Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 1

| By Tim Keller

The six-part series that begins today is taken from a paper Dr. Keller presented at the first BioLogos Theology of Celebration Workshop in October of 2009. It considers three main clusters of questions lay people raise with their pastors when introduced to the teaching that biological evolution and biblical orthodoxy can be compatible. As a pastor and evangelist himself, Keller takes these concerns seriously and offers suggestions for addressing them without requiring believers adopt a particular view or accept a definitive answer. In this first installment, Keller gives an overview of the tension between biblical and scientific accounts on origins, before addressing the specific issues and responses in subsequent posts.

What's the Problem?

Many secular and many evangelical voices agree on one ‘truism’—that if you are an orthodox Christian with a high view of the authority of the Bible, you cannot believe in evolution in any form at all. New Atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins and creationist writers such as Ken Ham seem to have arrived at consensus on this, and so more and more in the general population are treating it as given. If you believe in God, you can’t believe in evolution. If you believe in evolution, you can’t believe in God.

This creates a problem for both doubters and believers. Many believers in western culture see the medical and technological advances achieved through science and are grateful for them. They have a very positive view of science. How then, can they reconcile what science seems to tell them about evolution with their traditional theological beliefs? Seekers and inquirers about Christianity can be even more perplexed. They may be drawn to many things about the Christian faith, but, they say, “I don’t see how I can believe the Bible if that means I have to reject science.”

However, there are many who question the premise that science and faith are irreconcilable. Many believe that a high view of the Bible does not demand belief in just one account of origins. They argue that we do not have to choose between an anti-science religion or an anti-religious science.1 They think that there are a variety of ways in which God could have brought about the creation of life forms and human life using evolutionary processes, and that the picture of incompatibility between orthodox faith and evolutionary biology is greatly overdrawn.2

For example, there have been a number of efforts to argue that there may be evolutionary reasons for religious belief. That is, it may be that capacity for religious belief is ‘adaptive’ or is connected to other adaptive traits, passed down from our ancestors because they supported survival and reproduction. There is no consensus about this among evolutionary biologists. Nevertheless, its very proposal seems to be completely antithetical to any belief that God is objectively real. However, Christian philosopher Peter van Inwagen asks:

Suppose that God exists and wants supernaturalistic belief to be a human universal, and sees (he would see this if it were true) that certain features would be useful for human beings to have— useful from an evolutionary point of view: conducive to survival and reproduction—would naturally have the consequence that supernaturalistic belief would be in due course a human universal. Why shouldn’t he allow those features to be the cause of the thing he wants?—rather as the human designer of a vehicle might use the waste heat from its engine to keep its passengers warm.3

Van Inwagen’s argument is sound. Even if science could prove that religious belief has a genetic component that we inherit from our ancestors, that finding is not incompatible with belief in the reality of God or even the truth of the Christian faith. There is no logical reason to preclude that God could have used evolution to predispose people to believe in God in general so that people would be able to consider true belief when they hear the gospel preached. This is just one of many places where the supposed incompatibility of orthodox faith with evolution begins to fade away under more sustained reflection.

However, many Christian laypeople remain confused because the voices arguing that Biblical orthodoxy and evolution are mutually exclusive are louder and more prominent than any others. What will it take to help Christian laypeople see greater coherence between what science tells us about creation and what the Bible teaches us about it?

Pastors and People

In my estimation what current science tells us about evolution presents four main difficulties for orthodox Protestants. The first is in the area of Biblical authority. To account for evolution we must see at least Genesis 1 as non-literal. The questions come along these lines: what does that mean for the idea that the Bible has final authority? If we refuse to take one part of the Bible literally, why take any parts of it literally? Aren’t we really allowing science to sit in judgment on our understanding of the Bible rather than vica versa?

The second difficulty is the confusion of biology and philosophy. Many of the strongest proponents for evolution as a biological process (such as Dawkins) also see it as a ‘Grand Theory of Everything.’ They look to natural selection to explain not only all human behavior but even to give the only answers to the great philosophical questions, such as why we exist, what life is about, and why human nature is what it is. Doesn’t belief in the one idea—that life is the product of evolution—entail the adoption of this whole ‘world -view’?

The third difficulty is the historicity of Adam and Eve. One way to reconcile what current science says about evolution is to propose that the account of Adam and Eve is symbolic, not literal, but what does this do to the New Testament teaching of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 that our sinfulness comes from our relationship with Adam? If we don’t believe in an historical fall, how did we become what the Bible says we are—sinful and condemned?

The fourth difficulty is the problem of violence and evil. One of the greatest barriers to belief in God is the problem of suffering and evil in the world. Why, people ask, did God create a world in which violence, pain, and death are endemic? The answer of traditional theology is—he didn’t. He created a good world but also gave human beings free will, and through their disobedience and ‘Fall’, death and suffering came into the world. The process of evolution, however, understands violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops. If God brings about life through evolution, how do we reconcile that with the idea of a good God? The problem of evil seems to be worse for the believer in theistic evolution.

I have been a pastor for almost 35 years, and during that time I’ve spoken to many laypeople who struggle with the relationship of modern science to orthodox belief. In the minds of most laypeople, it is the first three difficulties that loom largest. The fourth difficulty—the problem of suffering and death—has not been posed to me as often by parishioners. Yet in some ways the problem of suffering goes along with the third question regarding the historicity of the Fall. Without the traditional view of the historicity of the Fall, the question of evil would seem to become more acute.

Therefore, below I will lay out three basic problems that Christian laypeople have with the scientific account of biological evolution. Nothing here should be seen as meeting the need for rigorous, scholarly arguments in answer to these questions. These are popular-level pastoral answers and guidance. As a pastor I have had to draw heavily on the work of experts. The first question, about Biblical authority, requires that I draw on the best work of exegetes and Biblical scholars. To answer the second question, about evolution as a ‘Grand Theory of Everything,’ I need to draw on the work of philosophers. When we come to the third question regarding Adam and Eve, I must look to theologians.

In short, if I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians and then interpret them for my people. Someone might counter that this is too great a burden to put on pastors, that instead they should simply refer their laypeople to the works of scholars. But if pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it? This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.

Next week, Keller begins to unpack the individual questions, beginning with how we can understand evolution in relation to a literal reading of the Bible.


1. A good popular level book by a scientist is Denis Alexander, aptly titled: Creation or Evolution-do we have to choose? (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2008.)
2. See Christian Smith, ed. The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (University of California Press, 2003.) and Rodney Stark For the Glory of God : how monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery (Princeton: 2003.) 
3. Peter van Inwagen, “Explaining Belief in the Supernatural”, in J.Schloss and M.Murray, ed. The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion. (Oxford, 2009) p.136.


About the Author

Tim Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue ofNew York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of such New York Times bestselling books as The Reason for God and Prayer. He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start over 250 churches in global cities worldwide. He lives in New York City with his wife Kathy.