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How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 2

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July 26, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil
How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 2

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.

This blog is the second piece in a series by Bethany Sollereder. The first entry is found here.

Last week we looked at how our very good evolutionary world necessarily includes unpleasant realities like earthquakes and pain. This week, we are going to look at why God might have created a world through evolutionary processes. What is the advantage of a world where pain and death are necessities? What is gained by an evolutionary process that would not be present in an unchanging, static, ‘perfect’ world? Why did God not simply create heaven in the first place? These are questions of huge theological significance and are not going to be satisfactorily answered here. I do, however, hope to offer some starting points for discussion.

I began to look at these questions by researching Irenaeus’s theology of creation. Irenaeus of Lyons was a second-century Church Father, and one of the Church’s greatest theologians. One of the most intriguing parts about his theology is that he understood the creation as being made in immaturity. Most of us imagine the world of Genesis 1-2, or the original creation, as a perfect world, where everything is already completed, and where Adam and Eve were meant to live out their lives in a perfect existence. Apart from multiplying and filling the earth, there is not a lot of room for growth, either physically or spiritually, for humans or for creation because everything has already “arrived.” In a radical re-imagining of this story, Irenaeus pictures Adam and Eve in the garden as children––not perfect, but on a journey toward maturity and perfection. This is because perfection is not something you can give to an infant; it must be grown into. Irenaeus argues, “For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection] being as yet an infant.”1 So, God does not force something on to humanity that it is not ready for. Perfection was not something that could be implanted; it had to be journeyed toward. And so Irenaeus gives us our first value of an evolving world: room for the growth and development of humans.

Now, let’s extend this argument to the wider cosmos. Just as humanity is not created in static perfection, the world around is not fully completed either. Colin Gunton, reflecting on Irenaeus, writes, “Creation is a project... It has somewhere to go.”2 There is value in saying that creation has the freedom to grow, that it is an ongoing project. A world with freedom must have choice, and this is present in a world with a long evolutionary history. The cosmos, like humanity, is created very good, but it is not created in its final state. This giving of freedom (and perhaps even limited autonomy) to the creation is, I would argue, more consistent with the nature of divine love than a creation where everything is determined. God gives true freedom to humanity, leading to moral choice, and true freedom to creation, leading to evolutionary development. This is God’s act of love, and this is why God did not just make heaven in the first place.3 Freedom and growth are valuable, and God delights in them.

A third value given through evolution is the ability to move toward a goal. And that begs the question: “Where is evolution going?” I would argue that evolution was moving toward developing a community of beings which carries God’s image and amongst which God would be made incarnate. The Incarnation was not a contingency plan brought in when humanity sinned, but rather was one of the original purposes of creation. This concept is one of the great contributions of Irenaeus––creation was always headed for the Incarnation! Also, this creation was always part of the journey toward new life. God’s promise of a new creation is not a contingency plan either!4 The new (or, rather, renewed) creation, as described at the end of Revelation, was always part of the plan. I don’t think that any theodicy can say “this world is good” without also pointing forward to the time when there will be no pain, no death, and no tears, under some new and unimaginable reconstruction of the universe. Keep in mind that we do tend to imagine the new future as static in some ways. Many of the values that are achieved here (such as having children or freedom of moral choice) are not imagined to exist there in the same way. In no way does saying “this is a good world” undermine the Christian hope in the world to come. Actually, recognition that this life was always meant to be renewed can help our Christian walk. The spiritual growth coming from this world is seen most easily, perhaps, with the example of death.

In the present world, physical death is the most poignant reminder of our mortality. While we grasp at immortality through various means, we find it is always beyond our reach. The suffocating horror and fear that accompanies many of our encounters with death reminds us finally that we are not God. Yet it is in those moments of deepest agony that our need for the hope of resurrection is the strongest.

What do we do with death? In light of the new creation, death is a transition from this life to the new life. It is a leap of faith that God always intended, and one which God himself did not avoid. In the lives of saints and martyrs, we see a taste of what physical death was intended to be (I am speaking here of physical death without sin; our present experience of death is horridly marred by sin and the reality of spiritual death). We see how many of the martyrs approached death with peace, acceptance, and even joy––to lay down their lives and be called into the presence of God. I believe that this was the original intention of death. Death was to be a transition, a final giving up of oneself into the enfolding arms of God. Our bodies go to decompose and support new life, while our trust is placed in the promise of the resurrected life.

I want to be careful here. This does not mean that we should not grieve death. Even Jesus, when he was at the tomb of Lazarus, wept openly, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. There can be a strange disconnect, where if we Christians say something is good or natural, we sometimes feel we should then be able to avoid a real emotional response to the situation, or that faith means not being broken by certain situations. This is not what I am advocating. Encountering death should make us weep, because the loss we experience is real. Christian hope makes us more human, not less––we should feel more deeply, not less. But we should also feel differently. We grieve, knowing that there is hope and life and renewal ahead. We know that physical death does not have the last word, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We hear Paul’s triumphal cry “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?…The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”5 Our path is not to avoid pain and death, but to walk through them, following our Lord and Savior in life, in death, and in resurrection life.

Speaking of Paul, I feel that I should acknowledge the big white elephant in the room. Someone will ask, “Doesn’t Paul say that death came through the Fall? How do you deal with the biblical texts where death is called the enemy of God?” This will be the topic of next week’s entry.


1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: 1975), IV. xxxviii. 1.
2. Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 56.
3. Here, I mean “heaven” in the sense of the new heavens and the new earth of the eschatological future, not the current dwelling place of God.
4. Read, for example, N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
5. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56.

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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conrad - #23574

July 26th 2010

Is there any reason to think Ireneaus knew what he was talking about?

conrad - #23581

July 26th 2010

Can God make a rock too heavy for he himself to lift?

These are old canards that don’t lead to any real progress.

I personally   like,  “What is the difference between duck?”

Greg Myers - #23582

July 26th 2010

Isn’t this premise a bit odd, if you think about it?  To propose that God takes an inherently unpredictable, messy, chaotic, wasteful and cruel process, and calls it a plan?  Unless god continually monitored and shaped the process along the way, there would be no telling what the end result would be.  Compared with shaping someone from the dust, turning to a process that takes billions of years seems a bit much.  Genesis gives us a cozy picture - small world, carved out of the waters, shaped into a habitat for man (even woman is a late addition,  as man’s helper).

To discover that it is not that way at all - that the universe in unimaginably old, and incomprehensibly huge, and that we ended up here through a bizarre and unlike series of events - and then say that this process - evolution - is the Genesis story?  I think not.

More likely?  That we have evolved to see meaning and seek community.  That morals and ethics are the result of many generations of selection and experience.  Experience is encoded in religion because religions provide structure - protection and nourishment for our hand-won understanding of how to survive and even thrive.

Hang on to the morals and ethics, let the attempts at origins go.

merv - #23587

July 26th 2010

From a non-Christian perspective, Greg, you can hang on to whatever you want and jettison whatever doesn’t please you at the moment.  That’s all well and good for you.

But for Christians, we take an interest in our origins because the Bible tells us something about our origins—- something important; not something merely scientific, technical, or irrelevant, but something that is actually important.  You can dismiss that as unlikely all you want, but until you understand that most Christians may be starting with an assumed body of givens significantly different than yours, you will probably be frustrated in this forum. 

To understand our history is to begin to understand where we might be going.  Given that we have the barest glimpses of either of those, we have plenty opportunity to learn about trust, hope, and faith along the way as well.


James - #23590

July 26th 2010

@ Tulse:

We shouldn’t think of omnipotence in terms of quantity, power or of specific tasks.
Rather we should think of omnipotence in terms of the “ability to actualize states of affairs.”

States of affairs: (a way something might be) EG: the state of affair that there being chairs in my room obtains. Or the state of affairs that we are in the lower story of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church (if we were having this discussion there). Or that there’s a piano here in front of me… etc-

To be omnipotent then, I think, means the ability to bring about any state of affairs which is logically possible for anyone in that situation to bring about. A person with that kind of power is omnipotent.

No one can actualize a state of affairs which consists of an all powerful being’s inability to lift a stone. That is impossible! So omnipotence would not require God to create a stone too heavy for Him to lift. That wouldn’t fall within the scope of omnipotence.

So I think this definition of omnipotence is adequate to capture the intuitive idea of being all powerful and yet it won’t commit you to saying that God can do these absurdities like worship another god, or make a stone too heavy or make a round square- things of that sort.

James - #23592

July 26th 2010

@ Greg Myers:

We apprehend a realm of objective moral values in moral experience, and claims that these values are not objective and true based on socio-biological conditioning commits the genetic fallacy.

Any attempt to question the reliability of our moral faculties would be paralleled by the same kind of argument that would call into question our sensory faculties and would lead us to the absurd conclusion that physical objects are unreal.

Belief that it’s wrong to torture a child for fun would is a properly basic belief grounded in my moral experience of the world, much like the belief that I have a head and a body, and if you deny the rationality or the truth of those properly basic beliefs then you ought to think the physical objects of common sense are unreal! Because they’re exactly on a par with each other.

So if moral values are gradually discovered rather than invented, then our gradual fallible apprehension of them doesn’t do anything to undermine their objectivity.

Finally if God doesn’t exist, then objective moral values don’t exist
But objective moral values DO exist
Therefore, it follows that God exists.

Justin - #23596

July 26th 2010

Greg Myers - #23582,

I liked where you were going primarily, but then you had to write “let the attempts at origins go”.  How does anyone do that?  You may be right that picking and choosing theologians that seem to enable accommodation to evolution may not be the right method, but no one who believes in the Creator God of the Bible is simply going to let those attempts go.  Worship is directed not only at the Lord and putative Savior of the world, but also the Creator of it.  Can’t stop doing it…

I also agree that theodicy is not being answered well (in this post and in most other places), but I’m not sure how soluble the problem is, since people have been attempting to solve it for forever.  I don’t think that I can do any better at this point either.  But the fact that we struggle so mightily with “the problem of evil” makes it impossible to me to simply stop searching for the best available answer to the problem.

Greg Myers - #23597

July 26th 2010

James, I think I am with you until the end part there.  The first premise of your syllogism is an unlikely assumption, not a fact.

I do not agree that your claim that God is the foundation for your moral sense provides any more objective certainty that my claims for the evolution of morals.  This is in effect a private opinion that you cannot establish with any certainty.  As for your claim that morals are therefore somewhat subjective, I would say that how morals are encoded into systems of belief and behavior are somewhat subjective, but as you note, there do seem to be some generally accepted principles that bind (even non-Christians) together.  Common ancestry makes as good a candidate to explain this as some god-implanted moral compass.

I understand that you claim your moral sense is based on the objective reality of god, but that is not the same thing as establishing that god, in fact, exists, or for that matter, that god is the basis or foundation of some objective moral order.  Again, as you admit that moral sensibilities vary from time and place, it seems at least as likely that this is a consensual and communal moral awareness as it is that these morals reflect god’s orders as it relates to morality.

Greg Myers - #23598

July 26th 2010

In Paul’s time, slavery did not seem to be a moral issue; in Wesley’s time, women could not preach.  “Love your neighbor” has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different Christians.  Both racism and sexism linger on - not because we have not seen them as moral weaknesses - but because they continue to be embraced in family and culture.  These ethical violations lapse as individuals become part of communities that do not discriminate based on race or sex - not because they have found a new way of reading their bible.  With this new moral awareness, we do read the bible anew - ignoring the ethical lapses we used to embrace.

Practically, you could argue that communities dip into the moral and ethical traditions found in the bible (among other places) and find justification for how they believe and act.  This is not different than I propose (and does, in fact, value the ethical and moral traditions found therein).

You offer a simplistic picture of ethics and morals - God has handed down the law, and we follow it or not.  A simple survey of actual ethics and morals as practiced by people shows that it is much more complex, and that morals are much more closely tied to community than to divine revelation.

Greg Myers - #23599

July 26th 2010

Justin, perhaps the “best available answer to the problem” is to take what we know about our origins seriously.  When we have to start every exploration of ethics with being made in the image of God, and a proper understanding of the Fall (whatever that means), it is like being forced to turn the wrong way out of the gate - making it that much harder to get to our destination.

Created in god’s image, the Fall, God’s law - these are early attempts to explain things that perhaps we now have better, more accurate explanations for.  Perhaps theodicy is an insoluble problem because the premise upon which it is built is false.

Just like the physical sciences, where we had to let go of inaccurate beliefs about the world before we could make progress, perhaps moral and ethical progress is also waiting for us to start asking the right questions, without being encumbered by the usual (prescribed) answers.

conrad - #23602

July 27th 2010

When I hear guys saying they are going to “actualize” their “syllogism” I know I am in over my head.

[Or over the tops of my boots.]

Get back into science. This is supposed to be a SCIENCE / BIBLE correlation.

    Wandering off into the netherworld just gets you lost.

Deb in BC - #23604

July 27th 2010

I thought this was supposed to be a science/faith correlation?

Deb in BC - #23608

July 27th 2010

Bethany: ...it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection] being as yet an infant.”1 So, God does not force something on to humanity that it is not ready for. Perfection was not something that could be implanted; it had to be journeyed toward. And so Irenaeus gives us our first value of an evolving world: room for the growth and development of humans.

If God chose man to be perfect he’d have been perfect; i.e. He’d have made him capable of receiving perfection, so I don’t think Irenaeus “man could not receive perfection”  and “God does not force something onto humanity it’s not ready for” stands. If that had been his plan at creation, it would have been accomplished. Further, I don’t think Irenaeus’ concept of Adam and Eve, or of a literal Eden, stand.

Wouldn’t God’s plan of “room for growth and development,” as seen in the evolution of the cosmos and of life here, be evident in man’s evolution, in his development of self and God awareness, his conscience, of all men being aware of God’s existence, and of their sin (Romans 1-3)? Why Adam and Eve, or Eden?

James - #23616

July 27th 2010

The problem of Evil has been solved for like 40 years now (thank Alvin Plantinga!) And it’s even proof that God exists. My argument would go like this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, objective values exist.
4. Therefore, God exists.
And thus evil only calls into question God’s existence on a superficial level. On a deeper philosophical level evil actually demonstrates the existence of God because evil, as such, could not exist without God.

Sorry :-( 

Greg Myers:
I’m sorry too, I may not have done the argument from morality justice in this short discussion.

You said that my first premise (if God doesn’t exist, then objective moral values don’t exist) is an unlikely assumption… Atheists have been saying this for years! They affirm that if there is no God then all morality is, is the product of socio-evolutionary heard mentality- Which you and I seem to agree upon. So you see on your view morals are subjective and the rapists or pedophile isn’t objectively doing anything wrong- why he’s just acting unsocial- the equivalent to the guy who wants to wear white socks with black pants.

conrad - #23617

July 27th 2010

Deb, you know I think God had the awful decision of whether or not man. [his creation]  should have free will.


James - #23625

July 27th 2010

Moral objectivity stands wholly apart from anyone who believes in them or not. Thankfully we were made to apprehend that realm (though we’re fallible). And that’s why it strongly points to the God who has written them in our hearts…

I never said that they were subjective as you claim I did, quite the opposite.

If the Nazi’s had won WW2 and converted everyone to believing that killing every Jew was morally the right thing to do, would that be objectively correct? I think not. So you must admit that there is a realm of objective morals…. I can talk more about this but we’re getting yelled at

Greg Myers - #23627

July 27th 2010

James, I think you are jumping to conclusions.  First of all, people do all sorts of morally questionable things while affirming a wide range of religious and non-religious beliefs.  I don’t think that you can jump from morality being objective or subjective to how people behave - it is not at all clear that there is any correlation here.

You don’t get objective moral values is not established even if god exists.  God’s own values could be subjective, or arbitrary, or could change over time (so genocide is OK for a while, then dis-allowed, then allowed again at the end of the world).  Morality could be independent of god.  My point is that the connection between god and morality is not established. 

Evil cannot exist without god?  Sorry, not demonstrated - nor do I think you can, unless you only mean that you define the word ‘evil’ as ‘the thing that god abhors,’ or some such thing.

I am not arguing that without god, all morality is subjective, I am suggesting that, even with god in the picture, morality is subjective - just look at all the ethical systems practiced by various religious folks.  But saying something is subjective does not mean it is arbitrary - we just can’t pass off our subjectivity as the will of god.

James - #23628

July 27th 2010

So I’ll end with this:
In order to give credit to God for His creation, a system that comes from very simple, elegant and basic ideas like natural selection and variations, like in the laws of physics and in chemistry and from these simple ideas for complexity to emerge.

Our universe is this profound world that emerged off of these simple and basic ideas. This is what evolution speaks to…. this way of creating truly points towards a creator as opposed to creating entities one at a time, what’s even more profound about this design is that it’s adaptive, if there’s environmental stress then the other variations survive more frequently.

You can’t point to one entity of creation and say that “this is the highest point that creation has reached” no, it’s always becoming better suited to it’s environment.

James - #23629

July 27th 2010

For example the mandel brock set of fractals is immensly complex, but the true beauty of it is that it can be described by one shockingly simple equation: z n+1 (next z) z^2 n+1. Now if you were to say what is the more profound way to design this fractal set, either by painting the fractals all from scratch or by using the simple and elegant equation to create something of infinite complexity. I think every engineer would admit the using the simple perfect elegent idea would be more profound. It’s not just focussed on the particulars- it’s focused on the meta levels.

James - #23630

July 27th 2010

@ Greg Myers. Here is my email address: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I would like to continue our discussion if you prefer. It seems we’re going too far off topic for this blog.

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