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Loren Haarsma
 on April 16, 2019

Three Misunderstandings About God-Guided Evolution

When talking about evolutionary creation, some ask, “Why not just say, ‘God-guided evolution’?” The problem with that term is it's prone to misunderstandings.


When I talk about evolutionary creation I am sometimes asked, “Why not just say, ‘God-guided evolution’?” I hesitate to use that phrase because I know, from experience, that if I did say “God guides evolution” many in my audience would misunderstand me.

Let’s look at three of the most common misunderstandings:

1. Evolution is not limited to small-scale changes.

Many people would interpret the phrase “God-guided evolution” to mean something like the following. “Evolution is limited to making small-scale changes in species. For really big changes – like making new life forms or increasing complexity – God has to do something more than ordinary evolution. Instead of doing big miracles all at once, God might do a series of guided mutations over time which add up to something new and extremely improbable without God’s guidance.”

The challenge with this misunderstanding is that science does not support it– evolution is not limited to making small-scale changes1 . I believe that God designed the laws of nature so that biological evolution could, through its ordinary operation, bring about new life forms and increases in complexity. As a Christian, I believe that God could cause a series of guided mutations whenever God wanted to. As a scientist, however, I believe that God didn’t need to do so in order to create the rich diversity of complex life we see in the world today.

2. God is never absent in the evolutionary process.

Some people would interpret the phrase “God-guided evolution” to mean something similar to: “OK, perhaps evolution isn’t limited to making small-scale changes. But evolution left on its own would mean God wasn’t really doing anything.” 

This misunderstanding is one that I call  “episodic deism.” I think this is poor theology because it says that God usually lets nature run “on its own” except when God intervenes to push it in certain directions– but I don’t think that nature ever runs “on its own.” The Bible repeatedly affirms that when things happen in the natural world, God is still doing it. The sun goes down; God brings darkness. The beasts of the forest prowl; God gives them their food. Birds of the air eat seeds and insects and worms, and they receive their food from God (Psalm 104:19-21, Matthew 6:26).  When things are happening in the natural world the way they always happen, in ways we can describe scientifically, God is just as much in charge as when God performs a miracle.

3. God didn’t need to micromanage evolution to get what God wanted.

Misunderstanding #3: Some people would interpret the sentence “God-guided evolution” to mean something like the following. “Evolution isn’t limited to making small-scale changes. And of course God is in charge all the time so evolution never happens “on its own.” But evolution had the potential to go down many possible paths. So God acted from time to time to select, or to nudge evolution down particular paths to produce particular species and ecosystems.”

The challenge with this misunderstanding is that it might be too restrictive. Some evolutionary creationists hold this view, and I think it’s a fine view. I’m OK with the science and I’m OK with the theology. But it’s not the only version of evolutionary creation.

Theologically, I believe that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Scientifically, I describe rainfall in terms of evaporation and condensation and warm fronts and colds fronts. I don’t think God needs to “nudge” the clouds to make it happen the way God wants (although of course God could do so). Theologically, I believe that God makes trees grow. Scientifically, I would describe trees growing through photosynthesis and transpiration and lots of other chemical processes. I don’t think God needs to nudge the molecules in order to make each tree grow (although of course God could do so).

I affirm evolutionary creationists who believe that God nudged evolution down particular paths. But I also affirm an evolutionary creationist who might say something like the following. “Theologically, I believe that God created every species, including humans. Scientifically, we describe how it happened in terms of evolutionary mechanisms. I don’t think God needed to nudge it down particular paths in order to produce what God intended.”

If I said “God-guided evolution,” some people would misunderstanding me as ruling out this second version of evolutionary creation.

Those are three common and conflicting ways to interpret the phrase “God-guided evolution.” It’s not surprising that they’re common. God’s providence and guidance of the natural world is a complicated theological topic. Evolution is a complicated scientific theory. But none of them are what I mean. So while I can affirm that “God-guided evolution,” I rarely say it. I’ll instead choose other phrases – probably a lot longer and less pithy, but harder to misunderstand.

About the author

Loren Haarsma

Loren Haarsma

Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.