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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Deb in BC - #23159

July 23rd 2010

I really don’t see Moses suddenly turning around as they plod along through the dessert and saying, “Now guys, I want to be really clear here - be sure you get this - God made the sun on day 4. OK? Got it? Now that’s really important. OK, let’s keep walking,”


nedbrek - #23164

July 23rd 2010

Deb, you believe in the miracles of Moses, but not the miracle of creation?  That a stick can become a snake, but a snake cannot talk?  How do you decide?


Bethany Sollereder - #23169

July 23rd 2010

Nedbrek,
My guess would be Deb would decide the same way you do in all texts––according to genre, context, and literary intention.  Many scholars would agree that Gen 1-11 is a different kind of text than the rest of the Pentateuch.
Also, I have to wonder about the immediate identification of the serpent with Satan.  I realize this is a time-honoured tradition, and is ensconced in Milton and others.  But if you read Genesis 3, there is no indication that the snake is even evil, let alone “hasatan” (the accuser).  As to where the serpent came from, Gen 3:1 tells us that God himself made it: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made.”  So if you insist that the serpent is evil, you make God the author of evil.  If we instead simply take the text, and call the snake “craft” or “shrewd”, we are likely better off.  (‘Crafty’ comes from the Hebrew “arum” which is a play on words, since we’ve just been told that the humans are “arumim”-naked.)  The author of Genesis 3, at least, does not seem interested with the question of where evil comes from.


nedbrek - #23177

July 23rd 2010

Bethany, while I agree that Gen 1-11 have differences, I don’t think that can justify tossing them out as fairy tales.

Perhaps someone could explain why the creation account isn’t closer to reality?  Why doesn’t God say, “you are the cousins of trees, and rocks - you are star stuff!”


Deb in BC - #23180

July 23rd 2010

The creation account IS close to reality - the reality of the ancient world the author and hearers were a part of. Telling them they were star stuff was irrelevant to them - never crossed their minds. It crosses OUR minds, and in error, we put on the text 20/21st century questions it was never intended to answer. But THEY had different questions and issues which God fully answers for them, and us. The bible is not a book of science - it is God’s revelation of himself and his purposes for his creation. The message of Genesis 1-11 is theological, is foundational to rightly understanding all the historical narrative, and other genres, that follow.


Bethany Sollereder - #23186

July 23rd 2010

Deb, Amen!


RBH - #23224

July 24th 2010

As an atheist I watch these kinds of discussions with not a little bemusement and generally keep my mouth shut.  But once in a while I can’t resist a little correction, here of conrad.

conrad wrote

Remember Darwin never knew what genes were.

DNA had not been discovered AND NEITHER HAD ANY OTHER CHEMICAL COMPOUND when he was making his suppositions.  (Caps original)

Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, an organic (carbon-based) compound in 1828, when Darwin was 19 years old.  Here’s a brief timeline of chemistry to help conrad out.


defensedefumer - #23265

July 24th 2010

Hi RBH,

Thanks for the corrections and the links! Despite our differing worldviews on philsophy and religion, I hope you can continue to contribute to the discussions!


Brian in NZ - #23302

July 24th 2010

I have always viewed the passages in Gen and Romans about sin causing death to refer to spiritual death, not physical death. In Gen, God refers to two trees, but A&E only eat of one of them. They don’t eat of the Tree of Life. The implication I take from this is that A&E don’t live for ever because they didn’t eat of this tree. Therefore, the story of A&E is not based on the assumption that we are supposed to live without death, and that sin somehow changed that. If anything, sin denied us the option to live for ever (spiritually) by getting A&E banished from the garden.


gingoro - #23308

July 24th 2010

Brian in NZ @23302

Good post.

“They don’t eat of the Tree of Life.” 

IMO we do symbolically in communion and it is spiritual life.

“The implication I take from this is that A&E don’t live for ever because they didn’t eat of this tree.”

Possibly.  I tend to the view that God grants eternal life to humans selectively and that it is not an innate characteristic. 

Dave W
PS do they teach you guys down there to speak and write American as a foreign language course?  I had a school friend whose mother was from NZ and father an AUSie.  Unfortunately at boarding school he drowned at about 15 years of age.  It was a huge shock to the rest of us at school away from home and family.


Greg Myers - #23358

July 24th 2010

Dunemeister writes

Your response makes perfect sense apart from biblical affirmations that death, suffering, and pain are ultimately the result of the disorder brought on the cosmos by human rebellion against God

This is the point - the bible affirms that these things are the result of sin, but it is clear that these things existed - must have existed billions of years prior to any Fall, and further, that these things are the results of natural processes, not any sort of consequence.


John VanZwieten - #23359

July 25th 2010

Nedbrek,

You really should read up on the difference between myth and fairy tale genres, since you consistently confuse them in your posts.  Here’s a quick and easy start for you:

http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/grecoromanmyth1/a/mythslegends.htm


Miracles God - #23409

July 25th 2010

According to the Bible, physical death came by man, but evolution claims man came through death, and one can’t have it both ways. Death is and has always been a curse (Deut. 30:15,19; Ezek. 18:32; John 5:24; Rom. 5:12,17,21; 6:16,21,23; 8:2,6; I Cor. 15:21,26,54-56; Heb. 2:14, James 1:15, Rev. 1:18), but macroevolution, whether theistic or not, requires that God formed man through unimaginable suffering and death. Macroevolution therefore slanders God’s perfectly loving character for man and all the rest of His creation, since it would require God to curse the universe from the beginning. The truth is death has always been a curse, and our loving God has no pleasure in it. It is a bitter enemy as a direct result of spiritual condemnation of man’s sin and not before, and one day this temporary curse will be graciously and permanently removed according to God’s original creative intent (Rev. 20:14, 21:4-5).


Greg Myers - #23421

July 26th 2010

Miracles God, yes, this is the problem (and I suppose, the reason for this site).  The bible seems to offer a different explanation for the hows of life on earth than science, and yet there is no doubt that the earth is very old, that live evolved, and that not only are we not the special creation of God, we are not even the point of evolution.  Now what?


Deb in BC - #23422

July 26th 2010

Greg -
I’m not clear on what basis you state “we are not the special creation of God, we are not even the point of evolution.” Could you please explain those more fully.
Thx.


faith - #23437

July 26th 2010

Bethany’s argument is masochism. Suffering is good its the best of all worlds! I wonder what suffering Bethany has experienced to be so indifferent about suffering.

Pain can be good at times but clearly not in all cases.


penman - #23451

July 26th 2010

Greg Myers:

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>.

That antithesis would be true if the Bible taught a young earth & denied that life evolved. Some of course think it does teach that. But a lot don’t. I certainly don’t.

The other statements - “not only are we not the special creation of God, we are not even the point of evolution” - are surely philosophical, not scientific. (Unless “special creation” means “specially created de novo without organic connection to previous life forms”. If I used the phrase, I’d mean that humanity is, like everything else, a divine creation, & has special value or status before God as reflecting His likeness. That says nothing, though, about the mechanisms the Creator used to bring humanity forth.)


penman - #23452

July 26th 2010

Faith:

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That’s ad hominem. How do we know Bethany is indiffferent about suffering? If we go down that path, any attempt to offer any rationale for any suffering will label the apologist a masochist.


JKnott - #23525

July 26th 2010

Faith and penman—

don’t you guys mean sadism?

The masochist says, “hurt me!”  The sadist answers, “no!”


Bethany Sollereder - #23572

July 26th 2010

Faith,
Nowhere do I argue that this is the best of all possible worlds.  Nor do I say “suffering is good”.  I said “pain is good”, which is rather a different thing (see footnote 5).
It was my greatest fear with these posts that I might come across as insensitive and indifferent.  I am truly sorry that that has been the case for you.  This is not the right place to drag up the suffering I have experienced, but I tried to write with sensitivity, and wrote while reflecting on several real and personal experiences of suffering.  If I have offended you, I ask your forgiveness.


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