Don’t Be Afraid to Look
A physician and dad finally takes the time to examine his beliefs and questions about evolution and the Bible, finding they are worth the journey.
In 2018, Netflix released a film entitled Bird Box which was based on a 2014 novel of the same name. In the film, a supernatural phenomenon infects the world in such a way that whoever looks upon this unseen force would be malevolently changed and compelled to commit suicide, frequently in a graphic manner. This evil contagion spreads around the globe and ushers in a post-apocalyptic era in which the only people who are saved are those who have never looked upon the evil.
For much of my life, this was my response to the theory of evolution. I knew that there was truth to be wrestled with, but I was afraid to look at the question too deeply because I wasn’t comfortable with what I may find. I agreed with faithful, biblical teachers like Michael Horton when he said in The Christian Faith, “Christian theology stands or falls with a historical Adam and a historical fall.” I believed the Scriptures and trusted that in them we find life. Like the survivors in Bird Box, I had opportunities to have looked, but I protected myself from the scourge. In high school, despite the fact that I loved AP Biology, I maintained a position of opposition during the week we discussed human origins. I studied engineering as an undergraduate and never engaged with the issue in a thoughtful manner. I was very interested in apologetics and spiritual formation, but felt settled that evolution was incompatible with Christian faith.
No Time or Desire to Ponder
In medical school at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Francis Collins shortly after the completion of the Human Genome Project. It was a celebratory day at his alma mater in which we honored his achievements and enjoyed his inspiring oratory. A friend told me about The Language of God and how Francis Collins makes a compelling case for Christian faith and creation through a process of evolution including slow, progressive, genetic descent with modification. I declined to take him up on his offer to read the book, remaining convinced that Dr. Collins must not be a very faithful Christian if he could believe such a thing. A few years later, I remember working in the yard, listening to a debate featuring Denis Alexander on the Unbelievable podcast about whether a historical Adam and Eve existed and feeling genuine concern that there may be truth about Adam and Eve that would upend my faith. I was then in the throes of 80-hour work weeks as an OB/GYN resident and committed myself to not looking.
Several years went by, and I was working as a researcher and physician in a teaching hospital in Tanzania for a major academic institution, serving God living amongst the “least of these” and secular elites. There, I found myself playing a dinosaur game with my two-year-old son and the reality hit me: “I do not know what I am going to tell my son about the dinosaurs.” As we played, growled, and pretended to have prehistoric adventures, I decided I had to look. If I was ever going to teach my son to love truth and follow Christ, I had to take off the blindfold and look.
I started with The Language of God and was compelled by Dr. Collins’ testimony and argument from DNA for a common lineage of humans from an ancient ancestor. One element that stood out to me the most, as an OB/GYN familiar with chromosomal abnormalities and karyotypes, was Dr. Collins’ point that sequencing the human genome revealed “the difference in chromosome number (between chimpanzees and humans) appears to be a consequence of two ancestral chromosomes having fused together to generate human chromosome 2.” Sequencing the genome enabled us to find DNA usually reserved for the end of our chromosomes smack dab in the middle of chromosome 2. Dr. Collins was helping me to see that the “miracle” of creation was not necessarily instantaneous creation, but instead a slow, seemingly natural progression that had resulted in unfathomable complexity. Misaligned chromosomes are typically devastating for an organism, but in human development, this fusing of chromosomes had participated in our uniqueness. Dr. Collins went on to say, “Freeing God from the burden of special acts of creation does not remove Him as the source of the things that make humanity special, and of the universe itself. It merely shows us something of how He operates.” I was beginning to see that there may be a deeper and richer story that could be found in our history, but the figure of the biblical Adam needed some serious examination.
Diving into Adam’s Story
I turned to BioLogos’ book Adam and the Genome by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Dr. Venema built on Dr. Collins’ arguments from genetics and created a compelling case for genetic modification leading to speciation, the same way that isolation and time lead to linguistic variation. He wrote about the converging lines of evidence between genetics and paleontology that left me overwhelmed—perhaps Darwin’s theory had persisted for 150 years because it had echoes of the truth. At the time, I found Scot McKnight’s arguments insufficient for how we could understand the historical Adam in light of modern science. I was still functioning from a fundamentalist framework, and was fearing that my theological foundation was about to crumble. BioLogos had led me to the brink. It appeared that even scientists who are believers couldn’t deny the validity of evolution as a generative mechanism. It was around this time that I looked at my wife and said, “I am concerned that a year from now, I won’t be a Christian.” She received that and didn’t freak out. That was a huge statement for me to say. Believing in God as revealed in Jesus was all I had ever known. I was saved and baptized at a young age, grew up in the church, and longed to be involved in ministries that helped others believe in Jesus, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to reconcile the evidence in the ground with the faith I had always cherished.
Next, I purchased The Lost World of Adam and Eve by John Walton, still searching for an understanding of creation that could help reconcile what I was learning from scientific sources. John Walton’s commitment to Biblical authority matched his commitment to reading Genesis in the context of an ancient Near Eastern document. His work served as a floodlight that illuminated my doubts and filled my fears with a trust in the Scriptures. Dr. Walton’s approach presented me with a healthy way of looking at these issues. Early in the book, he recognizes that new evidence from the last 50 years has emerged in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, theology, and genetics that ought to compel us to reconsider the presuppositions we’ve used to interpret Genesis 1-3. Faithful Christian leaders of the past have not interpreted Genesis in a way that considers evolutionary creation, because there wasn’t any evidence that compelled them to accept anything but the most straightforward and literal approach. They simply never had to look, but Walton suggests the responsibility is different for our generation.
I began to see that wrestling to understand God’s work in the world was not a Bird Box scenario. There was not an evil scourge that was seeking to infect my mind and turn me into a self-destructive automaton. John Walton argues that the central point of the creation narrative is that the Lord God made a world that was meant to be his temple. Genesis 1 and 2 use language consistent with temple construction in an ancient Near Eastern context. God is communicating that humanity was meant to be his image bearers in his cosmic temple. That message would have been profound for the Israelites wandering the desert under Moses’s instruction, and that message is still profound for us today navigating a postmodern secularist culture.
Reconstruction with biblical and cultural truths
So what do I say now to my two-year old (who has become a five-year old) about the dinosaurs? I teach him to love God and to be amazed by nature, and I hope those things come together in thoughtful conversations one day when he is older. I have come to believe that the Christian church has operated out of a position of fear rather than faith for too long. Perhaps, as N.T. Wright claims in his book Surprised by Scripture, those attacking Christianity on scientific grounds have exposed a flank that needed to be exposed. He distinguishes evolution from “capital-E” Evolutionism that Christians often find indistinguishable. Evolutionism is the overreach of science to speak to metaphysical realities that the tools of science are not equipped to analyze. I am concerned that Evolutionism has become so prominent in our culture precisely because Christians have lacked the humble confidence to engage with evolution without the fear of upending their faith. John MacArthur, a prominent Evangelical leader, has written “The evolutionary lie is so pointedly antithetical to Christian truth that it would seem unthinkable for evangelical Christians to compromise with evolutionary science in any degree.” Frankly, I completely disagree with that statement. BioLogos is helping me to see that as Christians we must engage with Evolutionism’s lie while we learn to probe the mystery of God’s working in creation.
Sadly, many in my generation have not found the Christian mentors, teachers, pastors, and friends they needed to save their faith when it is challenged by the implications of evolution. Researchers for the Barna Group have emphasized in You Lost Me and Faith for Exiles that young people either sense or experience the inability to safely express doubts which ultimately leads them to be discipled into disbelief by non-parental sources and to fake the faith until a time when they feel free to make their own decisions. Millennials describe this sort of encounter with doubt as a “deconstruction” experience, and the internet is filled with articles, podcasts, and blog posts in which people describe the process of deconstruction that led them to abandon their faith. I have been through my own kind of deconstruction, but I have learned, thanks to many BioLogos resources, that the more important process is that of reconstruction. I have learned how to reconstruct my faith by seeing the Bible more richly and boldly in its original context which allows us to peer into the mystery of God revealing himself to humanity. I have learned not to be afraid of science by seeing more clearly that what the Bible is communicating is an impenetrable story of God’s work to create, rescue and redeem the world with human image bearers acting with him in and for the world.
There are parts of evolutionary creationism that I still find unsettling, but I am no longer afraid to look. I am compelled by N.T. Wright’s conference presentation “Christ & Creation” to imagine a God who, rather than working through a neat and tidy seven days of finite creation, worked through millions of years of loving, intentional, progressive change to bring us to the place where we are today. Perhaps, God is much less “efficient” than our modern, individualist, American mentality would like to accept. In Jesus, we see a God who spread himself out on the hard and infertile soils. Perhaps evolutionary creationism describes my own progress of sanctification. I am on—and I am calling my children to join me on—a long road of obedience that is making me like Christ. It is slower than I would like to admit. I wish that sanctification looked more like instantaneous re-creation, but I am comforted to know that God is no stranger to working through slow, progressive modification. That is the message I want my sons to know. I want them to know a God who is big enough for their doubts and powerful enough to transform them slowly over time into the men he would have them to be.
Recently, I had the opportunity to encounter an ancient hominid fossil from Kenya when I returned to Africa to serve in a mission hospital. A few years ago I would have turned my eyes and kept walking past such an exhibit, but this year I stopped to look at the figure for a while. This upright ancestor lived over a million years ago, but as I stood there and peered into the past I realized I was no longer afraid to look. I long to know God more deeply and raise my kids to love him to the fullest extent we can comprehend in this life. BioLogos doesn’t have all the answers on how to accomplish all of that, but they are helping me in that process.
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