Truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. —John 12:24
One of the reasons that some of us are hesitant to accept evolutionary creation is that it seems to make God responsible for the suffering and death of innumerable creatures over millions of years—before humans ever existed or sinned against their creator. Since we believe in and worship a God who is loving, benevolent, and all-powerful, it sounds quite implausible that our God would have created a world like that; therefore, any scientific evidence for evolution must be incorrect.
Other people look at the scientific evidence for evolution and find a compelling case that it has taken place during our earth's history. On this basis they may conclude that if evolution is true, then the belief in an all-powerful, perfectly good God must be false!
The trouble with both of these views is that they tend to invoke a completely abstract, philosophical god, not the living God of the Bible—the God who became a human being, experienced unimaginable suffering, and died in a grotesque and humiliating public display. The death of Jesus completely defied the expectations (and common sense) of his followers, as well as the expectations of any “rational” understanding of the way the Creator of the universe should act in the world. On the cross, in the person of Jesus, God took upon himself far more suffering than any creature has ever experienced.
If God himself is willing to die, particularly in such a gruesome way, then perhaps we should at least consider the possibility of God allowing the death of other creatures, too. But would this really be compatible with what we know of God through Scripture? In this essay, we will explore this quandary through a “theology of the cross”, a concept articulated by pastor George Murphy in his book Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.1
Theology of the cross
Before we jump into the theological problems associated with evolution, let’s take a look at how we understand Christian theology itself. For the reformer Martin Luther, any theology (or science) that tries to reach knowledge of God apart from the cross is bad theology.2 Instead, Luther pointed to a theologia crucis, in which the true God is seen first and foremost “through suffering and the cross”. To make his point even clearer, Luther insisted that “the CROSS alone is our theology”.3 It is the lens through which we view everything.
Of course Martin Luther, having lived in the 16th century, was not aware of the vast history of life on our planet (or any other aspect of modern science, for that matter), but George Murphy draws from Luther’s teachings the foundation that all human knowledge begins with the Word made flesh and crucified.4 With the cross of Christ as the ultimate framework through which we view reality, we are bound to view the processes of nature quite differently. As Murphy explains it,
A theology of the cross is an explication of belief in a God who becomes a participant in the history of the universe and thereby shares in the suffering, loss, and death that are part of worldly experience.5
God does not sit idly by and watch unaffected as his creatures suffer, but neither does he swoop in and make everything completely effortless and easy. Instead he chose another way, the crucifixion of Jesus—certainly not the approach that we would have preferred! The apostle Peter went so far as to try to talk Jesus out of it, but he was met with a stern rebuke (Matthew 16:21-23).As humans, we are inclined to recoil in horror at the idea of God being closely associated with the death. Yet in the crucifixion we are forced to think of death and God together. Jesus himself did not draw back from immense pain and suffering, but instead works in it and through it to accomplish his plans. In the cross we learn who God is, the One who brings new life from death (and ultimately conquers death completely).6
Why is evolution so disconcerting to Christians?
The problem of suffering throughout all of human history is troubling enough for us to reconcile with a loving, personal God. But in addition to that, the discovery of vast numbers of fossils reveals that death has taken place on a far greater scale than we had ever imagined. Both the wide variety of extinct creatures and their sheer numbers is quite staggering, and it raises questions about our Creator:
The picture of a God who is immune from suffering and death but who forces organisms through millions of generations and extinction is disturbing to those who believe in a God of love.7
The mass extinction of life on earth was already well established by the early 19th century—decades before Darwin’s research—and extinction can be empirically verified independent of any theory of evolution.8 The fact that the earth’s crust is a veritable graveyard of long-lost creatures is deeply troubling, and as late as the 1790’s, distinguished intellectuals such as Thomas Jefferson denied the very possibility of extinction.9
But in addition to the reality of species extinction, the theory of evolution by natural selection proposes that new species also arise in an environment containing widespread pain and death. Both the creatures that are now living and those that are gone are tainted by an “acrid smell of death”.10 It makes us wonder, if our Creator is not the God of the dead, but of the living (Mk. 12:27), where is God’s presence in the evolutionary picture?
In all honesty, creation through evolution is not what we would expect from God, but Scripture is full of examples in which God acts in unexpected ways. After all, God’s choosing to undergo an agonizing death on a cross is not what we would expect from the all-powerful Creator of the universe, either. In both cases, new life comes about through pain, suffering, and death. As George Murphy puts it,
A priori ideas about God have to be overcome, and God's character has to be learned from God's self-revelation.11
God’s fullest self-expression is in Jesus Christ himself, one who is intimately familiar with and personally endured creaturely pain and death. The theology of the cross reveals that God's self-revelation takes place in situations of suffering, loss, and apparent hopelessness, much like situations that occur through natural selection.12
The crucifixion is disconcerting too
Not only is creation through evolution an unexpected and unsettling process, but so is the crucifixion of Jesus! Killing someone by hanging them on a cross is an unbearably painful, prolonged, humiliating form of death. It was such a horrific type of public execution that it wasn't until after the Roman Empire stopped the practice of crucifixion—and people no longer witnessed it personally—did the cross become a visual object of devotion.13 Our culture is sufficiently removed from crucifixion that we are desensitized to its original significance, but to connect it to our current context, imagine the reaction you would get by wearing jewelry designed to look like an electric chair.14
Once we are more attuned to the brutality of crucifixion, it seems all the more striking that the cross is the sign of God’s work, what George Murphy calls “the trademark of God”.15 The suffering and death of Jesus is featured prominently in the Gospels, but the crucifixion-resurrection pattern is strongly resonant within the Old Testament, too. Israel suffered and toiled as slaves in Egypt for centuries before they were rescued in the Exodus, bringing life to a people who were spiritually dead. Centuries later, the nation of Israel would experience death again when the Babylonians destroyed the Davidic monarchy, burned their Temple, killed their people, and sent many into exile.16 Neither Israel (God’s chosen people) nor Jesus (God’s own son) were spared from death and suffering; rather, suffering seems to have been the way in which God re-forms and renews humanity to fully bear His own image.
Redemption extends to all of creation
Fortunately, God’s story does not end with death. God gives new life after his creatures have been subjected to terrible circumstances. Redemption was promised to Israel itself—Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones describes how God would renew His chosen people (Ezek 37:1-14). Later, the astonishing resurrection of Jesus made salvation possible not only for Jews, but for all people in Christ (Gal 3:26-29). Ultimately, the New Testament makes it clear that God’s renewal will encompass the entire Creation:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:8-10)
Christians are accustomed to thinking of the death of Christ in regard to humans, but our culture rarely acknowledges God plan for the redemption of His entire creation. This is partly attributable to the fact that discussions of creation and origins are often separated from the topic of salvation.17 In doing so we tend to marginalize Jesus as we argue about Genesis. Rather than fall into this trap, if we view nature through a theology of the cross, we will see Christ as both the alpha and the omega point in discussions of life’s history and life’s future. With this perspective, we are more apt to sense our solidarity with the rest of creation as we wait in eager anticipation of a glorious future:
The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19-21)
As part of the Church’s conversation about the problem of natural evil, this essay is meant to be a brief introduction to a “theology of the cross”. One can explore this concept in greater detail in Murphy’s book The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross. While there is a lot more to be said, let me conclude with the following observation: though evolution may not be compatible with some interpretations of Christianity, evolutionary creation is certainly compatible with the crucified Christ and the theology of the cross. In the person of Jesus, God suffers with the world and ultimately redeems it. As George Murphy puts in, “The world's pains are God's stigmata.”18
Explore this Topic Further
- Miller, Keith. “And God saw that it was good”: Death and Pain in the Created Order. BioLogos series
- Murphy, George L. The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2003.
- Murphy, George L. “Cross, Evolution, and Theodicy: Telling It Like It Is”. In The Evolution of Evil. Edited by G. Bennett, M.J. Hewlett, T. Peters, and R.J. Russell. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2008.
- Southgate, Christopher. The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008.
1. Murphy, George L. The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2003.
2. Murphy, p34
3. “CRUX Sola Est Nostra Theologia,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesammtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Boehlau, 1892), 5:172. The captitalization is in the original. Cited in Murphy, p26.
4. Murphy, p108
5. Murphy, p4
6. Murphy, p43
7. Murphy, p3
8. Some Christians ascribe animal death to some combination of Adam’s fall and Noah’s flood, but this does not resolve the problem that the animals are still suffering and dying through no fault of their own. See Keith Miller’s BioLogos series Death and Pain in the Created Order for the limitations inherent in a fall-based theodicy.
9. Rudwick, Martin. The meaning of fossils: Episodes in the history of paleontology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985.
10. See Jeff Schloss’ BioLogos essay Evolution, Creation, and the Sting of Death
11. Murphy, p63
12. Murphy, p122
13. Murphy, p27
14. This example is drawn from an evangelical outreach event held by a Christian student group in Innsbruck, Austria. On campus one day, they started conversations with their classmates by asking the question, “Would you wear an electric chair on your neck?”
15. Murphy, George L. The Trademark of God: A Christian Course in Creation, Evolution, and Salvation. Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1986.
16. Murphy, Cosmos in the Light of the Cross, p 31-32.
17. Murphy, p35
18. Murphy, p87