Once upon a time, it was impossible not to believe in God. Or to put a finer point on it, it was impossible to even doubt the existence of God. But perhaps you think I’m underestimating your capacity for doubt, so I’ll explain myself.
The Bible is filled with stories of people and their doubt, but none of these people doubt the existence of God. Job doubts God’s goodness and justice, but he rages against the heavens because he is certain they are inhabited. Prophets and psalmists doubt God’s faithfulness, but they write their disappointed songs and poems because they are disappointed in someone.
And what is true of ancient Israelites is true of all ancient people: it was impossible for them to doubt the existence of God (or the gods, to be more accurate). Religion was not a distinct sphere of life, separable from politics or science or economics. Religion was everywhere and everything, and the gods were believed in and hence experienced with a simple, naïve immediacy. If you had lived in the ancient world, it would never have occurred to you to doubt the existence of the gods. This is no longer the case.
Charles Taylor has called this shift “the breach of naiveté”, an evolution in which humans who once could not be uncertain about the existence of God can now never be certain about the existence of God. There are various reasons for this shift, but the rise of modern science stands out. Whereas a lightning bolt was once only explicable as the fury of Zeus, we now know it’s just water droplets and ice crystals rubbing against each other to produce static electricity. No Zeus needed. Zeus is an antiquated scientific explanation. Zeus is dead, and science has killed him. This is an abbreviated version of the story by which modern science helped created people capable of doubting the existence of God.
And if meteorology proved to be the death of Zeus, we have been led to believe evolutionary biology is the death of God proper. Indeed, evolutionary biology has performed the remarkable feat of bringing many atheists and Christians together under the belief that evolution disproves the existence of God. Of course, many atheists think evolution is true and therefore God does not exist, whereas many Christians think evolution cannot be true because God does exist, but they agree the world is not big enough for God and evolution.
I understand the belief that God and evolution are incompatible. I grew up with it. Raised in a Southern Baptist Church in East Texas, young earth creationism was an article of faith, and we believed reading the Bible faithfully meant reading it all as literally as possible, especially the beginning and end. We were also under the impression that modern science was guided by a massive bias against Christianity, and honest science confirmed a young earth and literal reading of Genesis 1-2.
And while I can still understand the Christian rejection of evolution, I can no longer endorse it, nor let it stand unchallenged. There is no inherent incompatibility between historic, orthodox Christian faith and evolution. If you do not want to believe in evolution, that is OK, but no one should think they must choose between Christianity and evolution. But as mentioned above, many Christians and atheists think you must. But why? How exactly does evolution challenge Christianity? We could multiply alleged conflicts ad infinitum, but these stand out.
Evolution conflicts with a literal reading of Genesis 1-2. This is, of course, true, but we are not supposed to read Genesis 1-2 literally, and the best biblical interpreters throughout history have known this. But we are a people mostly disconnected to Christianity’s deep roots, a people indifferent to any history with dust on it, so many of us have been led to believe a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 that necessitates young-earth creationism is the orthodox perspective of the church. It is not. Indeed, a rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1-2 that necessitates young-earth creationism has only gained traction over the last hundred or so years, and is an overwhelming minority position within orthodox Christian theology.
Most ancient interpreters, relying on ancient science, thought the earth was young (and flat). But our best interpreters did not employ a rigid biblical literalism that forced them into believing the earth had to be young in order for Scripture to be honored. As an ancient man who knew ancient science, Augustine believed the earth was young and flat, but his interpretive methods make it clear that if he lived now, he would not. For example, Augustine says that when science proves something that seems to contradict Scripture, the proven scientific truth should take precedence over the literal sense of Scripture. All that to say, the weight of orthodox Christian biblical interpretation is heavily tilted against a rigidly literal reading of Genesis 1-2, and this was the case long before Darwinian evolution came on the scene.
Second, evolution forces us to revise traditional understandings of the fall, wherein a literal Adam and Eve sin and unleash, for the first time, suffering and death into the world. Modern science is telling us the creation of humanity was not a singular, instant event, but a gradual, communal event wherein humans evolved from a population of about 10,000 hominid ancestors that first appeared around 200,000 years ago. Modern science also tells us suffering and death were present in the world millions of years before humans. So how do we make sense of the fall in light of modern science? Here’s an excerpt from my book, sketching out a proposal.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, but God did not create the heavens and the earth fully realized. God created them unfinished, full of potential and futurity. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and did so in a way that allowed creation to unfold gradually. God created a creation that evolves—and evolves toward humanity—but does so very slowly.
Eventually, the process of evolution produces a population of hominids with an emerging religious awareness, a sense of the divine. A relationship, albeit an embryonic one, between God and humanity is established. We might think of this, metaphorically, as the “creation” of Adam and Eve. And at this first dawn of religious awareness and relationship, humanity is “naked but not ashamed.” We might call this “Eden.” Humans do things that are wrong but are not “sinful” because they lack the maturity to be held to account. They are spiritual babies (see Romans 5:13, where Paul seems to think along these lines).
However, this religious awareness eventually evolves to the point where humans are no longer spiritual babies but adults and, as adults, capable of sin. That is, they grow capable of deliberate rebellion against God. And once they grow capable of sin, they sin, and the power of humanity’s sin is unleashed on the world. Humanity has “fallen.”
This fall is historical—it is an actual phenomenon that took place in history. But it is not a single event wherein a single human pair that God made from dirt a few thousand years ago rebels against God. It is a real fall, but it is gradual, episodic, and social instead of instant, literal, and individual. Suffering and death are present in creation prior to human sin, perhaps fallout of the primal catastrophe of an angelic fall. Sin enters the world through “Adam,” and sin brings with it a kind of spiritual death that spreads to all humanity (Romans 5:12). The world becomes a place where it is impossible not to be a sinner. This, I think, does what a doctrine of the fall needs to do from a biblical and theological standpoint, while still being true to the findings of modern science.
Third, evolution exacerbates the problem of evil. Evolution is a brutal, vicious, wasteful process. It involves the creation of life through monstrous violence over immense ages of time. Why would a God of infinite goodness and beauty employ such a cruel means?
Though often overshadowed by the two concerns mentioned above, this is, to my mind, the only real challenge evolution poses to Christianity. Only a moral cretin could fail to hear all the blood crying out from the ground, asking for an answer. Yes, there is creativity and elegance and evolution, but there is also terror and annihilation.
So far as I can tell, there is no simple answer to this challenge. It is, however, merely a modern scientific iteration of the ancient problem of evil, and evil is terribly troubling whether it involves mass extinctions or the suffering of a single child. Evil is a blasphemy we either do or don’t trust God to sort out. And we must be careful, because while God has purposes for nature, those purposes are not always easily glimpsed within nature. Indeed, God’s ultimate purpose for nature is glimpsed only in new creation.
I am a modern man, so the naïve belief of my forefathers and mothers in the faith is not a live option for me. My innocence is lost. But I am not lost. I am found. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is alive and well, and the scientific rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated.