Evolution and Death
It was in 1995 that Pope John Paul II shocked the world when, in his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he declared that good Catholics could now believe in a theistic version of Neo-Darwinian evolution. Of course, this isn’t really what he said (though it is the popular rendition of the speech’s import). After all, Pope Pius XII had already suggested that evolution might be reconcilable with Church Doctrine in his 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, and most Catholic schools had taught it as fact ever since. Thus, many good Catholics already believed in evolution when John Paul gave his speech. However, there remained something unique and surprising in John Paul’s remarks. He spoke of evolution with an acceptance and certainty that his predecessors had not, referring to it as “more than a hypothesis” and “an effectively proven fact.”1
The impression given by the pope’s speech and the news reporting of it at the time was that Christians must come to accept evolution (since it is demonstrably true), and that those still opposed to its teachings were right-wing zealots on the lunatic fringe of American religious culture. While the pope made no such statement at the time, this attitude seems to prevail among many of the contemporary defenders of Darwinism. Richard Dawkins has suggested on more than one occasion that no honest, sane, and informed person could possibly continue to question the truth of Darwinian evolution (or to believe in any god, for that matter!).2
There are many issues worthy of response here, and while the honesty and credibility of opponents of Darwinism certainly could be defended, what most concerns me is the claim that Christians must accept Darwinism. The idea that God might create through an evolutionary process similar to that proposed by Darwin is both interesting and intriguing. In fact, I have elsewhere argued that there are orthodox models of divine providence which could allow God to use random genetic mutations to bring about His will in creaturely development. I would also note that naturalistic explanations for actions ascribed to God should not be problematic for evangelical Christians, as Louis pointed out so beautifully elsewhere on this website by reference to the Newton-Leibniz exchange on divine intervention of planetary orbits.3 As he correctly notes, Christians should not succumb to the fallacy of seeing processes as either natural or supernatural, as if the two were mutually exclusive.
The Bible clearly teaches that God actively upholds the natural processes of the universe. His providence extends to such activities as making the sun rise and rain fall (Ps. 135:6-7), grass grow (Ps. 104:14; Mt. 6:30), and even carnivores catch their prey (Ps. 104:28). Certainly God could create through a gradual process over a long period of time; He could create through incremental changes bringing things to meet their potential or driving them to greater levels of potentiality. But to affirm these points is not to necessarily affirm evolution guided by God. The question is really not so much about what God could do, but what God did do, as recorded in Scripture.
Theological Problems with Darwinism
There are many good reasons for questioning the truth of Neo-Darwinian evolution, from basic philosophical questions, to questions about the nature of science, to theological problems. I wish to address the latter. The Catholic Church’s concern has always been over the unique status of man as made in the image of God. So, Pius XII noted [and John Paul reiterated] that evolution may be held, even with respect to human development, so long as it refers only to the earthly body; belief that God uniquely makes the souls of humans must be retained in order to preserve the doctrine of the imago dei. But problems with the image of God are not the only theological problem with Darwinism; another major issue has to do with the role death plays in the system.
It is ironic that in evolutionary thought, death actually functions as a mechanism for life. Death plays a vital role in natural selection by rooting out weakness and driving evolutionary development. Darwin’s own definition of natural selection confirms the function of death and destruction as key to creaturely development: “This preservation of favorable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.”4 Most Christians who accept evolution distance themselves from Darwin and the Neo-Darwinian synthesis insofar as both seem to imply a naturalistic worldview. They also tend to avoid discussion of how death functions in their creation model, preferring instead to cast evolution in positive terms. The most common tactic is to speak in terms of flowering or increasingly developing potentiality which is realized through genetic mutations selected or guided by God. Van Til is typical, speaking of God’s “gifting” of the creation with a special capacity for self-organization and realization.6
However, it seems to me that no matter what one calls it, any model approximating Darwin’s concept of evolution with God as its guide must argue that natural selection, with its emphasis on a natural state characterized by competition for limited resources and a general struggle for survival, is the primary means by which speciation takes place, and that therefore, it is the primary means of God’s creating work. The point I wish to make here is that the theistic evolutionist simply cannot escape the fact that the necessary corollary to survival of the fittest is destruction of the weakest and therefore, he must view death as a primary creative force of God.
Death depicted in Scripture
This, though, is contrary to the biblical view, which depicts death as an invader, disturber of peace, and a force of evil. While it must be admitted that in the Old Testament, death is sometimes presented as a natural consequence of finite human existence, it is most often associated with consequences for sinful activity or the judgment of God (2 Ki. 20:1-11; Dt. 30:15; Jer. 21:8; Eze. 18:21-32), being described variously as “the wages of sin” (Ro. 6:23), a “snare” (Ps. 116:3), and a “trouble” (Job 5:20). In the Wisdom literature, for example, death is the lot of those who go with the wicked woman (Prov. 2:18; 5:5; 7:27; Ecc. 7:1), and is contrasted with the life obtained in righteousness, wisdom and fear of the LORD (Prov. 10:2; 11:4; 12:28; 14:12, 27, 32; 16:25; see also Job 28:20-21). Death is often described as the state of existence in which none praise God (Is. 38: 18; Ps. 6:5; 9:17), and is even sometimes associated with demonic power (1 Co. 15:26-27; Rev. 6:8; 20:13-14), Satan being called the “lord of death” (Heb. 2:14).
The negative view of death in the Bible is also evident in the cleanliness rituals required for ancient Israelites when they came in contact with a dead body (e.g., Nu. 5:2; 19:16), and in the prohibitions for Nazarites to even be in proximity to a corpse (Nu. 6:6-11). Death is unclean and an impediment to proper relationship with God. The “sting of death” is sin (1 Co. 15:56), and death’s entry into the created order is tied to Adam’s sin (Ro. 5:12). Death refers to spiritual degeneracy and is the result of deeds of the flesh (Ro. 7:5,10).
Rather than a means by which God creates, death is antithetical to God’s creative work as the Giver of Life (Ac. 17:25). This is most clearly seen in the attitude toward death in eschatological writings, where death is the “last enemy” to be defeated (1 Co. 15:26, 54-55; cf. Ro. 8:9-11; 2 Ti. 1:10), and will be judged and eventually destroyed in the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:13-14). Death will not be a part of God’s eschatological Kingdom (Is. 25:8), not because God’s work in creation will finally be completed, but because death is at odds with what that Kingdom represents (Dan. 12:2). The defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ is a vindication of God’s covenant promises (Eze. 37:12-14), and desire to give life (Eze. 18:23, 32) with a return to the Edenic state. Thus, a fundamental aspect of the good news in the Gospel is the defeat of death—this negative, destroying force—in the resurrection of Christ. As Erickson rightly notes, a fair examination of the biblical material can leave “little doubt that God himself sees death as an evil and a frustration of his original plan.”7
Death in light of evolution
Christians since the time of Darwin have recognized the incongruity of the biblical teaching on death and the positive role it plays in evolution. Some have attempted to alleviate the tension by assigning the negative aspects to the spiritual realm. For example, Tillich saw death as a natural and necessary consequence of our finitude in the physical sense, but also as the judgment of God upon our sin in the spiritual: “We have to die, because we are dust. That is the law of nature to which we are subject with all beings—mountains, flowers, and beasts…But at the same time, we have to die because we are guilty. There is the moral law to which we, unlike other beings, are subject. Both laws are equally true; both are stated in all sections of the Bible.”8
Others have redefined death as a positive force. For example, Smyth notes that, with the fact of evolution being established, we must reevaluate our attitudes toward death: “…do we discover any signs which indicate that death, contrary to our common judgment of it, has had appointed to it all the while a benevolent part, that it has not been the natural enemy, but in reality a servant of life,--a helpmeet for ever more abounding, higher, and happier life on earth?”9 While we might expect that the answer to Smyth’s question must be an emphatic, “No!” he seems inclined otherwise. In fact, he speaks of natural selection in almost self-sacrificial terms, such that the self-giving of Christ is paralleled in the deaths of weaker creatures in service to the species.10 Smyth concludes that a theistic evolutionary model must see death as a creative force of the divine: “As an original adaptation of means to an end, death is to be regarded as a mark of beneficence rather than as a natural sign of evil…So death as an adaptation in the divine economy of nature is introduced as a means of life, of ever-increasing and happier life.”11 While Smyth’s arguments fit nicely with the evolutionary model, it seems to be seriously at odds with the biblical picture.
Objections and Rebuttals
Some may object to my argument by noting that we should expect a world governed by processes which are violent, destructive, and contrary to God’s peaceful kingdom since we live in an age characterized as “cursed” (Gen. 3:17; Rev. 22:3), “subject to futility”(Ro. 8:20), in “bondage to corruption” (Ro. 8:21), under the “law of sin and death” (Ro. 8:2; 1 Co. 15:56), and ruled by the forces of darkness (literally, “god of this age” Jn. 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Co. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). The Apostle Paul even suggests that death will hold sway over the created order until Christ’s return (Ro. 8:19; 1 Co. 15:23-26, 54-55)! So, a world governed by a process like natural selection fits quite nicely with the biblical portrait of the world in the present age. While this argument has an initial sense of plausibility, it falters on several counts.
First, it fails to account for the fact that in the biblical narrative, God’s creative work takes place prior to the Fall; creating should not be equated with sustaining, though they are related and may be subsumed under the theological category of divine providence. Therefore, the post-Fall conditions which prevail can have no bearing on our understanding of the means by which God creates.
Second, it fails to account for the theological concept of creation as the imparting of life by God. God’s creative work is not a consequence of death, but rather is antagonistic toward it. Life and death, in biblical theology, are adversarial in a way similar to light and darkness.
Third, no one has suggested that this age is not characterized by such negative forces, but we have argued that it is these very forces which God will overthrow, conquer, and eventually banish and destroy when He establishes His rule in peace, harmony, and life.
Another possible response to the concerns about evolution outlined here is that even micro-evolution—evolution within species—uses death in a pro-creative way, but this would be mistaken. There is a vast difference between development of already existing creatures and the emergence of life and species, for the latter serves as the explanation of how God created while the former does not. That is, the standard evolutionary claim that speciation took place via the mechanisms of natural and sexual selection (aided and driven by genetic mutation) is really a claim about God’s creative work since the emergence of species is what the creation story describes (i.e., not just the origins of life), while discussion of developmental growth within species is not necessarily contained or even implied in the creation account. Creaturely development falls under the purview of God’s providential sustainment, while creation has typically been associated with a new or special work of God.
At the end of the day, then, it seems that Christians who accept evolution and those who deny evolution are operating with differing views of the doctrine of creation. However, even if agreement may be reached over this issue, the proponent of God-guided evolution must reconcile the biblical material on death with its positive function in his model. It seems to me that this cannot be done in a way that is fair to both biblical text and evolutionary thought. Evolution requires that death serve a creative function, and the Bible precludes such an understanding of death; therefore, the evangelical must reject evolution as the means by which God creates.
1. Pope John Paul II, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth” Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996.
2. In response to the John Paul's speech, Dawkins suggested that the pope was a hypocrite or not serious about science. In reference to proponents of theistic evolution, Dawkins notes that they are “not necessarily dishonest” in their theological and scientific commitments, but he questions “how they reconcile the internal conflicts in their minds.” Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, Mariner edition, 2008), 94. In commenting on Kurt Wise, a Harvard-trained scientist who gave up belief in evolution and an old-earth because of his belief in the Bible, Dawkins claims that Wise tossed out evidence and reason, along with his belief in evolution. He refers to Wise's story as “pathetic and contemptible,” and suggests that Wise should have tossed out his Bible. Ibid., 322.
3. Ard Louis, “How Does the BioLogos Model Need to Address Concerns Christians Have About the Implications of its Science?” (PDF)
4. Darwin, The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, 2nd ed. (1860), in Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 49:40. Darwin himself recognized that his observations and the view of the world he proposed is at odds with our desire to conceive of nature as pristine, beautiful, and in a state of harmony. Darwin wrote, “...each organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” Ibid., 39.
5. Interestingly, Jacques Monod, an atheist, has been critical of Christians who see natural selection as God's creative means because of the moral implications of natural selection. He wrote, “Selection is the blindest, and most cruel way of evolving new species, and more and more complex and refined organisms…The struggle for life and the elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethic revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society; it is one where the weak are protected, which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God more or less set up in order to have evolution.” Jacques Monod, Interview with Australian Broadcasting Commission, aired June 10, 1976.
6. “I believe that God has so generously gifted the creation with the capabilities for self-organization and transformation that an unbroken line of evolutionary development from nonliving matter to the full array of existing life-forms is not only possible but has in fact taken place.” Howard J. Van Til, “The Fully Gifted Creation” in J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds, eds., Three Views on Creation and Evolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 171.
7. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, rev.1998), 177.
8. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1948), 70.
9. Newman Smyth, The Place of Death in Evolution (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1987), 14.
10. He writes, “At length in the history of life a living form arose, so multicellular and so well organized, that it ceased to continue the course of life simply by dividing and multiplying itself into daughter cells; it had acquired the power of giving up its life for another; it died in order that its offspring might continue its life in forms struggling to still higher organization, and better fitted to survive while it must perish.” Ibid., 28-29. He continues: “One parent form passes away in order that others may catch up the motion of life, and in turn transmit to others life's rhythm and joy.” Ibid., 29.
11. Ibid., 32.