The Theological Dilemma of Evolution, Part 1
While Evangelical Christians in the scientific community tend to accept the theory of evolution in large numbers, those outside the scientific community still overwhelmingly reject it. The psychology of why people believe what they do is complex, but in the case of believers who choose to accept or reject the theory of evolution, one’s Christian community plays a large role in that decision.
For instance, Christians who work as professional biologists, paleontologists, zoologists, geneticists or geologists don’t have the luxury of avoiding the theological implications of common descent. While creationist ministries require their scientists to sign statements of faith that reject evolution, Christians in the professional community can’t impose special filters on the data or let their personal biases influence how the data is interpreted. Ignoring inconvenient facts and hand-picking specific data sets are considered highly unethical practices in the professional scientific community.
To perform their jobs faithfully and maintain the highest standards of professional integrity, these Christians must examine the data objectively and try to make some theological sense of it. They build networks of like-minded individuals, like the American Scientific Affiliation, where the theological challenges of evolution can be freely and openly explored. But if the Bible says in the opening chapters of Genesis that God created all living just as they are today, why should the average churchgoer believe otherwise?
Unlike those in the scientific community who must examine the data that support evolution, most Christians simply have no compelling reason to venture that far out of their theological comfort zones. Unless pastors and theologians can create “safe places” within the Church where bible-believing Christians can come together and openly discuss these things, the majority of Christians will never consider evolution as a possible means by which God could have created all living things.
So the real challenge for Christians in the scientific community is not, “how can we write better books about evolution and get them into the hands of our fellow Christians” but rather, “how do we convince pastors, theologians and seminary professors to facilitate an honest and open dialogue about the same data that so many believers who work in the natural sciences are forced to wrestle with on a daily basis?”
The first thing that Christians in the scientific community should do is acknowledge that the theory of evolution does present significant problems for certain theological traditions For people within such traditions, waving one’s hand like a Jedi master while saying, “Genesis must be allegorical” is not going to cut it. A scientist who does that is being every bit as insensitive as the non-scientist who flippantly boasts, “There are no transitional fossils” to the paleontologist.
I’m not saying that these theological problems are insurmountable within these traditions, but they are far from trivial. You can bet that Christian pastors and theologians are deeply aware of the serious issues that must be dealt with if the theory of evolution is true. But what most of them fail to realize is this: given the various sets of data that all seem to converge on the evolutionary scenario, they’ve also got some significant theological problems if the theory of evolution is false (we’ll examine this side of the dilemma in part 2 of this series). So when it comes to evolution, ignorance is not bliss. We can’t just avoid the difficult questions by simply rejecting evolution or pretending that “real science” does not support it.
The various sets of data that support common descent, by their very existence, create a theological dilemma for some that must be addressed one way or the other. Evolution must be true or false – and there are consequences either way. But here is the good news: before pastors, theologians and seminary professors can deal effectively with this dilemma, they must first wrestle with the data itself – something that they might not be willing to do if convinced they can avoid controversy altogether by simply rejecting the scientific consensus on origins.
Most evangelicals are already familiar with the theological consequences that would arise by validating evolution. The most serious of these is based on the narrative link between Adam and Christ. For instance, the Old Testament genealogies make it clear that there was a definite blood-line between Adam and Jesus – implying that if Jesus was a historical figure, then Adam must also be a historical figure. In the New Testament, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul refer to the Adam-Christ connection as a historical reality.
There also appears to be a strong Scriptural basis for the notion that physical death and decay were a direct result of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the Apostle Paul, in Romans 8, seems to operate under the assumption that this account in Genesis 3 is literal history. And finally, the person and work of Christ in the New Testament is directly tied to the historicity of the first man, Adam in the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul makes this connection several times in Romans 5, and again in I Corinthians 15.
These are the issues that usually keep pastors and theologians from even considering the scientific case for evolution. In part 2 of this post, we’ll look at the other side of the theological dilemma. What are the theological consequences that would arise from evolution being false or physically impossible?
Gordon J. Glover holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Ocean Engineering and is the author of Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and Creation. A veteran of the U.S. Navy, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area where he works and runs the popular blog, "Beyond the Firmament".