wondering if this would rock my faith. However, as I read, I found the opposite. The theological books made me understand the Bible more deeply, and the scientific/theological books made me wonder more deeply at the nature of God and the incredible vastness of creation. I had hoped to come to some conclusions, and I did. What I did not expect was that this process would lead me to a much deeper worship of God Creator.
What I've Come to Believe about Theistic Evolution
Gradually, through reading, praying, thinking, talking and studying Scripture prayerfully, I've been led to believe that evolution is true, the earth is old and that people are truly created "from the dust of the earth" through evolutionary processes. Yet, in spite of the fact that we are but dust, we have been given the gift of the breath of life of God, which makes us special. Seeing our creation this way has given me an even greater appreciation for the amazing miracle that we, as insignificant humans, are loved and cared for intimately by the Creator God of the Universe. I deeply marvel in the great miracle that Christ, as the God of the Universe, came down to love us humans and offer us his life as a sacrifice for our sins, bringing us back into fellowship with God.
Interview with Francis Collins
Best Books to Read
My husband and I have read through most of the available literature on this topic and if you are really seeking to think about this for yourself, I encourage you to spend some time reading too. As a start, I've reviewed three of the most helpful books that we have read.
Review: The Language of God
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis Collins
This book is an autobiography of Francis Collins, who is a doctor and one of the top scientists in genetics in the U.S. Collins came to faith as an adult, even though he was raised as an atheist. He explains the reasons he believes persuasively in the book and also in the YouTube video I include on the Hub. Collins also gives a very easy to understand explanation of theistic evolution.
Collins is not only a smart man, he is a good writer and easy to understand. So I think his book is a good place to start when investigating the idea of how science and faith can be brought together. The Language of God is also an excellent book to give to people who are wavering in faith because of concerns about science. Collins is reasonable, but not angry or too dogmatic. He presents the evidence and his understanding of the science in a calm and reasonable way. He lets the reader see his point of view without pushing his agenda too far.
Since Collins uses his autobiography to tell the story, that makes it an easier read. Collins was raised as an atheist, but when he was a doctor, he was challenged by the faith of one of his patients. Through his own experiences and reading, he comes to faith in God. This book is his attempt to explain clearly, in everyday language how Christians can reconcile evolution with the Bible. Collins very clearly explains why Theistic evolution is a viable theological position and also does an excellent job of explaining the problems of Intellectual Design.
Review: Perspectives on an Evolving Creation
Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. by Keith Miller
I think this was one of the best books to help me think through the issue because it explained the science so clearly. This book helped me to understand how DNA (not just the fossils) shows that our bodies are evolving.
Unlike the other books, this is a collection of essays from both theologians and scientists. What I liked about this book is that they offer a variety of perspectives which helps the reader to think through their own position on the issue. The book also includes devotional pieces to help the reader move from thinking to worship. The difficulty of the essays varies, but the book is worth the time to work through.
Another helpful part of this book is it takes excerpts from many of the most important writers of science and the Bible. If one of the essays is especially interesting to you, you can look for other essays or books by that author. We did that with Conrad Hyers, which is how we found out about the next book.
For me, reading Perspectives was the most helpful thing I did to finally come to peace in my own heart, mind and spirit about this issue.
Review: The Meaning of Creation
The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science by Conrad Hyers
Hyers is a theologian and I like the way he helped me to understand the Genesis 1-11 account within the context of the time it was written. Although I'm not sure I completely accept all of his interpretation, what I did find extremely helpful was the fact that he helped me to think about how these verses would have been read by the people for whom they were originally written.
This book actually convinced me that Creationism as a movement really is doing a dis-service to the Bible by trying to fit the words of the text into a sort of literal, scientific format. The people of the Old Testament didn't think that way, and I think we need to be careful not to read the things they wrote as if they were produced by a modern person. What I found particularly helpful was the way he contrasted the Genesis account of creation to the other creation accounts the Hebrew people would have known about. The startling difference of the Bible made me appreciate God's word more fully.
Pray and Read the Bible
My hope in writing this article and book review is that you will find peace yourself about this issue. Along with thinking and reading, I urge you to pray and ask God for wisdom, which he always promises to give. Don't forget to continue to read and re-read the Bible passages as well. Don't just take the words of others into account but let the Holy Spirit teach you the meaning of his Word. God bless you on your journey of faith!