Talking to Pentecostals about Origins and Evolution
Pentecostals are the fastest growing Christian denomination in the world. Why do we hear so little about their views on origins? How can we thoughtfully engage them?
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People are often surprised to learn that I am a Professor of Biology and a Pentecostal Christian. As if being a scientist and Christian isn’t curious enough, being a Pentecostal seems to be especially unusual. Isn’t science a discipline that helps us make sense of the natural world? Doesn’t Pentecostalism eschew the rational and embrace an extreme form of supernaturalism? How can someone affirm both?
For me, science and my Pentecostal faith inform each other in beautiful and meaningful ways. Science provides objective and powerful tools and processes to study the natural world. It feeds my God-given curiosity and inspires awe. My Pentecostal faith makes me more open to and curious about God’s relationship to the created order. As a result, I am more open to exploring and experiencing things I don’t fully understand both natural and supernatural. I ultimately seek a coherent truth.
Like most other Christian groups, Pentecostals hold diverse views on origins and other topics of science. While most Pentecostals reject evolution (particularly of humans), a good number do not. For me, evolution is a powerful explanation of the biodiversity, adaptation, and interconnectedness we see in nature. I believe that God is in an active relationship with all of his creation—he intervenes, rescues, heals, guides, and answers prayer. Pentecostals like myself have an ardent desire for and anticipation of God’s daily involvement in our lives and this world.
Pentecostals, like most other people, seek a holistic engagement of faith and science. My hope is that the broader faith and science community can find more ways to thoughtfully engage us and integrate our perspectives into the growing conversation.
Unfortunately, when evolution is framed in a way that negates this view, it forces an artificial tension, making us “pick sides.” Pentecostals, like most other people, seek a holistic engagement of faith and science. My hope is that the broader faith and science community can find more ways to thoughtfully engage us and integrate our perspectives into the growing conversation.
Pentecostal Views on Evolution
While most Pentecostals question evolutionary theory, they are not unanimous in their opposition. The Pew Research Center found that while 61% of Pentecostals rejected the theory of human evolution, 22% believed that humans evolved through God’s design, 9% believed that humans evolved through natural processes, and 2% believed humans evolved through an unknown mechanism. My research into the views of North American constituents of the Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal denomination globally), supports these findings.
Among those Pentecostals who accept the evidence for the evolution of non-humans, most do not embrace it for humans. Instead, they believe humans were specially created. This is largely based on the belief that the biblical creation account is mostly historical literature. Along with accepting 24-hour days and a literal chronology of creation, they believe that humans, unlike other creatures, were created in God’s image. Paul’s writings about the relationship between Adam and Jesus (Romans 5: 12-21) are viewed by many to point to a historical Adam and Eve. Many Christians reject evolution because they don’t believe a good God would create a process so dependent on selfishness and death. Many also feel that human evolutionary theory calls into question the doctrine of original sin. Even so, somewhere around 25% of Pentecostals believe in some form of human evolution.
While most Pentecostals question evolutionary theory, they are not unanimous in their opposition…Among those Pentecostals who accept the evidence for the evolution of non-humans, most do not embrace it for humans…[however] some Pentecostals [do] embrace the evolutionary creation viewpoint.
Not surprisingly, more Pentecostals align with Young Earth Creationism than any other perspective. They believe that most of the Genesis creation account is a historical narrative containing very little figurative language, and that the created order is several thousands of years old, not billions. They also believe that macroevolution simply hasn’t had enough time to occur, and that humans did not evolve, but were specially created by God. But when probed a bit, they usually aren’t opposed to the idea of natural selection leading to adaptation (microevolution), even for humans.
The second most widely held Pentecostal origins viewpoint is Old Earth Creation. Adherents of this view believe the universe and the origin of life are billions of years old. However, like Young Earth Creationists, they usually don’t believe that macroevolution adequately explains the fossil record for non-humans or humans. So, they hold an intermediate view. They embrace mainstream science’s conclusions about an ancient origin of the universe and life (billions of years ago), but they do not endorse mainstream science’s position that speciation is caused by massive changes in genetically controlled traits or the common ancestry of all life.
Some Pentecostals (about 22%) embrace the Evolutionary Creation viewpoint. In agreement with mainstream science, they posit an ancient universe and origin of life and an accommodationist approach to interpreting the Genesis creation account. Some even conclude that the whole of Genesis 1-11 is figurative. This makes theological space for an ancient history of the universe and origin of life, and evolution through several possible mechanisms. God is involved, but the level of his involvement may range from simply setting the process in motion to having an ongoing and active role in it.
A Seat at the Table
Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing religious movement in the world. Ironically, little research on how Pentecostals relate faith and science has been done. There are only a few Pentecostal voices represented in faith and science discourse as well. This is not surprising given that many Pentecostals have historically been resistant to exploring new ideas they perceive as secular, like evolution. Also, Pentecostals have largely ignored the topic of origins and evolution. This is not necessarily because of a lack of interest, but rather they have favored weightier matters. Pentecostals have traditionally focused their energy and efforts on salvation, sanctification, evangelism, healing, the Second coming, and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Over the years, as more Christians from other Protestant denominations (e.g. Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian) have become Charismatic, they have brought with them their own views and interests in origins. As a result, Pentecostals have had more to say about origins and evolution. Some Pentecostal denominations have published statements of belief that reference origins and evolution. Admittedly, many of these statements do not affirm evolution. However, these statements show that origins and evolution have warranted more consideration from Pentecostals.
Pentecostals can sometimes feel out of place…They may fear other’s misunderstandings about our tradition. Pentecostal theology is often associated with fundamentalism and devaluing the life of the mind. Enthusiastic worship, and extemporaneous prayer can be seen by some as strange…Speaking in tongues and prophecy might be viewed with suspicion…And belief in miraculous healing and the supernatural may come across as a rejection of the gifts of science and medicine.
If Pentecostals are talking more about origins and evolution than they used to be, why do we still hear from so few of them? From my experience, Pentecostals can sometimes feel out of place participating in a dialogue that has been happening for so long without them. They may fear others’ misunderstandings about our tradition. Pentecostal theology is often associated with fundamentalism and a devaluing of the life of the mind. Enthusiastic worship, and extemporaneous prayer can be seen by some as strange or disorderly. Speaking in tongues and prophecy might be viewed with suspicion and discomfort. And belief in miraculous healing and the supernatural may come across as a rejection of the gifts of science and medicine.
As a Pentecostal with a background in science, I can affirm that Pentecostalism is not necessarily anti-evolution, anti-rational, or anti-intellectual. And, we desire Christian community and a seat at the table of science-religion discourse. We do not want to be known for all the ways we are different compared to other denominations, we want to be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ who serve the same God and seek to know him better in all the ways that he reveals himself to us—in Science, Scripture, and through the Holy Spirit. By gaining a place at the table, conversations could lead to healthier engagement with Pentecostals on matters of science. And it can help diversify faith and science discourse in a way that is more inclusive and reflective of the whole body of Christ.
What Pentecostals Bring to the Table
What exactly can the Pentecostal tradition bring to the table of faith and science discourse, particularly origins and evolution? What should those who are eager to engage Pentecostals about origins and evolution be mindful of? I offer some concluding thoughts.
First, Pentecostals believe that God is deeply relational, and so we place a strong emphasis on theological immanence. God is not a remote being, standing aloof with arms folded watching with mild interest as his minions struggle for existence. He has an active presence and involvement in his creation. He rescues and intervenes. Why not through evolution? Why wouldn’t an omnipotent God directly influence the outcomes of natural processes like evolution? This concept of an active creator in real time aligns well with the views of many Christians. Making room for God’s immanence in nature can help Pentecostals consider evolution as a faithful option.
Secondly, we believe that the Holy Spirit is our guide. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, and that he will guide us to all truth. We don’t take this lightly. As a Pentecostal I am open to the truths that the Holy Spirit reveals, and to where those truths lead. This perspective can help some Pentecostals be more open to non-traditional views like evolutionary creation. Especially when they are led there after much prayerful consideration.
Lastly, Pentecostalism emphasizes the practical application of the Gospel in the lives of diverse people. We believe that the heart of the Gospel is to share the Good News and to care for the powerless, widows, orphans, and strangers. We also recognize the transformational power of Jesus to help us live out this call. Because we lack the ability to do this on our own, we need God’s empowerment through revelation in our lives and the lives of others. Ultimately, all Christians should seek to “…love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul and with all [our] mind and with all [our] strength” (Mark 12: 30). We are called to do this, especially, in our communal studies on evolution and origins!
[Pentecostals] do not want to be known for all the ways we are different compared to other denominations, we want to be seen as brothers and sisters in Christ who serve the same God and seek to know him better in all the ways that he reveals himself to us—in Science, Scripture, and through the Holy Spirit.
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