Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople, Part 3

| By Tim Keller

This is the third of a six-part series considering questions lay people raise with their pastors when introduced to the teaching that biological evolution and biblical orthodoxy can be compatible. In the first and second posts, Dr. Keller gave an overview of the tension between biblical and scientific accounts on origins from a pastoral perspective and addressed the conflict between evolution and a literal reading of Genesis. In this post, he argues that an evolutionary account of origins does not necessarily diminish human dignity.

Three Questions of Christian Laypeople

Question#2: If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes, and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?

Answer: No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.

Today every effort is being made to insist that belief in the process of biological evolution leads necessarily to belief in ‘perennial naturalism’ (to use Alvin Plantinga’s term),1 the view that everything about human nature—our ability to love, act, think, form beliefs, use language, have moral convictions, put faith in God, and do art and philosophy—can all be understood as originating in random genetic mutation or some other source of variability, and prevailing in the human race today only because of natural selection. We may feel that some behaviors are universally right and should be performed, and some things universally wrong and should not be done, whether those behaviors promote your survival or not. But perennial naturalism insists that those feelings are there not because they are universally true, but only and entirely because they helped your ancestors survive.

One of the cardinal principles of the ‘new atheists’ is that perennial naturalism automatically flows from belief in the biological evolution of species. A great example was Sam Harris’ recent castigation of Francis Collins, after he was nominated to be head of NIH. Harris was deeply troubled that Collins as a Christian believer understood that human nature had aspects (such as intuition of God’s Moral Law) which science could not explain. Collins was denying, therefore, that science could provide ‘answers to the most pressing questions of human existence.’ This troubled Harris. He wrote:

“As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking… Must we really entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who sincerely believes that a scientific understanding of human nature is impossible?”2

The argument here is clear. If you believe human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes (from here on, referred to as EBP), you must therefore believe in the Grand Theory of Evolution (from here on, referred to as GTE) as the explanation for every aspect of human nature. Collins, he says, should see that human beings have no ‘immortal soul, free will, knowledge of the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism’ based on our relationship with God.3 Evolution, Harris claims, has shown that these things are illusions. All features of human life have a natural, scientifically explicable cause. If you believe in EBP, you must believe in GTE.

GTE is fast becoming what Peter Berger calls a ‘plausibility structure’. It is a set of beliefs considered so basic, and with so much support from authoritative figures and institutions, that it is becoming impossible for individuals to publicly question them. A plausibility structure is a ‘given’ supported by enormous social pressure. The writings of the new atheists here are important to observe because their attitudes are more powerful than their arguments. The disdain and refusal to show any respect to opponents is not actually an effort to refute them logically, but to ostracize them socially and turn their own views into a plausibility structure. They are well on their way.

This creates a problem for the Christian layperson if they hear their teachers or preachers telling them that God could have used EBP to bring about life forms. Evolution as a ‘Grand Theory’ is now being used at the popular level to explain nearly everything about human behavior.

Many Christian laypeople resist all this and seek to hold on to some sense of human dignity by subscribing to ‘fiat-creationism.’ This is not a sophisticated theological and philosophical move; it is intuitive. In their mind ‘evolution’ is one big ball of wax. It seems to them that, if you believe in evolution, human beings are just animals under the power of their inner, genetically-produced drives. I have seen Christians in a Bible study on Genesis 1-2 read the following quote and become confused:

"If 'evolution' is…elevated to the status of a world-view of the way things are, then there is direct conflict with biblical faith. But if 'evolution' remains at the level of scientific biological hypothesis, it would seem that there is little reason for conflict between the implications of Christian belief in the Creator and the scientific explorations of the way which--at the level of biology--God has gone about his creating processes." 4

Atkinson is saying that you can believe in EBP and not GTE. I have seen intelligent, educated laypeople really struggle with the distinction Atkinson has made. Nevertheless, this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.

How can we help them? I believe that Christian pastors, theologians, and scientists who want to argue for an EBP account of origins must put a great deal of emphasis at the same time on arguing against GTE. Christian philosophers have paved the way here and there are many good critiques of philosophical naturalism. Many know about Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism’ in which, much like C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles, he argues that “Evolution is interested (so to speak) only in adaptive behavior, not in true belief. Natural selection doesn’t care what you believe; it is interested only in how you behave.”5 The argument goes like this. Does natural selection (alone) give us cognitive faculties (sense perception, rational intuition about those perceptions, and our memory of them) that produce true beliefs about the real world? In as far as true belief produces survival behavior—yes. But who can say how far that is? If a theory makes it impossible to trust our minds, then it also makes it impossible to be sure about anything our minds tell us--including macro-evolution itself-- and everything else.6 Any theory that makes it impossible to trust our minds is self-defeating.

Another very important area where we must ‘push back’ against GTE is in its efforts to explain away moral intuitions. An excellent recent volume where, again, Christian philosophers take the lead is Jeffrey Schloss, ed.The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion (Oxford, 2009.) See especially Christian Smith’s chapter “Does Naturalism Warrant a Moral Belief in Universal Benevolence and Human Rights?” (By the way, his conclusion is ‘no.’) So what does this mean? Many orthodox Christians who believe in EBP often find themselves attacked by those Christians who do not. But it might reduce the tensions between believers over evolution if they could make common cause against GTE. Most importantly, it is the only way to help Christian laypeople make the distinction in their minds between evolution as biological mechanism and as Theory of Life.

Next week, Dr. Keller continues to explore the issues most often raised about evolution and faith by Christian laypeople, turning to questions about the origins of sin and suffering in light of the trustworthiness of Scripture.


1. Plantinga sees the two great alternatives to orthodox religious views: a) perennial naturalism—and b) creative anti-realism—the view that is often called ‘post-modernism’ or post-structuralism. See “Christian Philosophy at the End of the Twentieth Century” in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (Eerdmans, 1998.)
2. Sam Harris, “Science is in the Details”, New York Times, July 26, 2009. 
3. Ibid. 
4. David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 (The Bible Speaks Today Series), p.31. 
5. A.Plantinga, “Naturalism Defeated” 1994, available at vitual_library/articles/ plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf
6. This argument is worked out in detail in A. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford, 1993) chapter 12. Also see also William C. Davis, "Theistic Arguments", Michael J. Murray, ed. Reason for the Hope Within(Eerdmans, 1999) p. 39. 
7. Granted, often New Testament writers see Messianic meanings in Old Testament prophecies that were doubtless invisible to the OT prophets themselves. Nonetheless, while a Biblical author’s writing may have more true meanings than he intended when writing, it may not have less. That is, what the human author meant to teach us cannot be seen as mistaken or now obsolete without surrendering the traditional understanding of Biblical authority and trustworthiness.


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.