My colleague Brad Kramer recently published a blog post discussing 5 common objections to evolutionary creation, covering biblical, theological, and scientific issues. In Chapter 6 of David Fergusson’s book Creation, which I’ve been reflecting on in this series of blog posts, he gives four specifically theological challenges with which theologians have wrestled since Darwin introduced his theory.
Evolution makes God remote from the cosmos.
The argument is: If there is a scientific explanation for what we once thought God accomplished supernaturally (namely, the creation of species or groups of species), then doesn’t God’s action seem redundant? This is a fairly common worry that people have about evolution, but it betrays a significant confusion that persists in thinking about God’s relationship to the things he creates. The argument itself is actually an example of the conclusion it is trying to avoid. It has framed the God/creation relationship in stark either/or terms: either God did it, or it happened by natural mechanisms.
But way before Darwin, we understood lots of natural mechanisms for things, from seeds growing into plants, to laws according to which the planets stay in motion, to where babies come from! Do these scientific explanations make God remote? The Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries may have sparked a new explosion of scientific explanations, but it was hardly the beginning of our knowledge of natural things. If we are holding on to the special creation of species in order to keep God involved in the world, we’re already playing the wrong game. In the 19th century, Aubrey Moore realized this, saying:
“The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if he would be thrust out all together Darwinism appeared, and under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or he is nowhere.” (Lux Mundi, 1891, p. 73)
I think the proper response to this objection comes in understanding the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Fergusson devoted an earlier chapter to it (and I commented about it here). Essentially the doctrine articulates the ongoing dependence of the created order on the Creator. So whether God brings something about naturally or supernaturally, he is intimately involved in all the operations of creation.
Evolution is governed by chance, so God cannot exercise providential control.
Fergusson’s chapter 4 was on providence (covered in this series here), and there is much there that is relevant for defending God’s providence. But in this chapter, Fergusson specifically focuses on chance as inherent to evolution.
Here’s one way to respond: From the perspective of scientific explanation, things look to be random; it only follows from this that things really are random if you believe that the scientific explanation tells the whole story about reality. We Christians don’t (or at least shouldn’t) accept that. So there is room to affirm God’s action in what looks random to science (for example, within the quantum indeterminacies or chaotic processes, as advocated by Robert Russell and John Polkinghorne respectively). You can go so far as to say that God controls everything in this way and science just can’t detect his action.
Another way of responding to this objection is to accept that there is genuine randomness in the world, but argue that evolution on the whole is decidedly non-random, and thus amenable to God’s providential guidance. There is directionality to evolution, with progressively more complex creatures appearing. And expanding evolution beyond the development of life, we see that the created order is not static. Things were not created once and for all in some enduring state, and thus an evolving creation more clearly reflects the guiding and providential hand of God, just as we recognize it in human history. Fergusson says,
“After Darwin, theologians could see the world of nature as having a history, as being constantly in the process of making. It had a narrative shape that could increasingly be detected by advances in the natural sciences. Like history, therefore, nature was a work in progress, a site under construction in which God could bee seen as a sustaining, creative, guiding presence” (84).
Evolution exacerbates the problem of suffering.
Notice that this objection is not that evolution causes the problem of suffering. That’s been around as long as there is recorded history. But for much of Christian history, a fairly straightforward answer was imposed on the problem: the Fall. I say “imposed” because it is not clear at all that such an answer is found in Scripture. It is not uncommon to hear well-meaning Christians today asserting that there was no death or suffering of any kind (even mosquitoes!) before the first human sin. But that is just foreign to the witness of Scripture. God doesn’t answer Job from the whirlwind saying, “If only your great great grandfather Adam hadn’t eaten that piece of fruit, you wouldn’t be suffering any of this.” And in Job and the Psalms God seems proud of the world he has created which includes fierce animal predation. Even from Paul, it is quite a stretch to treat the classic proof text for “no death before the Fall” in Romans 5 as relating to anything but human death (and even then, it must be understood with Genesis 3 where “you will surely die” doesn’t mean they die!).
That answer may have served Christians for a time, but now with the evolutionary understanding of natural history, it is no longer available to us to impose on the problem. There were vast ages in which life forms came to be and ceased to exist–sometimes, undoubtedly, attended by much suffering. What does this say about nature of the Creator?
Furthermore, the author of Genesis 1 seems to understand that God did not create things in the state he ultimately intended for them. God’s first command to the humans he created was to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28). Why not just create the world already filled and subdued? God seems to value not just the end product but the process of teasing order out of chaos (or complete being from non-being). We’ve got to recalibrate our theology from thinking that God would only create things in a perfect state. Scripture does not claim this, and what we learn from general revelation confirms the earth did not exist in such a state.
Evolution is a threat to human significance.
Because evolution asserts that humans have a shared ancestry with other life on earth, some people feel there could be nothing special about humans. But it just doesn’t follow that if species today are related, there can be no significant differences. Because baseball and cricket both developed from an older game with a bat and ball, it doesn’t mean cricket and baseball are really the same. Or perhaps more relevantly, many who assert there to be definitive gender roles also believe that Eve was formed literally from the rib of Adam. They don’t seem to have difficulty asserting there to be a significant difference in what it is to be a woman from a man, even though they believe the original woman came from a man. It doesn’t seem to consistent to charge those of us who accept common ancestry with denying human significance because we think humans developed from non-humans.
The really hard question here is not about the difference between humans and other animals today. It’s about the transition from our non-human ancestors to image-bearing humans. One way to answer this is the homo divinus model popularized by John Stott. He thought it perfectly consistent with orthodox theology to say that at some moment in the development of the species, God “breathed his breath” into the creatures and endowed them with his image. Others think this could have been a more gradual development within the species, just like the development of moral responsibility occurs gradually within each individual. Either way, Christian theology has the resources to uphold human significance in conversation with the sciences.
Fergusson concludes this section with these thoughts:
“If the engagement with Darwinism has taught theologians one thing it might be this: the sciences must be given their place freely to investigate and hypothesize according to their methods and findings. A clearer account of the differences with theology will result in a recognition of complementarity rather than a misplaced anxiety about the directions in which science might lead us” (88-89).
There is one more chapter to go, “Animals, the Environment, and Extraterrestrials.” See you then.