Confronting Our Fears
In this series, U.S. Navy Commander Mike Beidler shares his own personal journey from accepting young-earth creationism to embracing evolutionary creationism.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27, ESV)
In 2007, after a turbulent two-year process, I came to embrace evolutionary creationism as the best scientific and theological paradigm through which to view the natural world and God’s strategy to redeem humanity from the power of sin. As a layman who possessed neither a degree in the natural sciences nor a degree in theology, moving from my long-held young-earth creationist position was not an easy journey. My personal library was already full of literature arguing for a young-earth creationist position, and I was intimately familiar with all of the scientific and theological arguments against theistic evolution. Furthermore, my journey was relatively private and I knew few others who were traveling a similar path—others who could be fellow sojourners with me through the various spiritual and intellectual battles that lay ahead. But it was actually several personal fears that were the greatest enemies on my path toward the goal of integrating my long-held faith in Christ with a new understanding of physical world around me. In a step of faith, I dedicated myself to a robust self-study regimen in order to help wade through the diverse scientific and theological issues at hand.
In the end, my Christian faith not only remained intact, my journey resulted in a richer faith in the divine Logos-made-flesh (John 1:14); a profound love for the universe created for, by, and through the pre-existent Christ (Col 1:16; John 1:3); and an increased awe in a God who could accomplish so much “from so simple a beginning.”1 Over the last five years since I declared publicly my acceptance of the scientific evidence for evolution and humanity’s common ancestry with the rest of Earth’s flora and fauna,2 my family and I have been through two work-related moves, and have belonged to two conservative Christian congregations; both communities professed and lived out their faith in Jesus of Nazareth to an admirable degree, and both remain decidedly young-earth creationist in their theology. In both cases, I chose not to hide my evolutionary creationist views, but rather discuss them openly when people solicited my views. In return, I have been blessed by a noticeable extension of grace from family, friends, and fellow churchgoers—testimony to the fact that we can live and worship together in unity, even when we disagree over this issue.
Of course, being fully aware of how foreign a theistic evolutionary paradigm is to many an evangelical Christian audience, I’ve learned to have interactions about my views privately and with the utmost respect for the personal beliefs of my conversation partners—those beliefs are the ones I once held, after all. Furthermore, I’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to the issue of spiritual maturity; that is, how well-grounded one’s faith is in the person of Jesus Christ. As a result, I have had the pleasure of discussing my journey in an atmosphere of genuine mutual admiration with more than a few people in my worship community. Through these various dialogues, I have identified four fears about considering evolutionary creationism that, in most cases, mirrored those I experienced in my own journey. These fears are not petty, nor are they inconsequential. They are real and can have long-lasting effects if not dealt with in love, patience, honesty, and understanding. In the posts that follow this one over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to describe and explore those fears and how they might be overcome through Christ, and always with an eye on deeper faith in Him.
Although this series is written primarily for those who are honestly seeking an integration of scientific truth with their faith in Christ, yet are struggling mightily in the process, it can also serve as an aid to evolutionary creationists who seek to share how one’s Christian faith can remain intact, authentic, and vibrant, even during such a paradigm-shifting pilgrimage. It is my prayer that these reflections will assist the reader in identifying such personal fears, spur the genuine seeker to work through the sources of his or her anxieties, and direct him or her toward scholarly, pastoral resources that can assist the acceptance of evolution as God’s chosen method of creating. All of this is possible without sacrificing such core tenets of evangelical faith as belief in the role of Jesus in actual history (cf. Luke 1:1-4), the necessity of the Holy Spirit to transcend our fallen natures (Rom 14:17), and the experience of spiritual rebirth as adopted children of God (John 1:12-13; 3:3). Next time, I’ll begin with something foundational: the fear of the loss of the Bible as our source of Truth and Authority.
The heart of all anxiety is fear of loss.
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:17-19, ESV)
I suggested that as Christians, we have to take seriously Paul’s clear treatment of Adam as a real person rooted in human history. Furthermore, Paul seems to have thought that an historical Adam was important not for its own sake, but for the logic of salvation through Christ Jesus. How could an historical, literal Jesus solve the very real problem of sin that resulted from the rebellious act of a mythical, literary Adam?
While that question makes a lot of sense on the surface, are these two figures as closely linked as I, and many others, think they are? Before I address whether the connection between Adam and Jesus is iron-clad or tenuous, though, I need to briefly address a different common objection heard by evolutionary creationists: If we accept that the cosmology and anthropology of Genesis 1-3 isn’t accurate from a modern scientific perspective, then we can’t trust the remainder of Scripture. Are we truly on a slippery slope toward rejecting everything else in Scripture, to include the necessity of Jesus’ role as humanity’s redeemer? I don’t believe so, and here’s why.
As an evolutionary creationist and a Christian, I hold the Bible to be sacred literature, and I identify fully with the faith community that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures not only shaped, but which also shaped the content of Scripture. As a truth-seeker, I desire to understand what the text is truly saying as much as any other member of our shared faith. I want to read the Bible for all it is worth, and that requires taking the time to determine the author’s original intent for every passage of Scripture, including various passages within the same book that were written utilizing different genres. In doing so, we discover that the life of Jesus as presented in the four Gospels is nothing like the etiological myths encountered in Genesis 1-11; we can safely treat the Gospels as a reliable source for knowing how the early Church viewed the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose very existence is also documented in extra-biblical literature.
Skeptics of evolutionary creationism may accept that the faith-filled life of a theistic evolutionist is evidence that the Bible still wields moral authority in his or her life, and even that he or she affirms the historicity of the God-man Jesus. But there is often still considerable concern over how evolutionary creationists can affirm the historical assertion that Jesus’ death upon the Roman cross was necessary if Adam truly never lived and breathed. If Adam never lived (so the argument goes), sin is illusory, atonement for mankind’s sin is unnecessary, and Jesus’ death is all the more tragic. Because the person of Jesus and His sacrifice are so central to the Christian faith, this is a valid fear.
However, I believe this fear can be dissected carefully and ultimately overcome once one acknowledges that, even without an original source and propagator of sin (i.e., Adam), the sinfulness of mankind (1) remains universally observable and repeatable, (2) can be explained as a result of our status as a created species with free will and a genetic predisposition to sin inherited from our ancestors, and (3) is still recognized as an inherent moral weakness that needs correction and redemption (if a divine lawgiver is presumed). All this, even if Adam and Eve were not historical persons co-complicit in an historical “fall.” In fact, one could argue that evolutionary biology provides an even more powerful paradigm for explaining the source of mankind’s sinful nature in our day than the biblical text does.
Many evolutionary creationists are convinced that our inherited evolutionary baggage—born of an instinctual (and once necessary) need to preserve one’s self by means of selfish acts—still requires divine intervention in order to allow us to altruistically transcend what Paul calls the “flesh” (Rom 7:18; 8:5-9). We still need the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us on a sanctifying path to make us more than merely human and increasingly like the Logos of whom John the Baptist testified (John 1:6-8).12
An historical Adam
One may argue that Paul treated Adam as an historical person. Yes, I believe Paul certainly did; but this is to be expected and readily admitted.13 To believe that God created Adam approximately 4,000 years before Paul’s day was an integral part of the Jews’ religious heritage. Paul’s belief that Adam actually existed is a natural extension of his rigid upbringing in the Pharisaical tradition. Nevertheless, Paul was not attempting to make an anthropological point and arguing for the necessity of a literal Adam; he was making a soteriological one and defending the necessity for a literal Savior. Even if Paul knew better by exclusive revelation from the Holy Spirit, Paul’s appropriation of Adam’s original act of rebellion is, of course, perfectly acceptable since, regardless of sin’s “material” origin, the solution to mankind’s sin problem remains Jesus’ sacrificial act—an act of love that requires a particular context for it to “make sense” to those to whom Paul preached.
Anticipating the claim that Paul, an inspired apostle, would not have used the rebellious act of a mythical person to justify the loving act of an historical one, I can only appeal to the argument that theological truths need not be couched in the dry, straightforward manner of modern journalism. God can (and did!) inspire the authors of Scripture to express His truths through a variety of methods: myth, legend, epic, poetry, wisdom literature, historical narrative, gospel, pastoral letters, and apocalyptic literature. Jesus’ parables even featured actors who never existed and utilized historical fiction to press his points. Sometimes truth is best communicated through means that accommodate our current paradigms (as inaccurate as they may be) and meet us where we are. All genres that illuminate truth are the “best kinds,” and God uses story as well as history to illuminate His truth.
Next, we’ll continue our exploration of fears that I and other evangelicals have about considering evolutionary creation by looking at the fear of losing face.
As we continue our tour of fears that confront evangelicals considering evolutionary creation, I’d like to start with an extended (and possibly familiar) quote from Augustine about what’s at stake when we ask, “What if I’m wrong?”
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.
Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.
If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.14
– St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430)
For a good portion of my life, I had an extremely difficult time admitting that I was wrong. To do so was an admission of intellectual failure, faulty logic, or simple ignorance—not knowing everything about everything.15 Being wrong is a hard pill to swallow sometimes, because in many cases it equates to losing face. As it pertains to the creation-evolution debate, I believe that we evangelical Christians tend to express that fear by “holding the line” against certain areas of scientific study, rather than being willing to admit that we might be wrong. In most cases, we have no problem accepting the authority of the world’s best physicists, chemists, meteorologists, engineers, and physicians. Our problem tends to be with scientific authorities in only certain areas of study, such as biology, anthropology, paleontology, geology, and astronomy. Why? It’s because the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God and these areas conflict with the plain reading of Scripture, right?
When we evangelicals come to the table of scientific discussion, we tend to pick and choose those “foods” which appeal to us, while wrinkling our noses at what our theological tastes find disagreeable. As long as the menu includes a wide assortment of things we already like, and we share the table with people with similar tastes, we can get along just fine with this strategy. But is this wise in, say, a survival situation? Food is food, and if we’re hungry enough and don’t have a life-threatening allergic reaction to something specific, I would venture to guess that we’d dig right in without a second thought. In regard to the creation-evolution debate, I am convinced that the evangelical church will find itself in dire straights if we intentionally starve ourselves intellectually, especially with a healthy banquet in full sight and within reach. I also think having a too-restricted “diet” limits our ability to sit down with those outside the church and can, as Augustine believed, play a role in actually prohibiting the secular world at large from coming to a saving knowledge of Christ, “to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil.” Several years ago, Bruce Waltke, former Evangelical Theological Society president and former professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, updated Augustine’s caution in a brief video production for BioLogos, suggesting that the church risks losing our ability to really interact with the world if we don’t trust God’s providence in this area. Wheaton College’s Professor of Christian Thought, Mark Noll, as the very first sentence of his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind writes, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”16 If not for the fact that I’ve never met Professor Noll, I’d believe he was talking about me a decade ago.
What drives us evangelical Christians to “hold the line” against acknowledging truths in these certain categories of scientific knowledge? After undergoing several theological shifts myself over the last decade, and seeing others do the same, I believe I’ve been able to “reverse engineer” what happened in my own life: It was a subtle slide from a confident faith into a comfortable, unwitting arrogance. When we believe that we are in an intimate spiritual union with the Creator of the universe, it’s quite easy to forget (if we ever understood this in the first place) that God can couch theological truth in a variety of literary genres and, yes, even in the context of ancient, scientifically inaccurate cosmologies.17 Caught up in the awesome truth of spiritual union, what makes perfect sense to us at any particular point in our spiritual walk can be easily confused with “the truth.” We also gravitate toward churches that conform to our particular belief systems. We prefer pastors who preach to the choir. We buy books that support our particular theological system. To attend another church, listen to a theologically edgy pastor, or read a book from a completely opposite viewpoint from what we’re accustomed to would be to invite a considerable measure of tension into an otherwise comfortable intellectual and spiritual environment.
How many of us actually have or take the time to study evolutionary biology, theology, the history of biblical interpretation, ANE literature, or modern translations of Babylonian creation myths? I would venture to guess that very few of us have the same opportunities that professional scientists and theologians take for granted in their academic careers. To overcome the fear of losing intellectual face, I recommend exposing oneself to different ways of thinking about these topics, including perspectives that you might deem “outside the box.” Reading multi-view comparisons and critiques, such as those found in Zondervan’s wonderful Counterpoints series, is particularly helpful in this regard. Familiarity with and exposure to these views helps temper that initial fear or shock when we come across those few brothers and sisters in Christ who opt to take another approach to any one topic. (One youth pastor friend of mine, when discovering my views on a particular topic, approached me and excitedly exclaimed that meeting me was like meeting a dragon: “You hear stories about them, but you never see one!”)
A word of warning: Before I adopted evolutionary creationism, my neatly packed theology was virtually stress-free. Ignorance was truly bliss. Then came the paradigm shift, and all sorts of previously suppressed tension, questions, and doubts rose to the surface. Another word of warning: If you’re not confronted with tension, questions, and doubts in your day-to-day spiritual walk, something’s wrong. Wrestling with theological issues is not an activity to be avoided; it is a discipline to be vigorously pursued! If you are comfortable enough in your relationship with the risen Savior, you should not fear admitting your ignorance on various topics and entering into a period of temporary uncertainty. This fear can be remedied by taking advantage of a fully informed palette of theological options provided by genuine Jesus followers, including those that embrace biblical criticism. If one’s faith is truly rooted in the One by, for, and through Whom all things were made, all the theories put forth by the higher biblical critics and esoteric scientists should be no cause for fear—but all should be cause for loving dialogue.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? (Rom 8:35, ESV)
So far I’ve looked at three of the four fears I think are common to evangelicals as they begin to consider evolutionary creation: the fear of losing biblical authority, the fear of losing our Savior—the place of Jesus in salvation history—and the fear of losing face and admitting that we might not have all the answers. I finish up this series by looking at the last fear—one that touches especially on our lives together as the body of Christ: the fear of losing peace.
Eight times in 21 years, my work has required that I pull up stakes and move. And with every new work-related move has come the loss of a loving church family and the dreaded journey of finding a new church home. For someone like me, that’s not an easy task. Though I’ve been asked on a number of occasions why I don’t seek out a church that agrees with what I believe theologically in regard to creation and evolution, the fact is that conservative, evangelical churches are a “known quantity” in each location in which we’ve lived—dependable places to find Christian community, and ones with which I’ve never desired to part. Also, if I took only and all of my theology into account, I’d end up worshiping in a church comprised of just me: a cult of one! But worshiping the Trinitarian God is to be done in community, and theology is something to be lived out in that community—not simply studied. Thus, my family and I have chosen not to isolate ourselves with others who agree with us on every point of Christian culture; we go where the Holy Spirit leads, and it appears that God’s found fit to put us right in the middle of congregations that are solidly young-earth creationist—right in the middle of all sorts of potential anxiety.
Depending on your particular situation, loss of peace can come in a variety of forms. It can be well-intentioned but overbearing counseling from concerned pastors and elders who fear the entrance of heresy into the church. It can be shunning by other families in your homeschooling circle. It can be the internal heartache caused by shocked family members and the resultant emotional discord that follows when your theological views no longer align with those of your spouse. It can be the threat of joblessness if your employer finds out that its premiere Old Testament scholar has shifted his views away from the institution’s Doctrinal Statement of Faith. It can be the threat of losing your entire apologetics ministry because a vast majority of your supporters will no longer support you if you revealed your paradigm shift. It can be the potential financial loss resulting from a repudiation of your previous scholarly work. One does not easily step out of the comfort zone of seemingly-settled doctrine into a world in which one’s beliefs, if made public, can cause all sorts of worry or anger from family members, pastors, friends, co-workers, and supporters.
As I mentioned in the introduction, church members, pastors, elders, and deacons have blessed me by not causing me to endure any significant persecution. So what’s the secret? I’m not entirely sure. While I’m careful not to reveal my entire hand at the first available opportunity, I’ve never hidden or denied my views, either. In fact, when my wife and I last attempted to pursue official church membership, the board of elders denied our membership request as a result of my evolutionary creationist views. Nonetheless, we were warmly welcomed into the life of the congregation: My wife was given a children’s Sunday school teaching position, and I joined the worship team as a vocalist. More amazing to me was that I was explicitly instructed not to refrain from discussing my views if the occasion should arise—even within the context of adult Bible studies. Was the invitation to continued fellowship (if not membership) in our church the fruit of candidly confessing my views before the church’s elder board? Was it because I had exemplified my devotion to Jesus Christ in the months previous? Or was it demonstrating a thorough knowledge of Scripture that invited a congenial spirit from those whom I believed would firmly oppose me? Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above. This same approach of demonstrating respect and love before, during, and after engaging in risky dialogue has also proved successful with interactions in our current congregation, and we find ourselves once again fully involved in various church activities and ministries despite not being voting members of the church body. In every case, my agenda is nothing more than to be a productive member of the Body of Christ.
Although my “layman’s advice” doesn’t necessarily translate to a sure-fire method of maintaining a teaching position at a Christian academic institution, keeping an apologetics-based ministry afloat, or maintaining your book sales, I do know that attitudes and actions that reflect a devotion to Jesus win over hearts (if not minds), and are vastly superior to argumentative behavior and being a constant source of dissension. Granted, not all churches will be as accommodating as mine, but I offer my anecdotes as a small measure of hope for those readers who have encountered or will likely encounter persecution from family, friends, and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Whatever your situation is, treat those who persecute you with love, patience, and understanding, and reassure them of your steadfast devotion to Jesus Christ. If your Christ-like love isn’t returned after a concerted effort on your part to forestall a spiritually bloody confrontation, shake the dust off your feet and move on to a congregation that will accept you (cf. Matt 10:14). You owe it to yourself and those who rely upon you for spiritual leadership and protection.
Finally, I would also counsel those who stop pursuing the truth for fear of losing peace in their lives to not succumb to that fear. Rest on Jesus’ promise that the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Seek the help of the Lord (Heb 13:6) and seek the help of those who are on or have successfully made the same journey. We are out there, we love you, and we will help you (Gal 6:2).
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Pet 3:14b-16, ESV)
Credits & References
1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species  in Edward O. Wilson, ed., From So Simple a Beginning: The Four Great Books of Charles Darwin (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 760.
2. I launched my blog “The Creation of an Evolutionist” in December 2007 and have since renamed it“Rethinking the αlpha and Ωmega”.
3. The literal meaning of the Greek word θε?πνευστος (theopneustos).
4. John Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1931), vol. III, 129.
5. Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 26; emphasis in the original.
6. John H. Walton, interview. From the Dust: Conversations in Creation. Blu-Ray Disc. Directed by Ryan Petty. Mountain View, CA: Highway Media and The BioLogos Foundation, 2012.
7. For a secular treatment, see G. Brent Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); for evangelical Christian treatments, see Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2008); Howard J. Van Till,The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us about the Creation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986); Howard J. Van Till, ed., Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
8. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
9. John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). See also John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009); John H. Walton,Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011); Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987); Gordon J. Glover, Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation (Chesapeake, VA: Watertree Press, LLC, 2007).
10. See Daniel J. Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007) and Keith B. Miller, ed., Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).
11. “Etiology,” Wikipedia, accessed October 08, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etiology.
12. See Daryl P. Domning and Monika K. Hellwig, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006).
13. For other possible ways to understand Paul’s understanding of Adam, see Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Says and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012).
14. St. Augustine of Hippo, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram), Trans. J. H. Taylor, in Ancient Christian Writers (Long Prairie, MN: Newman Press, 1982), vol. 41.
15. “Ignorant,” Oxford Dictionaries, accessed October 08, 2012, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/ignorant.
16. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 3.
17. See Denis Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008); Brian Godawa, “Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography in the Bible,” accessed October 04, 2012.
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