Recently, Jim Stump and I were in Atlanta for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). It’s a great place to get the pulse of the evangelical conversation on all sorts of issues, including origins. The highlight of the week for us was a session on genetics and evolution featuring our own Darrel Falk and Answers in Genesis geneticist Nathaniel Jeanson. But in this post, I want to reflect on the many interesting conversations Jim and I had with people who came to the BioLogos booth in the exhibition hall, and what it says about the state of the origins debate among Evangelicals.
The great majority of the people who came to the booth—mostly pastors, Christian academics, and graduate students—had heard of BioLogos. This was a massive change even from last year’s ETS conference. Sometimes, sitting here in front of a computer, I can lose a sense of how much BioLogos is impacting the evangelical conversation on faith and science, but it’s fantastic to see our influence firsthand. Among those who had heard of us, a majority didn’t agree with our position. However, even among these people, we heard many varieties of the following statement: “I can’t support evolutionary creationism, but I understand your position and I appreciate your contribution to the conversation.”
Whenever we heard this, Jim and I traded huge smiles, because this is exactly what we want to accomplish at BioLogos. Of course, we’d love for everyone to embrace an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation because we think it is true, but we fully understand that for conservative Evangelicals, this is a long-term proposition. In the meantime, we count it a huge victory for the BioLogos perspective to be understood and respected as a legitimate position for evangelical Christians to hold.
After the initial excitement, Jim and I would then ask what issues or objections people had to evolutionary creationism. The answers were diverse and interesting. Below are the top 5, with a brief summary of what we would offer in response.
A plain reading of the Bible doesn’t allow for it
We actually didn’t hear this objection as much as you might think, given the conservative crowd (although our sample size is not scientific; people weren’t forced to talk to us). But a fair number of folks who stopped at the booth—especially those who identified themselves as “biblical” (i.e. young-earth) creationists—didn’t see how evolution could mesh with a plain or literal reading of Genesis 1-4. To this, we responded, “what do you mean by a plain/literal reading?” We pressed people to clarify which parts of Genesis they were reading plainly and which they weren’t. For instance, we asked whether the reverse order of creation in Genesis 2 is meant to be read as plainly as Genesis 1, or how exactly a “plain” reading of the imagery of these chapters always equated to a journalistic historical account rather than a figurative one.
I also pointed out to several people that the early chapters of Genesis include a number of “plain” references to nature itself responding fruitfully to God’s creative word, which resonates well with an evolutionary account of creation. A great example is Genesis 1:24, when God commands the earth to bring forth plants and animals. I noted to people that this is much different than the sort of “God-snaps-his-fingers-and-it-happens” pictures of creation that are common among Evangelicals. I would never argue that Genesis is trying to tell us about evolutionary science—that would be reading things into the chapter that it wasn’t intended to communicate—but I wanted to show people that a biblical theology of creation permitted and even encouraged an evolutionary picture of origins.
As a side note, I’m floored by how many people cited the books of John Walton as helping move them toward a better understanding of the earlier chapters of Genesis. It was hard to find people who hadn’t heard of Walton or read his books.
Evolution makes it difficult to understand Adam, the Fall, and sin (and thus the work of Christ)
I have a joke that the three most controversial topics in the origins conversations are Adam, Adam, and Adam. This is why Human Origins gets its own section of our Common Questions pages. People who stopped at our booth brought up all sorts of tough questions related to human ancestry and the Bible. What we generally tried to do in response to Adam questions was to highlight the diversity of positions held by people in the BioLogos community. Some hold to a historical Adam who had a representative role, while others see him primarily as a symbolic figure. What creates space for these perspectives is a common belief among evolutionary creationists that the accounts in Genesis 2-4 are not meant to give us a journalistically precise picture of the material/biological origins of humanity.
We also universally affirmed that all humans have the image of God, but are in need of redemption due to sin. I often used the analogy of childbirth to explain how this works from an evolutionary perspective. Every human starts as a clump of cells that—with the exception of the severely impaired—develops into a complex being capable of free choices, which inevitably includes choosing the wrong path. And, impaired or not, all humans are made in God’s image and ultimately reflect him. How (and when) exactly do all these things take place? It’s very difficult to say, and studying the processes of human development from multiple angles can help us shed new light. But in the meantime, we affirm these things to be true of all humans. I would argue that evolution can be viewed similarly (although, like all metaphors, it’s not a perfect comparison).
For those who struggled to understand how “the Fall” could make sense in light of evolution, I attempted to show how the goodness of Creation does not mean that it was an exact replica of Heaven at any point. The idea that all death and suffering and “natural evil” of any sort are the result of a primal sin act is based on a relatively recent interpretation of the Bible’s story that mis-reads several verses in Romans and applies certain assumptions of what “very good” creation is supposed to look like. For more on this, read the excellent article “God’s Good Chaos.”
Micro-Evolution is fine, but Macro-Evolution is just an unproven, unscientific theory
A lot of Evangelicals are convinced that common descent of all life is categorically different than “micro” evolution. Many people we talked to at ETS said that they have no problem with evolution creating new species, but they find it ridiculous that humans came from amoebas. This is exactly what I was taught growing up, so I completely understand where they are coming from. As a non-scientist, these questions were harder for me to answer, but I generally responded by showing them the sorts of evidence that evolutionary scientists use to put together a picture of common descent. Whale evolution, in particular, is a great go-to example of an “impossible” transition being accomplished through small changes over a long time span.
To put it bluntly, Evangelicals—more than any other religious group—have ingested a steady diet of scientific misinformation about evolution, so I’m not surprised to hear that educated, thoughtful evangelical Christians have honestly never heard about how evolutionary science actually works. I personally didn’t know any actual evidence existed for common descent until high school. It’s also the fault of poor science education in many places. I think this is an area where BioLogos can make a massive contribution to the Christian conversation, simply because there’s such a huge lack of understanding.
For more on this, our “What is evolution?” page is a good launching point.
Creation bears the marks of Intelligent Design, not blind, purposeless evolution
Many of the people who raised this sort of objection were quick to point that they weren’t dogmatic on the age of the Earth or other issues of biblical interpretation, but they still felt that evolution puts God out of a job. Doesn’t the whole creation look designed? I think many people were confused by how much I agreed with them. I think God is intelligent, and he’s the designer of the universe. And I think creation—particularly complex life forms—does indeed show the marks of his design. And I don’t think evolution is a blind, random, purposeless process. But for many people, the only way to conceive of this design is by positing certain acts of “intervention” by God that override natural processes. I tried to show them that this is a false choice.
The example I often used was of human fetal development. In several places, the Bible insists strongly that God is actively involved in creating all humans (Psalm 139:13). But yet nobody feels the need to hypothesize about when and how God “intervenes” to accomplish this, on a biological level. We accept by faith that God’s creative activity works alongside what we think of as “natural” processes without demanding scientific evidence that it happens. I simply asked people to consider whether that metaphor could be applied more broadly to the development of all life.
Here’s another way to look at it: there’s a big difference between a “natural” process and “naturalistic” process. If God is really the sovereign creator and sustainer of all things in his world, then there is no such thing as “naturalistic” process which doesn’t involve him. This doesn’t mean that God and nature are the same thing, and I do think the creature/Creator distinction is vital. But we also shouldn’t make the opposite mistake of putting “natural” in opposition to “designed”, as if God’s hand is only present when he’s tinkering with his own creation. This is not the biblical witness, and we would do well to re-examine the categories we’ve set up for God’s action in the world.
Evolution is driven by a secular, worldly agenda
Speaking of the difference between science and cultural categories…this final point is a conglomeration of a lot of conversations. It’s more of my own intuition of what really drives the evangelical discomfort with evolution, on a deep level. We pride ourselves on being pure and unstained by the world, and we’ve been successfully convinced by many people that evolution is first and foremost a “secular”, “worldly” belief system and not a scientific theory backed by mountains of real evidence. A couple of people repeatedly tried to correct me when I called myself a “creationist”, one of whom got quite emotional about it. For them, calling yourself an “evolutionary creationist” is like saying you’re a “secular Christian”. At best, it smacks of compromise. At worst…well, you get the point.
This is another place where I surprised people with how much I agreed with them. I absolutely think that atheistic, materialistic ideas are rampant in the scientific world, and we need to stand firm against the attempt to reduce all reality to the physical and material—especially when atheism masquerades as good science. But it doesn’t logically follow that evolutionary science must be a massive, worldwide conspiracy wherein all evidence for evolution is nothing but fabrication and blind guesses. On origins, Evangelicals have too often thrown out the baby with the bathwater. What we need instead is to carefully examine the evidence on its own merits, rather than automatically assigning labels and ideologies to it. Otherwise, we run the risk of standing in opposition to legitimate discoveries about the world God has created.
I’m fully aware that what we’re suggesting at BioLogos is a paradigm shift for many Evangelicals. But I like to keep pointing to the numerous faithful, devout, thoughtful Christians who have found harmony between evolutionary science (not evolutionism) and God’s Word. We had pictures of N.T. Wright and Tim Keller on our banner at the booth as two great examples—and that’s just the beginning of the list. At the end of the day, I sometimes had to say to people, “look, I understand that this is challenging stuff and you are going to disagree with our perspective. But at least accept that there are good Christians out there who are evolutionary creationists and remain good Christians.” If our interactions at ETS signify anything, I think the conversation is moving in that direction, and that’s something to be excited about.