Cross, Creation, and Evolution
Dr. Murphy's new scholarly essay, "Human Evolution in Theological Context", can be found here.
Can I believe in God and accept evolution? That depends on what God you have in mind. The Christian answer is that God makes himself known to faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The true God participates in creation, suffering and dying for it. Yet God is hidden from observation, for the cross looks nothing like our expectations of deity.
God’s typical way of working bears the mark of “emptying,” or self-limitation, of the incarnation (Philippians 2:7). God works in the world with creatures as “instruments,” limiting himself to the capabilities of natural processes - what we call laws of nature. (Thus scientific study of the world is possible.) Because we observe God’s instruments and not the one using them, they also mask God. He is concealed from observation in creation, just as on the cross.
This also helps us to understand why scripture makes statements about the world that science has shown to be incorrect, like the “dome” over the earth (Genesis 1:6-8). In inspiring biblical writers, the Holy Spirit respected their limited knowledge of the world. We will see an important example of this in the relationship between sin and death.
Evolution can be understood as God’s creative work through natural processes, within the context of belief that the triune God is the source of all that is. It poses no challenge to the Christian doctrine of creation.
Evolution does raise tough questions about human nature, however. Natural selection favored some selfish behavior in our pre-human ancestors, and tendencies for deception, sexual promiscuity, and violence were passed on to us. That challenges ideas about humanity’s “original righteousness,” a challenge intensified by genetic evidence that the first human population was considerably greater than two. It’s hard to retain a picture of descent from a literal Adam and Eve who were created in moral perfection but chose to disobey God.
Sin isn’t essential to being human. Jesus Christ is fully human, and Paul tells us that while “for our sake” God “made him to be sin,” he “knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). But all other people are sinners. In Romans 3:23 Paul concluded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We share in a sinful condition of failure to trust in God above all else.
Why is humanity in this state if it didn’t have to be? It’s natural to look to the early chapters of Genesis for an answer. But they have been read in different ways by the western and eastern parts of the church.
In the west, Augustine saw unaided human inability to trust or love God as a condition that goes back to conception. It is an “original sin” with which each person begins life. Augustine traced this condition to a sin that was “original” in another sense, that of Eve and Adam. There was an abrupt fall from flawless heights to depths of depravity, and its effects were transmitted to the whole human race.
An eastern church bishop, Irenaeus, gave a different picture. He thought that God created Adam and Eve good but immature, expecting humanity to develop. Adam’s sin was “childish” and its effects not as serious as Augustine thought.
The first chapters of Genesis are religious statements about our relationships with God. Adam and Eve can be seen as theological representations of the first hominids with whom God communicated. Irenaeus’ interpretation provides a helpful way of thinking about human origins. It is open to evolutionary thought and true to the biblical statement that God’s creation was “very good,” not “perfect.”
God intended humanity to develop, but sin distorts that development. We took the wrong road, one leading away from God. Genesis pictures not a single abrupt “fall” from perfection but a gradual “falling away” that begins in Chapter 3 there and worsens in succeeding chapters.
This doesn’t exactly match our picture of early humanity because the writers of Genesis didn’t have our scientific knowledge. But it’s a better match to evolution than Augustine’s idea. We’ll consider this in more detail and discuss relationships between sin and death in the next post.
George Murphy has been active for many years in helping churches see the relevance of science for faith and to deal with religious issues raised by science and technology. With a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Johns Hopkins, he taught college science courses for twelve years. Now retired from regular parish ministry, he continues to write and speak on issues of science and theology and is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. His most recent books are Pulpit Science Fiction and The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.