Southern Baptist Series: Evolution and the Problem of Evil

| By Steve Lemke

Today we post the seventh and final installment in our Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series and access all of the other papers here, and get an overview in Dr. Kenneth Keathley's introductory essay.

But because today's essay from Dr. Steve Lemke is the last in this nearly year-long project, and brings together many of the concerns expressed by his colleagues (not to mention many non-academic Christians), we're handling the response in a slightly different manner than we have in previous exchanges. Instead of posting a separate response essay, we've chosen to highlight how the conversation has developed over these past months by including pertinent links to previous SBV exchanges within the paper itself, and responses to Dr. Lemke's key points in the sidebar: mouse over highlighted phrases to show and hide this additional text. As BioLogos President Darrel Falk explains in his accompanying post (also published today), we think this method shows how prescient Dr. Lemke was when he wrote this paper early on in our dialogue, and how the conversation itself has suggested ways forward in many of the key areas of concern he cites. Please be sure to read Dr. Falk's series summation, as well.

Evolution and the Problem of Evil

Let me begin by expressing appreciation for the commitment and intent of BioLogos. Francis Collins was speaking at nearby Tulane University a couple of years ago when my son was a senior in high school, and I brought him along to hear this noted Christian biologist’s presentation to help prepare him for challenges he would experience (as he is now) in college. This is a tremendously valuable ministry. However, as a philosopher and a theologian I do have concerns about some of the theological implications of the BioLogos theistic evolution view, particularly regarding the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is one of the most persistent and intuitive challenges to the Christian faith and the existence of God. The classic defenses or theodicies that have been used to answer this challenge include the Freewill Defense (God is not responsible for much of evil because it is caused by the free actions of humans), the Soul Making Defense (God allows or sends some evils or suffering in order to build human character in overcoming adversity), and theEschatological Defense (although the cause of some suffering may be beyond our understanding, whatever suffering we may experience in this life cannot compare with an eternity of blessing in heaven).

These theodicies or defenses to the problem of evil, however, normally presuppose the standard view of divine creation. Were one to propose creation by means of theistic evolution, some of the presuppositions for these responses to the problem of evil no longer function. Therefore, advocating some form of theistic evolution poses problems for standard explanations of the problem of evil.

Cornelius Hunter has recently published Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil,1 an excellently researched book which re-examines Darwin’s motives for developing the theory of evolution. Hunter’s main thesis is that Darwin’s intent was not to undermine belief in the existence of God, but to afford a defense of God’s moral nature. The viciousness of nature caused Darwin and some of his contemporaries to desire to disconnect God’s role in creation from this viciousness in nature, and the blind process of natural selection is the vehicle for disassociating God from the vulgarities of nature. In essence, then, Hunter’s argument is that Darwin’s theory was a form of theodicy – sheltering God’s goodness against the accusation that He is the author of the evil in nature.

Hunter’s thesis sounds hauntingly similar to that of the early Gnostics, who sought to insulate God from the evil material world. They therefore proposed intermediary aeons, archetypes, or a demiurge to isolate the purity of God from the evil of nature. The Darwinian account sharply differs from the biblical account in at least three crucial ways:

  • The Darwinian account removes God from being directly involved in much of creation by utilizing natural processes instead, while the biblical account presents God as directly involved in the details of creation, both in the beginning and throughout history through his providential care.
  • The Darwinian account blurs the distinction between humans and other animals, while in Scripture humans are a distinctive and special creation.
  • The Darwinian account presents God as apathetic and disinterested in the moral status of animals, while the scriptural account presents God (though giving primary focus to humans) as vitally interested in the moral status of animals, and indeed for the redemption of the entire created world.

Another problem with Hunter’s thesis is that whatever Darwin’s original motivation might have been, the novelty of Hunter’s thesis underscores the fact that this is not how Darwin’s ideas predominantly have been used and understood. No one (including contemporary evolutionary biologists) seriously believes Darwin’s ideas as he presented them. Darwin’s ideas about evolution have themselves evolved. ( see Falk, Part 2) So even if Hunter’s thesis were correct about Darwin’s original motivation for the problem of natural selection, this has little relevance to contemporary evolutionary biology.

Any such Darwinian evolutionary biology also undermines classical defenses for God’s goodness. For example, the Christian group BioLogos has presented the perspective that God created all living organisms, including humans, through a gradual process that includes natural selection, group selection, genetic drift or other such physical processes, with God possibly intervening at some undefined points. While this BioLogos approach (which might be labeled a variety of “gradualism” with regard to creation) includes a role for God in creation (as opposed to pure Darwinian evolution), some of the same problems involved with the problem of evil pertain to the BioLogos view as well. In fact, the specific role that God plays in evolution remains somewhat vague and ill-defined. (see Falk, Part 1) Without BioLogos providing a clearer and more precise differentiation between itself and Darwinian evolution – and thus building a clear “Chinese wall” between their view and that of Darwinian evolution -- these views appear to be very close, and the problems that pertain to one view pertain to the other view (at least in part) as well. The following problems arise with regard to the problem of evil in relation to forms of creation by gradualism.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

First of all, it is incumbent upon a good God to produce an optimally good world. We could not necessarily expect an evil or morally mixed God to produce a good world, but we have every reason to expect a good and beneficent God (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 1:5, 4:7-8) to produce the “best of all possible worlds” (given human freewill). In the biblical account, therefore, the evil and suffering we witness in nature and in human experience is not accountable to God because of a defective process in creation, but rather it is a result of the moral Fall of the first humans and subsequent sin by their descendents. However, gradualism has no such vehicle to defend God against the accusation of being responsible for natural and physical evil and suffering. (see Applegate, Falk, and Haarsma, Part 2).

Human Distinctiveness

Second, if God created all living species, including humans, through a gradual evolutionary process that includes common descent from nonhuman primates, there is no clear line to draw a moral or spiritual distinction between humans and other living beings. (see Falk, Part 2).. Yet fundamental to any view of a moral universe is the belief that humans are created in the image of God in a way that is uniquely above all other sensate species (Ps. 8:4-8), and included in this image is our soul and our moral capacity. It is difficult to imagine how humans could receive the image of God through some sort of physical process. Instead, the Bible describes God as being directly and personally involved in creating the human soul by breathing it into mankind (Gen. 2:7). (see O’Connor, Part 1). In the specific language of the biblical account (if not to be discounted, allegorized, or completely ignored), God created human souls directly, not indirectly through some impersonal process.Gradualism offers no clear answer as to how a human soul reflecting the image of God could come about; in fact, such a unique thing in all of creation is everything but gradual or natural. (see Bishop, Part 2).

Whence Cometh Freedom?

Thirdly, even if God intervened at various points in theistic evolution to create new forms from which other species evolve, this does not afford a satisfactory account of human freewill. If humans are not a unique and distinct creation (as the biblical account makes quite clear), but are with other apes the product of a single ancestor, from whence did freewill arise? How can we account for some mutations having freewill and others not having it?

Some quasi-materialists propose some form of epiphenomenalism in which the mind emerges somewhat magically from material cells. This proposal is devoid of any convincing scientific evidence, but it is the only alternative left for materialists to espouse in order to account for some of the most basic human intuitions – that our minds are more than merely a physical organ, that our choices are genuine expressions of freewill, and that we are free moral agents who are responsible for our actions.

Evolutionary biology has no scientific evidence to respond to these basic human intuitions other than to assert that “there is no ghost in the machine” and that any apparent choices are actually mechanical outworking of hard determinism predetermined by prior physical causes. (see O’Connor, Part 2). Therefore, if human choices are merely illusions, humans cannot be held morally accountable, all blame and responsibility reverts back to the God who created this world.

The Problem of Pain

Fourth, gradualism has no moral explanation for animal pain. If humans are the product of an earlier ancestor, it may have taken thousands or millions of years for life to evolve to that point, or for humans to evolve from an earlier primate ancestor. How can the pain of these creatures (some of them quasi-human or proto-human) be justified? (see Schloss, Part 2) This is specifically the issue that worries many Christian ethicists about cloning. Each experiment in animal cloning has produced hundreds of “monsters” before the clone is successful. What if we were cloning humans? What would be the moral implications of creating hundreds of “monsters” just to develop one clone?

The unanimous view is that this would be morally unjustifiable, but this is uncannily similar to the notion of creating animals who suffer for millions of years before evolution finally produced humans. (see Schloss, Part 3) In the biblical creation accounts, pain and suffering comes into the world after the Fall and as a result of the Fall of the earliest humans, and thus God is absolved of direct responsibility for this pain. In this gradualist account, pain and suffering precede the Fall. Millions of generations of sensate beings would have suffered and died before the Garden of Eden. Why would God allow this suffering of innocents for millions of years? (see Schloss, Part 3)

Ironically, Hunter’s Darwinian explanation in Darwin’s God doesn’t work for the BioLogos perspective at this point, because God is somewhat more directly involved at several steps in creation than in the purely Darwinian perspective, so it is God who must shoulder the blame for this undeserved pain. (see Schloss, Part 2)

Another attempt to affirm a gradualist view of creation in which pain preceded the creation of humans was by William Dembski, who in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World2 proposed that the animal world existed in pain for millennia before the creation of humans, and thus the pain of these animals was applied retroactively from the later Fall (pp. 9-10). This proposal was not well received by many in the evangelical world because it depicts God causing pain to sensate beings even before the cause of the pain took place, and Dembski ultimately felt compelled to post a clarification of his views.3 So, the reality of animal pain before the Fall in the gradualist account of creation heightens the problem of evil rather than resolving it.

Death and the Nature of God

Fifth, in orthodox Christian theology, death is seen as the ultimate punishment for the Fall of Adam and Eve. There was a time of created goodness from when humankind has fallen. All human suffering, animal suffering, natural disasters, and death was ultimately the result of the God’s punishment for human sin, the curse after the Fall as described in Genesis 3. (see Schloss, Part 1)

However, in the gradualist evolutionary account, there is no Fall.(see Applegate, Falk, and Haarsma, Part 2).If anything, there is a “rise,” as human beings “come of age” and become morally responsible at some point in the process of evolution from prehuman primates. There are multiple problems with this proposal from a theological perspective:

  • It is one thing to apply symbolic interpretations to the first three chapters of Genesis; it is another to eliminate the historical reality of the Fall altogether.(see Applegate, Falk, and Haarsma, Part 2). .
  • In the biblical view of creation, God creates humans in a paradisical Eden, and humans are ejected from Eden after their sin. In the gradualist view,(see Applegate, Falk, and Haarsma, Part 2). there never was an Eden, and humans never enjoyed the kind of original created goodness described in Scripture.
  • In the biblical view of creation, separation from God and death are the punishments for human sin. In the gradualist view, there never was an Edenic paradise, and persons were created to die. Sin has no real causal connection with physical death. (see Schloss, Part 1)
  • In the biblical view of creation, humans were created “a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). In the gradualist view, humans emerged from previously created nonhuman primates. This is a profound re-envisioning and diminishment of the Christian anthropology found in the Bible. (see Falk, Part 2)
  • The Bible describes God creating a beautiful paradisicial Eden with sinless humans, which was lost only because of human rebellion and sin. The gradualist account posits God creating a substandard world that had to evolve to reach even the sad levels of contemporary life. This imperfect creation reflects on the nature of God. Why would a perfectly good God create such an imperfect world? Why or how could a moral God create humans to be already fallen? Orthodox Christian theology affirms that God is already perfect in all His attributes, and does not evolve or change in His essence. The theology more apposite to the gradualist account is Process Theology, in which evolution in creation mirrors evolution within God himself, as he moves from a powerful but imperfect being toward a more perfect being. In fact, Process Theology was designed with a view to harmonizing Christian theology with evolutionary presuppositions. But Process Theology is not held to be orthodox by most evangelical Christians, particularly with regard the nature and perfection of God.

At the core of the Christian worldview is the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption. The evolutionary gradualist perspective radically rewrites this standard Christian account by essentially merging the creation and fall into a single event. Humans were created as finite and fallen, not placed in a paradise with created righteousness. This gradualist approach squares well with an evolutionary account, but it does not square well with the biblical creation accounts in Scripture.


About the Author

Steve Lemke

Dr. Steve Lemke is Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he occupies the McFarland Chair of Theology. He is also Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.