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How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 1

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July 22, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil
How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 1

Today's entry was written by Bethany Sollereder. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

“How could a good God create through a process that involves so much pain and death?” For many people, accepting evolution is less a scientific question than a theological one. After all, seeing evolution as God’s method of creation requires affirming that death, pain, and natural disasters are part of God’s creative toolbox instead of a result of the Fall. In this three-part blog series, I will first look at how theologians and scientists have seen the world in contrary ways, and then reflect theologically on how a world created through evolutionary means can be good.

First, let’s see how theologians have thought about our world. Theologians––academic and popular, contemporary and ancient––have almost universally affirmed the connection between sin and physical death. Drawing from passages such as Genesis 3 and Romans 5 & 8, they have argued that death came through sin. In regard to the natural world, this means invoking a Cosmic Fall scenario in which not only human death came through the Fall, but earthquakes, tornadoes, pain, predation, and disease as well.

Consider this quotation from John Calvin: “For it appears that all the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin. Nor is there any other primary cause of diseases.”1 Pretty clear, right? God did not want these “evils” to be part of the world, and the only reason they exist is because of human sin.

What’s more, theologians see the redemption by Christ on the cross as the denunciation of these natural evils. For example, T. F. Torrance writes “The Cross of Christ tells us unmistakably that all physical evil, not only pain, suffering, disease, corruption, death, and of course cruelty and venom in animals as well as human behaviour, but also ‘natural’ calamities, devastations and monstrosities are an outrage against the love of God and a contradiction of good order in his creation.”2

Scientists, on the other hand, have looked at these same natural phenomena, and have come to the conclusion that realities like pain, earthquakes, and death are in fact necessary to good and flourishing lives. How do they do this? Let’s look at two examples: earthquakes and pain.

When discussing plate tectonics3, the media tends to focus on the negative effects of our planet’s mobile plates. We hear about volcanic activity that shuts down European flight zones, tsunamis that devastate whole populations, and of course earthquakes, which have caused major devastations and cost many people their lives in Haiti, China, and Chile. How can earthquakes be good? What else does the plate cycle do?

First, plate tectonics, through the rotation of the mantle below, contributes to the magnetic field which surrounds our planet, keeping the atmosphere in and warding off deadly cosmic rays from the sun, which would destroy life if they reached the planet. Second, plate tectonic movement involves the solid plates being forced down into the liquid mantle and melting in some places, while in other places the plates separate and allow hot magma to rise and solidify. This recycling uses up heat produced by the interior radiation of the earth. This process is so effective that it uses up almost 90% of the heat produced by the Earth. In comparison, on Venus, the lack of plate tectonics means that the same heat produced by the core does not get recycled, and the pressure and heat build up so high that the distinction between mantle and crust gets lost––the whole planet goes molten. The rest of the time, surface temperatures average around 500 degrees Celsius. There are many other advantages to plate tectonics, including stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide, maintaining temperatures for liquid surface water, renewing nutrients in the soil, and keeping a distinction between ocean and continent. Life, and certainly human life in this world, simply does not have a chance without plate tectonics. I do not want to understate the great human and animal cost associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, but without plate tectonics, there would be no life at all. I would affirm that this world’s plate tectonics are part of God’s very good creation.

What about pain? If any of us were given the choice to live without pain, most of us would say an enthusiastic “yes please!” Until, that is, we saw what a life without pain really looks like. In our mind’s eye we would imagine striding untouched though hardship and peril, like a real-life Superman, able to conquer all the aches and pains that keep us from reaching our full potential. In reality, a painless life is a horror show. In reality, painlessness looks like leprosy.

Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is a bacterial infection that invades the body’s pain nerves and ultimately destroys them, leaving the person with an inability to feel pain. That is, in fact, almost all that leprosy does. The subsequent damage that we associate with leprosy––fingers falling off, open wounds, and missing limbs––does not actually come from the bacteria themselves, but from the resulting painlessness. Patients burn themselves and do not pull back; they walk on broken limbs and do not notice. In the book The Gift of Pain, Paul Brand describes how in one African clinic, rats were coming in the night and feeding on patients fingers, and because they felt no pain, they slept on.4 Pain is a good thing, our ever-present protector, developed through an evolutionary process to help us live good lives. Now, this is not to say that pain never goes wild. It does, and with realities like chronic pain or torture, pain can become an enemy. But that does not undermine the fact that our ability to feel pain is a great gift; it just means that sometimes that gift becomes twisted in its expression. The solution is not to wish for a world with no pain, but for a world where pain is appropriately experienced.

Now let me insert one caveat here: in no way do I want to say that just because pain is “natural” that we have no responsibility to help relieve it. That is not what I am arguing. I would say that pain serves important purposes, which are needed for a good life. At the same time, we should look to the example of Jesus, who walked into pain-filled situations and brought healing, regardless of the cause of the suffering. It is our recognition of suffering in the other5 and our responsibility of stewardship to one another that must motivate our medical ethics.

There is a lot more that we could talk about here. We could speak of predation, which encourages biodiversity and drives evolutionary innovation. We could explore how physical death is a good and necessary part of a world that has limited resources, keeping organisms from becoming cancerous (cancer cells never die on their own and are thus “immortal”). These are important, but they roughly follow the same type of argumentation as above. In my next post, I will look at the values of a world developed through an evolutionary process, or, as it is sometimes asked, “Why didn’t God simply create heaven in the first place?”


1. John Calvin, Commentaries upon the First Book of Moses called Genesis (1554) in Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Genesis, Part I, trans. J. King (Forgotten Books, 1847, 2007), 113.
2. T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 117.
3. For more about plate tectonics, check out Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, (New York: Copernicus, 2004).
4. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain: Why we hurt & what we can do about it (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 127.
5. Suffering, and not necessarily pain. Pain is the brain’s reception of the stimulation of pain nerves. Suffering is a psychological state, and can be caused by many things. Pain can be absent in those who suffer, as is the case with leprosy. We should be careful not to collapse these two distinct concepts into one and the same thing.

Bethany Sollereder has a Master's Degree in Christian Studies from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Her focus was on science and religion, and her thesis was entitled "Evolutionary Theodicy: Toward an Evangelical Perspective." She has been accepted into PhD studies at the University of Exeter and hopes to start in 2011. Bethany's first degree was in intercultural studies. Bethany's other great love is 19th century British history, so when she is not reading about science and religion, she can usually be found reading Victorian literature.

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Thomas B - #25797

August 16th 2010

T’sinadree - #22973
If you want to read a really good book about religion and evolution I highly recommend Miller:Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution ISBN 0-06-093049-7
His other book is also excellent Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul ISBN 978-0670018833

Miller is a prominent scientist and a practicing and committed christian.

Thomas B - #25799

August 16th 2010

“I hope to never stop questioning what God has done.  That’s largely how science started in the first place!”
That is a strange concept and belies your biases.  Science does not “question” anything God does. Looking for answers to why things are the way they are is what humans have always done.  If that is your true view of science then why are you writing these things?  Especially at the BioLogos Foundation which maintains that it “explores, promotes and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.”
You will need to demonstrate that this bias against science can be overcome.

Thomas B - #25801

August 16th 2010

So conrad - #22989 you are criticizing Darwin because he did not refer to work he had not read?? Mendel wrote in 1865 and 1866 but these works weren’t much read untill about 1900. And even then not much accepted.  Don’t you find that a bit harsh?  Don’t you also think it pretty amazing that discoveries AFTER his works only go to prove his ideas? It was a hundred years after Darwin that the process of DNA replication was discovered. Every bit of science in the past 150 years has only reinforced Natural Selection. Yes, work in RNA is proceeding.  The science is a bit “heady”, it involves proteins and enzymes, complicated organic chemical bonding, the intricate biological working on the cellular level.

Thomas B - #25802

August 16th 2010

Robert - #24115 & 

gingoro - #24120

Perhaps you aren’t aware that your ideas here are a reflection of Augustine of Hippo. He adopts what can only be called a Manichean dualistic approach. The evil which we might call “natural” he considers to be caused by the fallen angels. Personal evil (the stuff we do) is caused by the “fall”.

Thomas B - #25804

August 16th 2010

Trevor K. - #25197
Those are interesting creationist sites.  There is no science to be found there, of course. And the religious views resonate with a very very small proportion of christianity, not to mention the whole world. 
I would recommend http://pandasthumb.org/ for a view of the truth. If you dare

Thomas B - #25808

August 16th 2010

Gregory - #22983
WOW Greg man you do put a lot of stuff in few words.  Are you suggesting that because someone blesses something it therefore has a soul? Or that animals etc. don’t have souls and therefore shouldn’t be blessed? What does the “man’s best friend” mean? Is that a problem because dogs are not mentioned in the bible?

Thomas B - #25818

August 16th 2010

Greg Myers - #23032
Some good points there.  We are in the world we are in.  Despite the fact that some people look at the anthropic principle and declare that therefore we must have a god, we must look at the story behind the propositions.
Humans need to understand our place in the world.  We need to have meaning.  For many thousands of years that is what we have been doing.  So many of the posters here demonstrate that so very strongly.  As we have found more answers to basic questions, people have felt that need more strongly.  There was a time when lightening had to come from the gods.  The Tanakh gives the answers to basic questions like where did this all come from? where did we come from? Why? But those were the answers from a nomadic tribe of herders, thousands of years ago. Why do people cling so firmly to such mythology?  Some christians debate young earth versus old earth!!  And at the other end of the time line: the final days.  Now there is a source for reasonable discussion!! It is all a search for personal and perhaps communal meaning. Each new factual understanding of our universe cause them to try to reconcile their ancient texts with facts.  Failing that, they deny the facts.

Thomas B - #27666

August 31st 2010

“... Paul entwines together spiritual and physical death? Both in the ancient world are seen as evil, as opposed to the will of God and against the flourishing of His creatures. “
I assume that by “ancient world” you refer to the Graeco-Roman world view.  Do you think that “worldviews and cultural assumptions must also be translated.” The ancient world did not have the same view of evil or death that many do now.  Most of your statements would not mean much to the ancient Roman or Greek, at least not as you interpret those words.  Indeed the whole concept of sin as put forward by most christians is not consonant even with the Tanakh.  In fact it wasn’t until the inter-testamental times that a theory of the afterlife was even considered by the Hebrews. The Greeks had a whole different view of death, check out Homer.  The Romans, too. Read Cicero.

“It is clear that death was present in the world long before human sin, indeed, death has been present as long as life.”
How would you demonstrate the truth of that statement?  Following your story line, I guess animals might have died in the garden before the whole snake thing.  But I kinda thought that that was the point of that story.  Sin brought death into the world.

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