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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Greg Myers - #23606

July 27th 2010

Penman writes

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.

No, evolution is not a process with an endpoint in mind.  There are other creatures on the planet as evolved as we are, or even more evolved (if by that you mean adapted for our environment).  Nothing in evolution suggests that we are the point of the process, or even as far as evolution can take life in some particular direction.  This is in sharp contrast the the origins stories, which clearly place man at the top of the natural world (see Psalm 8 - ruling the animals, just below god, right?).

You deny a young earth only because science has proved that it is very, very old.  While church fathers and other religious traditions may have allowed for allegorical or non-literal interpretations of Genesis, they also embraced the historicity of the texts.  The way we read the bible has changed dramatically because of the way that science has challenged its claim to contain revealed truth.  Even young-earth creationists deny the biblical notions of a flat earth or hard dome of the sky - you’ve just gone one step further.


Greg Myers - #23613

July 27th 2010

Deb in BC, I hope I’ve addressed your question in the response above.  Evolution works with populations of genes.  Variants, as parts of networks of genes appear in a population.  Some of them turn out to assist the individuals carry a particular variant in reproducing.  Over time, those individuals reproduce more, and the genes they carry become more prominent in the population.  This is a non-deterministic process, and depends of the environment.  A classic example is sickle-cell anemia, which provides resistance to malaria, but also causes fatigue, organ damage and death.  The resistance to malaria results in reproductive advantage, even it an individual’s life after reproduction is shorter.  No one designed sickle cell - it was a mutation that happened to interfere with the malarial parasite, and so was passed on, even though it has serious downsides.

The Genesis stories speak of a very intimate creation involving the hands and breath of God, while science speaks of a long, meandering, desperate struggle, full of pain and loss.  Hominids developed culture - burial, art, community, religion over tens of thousands of years, over a vast expanse of territory - long before a Semitic tribe began to worship a god named Yahweh.


penman - #23632

July 27th 2010

Greg Myers:
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I still think the first of these is a philosophical statement. If a Creator exists, & evolution is His mechanism for producing biodiversity, then it is quite possible for us humans to be the endpoint He had in mind. He may have “set things up” to eventuate in us.

Your second statement, though, may well be justified. In other words, if we look exclusively at evolution, void of all other considerations, then yes, maybe it doesn’t suggest that we are the goal.

Christian thought has long recognised this in another guise - the doctrine of providence. If we look exclusively at “what happens” in human life, we won’t arrive at any doctrine of a wise & loving providence watching over us - unless we are very selective, & count only the good things. I think it was C.S.Lewis who said that the religious mind believes in providence, not on the basis of analyzing our experience, but on the basis of divine revelation. So it then becomes an argument about whether we have such a revelation.

But I can agree with your second statement as it stands. (Break out the bottles…!)


penman - #23633

July 27th 2010

Greg Myers again:

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Actually I agree with this. If I all I had was the Bible, I should be agnostic on the age of the earth, because I don’t think the Bible addresses it. The reason I hold to an old earth is - yes - because I’ve got some knowledge of geology. I don’t see that as contradicting the Bible: merely settling an issue not dealt with in the Bible.

And yes, I think there’s a cosmological picture in the Bible of the earth resting on pillars, a solid dome, et al. But on this matter, since I don’t think the Bible was given to teach us science (Galileo: how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go), that doesn’t greatly perturb me. I accept it’s an instance of “accommodated language”, like God portraying Himself as having eyes, hands, feathers, etc.

My interpretive tradition does have roots in the early church fathers here: scarcely any of them held a flat earth.


penman - #23634

July 27th 2010

JKnott:

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A moot point. I assumed Bethany was including herself as part of the suffering creation, so that her theodicy of suffering would embrace her own. That’d be (to a malicious critic) masochism. However -

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Good one!

Since that’s my third post (this is unheard of), I’m retiring to do something easy like prepare a sermon.


Mr Pogle - #23683

July 27th 2010

Why did god not create plate tectonics with all the listed benefits but without the earthquakes?


Bethany Sollereder - #23693

July 27th 2010

Mr. Pogle,

I’m not sure anyone can answer that.  Some say that it would be impossible.  We could imagine it, but it can’t actually be done “in the real world.”  I don’t think we know enough to be able to prove something like this.  Others would argue that there is benefit in the suffering that earthquakes bring: they arouse compassion and move people to aid.
I don’t think either of these are particularly good answers, though there might be truth to both of them.  I think the question “Why didn’t God create a different kind of world?” is unanswerable.  I would rather discuss “Why might God have created this world the way he did?”  We still don’t have a great shot at answering this, but it seems a little more possible to answer than the first question.  The fact is, God did create this world, and not another.  That, and God’s true goodness (as revealed in Scripture), are the only things we have to go on.  From there, we make what speculations we can, though they are not usually completely satisfactory.


Mr Pogle - #23700

July 27th 2010

Bethany Sollereder

You’re right, neither are good answers. After all, how can it be impossible? Is not god omnipotent?


Bethany Sollereder - #23702

July 27th 2010

Mr. Pogle,

Well, there are different kinds of omnipotences.  It would depend on whether God can do the logically impossible or not.  Can God create a round square?  If you answer “yes”, then perhaps he could create a world with the benefits and without the drawbacks.  I would answer “no”, just as I don’t think God could make a rock so big he can’t lift it.  These are problems of logic, not omnipotence.  Also, there are other things that God cannot do, even though he is omnipotent.  He cannot lie, and cannot be false to himself.  He cannot do evil.  These are not denials of God’s omnipotence.  My guess is that the plate tectonic/earthquake problem fits into this category.  God, wanting some values in the creation, could not create that ideal world we can imagine.


Greg Myers - #23886

July 29th 2010

There is no logical problem involved in creating alternatives to horrors like earthquakes and tornados- especially if the earth only has to exist for the eyeblink (in geological time) humans will be around. In fact, both the earth and the universe are ridiculously overbuilt if we are its purpose, as Genesis suggests The idea that pain is a logical requirement of life is no more established than the idea that death is a requirement of life.

I find no evidence that the historical nature of the creation story, flood, etc was denied by the church fathers. Rather, they also adopted allegorical and / or metaphorical interpretations that supplemented the historical view. The modern scientific view of the world cannot be overlaid on the text without resorting to wholesale rebranding of what is presented as factual as metaphor (a rebranding not based on the text,  but solely on what we have learned a out the world). What remains is useful, but now lacks the kind of real world veracity that demands fidelity. Rather, we have a literary work, encoding some of humanities best thinking, much of which we now reject as either factually or ethically wrong.


Robert - #24115

July 30th 2010

No one here has seemed to consider that there was another fall before A&E’s, that is the fall of Satan and his angels.

I think we should be at least open to the possibility that some of the “bad” attributes of God’s created-good creation may be the result of that fall, and the spiritual war that followed.


gingoro - #24120

July 30th 2010

Robert@24115

“I think we should be at least open to the possibility that some of the “bad” attributes of God’s created-good creation may be the result of that fall, and the spiritual war that followed.”

I agree but find that we are given very few details on this earlier rebellion and so making theology upon what little we have seems problematic, but yes that possibly earlier sin may have damaged the early earth prior to mankind coming on the scene.  Off the top of my head I can’t think of any scripture that definitely places the fall of Satan prior to creation of the universe.  In order to justify some point of theology I always want multiple places in scripture to support that point to help ensure that we are interpreting scripture properly.
Dave W


nedbrek - #24121

July 30th 2010

Hello Robert, I do not believe Satan’s fall had any effect on creation.  That is because dominion over creation was intended for Adam - only Adam’s fall could affect it.


GeraldR - #24320

August 2nd 2010

As some have already commented, the whole problem of death, pain and suffering before the fall goes away if one accepts a young earth viewpoint. 
So does all the pain of wondering about the “Adam of Paul” and a whole host of other ailments that spring up because of not taking genesis 1 literally.

So why would one want to accept an atheistic viewpoint [evolution and Darwinism] and then try to reconcile the bible to it? This part I find really hard to understand. Perhaps someone could enlighten me why they believe in evolution when the bible simply states that God created things in a fully functional and seemingly mature form?  Who is the authority on the creation of the earth? God’s word or the science of man? Is someone going to tell me I’m not reading correctly when I read that everything was created in six days?  How did I go wrong?


penman - #24412

August 3rd 2010

GeraldR: I’ll have a stab at answering your question. In my opinion… It boils down to different approaches to interpreting the Bible. Few, if anyone at all (I’d guess), would think the earth only a few thousand years old on geological evidence, unless they’d already decided that’s what the Bible says. Then they let this interpretation of Genesis “trump” geology. Same for origins of biodiversity.

I think it’s better to admit that fallible humans are trying to understand both the Bible & the natural world - fallible exegetes, fallible scientists. If our understanding of Bible & world don’t align, we should ask which we’re most likely to have misread.

For myself, I’m more certain that I’m right in interpreting geology & biology in an old earth evolutionary way, than that I’d be right to interpret the Bible in a Young Earth Creationist way. Science speaks more clearly here. The Bible is reasonably open to other exegetically viable interpretations, which take the Bible just as seriously as a YEC view - interpretations that have a firm place within Christian tradition. E.g. I take a framework view of Genesis 1; its roots are in Augustine, who wasn’t trying to accommodate modern science, since he lived 1500 years ago!


JMFK - #24885

August 7th 2010

GeraldR @ #24320: You wrote, “the whole problem of death, pain and suffering before the fall goes away if one accepts a young earth viewpoint.”

The problem also goes away if one understands that Western Christendom’s expectation that God’s pre-fall material creation would be perfect does not originate from the Bible, but from the pagan philosophies of Plato. The Hebrew writers of the OT did not have a problem with ascribing the non-ideal aspects of nature to Yahweh’s activity within his creation. In fact, it elicited their worship. This included tectonics, storms, predation, and death in the animal kingdom:

“May the Lord rejoice in his works - who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke” - Psalm 104:31-32
“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command.” - Psalm 148:7-8
“The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.” Psalm 104:21
“O Lord, how manifold are your works…the earth is full of your creatures…When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” Psalm 104:24-30

Also Job 38-41; Psalm 104 in full.


JMFK - #25123

August 8th 2010

Hornspiel @ 22925: You asked, “Do you think competition will cease in the eschaton?”

Whether it will cease in nature apart from humankind I cannot say. For a resurrected and glorified human race, I expect that the only type of competition would be of the friendly sort. Our own culture is obsessed with competitiveness because, apart from simple survival or ego, we see competition as a creative force in human society. I have known Christians who have advocated unrestricted capitalistic competition for this reason while at the same time rejecting evolution, They believe in Social Darwinism but not Biological Darwinism, i.e., they get their science from the Bible and their ethics from nature - kinda backwards IMO.

However, the Bible sees human beings as God’s creative force in the world. Competition is simply one possible motivator of creativity. Others are love, compassion, curiosity, and others that are seen in a more positive light. As for competition, the Bible has this to say:

“And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” - Ecc. 4:4


Trevor K. - #25197

August 10th 2010

I would like to suggest that those who have ONLY been steeped in evolutionary thought to take a look at creation.com for another point of view of things. You could also explore answersingenesis.com if you haven’t done so yet.

It’ll really ease your burden of trying to reconcile the bible to the “facts” of evolution [ because you treat it as if the Darwinian theory of evolution is the authority on the creation of the earth, instead of the bible being the last word on that issue].

Happy hunting to those who have the courage and humility to do so.


Thomas Bouvier - #25791

August 16th 2010

I must say that one rarely finds a theologian who sees the problem of evil and proposes a theodicy which basically says that evil is really good.  The problem of evil in a few words proposes that a good and all-loving god is not consistent with the evil and suffering in this world. The free will argument is not compelling and really can only be applied to choices the individual makes.  The problem really is about all the natural disasters.  Pointing to how there is always a silver lining or trying to see why something terrible that destroys many thousands of lives is really good is circular reasoning at best. 
You make the error of appeal to anonymous authority.  Who are those scientists who “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?”  I really cannot recall any scientist coming forward after Katrina and saying it was necessary for a good life.  All I can recall was a prominent christian minister proclaiming that it was God’s will because of homosexuals and abortion, etc.


Thomas Bouvier - #25793

August 16th 2010

Your choice of which theologians to rely on as authorities is interesting.  Calvin, of Protestant Reformation fame, was a proponent of total depravity and predestination, essentially denying human free will.  His point of view was that everything was due to man’s sin and God had the final say, nothing anyone can do. Torrance is a calvinist known as a member of the “classical christianity ” school. 
I can see how you have been influenced by their orientation toward the suffering of humanity. But I think you tend more toward Irenaeus than Augustine.
As far as referring to evolution.  I just don’t see it. Not in this article.  Other comments flesh this out so I will skip it.  We will see.
It takes time to read the article, reflect on it, read other comments, before commenting myself.


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