Can I believe in God and accept evolution? That depends on what God you have in mind. The Christian answer is that God makes himself known to faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The true God participates in creation, suffering and dying for it. Yet God is hidden from observation, for the cross looks nothing like our expectations of deity.
God’s typical way of working bears the mark of “emptying,” or self-limitation, of the incarnation (Philippians 2:7). God works in the world with creatures as “instruments,” limiting himself to the capabilities of natural processes – what we call laws of nature. (Thus scientific study of the world is possible.) Because we observe God’s instruments and not the one using them, they also mask God. He is concealed from observation in creation, just as on the cross.
This also helps us to understand why scripture makes statements about the world that science has shown to be incorrect, like the “dome” over the earth (Genesis 1:6-8). In inspiring biblical writers, the Holy Spirit respected their limited knowledge of the world. We will see an important example of this in the relationship between sin and death.
Evolution can be understood as God’s creative work through natural processes, within the context of belief that the triune God is the source of all that is. It poses no challenge to the Christian doctrine of creation.
Evolution does raise tough questions about human nature, however. Natural selection favored some selfish behavior in our pre-human ancestors, and tendencies for deception, sexual promiscuity, and violence were passed on to us. That challenges ideas about humanity’s “original righteousness,” a challenge intensified by genetic evidence that the first human population was considerably greater than two. It’s hard to retain a picture of descent from a literal Adam and Eve who were created in moral perfection but chose to disobey God.
Sin isn’t essential to being human. Jesus Christ is fully human, and Paul tells us that while “for our sake” God “made him to be sin,” he “knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). But all other people are sinners. In Romans 3:23 Paul concluded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We share in a sinful condition of failure to trust in God above all else.
Why is humanity in this state if it didn’t have to be? It’s natural to look to the early chapters of Genesis for an answer. But they have been read in different ways by the western and eastern parts of the church.
In the west, Augustine saw unaided human inability to trust or love God as a condition that goes back to conception. It is an “original sin” with which each person begins life. Augustine traced this condition to a sin that was “original” in another sense, that of Eve and Adam. There was an abrupt fall from flawless heights to depths of depravity, and its effects were transmitted to the whole human race.
An eastern church bishop, Irenaeus, gave a different picture. He thought that God created Adam and Eve good but immature, expecting humanity to develop. Adam’s sin was “childish” and its effects not as serious as Augustine thought.
The first chapters of Genesis are religious statements about our relationships with God. Adam and Eve can be seen as theological representations of the first hominids with whom God communicated. Irenaeus’ interpretation provides a helpful way of thinking about human origins. It is open to evolutionary thought and true to the biblical statement that God’s creation was “very good,” not “perfect.”
God intended humanity to develop, but sin distorts that development. We took the wrong road, one leading away from God. Genesis pictures not a single abrupt “fall” from perfection but a gradual “falling away” that begins in Chapter 3 there and worsens in succeeding chapters.
This doesn’t exactly match our picture of early humanity because the writers of Genesis didn’t have our scientific knowledge. But it’s a better match to evolution than Augustine’s idea.
Our estrangement from God began when early humans disobeyed God’s will and took a path leading away from God. Genes and culture contribute to a sinful world in which all people are born and nurtured, and our impact on our environment distorts the terrestrial creation.
God’s definitive answer is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate. There has not, however, been agreement on how this reconciles us to God. I suggest that we think of Christ’s work as new creation, a reorientation of the trajectory of creation.
The approach of Gerhard Forde1 is helpful here. He focused on what actually brings reconciliation: the event of the cross, not satisfaction of some theoretical requirement. The point is that that God brings about faith in himself, something neglected in other views of atonement.
Sin is basically failure to trust in the true God above all else and (as in Romans 1) relying on idols. God had to correct that in order to reconcile humanity with himself by turning the course of history back to its goal. Idolatrous faith must be destroyed and true faith created.
In scripture that begins with God’s call of Abraham and creation of Israel as his people. People are always tempted to emulate Eve and Adam and wander off, so the prophets urge them to “Return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:13). Finally God himself becomes a participant in our story. Jesus proclaims the nearness of God’s reign and personifies God’s will for healing, peace and justice. He condemns injustice and failure to trust God, but welcomes those estranged from God and their fellows and freely forgives sins.
And we can’t have that! Forgiving sinners freely and welcoming them challenges established religion and morality. Talk about the reign of God implies that Caesar won’t be king. Good news to the poor can be bad news for the rich. The God Jesus represents threatens our interests so, through our representatives Pilate and Caiaphas, we kill him. Jesus is nailed to a cross, a warning to anyone else who might mess with our idols.
Then he comes back and says, “Peace be with you.”
The resurrection vindicates Jesus’ claim to speak for God. He is God’s Word, God himself, and our sin brought death upon our creator. The idols we depended on for life brought death, and in a real sense we die.
But if the God revealed in this event still offers peace, real faith in our creator becomes possible. God and sinners are reconciled. Atonement has been made – for the original meaning of “at-one-ment” is reconciliation.
The work of Christ has sometimes been seen as “moral influence,” the love shown on the cross evoking love for God from us. But morality doesn’t save us. Atonement is fiducial influence because through the cross and resurrection God creates fiducia — trust — the essential aspect of faith.
The cross has drawing power (John 12:32), so that Christ is not a mere passive example but an active “influence.” Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, not something we develop ourselves. It is, in Paul’s words, new creation. Sinners don’t immediately become perfect, and continue to struggle with sin. Just as God’s initial creation of the universe is followed by his ongoing creative work, God’s initial work of raising sinners from spiritual death is followed by sanctification as lives are turned back toward God.
This happens when people are confronted with the event of the cross, which happens when Christ is proclaimed. Reorientation of creation takes place in the course of history in and through the Christian community.
According to the Christ hymn of Colossians 1:15-20, the cross reconciles “all things” to God. We see the beginning of wider reconciliation in a renewed humanity taking seriously God’s call to care for the earth as God’s garden. We can only speculate about extraterrestrial effects of the cross, for scripture says virtually nothing about this. But what has been sketched here does suggest a way to begin thinking about salvation that makes contact with scientific knowledge of the world.