How does my walk with God relate to modern scientific discoveries? Can I maintain biblical Christian faith even if I change my mind on an issue like evolution? Many Evangelicals today are pondering these questions. Finding the answers will involve more than a mere synthesis of scientific facts. We need to hear stories from others who have wrestled with evolution and Christian faith. What arguments made them change their views on science? How did they hold fast to their relationship with God? The essays in this series will eventually comprise a book, provisionally titled, “Evolving: Evangelicals Reflect on Evolution.”
Today Pastor Richard Dahlstrom stresses the importance of not adding to the Gospel by requiring a particular view of origins. Remembering that God speaks through two books—creation and the Bible—can help us to avoid setting up barriers to faith. Tomorrow, Richard will discuss the importance of “two eyes”—humility and interdependence of God’s two books.
I was talking with some people in my church recently about a significant moment that occurred when their daughter, raised in Christian schools her whole life, came home from college. She’d taken a science course at her Christian university where she encountered, for the first time, a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of evolution—and how, far from being contradictory to the Biblical accounts of creation, there were powerful markers pointing toward harmony.
As internally coherent as all this might have been in a vacuum, the entire experience was devastating to her. She met with her parents one afternoon and explained what she was learning, all of which was in contradiction to her young-earth, anti-evolutionary upbringing. Silence hung over the coffee until she asked, “What else did the church lie to me about?”
Her parents are thankful she was willing to have the conversation. Among 18- to 30-year-olds—the most rapidly declining demographic in the American church—the contradiction between faith and science is cited as one of the main reasons for departure from the faith. It’s as if the church has created a “Y” in the road: intellectual integrity one way; faith the other way. Thousands stand at this crossroads the church has unwittingly created and walk away from their faith. The greatest tragedy of this departure is that the “Y” in the road is a fabrication of religionists, not a construct created by either God or the Bible.
How the church has come to this is beyond the scope of this essay; I’m not writing as a church historian. I’m also not writing as a scientist, so the particular details of DNA, evolution, and archeological evidence regarding the age of earth are beyond this essay. I write as a pastor of a church in a vibrant city filled with university students who are studying biology, physics, medicine, archeology, astronomy, and every other scientific discipline known to humanity. These students are the future, and we who are called to be the presence of Christ for them should make certain we’re following Jesus in our ministries—not the religious leaders whom Jesus confronted on a regular basis to expose the truth that they “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4) In contrast, Jesus’ “burden is light” and his followers thought it important to “lay…no greater burden than these essentials” (Acts 15:28). We must learn, both through the example of Jesus and the teachings of the early church, that it’s eminently easy “in God’s name” to demand things of people as a pre-requirement for acceptance by God—things which Christ himself never demanded. When we do this and people walk away, they’re not rejecting the gospel. They’re rejecting a caricature, and it’s we who’ll face judgment for it.
We who invite people to Christ, whether pastors, teachers, youth workers, or parents, need to be careful that we’re inviting people to Christ, not a religious system of our own fabrication. We can avoid building false walls by embracing two central principles regarding how we perceive the gospel:
1. God has spoken through two books.
Psalm 19 and 104, Romans 1 and 10, the book of Job, and the parables of Jesus: All these passages make it clear that God has spoken, not only through the scriptures, but also through creation. God has spoken so clearly that all people are “without excuse” because the evidence of God’s character is present for all to see.
In particular, Romans 1 declares that “[God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
We believe that these words from Romans 1 are true for all people, for all time—including scientists in the 21st century. When people study the stars with telescopes and the smallest elements of the universe with microscopes, then reach independent conclusions pointing in a similar direction regarding origins, we’d do well to listen. If we don’t, we’ll be forced to create our own subculture of alternative science, one that swims upstream against not one discipline, but virtually every field of science—from astronomy to geology, chemistry to biology.
I was a lay consumer of this alternative science for decades, parroting evidence I’d heard which pointed to a very young earth: there wasn’t much dust on the moon; the speed of light was slowing down; the geological strata might have happened quickly, via punctuated catastrophes; there are no transitional forms.
As a pastor whose undergraduate work was in music and architecture, I was ill-equipped to either confirm or deny these declarations. But confirm them I did, because they were offered up “in Jesus’ name,” and came with an implicit understanding that all faithful Christ-followers believe these things about origins.
“Of course they’re right,” I’d think to myself, because the truth is that this was the only view I’d heard. The insidious thing about subcultures is that they’re entirely self-referential. When we sit in a closed circle and speak only with people whose thoughts and beliefs mirror our own, we become convinced that our views are truth.
Years later, after moving to the city, I encountered thoughtful Christ-followers who believed in the risen Jesus—and in evolution. Their reasons for belief were the same in both cases: overwhelming evidence! These new friends helped me see that the precise conditions necessary for life to exist (something called “the fine tuning of the universe”) provide markers that point to something more than randomness. As Freeman Dyson, former physics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and one of the most brilliant and interesting astrophysicists living today, said, “The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.” This is just one example of how the book of creation is pointing us to the Creator.
Tomorrow Richard will share with us the “two eyes” needed for effective Christian witness—humility and interdependence between God’s two books.