How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 1

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July 22, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil

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

How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 1

“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?”

Notes

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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nedbrek - #23066

July 23rd 2010

Dunemeister: “So perhaps my objection boils down to (forgive that verb!) a complaint about the presence of the serpent.”
The serpent is Satan, created and fallen by his own choice.  Does everyone not agree on that?


JKnott - #23080

July 23rd 2010

nedbrek—

I don’t think the fact that the Serpent is Satan solves the problem.  Why would God let a fallen angel interact with unfallen humans? The point is the same: there was no idyllic time when people had only goodness around them and didn’t have to struggle with evil, lies, unfaithfulness.


nedbrek - #23084

July 23rd 2010

“there was no idyllic time when people had only goodness around them and didn’t have to struggle with evil, lies, unfaithfulness.”
The time between day 6 and the fall of Satan.


JKnott - #23089

July 23rd 2010

nedbrek—

Ok, from a totally wooden literalistic interpretation, that’s arguably true. It’s irrelevant anyway.  Why?  Because it means before the fall of humans, evil was in the world with them. And that means evil was there before humans did anything wrong, and therefore before they could possibly be said to deserve it. Theologically, your literalistic nit-picking gets you nowhere.


nedbrek - #23097

July 23rd 2010

Evil, but not suffering.  I don’t think it’s a nit.  We’re talking about the character of God - does He love suffering or not?


JKnott - #23103

July 23rd 2010

God’s love is triumphant suffering.  I don’t think anything I’ve said could lead someone to the conclusion that I think suffering is good, which is the same as saying God’ “loves” it.  If you read what I’ve said carefully, you’d know that proving we can think both (1) that suffering is bad, and (2) that God created a world full of it is compatible with the belief that (3) God is good.  So asking “does God love suffering?” is to show a miscomprehension of the context.


nedbrek - #23111

July 23rd 2010

I’m not sure why we keep circling around on this: in Genesis 1:21 God says it’s good - that is before the creation/evolution of man.  Is God lying here?


HornSpiel - #23114

July 23rd 2010

Hi JKnott,

Your suggestion of God creating the world in a fallen state is unusual. I have never heard that before. I am not surprised that you get a lot of push back though.

I think it is important to realize that “very good” does not mean perfect. For instance the classic “It is not good for Man to be alone,” indicates that God continues to improve creation. Also the Snake in the Garden, and Eve and Adam’s vulnerability to temptation, indicate a less than perfect world.

In the same way, death and suffering are less than perfect circumstances, but are not necessarily contradictory to “very good” if they are necessary for God to achieve his ends.

So I don’t think you need to say the world was created fallen to account for natural evil.

Moreover, the central them of the fall is prideful rebellion against God. Death and the Curse are consequences and should not be taken over-literally. Death here is primarily spiritual death as many commentators affirm.

I say all this because the theological affirmation that Creation is very good is, I think, very important to take literally.

However, I do not have enough room here (or time) to say why.


HornSpiel - #23116

July 23rd 2010

(what happened to C?)

I removed “C) the fall occurred after adam was created”  but decided it was unnecessary and forgot to renumber.


Deb in BC - #23126

July 23rd 2010

Nedbrek: “I’m not sure why we keep circling around on this: in Genesis 1:21 God says it’s good - that is before the creation/evolution of man.  Is God lying here?”

Good can mean a range of things including morally good (our traditional interpretation of good in Genesis) and functionally good (the creation was good to fulfill God’s intentions and plans for it). John Walton (OT prof, Wheaton) makes a strong case for the latter.


JKnott - #23128

July 23rd 2010

nedbrek—

No.  God is not lying.  I just don’t take the stories literally.  “Very Good” is a description of a wholly hypothetical creation that certainly doesn’t exist now and (in my view) never literally did.  But the story about it has theological truth.  God is creator.  We are in rebellion.  The world is messed up, as measured by a standard of perfection.

Hornspiel—

I know “very good” doesn’t nec. mean perfect, but I don’t find much use in emphasizing that point. I know my view is unusual.  Also, I’m not surprized at the pushback either, but I don’t think it really stems from logic or a desire to defend God.  The only logical conclusion is that WE are not good and are radically dependent on grace.  I don’t think I “have” to say the world was created evil to account for natural evil, except (perhaps) to account for it before humans existed, which the evidence seems to suggest. The only other options are (1) deny natural evil is evil or (2) deny the evidence.  Not attractive options for me.

I’m trying to take with utmost seriousness Paul’s maxim to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.”  What does that necessitate?  What can we let go and still hold onto that core?  These are my questions.


JKnott - #23129

July 23rd 2010

Actually, one could say that there is an option (3): the Fall has retroactive consequences (Dembski?).  I don’t really know what the differences exactly are between that and my view, except to say that my view begins from a different point, namely it admits God COULD have created an already fallen world without being evil himself, whereas the other view seems to remain within Augustinianism but to get around the evidenciary problems. But they are very close.  Actually my view that the world as perfect could not contain us is hardly distinguishable from the view that our (subsequent) evil acts “cause” retroactively the evil world in which they exist.


Deb in BC - #23133

July 23rd 2010

I’ve been thinking about a view with a slight shift from yours, JKnott.

I believe God’s creation as “other” than himself will necessarily be fallen. Therefore, God did not choose to create the world fallen; the fallenness is necessarily included in his decision to create. It was unavoidable.

In this light, our emphasis on answering “why God allows evil” is misplaced. A better question is why God redeems and restores.

By implication, then, natural evil as such does not exist. Suffering from natural causes, yes, but natural evil, no. Only moral evil exists.


JKnott - #23137

July 23rd 2010

Not sure how that works out, Deb.  I think our theology should start from Christ, esp. on the cross.  That’s goodness in the concrete, particular, exemplar. An event within creation.  It is not mixed with bad qua created, but it does involve evil, as that which it defeats.  Again, Augustinianism is left behind.  Goodness is not the plenitude of being which cannot coexist with evil as “lack,” but rather good is defined as that which defeats evil. I don’t know how we can know what God’s goodness is, and therefore how it can be ruled out within anything created, if I’m understanding your position correctly.  That seems pure speculation.  But as such, probably has potential!


Deb in BC - #23144

July 23rd 2010

God’s creation was good (meet the purposes for which it was made) and fallen from the get go. Therefore, there is no subsequent fall to account for.

We absolutely start from Christ, God incarnate, entering a fallen world to be the culmination of all God’s previous redemptive, restorative acts. Even in the story of creation, God communicates that he is the one whose love for even his fallen creation moves him to redeem. Gen.1-11 let us know he seeks covenantal relationships and is the God who seeks, pursues and restores.

But this is not a denial of a fallen world; emmanuel = GOD with us, entering the fallenness to, as you note, defeat it.

Thank goodness “Augustinianism is left behind.”


nedbrek - #23145

July 23rd 2010

JKnott, “The only other options are (1) deny natural evil is evil or (2) deny the evidence.”
No one denies the evidence (certain fossils are found in certain rock formations).  The question is, can we reliably determine what happened before recorded history?  Are there other explanations for where fossils come from?


JKnott - #23148

July 23rd 2010

There are always explanations, nedbrek.  First of all, that’s not my main point, which is whether we can conceptualize a theology which opens us up to being able to accept the deliverences of science without worrying that it will ruin our faith.  The question of what the deliverances of science IS is a subsequent question.  And to that question, there are always explanations; the question is which are reasonable.  Funny, from both left and right I tend to hear pleadings for considering all explanations to be equal (for the bible from the left and for science from the right).  And so far, neither I nor many other Christians (who often have a much better understanding of the scientific issues than I do) have the alternative explanations for the record been generally convincing.  But again, I’m interested here in the theology.


nedbrek - #23149

July 23rd 2010

I guess this is for Deb and JKnott: how do you interpret Gen 3:17 except to be as “the Fall” as commonly held for 2000 years?


JKnott - #23152

July 23rd 2010

Of course in its ancient context the fall story is like the Greek Pandora story in the sense of an explanation of why the world isn’t perfect. It’s a myth, but a divine one. God reveals to us truths through this story, provided we read it Christocentrically (and more importantly, that God in Christ decides to reveal himself to us through it at a given point in time).  And I see not reason to insist on a literal historical event in which one man and one woman ate a fruit b/c of a talking snake in order to understand that theological content.  I don’t care if all Christians without exception believed that for 5,000 (let alone 2,000) years.  It is relevant only if they believed it for good strong theological reasons I cannot explain away.  In point of fact, for most of that 2,000 years of Church history the scientific evidence for suffering and death before the advent of humans, and long before 6,000 years ago, was simply not known to anyone, believer or non-believer.  So the fact that the earlier Christians did not deal with the evidence they did not have is hardly relevant. And if God is God he can reveal himself to us, just as he did to them, even if we don’t hold to the same exact beliefs about origins.


Deb in BC - #23157

July 23rd 2010

Given the historical-cultural context, there is no literal A&E, and no literal fall. To a people suddenly released from 400 years of captivity, about to receive a new law, they needed to know who this God was that had miraculously led them out of Egypt (you don’t cross the Red Sea bed and not have a few questions!), they needed to know what it meant to be human, if not to be servants of the gods, they needed to know what the world was about - that they were made not from warring gods, but intentionally by the one good God - and that they were fallen, that God’s the one who moves to redeem….  Genesis is full of theology accommodated to an ancient cosmological view. Genesis sets the stage for all that follows - it tells us who God is, who we are, what the world and life are about. It has nothing to do with how long the days are and explaining a talking serpent (although, interestingly, Moses chose to represent consummate evil in a way the people would understand, connecting a serpent with Pharaoh’s head-dress). Further, understood in it’s proper context, evolution could all come to naught tomorrow and it would be irrelevant.


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