Join us April 17-19 for the BioLogos national conference, Faith & Science 2024, as we explore God’s Word and God’s World together!

James K.A. Smith
 on June 02, 2014

Zoom In, Slow Down: “Replaying” Evolution and the Fall

Zoom in; slow down. These are relevant principles for the conversation between Christian faith and evolution, particularly around thorny issues related to human origins and the Fall.


Almost thirty years ago, the National Football League had a kind of Cartesian moment: they decided we can’t trust our senses. More specifically, they decided that we can’t trust the senses of referees and officials who have to make split-second calls in the heat of play as massive bodies collide with one another. (Of course, lots of fans in the stands never trusted the officials!)

The result of this suspicion and skepticism was “instant-replay review.” Now, when a referee’s call is questionable, one of the coaches can throw a red flag onto the field, stop play, and ask the replay officials to review the call. They do so by doing two things: first, they utilize a number of different camera angles and zoom in on the play in question; then they replay it over and over again in slow motion, looking to see just whether the player’s knee was down before he crossed the goal line, or whether he stepped out of bounds before catching the pass.

When they zoom in and slow down, officials notice things they couldn’t have possibly seen from a distance or in the blistering speed of “real time.” Replay review is like hitting the pause button, taking the time to look at the situation again with a new focus and attention. The result is that we can see things we might have missed otherwise.

Zoom in; slow down. These are relevant principles for the conversation between Christian faith and evolution, too, particularly around thorny issues related to human origins and the Fall.

All too often, we see and hear such conversations from a distance, in the heat of “battle,” as it were, and come to hasty conclusions about what we think is at issue. Hasty conclusions are encouraged by sound-bite journalism that has little time for nuance or complexity. So we end up relying on second-hand accounts and are overly confident that we’ve “seen” the issues. But maybe we could use some of the NFL’s healthy skepticism about first impressions? Perhaps we could make time to review the issues and reconsider?

We do well to remember that the introduction of instant-replay review asked a lot of NFL officials. It takes a combination of both courage and humility to be willing to submit your initial judgments to assessment and evaluation by others, especially when they have the advantage of time and technology that you did not. Those virtues of courage and humility—especially the courage to be humble—are also relevant as we reconsider how to think about issues at the intersection of evolution and Christian faith.

I think of our research project as sort of throwing a red flag on the field of the conversation. We’re asking for time to review—to zoom in and slow down so that we can look at the issues from new angles, perhaps seeing connections and implications we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

There are lots of people—on both “sides,” so to speak—who have already hastily “made a call” on issues of creation, evolution, human origins, and original sin. Some have made the call that preserving the orthodox doctrine of original sin and a historical Fall requires a commitment to a historical couple, Adam and Eve. Others have made the call that rejecting the picture of a historical couple and endorsing an evolutionary account of human origins requires jettisoning the historic, orthodox doctrine of original sin.

In a way, I think these are both hasty, “zoomed out” conclusions. From a distance, it looks like this is an either/or, restaging old debates that seemed to require we either affirm creation or evolution. Both sides seem to see the issue in stark terms: either creationism without evolution or theistic evolution without a Fall.

“From a distance,” so to speak, it might seem like there are two clusters that constitute two unified “positions” that hang together. Or it might seem that there are “packages” on offer and that we need to take them as“package deals.” So from a distance, it might seem that the package that includes a historical Fall and an Augustinian understanding of original sin is part of a “package” that requires that we also buy a historical couple and ultimately something like young earth creationism.

On the other hand, “we” know that we ought to affirm theistic evolution, and given that some propose that theistic evolution entails rejecting a historical Fall in favor of something like symbolic fallenness, our commitment to theistic evolution would seem to require that we buy the package that includes an (allegedly) “Irenaean” theodicy [pdf] in which the Fall is merely “symbolic.”

But I suggest this is a mistaken perception of “packages,” an impression we’ve acquired from a distance. If we “zoom in” more closely, I think we’ll begin to see that things are much more complicated, that these are separable elements, and that there are no essential “package” deals.

So we’re throwing our red flag on the field and calling for a time out on these issues. As our team explores the various aspects of this complicated question close up and in “slow mo,” we are looking for things we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise: connections, implications, essentials, and nonessentials.

There’s one other aspect of the NFL’s instant-reply review policy I should mention: it’s communal and collaborative. While we only see the referee “under the hood” looking at the replays, in fact he is in conversation with a team of officials up in the replay booth, and together they re-read the situation. That communal and collaborative aspect is also essential to our research. We are undertaking this as a research team, but we are also a team who recognizes that we are part of an even larger community that is the church. They are not just the audience for our work, they are collaborators. We are listening to their wisdom, “up in the booth,” so to speak, as we zoom inslow down, and seek to discern a faithful understanding of God’s story.

About the author

James K. A. Smith Headshot

James K.A. Smith

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Trained as a philosopher with a focus on contemporary French thought, Smith has expanded on that scholarly platform to become an engaged public intellectual and cultural critic. An award-winning author and widely-traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church.