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Steve Lemke
 on December 28, 2012

Southern Baptist Voices: Evolution and the Problem of Evil

Steve Lemke shares his concerns about Theistic Evolution's ability to address the Problem of Evil, and BioLogos responds to these concerns.

Part 4 of 8 in Southern Baptist Voices

Steve Lemke shares his concerns about Theistic Evolution's ability to address the Problem of Evil, and BioLogos responds to these concerns.

The Southern Baptist Voices series is a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses. The series came out of conversations between Dr. Darrel Falk and Dr. Kenneth Keathley, Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as a way to address concerns and arguments about BioLogos’ theology.

Because this article from Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, is the last in a nearly year-long project, and brings together many of the concerns expressed by his colleagues (not to mention many non-academic Christians), we’re handling the response in a slightly different manner than we have in the previous exchanges. Instead of posting a separate response, we’ve chosen to highlight how the conversation has developed over these past months by including pertinent links to previous exchanges within the article itself and by responding to Dr. Lemke’s key points (indented with italics).

As (now former) BioLogos President Darrel Falk explains in his concluding post, we think this method shows how prescient Dr. Lemke was when he wrote this paper early on in our dialogue, and how the conversation itself has suggested ways forward in many of the key areas of concern he cites.

Let me begin by expressing appreciation for the commitment and intent of BioLogos. Francis Collins was speaking at nearby Tulane University a couple of years ago when my son was a senior in high school, and I brought him along to hear this noted Christian biologist’s presentation to help prepare him for challenges he would experience (as he is now) in college. This is a tremendously valuable ministry. However, as a philosopher and a theologian I do have concerns about some of the theological implications of the BioLogos theistic evolution view, particularly regarding the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is one of the most persistent and intuitive challenges to the Christian faith and the existence of God. The classic defenses or theodicies that have been used to answer this challenge include the Freewill Defense (God is not responsible for much of evil because it is caused by the free actions of humans), the Soul Making Defense (God allows or sends some evils or suffering in order to build human character in overcoming adversity), and the Eschatological Defense (although the cause of some suffering may be beyond our understanding, whatever suffering we may experience in this life cannot compare with an eternity of blessing in heaven).

These theodicies or defenses to the problem of evil, however, normally presuppose the standard view of divine creation. Were one to propose creation by means of theistic evolution, some of the presuppositions for these responses to the problem of evil no longer function. Therefore, advocating some form of theistic evolution poses problems for standard explanations of the problem of evil.

Cornelius Hunter has recently published Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil,1 an excellently researched book which re-examines Darwin’s motives for developing the theory of evolution. Hunter’s main thesis is that Darwin’s intent was not to undermine belief in the existence of God, but to afford a defense of God’s moral nature. The viciousness of nature caused Darwin and some of his contemporaries to desire to disconnect God’s role in creation from this viciousness in nature, and the blind process of natural selection is the vehicle for disassociating God from the vulgarities of nature. In essence, then, Hunter’s argument is that Darwin’s theory was a form of theodicy – sheltering God’s goodness against the accusation that He is the author of the evil in nature.

Hunter’s thesis sounds hauntingly similar to that of the early Gnostics, who sought to insulate God from the evil material world. They therefore proposed intermediary aeons, archetypes, or a demiurge to isolate the purity of God from the evil of nature. The Darwinian account sharply differs from the biblical account in at least three crucial ways:

  • The Darwinian account removes God from being directly involved in much of creation by utilizing natural processes instead, while the biblical account presents God as directly involved in the details of creation, both in the beginning and throughout history through his providential care.
  • The Darwinian account blurs the distinction between humans and other animals, while in Scripture humans are a distinctive and special creation.
  • The Darwinian account presents God as apathetic and disinterested in the moral status of animals, while the scriptural account presents God (though giving primary focus to humans) as vitally interested in the moral status of animals, and indeed for the redemption of the entire created world.

Another problem with Hunter’s thesis is that whatever Darwin’s original motivation might have been, the novelty of Hunter’s thesis underscores the fact that this is not how Darwin’s ideas predominantly have been used and understood. No one (including contemporary evolutionary biologists) seriously believes Darwin’s ideas as he presented them. Darwin’s ideas about evolution have themselves evolved. So even if Hunter’s thesis were correct about Darwin’s original motivation for the problem of natural selection, this has little relevance to contemporary evolutionary biology.

BioLogos’ Response: Although Darwin did relinquish his faith in the God of orthodox Christianity and the challenges outlined by Steve were central to the loss of that faith, as Steve himself goes on to point out, BioLogos is not Darwinian. In my response to William Dembski, I discussed how my views differ from those that might be classified as Darwinian: “I agree with Dembski that Darwin’s views were not theologically neutral. Darwin’s views on teleology, human exceptionalism, and miracles were not compatible with Christianity. Quite simply, this is why I do not consider my views to be Darwinian and why I am not a Darwinist.”

Any such Darwinian evolutionary biology also undermines classical defenses for God’s goodness. For example, the Christian group BioLogos has presented the perspective that God created all living organisms, including humans, through a gradual process that includes natural selection, group selection, genetic drift or other such physical processes, with God possibly intervening at some undefined points. While this BioLogos approach (which might be labeled a variety of “gradualism” with regard to creation) includes a role for God in creation (as opposed to pure Darwinian evolution), some of the same problems involved with the problem of evil pertain to the BioLogos view as well. In fact, the specific role that God plays in evolution remains somewhat vague and ill-defined. Without BioLogos providing a clearer and more precise differentiation between itself and Darwinian evolution – and thus building a clear “Chinese wall” between their view and that of Darwinian evolution—these views appear to be very close, and the problems that pertain to one view pertain to the other view (at least in part) as well.

BioLogos’ Response: This is true. At the time Steve wrote his paper, BioLogos had been too vague about this topic. Still, caution is required when offering scientific specifics about how God is acting in nature, because even Scripture itself is not specific as to the “how” of God’s actions. However, Part 1 of the response to William Dembski does address Steve’s concern and is summarized as follows: The Genesis narrative gives us no details about the mechanism by which God brought the universe and life into existence. God gave the charge: ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky…,’ ‘Let the waters bring forth…,’ ‘Let the land bring forth…,’ ‘Let the birds multiply…,’ and, in response, we are told, it happened. Scripture does not explain how it happened, although as we read God’s other book—the book of nature—we see that God’s work extended over a long period of time. In these details, the Bible does not say whether the ‘bringing forth was fulfilled through God’s natural activity (that which is regular, ongoing, and can be described by science) or God’s supernatural activity (that which is not regular and predictable). Given the many examples of supernatural activity in Scripture, we human beings tend to expect that for something as special as creation of stars or new species, supernatural activity would have been required. But we cannot derive this from the scriptural account and, therefore, it is wise not to second-guess how God might have worked based on the Scriptures.”

The following problems arise with regard to the problem of evil in relation to forms of creation by gradualism.

The Best of All Possible Worlds

First of all, it is incumbent upon a good God to produce an optimally good world. We could not necessarily expect an evil or morally mixed God to produce a good world, but we have every reason to expect a good and beneficent God (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 1:5, 4:7-8) to produce the “best of all possible worlds” (given human freewill). In the biblical account, therefore, the evil and suffering we witness in nature and in human experience is not accountable to God because of a defective process in creation, but rather it is a result of the moral Fall of the first humans and subsequent sin by their descendents. However, gradualism has no such vehicle to defend God against the accusation of being responsible for natural and physical evil and suffering.

BioLogos’ Response: Similarly, when Steve wrote this, we likely had not been careful enough to clearly lay out a statement about the BioLogos view on the historicity of Adam and Eve and the Fall. This is no longer the case. See, for example, our response to Kenneth Keathley: “Finally, then, whether or not Adam was a real person is a theological question, not a scientific one; the most science can say is that there was never a time when the human population from which all modern humans descended was as small as two individuals. This fact obviously creates interesting questions regarding the image of God and original sin, but nothing in evolutionary biology precludes the possibility that God began a covenantal relationship with a real, historical first couple who brought about spiritual death as a result of their disobedience.”

Human Distinctiveness

Second, if God created all living species, including humans, through a gradual evolutionary process that includes common descent from nonhuman primates, there is no clear line to draw a moral or spiritual distinction between humans and other living beings.

BioLogos’ Response: This Southern Baptist Voices series has given us the opportunity to clarify our views on human distinctiveness, as well. In fact we believe there is a clear line between humankind and animals, as described in our response to William Dembski: “Even if all that Darwin says here were more or less true, it would still say nothing about that which makes humans truly exceptional, because—our linguistic and cognitive abilities aside—what makes us truly exceptional has less to do with biology than with the fact that God chose to enter into a unique relationship with humankind.  Dembski paraphrases an ideologically strict Darwinian view of man as ‘not worthy of special divine attention, and with no prerogatives above the rest of the animal world.’ But Christians recognize that our material ordinariness is radically transformed by the presence and promises of God. Exactly as with the people of Israel among the nations, so humans among the animals: our special identity rests in the free choice of the Creator to give us his himself and his name. If we recognize that human specialness rests on God’s fellowship with and call upon us, and that we—alone of all creatures—are enabled by God to bear his image in the world, then anything Darwin said about the physical continuity between humans and animals is irrelevant.  In the way that matters most, we are not continuous with animals. For philosophical and theological reasons, Darwin did not recognize this. Darwin, I believe, was wrong.  I, like Dembski and like Southern Baptists in general, am not a Darwinist.”

Yet fundamental to any view of a moral universe is the belief that humans are created in the image of God in a way that is uniquely above all other sensate species (Ps. 8:4-8), and included in this image is our soul and our moral capacity. It is difficult to imagine how humans could receive the image of God through some sort of physical process. Instead, the Bible describes God as being directly and personally involved in creating the human soul by breathing it into mankind (Gen. 2:7).

BioLogos’ Response: To understand our thinking on the “image of God,” consider Tim O’Connor’s response to John Hammett: “The Christian Scriptures teach that we human beings have been created in God’s image. What does that mean? I am in substantial agreement with Dr. Hammett on this question. While I think that bearing God’s image involves our having or having a potentiality for certain basic psychological capacities that we associate with the term ‘person’, it has to do even more profoundly with our specific capacity for relationship with God. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is not just our having this capacity that makes us divine ikons, it is also the fact that God has activated this capacity—He has given the precious gift of His self-disclosure to us. Further still, it has an eschatological dimension, based on the revealed promise of a future development and perfection of each of us, and so by implication, of human nature itself, by almighty God. We are in the process of becoming fully human: beyond a descriptive biological or even psychological notion of human nature lies a teleological one—not a telos of nature but of God’s loving purposes for us. Despite our unequally born deficits—physical, cognitive, emotional, and moral/spiritual—we are destined for a fuller, supernatural realization of our common nature.”

In the specific language of the biblical account (if not to be discounted, allegorized, or completely ignored), God created human souls directly, not indirectly through some impersonal process. Gradualism offers no clear answer as to how a human soul reflecting the image of God could come about; in fact, such a unique thing in all of creation is everything but gradual or natural.

BioLogos’ Response: We have expanded on this subject, as well. Consider Robert Bishop’s response to Bruce Little: “Jesus’ human life in Scripture indicates that the divine image is a special relationship, or form of relationality: to be in relationship with the Father as a created, embodied person; to be sustained or upheld in this relationship with the Father through the perfecting Spirit; and to be in relationship with other persons and all of creation. Moreover, this special relationship is also a vocation to mirror or reflect the glory, life and worship of God. If to be the image of God is to be sustained in a special relationship with the Father, each other and creation through the Spirit, then the imago Dei is not grounded in intrinsic qualities that particularly mark humans as distinct from the rest of the animals, as essentialism would have it. Christians can understand Genesis 1: 24-31 and 2: 4-5, as many of the Patristic Fathers did, as an account of our unity and connection with the rest of creation as well as of our special relationship with God and role in God’s kingdom. So if Father, Son and Spirit created human beings through evolutionary processes, we would have continuity and connection with all of creation while still being the imago Dei. Evolution does not threaten human specialness before God unless it is viewed as a replacement for divine creative activity (which, of course, is what Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and Answers in Genesis all do repeatedly).

Whence Cometh Freedom?

Thirdly, even if God intervened at various points in theistic evolution to create new forms from which other species evolve, this does not afford a satisfactory account of human freewill. If humans are not a unique and distinct creation (as the biblical account makes quite clear), but are with other apes the product of a single ancestor, from whence did freewill arise? How can we account for some mutations having freewill and others not having it?

Some quasi-materialists propose some form of epiphenomenalism in which the mind emerges somewhat magically from material cells. This proposal is devoid of any convincing scientific evidence, but it is the only alternative left for materialists to espouse in order to account for some of the most basic human intuitions – that our minds are more than merely a physical organ, that our choices are genuine expressions of freewill, and that we are free moral agents who are responsible for our actions.

Evolutionary biology has no scientific evidence to respond to these basic human intuitions other than to assert that “there is no ghost in the machine” and that any apparent choices are actually mechanical outworking of hard determinism predetermined by prior physical causes. Therefore, if human choices are merely illusions, humans cannot be held morally accountable, all blame and responsibility reverts back to the God who created this world.

BioLogos’ Response: Actually, science has shown that new properties emerge as we move from the very small components of a system to the system as a whole. We are, even according to mainstream science, more than the sum of our parts, and more than reductionists would have us believe. Tim O’Connor addresses this point in his response to John Hammett: “Many of the spectacular successes of twentieth-century science consisted in showing how certain ‘high-level’ features (liquidity and other molecular properties; biological life itself) can be seen to result directly from the properties and interactions of lower-level entities. These theories are elegant and persuasive on the evidence. However, alongside such reductionist successes we have seen the rise of the sciences of complex systems, which appear to indicate the importance of higher-level features of organized systems acting as fundamental constraints upon the lower-level behavior of the very entities that compose them. How exactly we should understand such ‘emergent’ or ‘holistic’ features in different sorts of complex physical systems is a hotly debated question by theorists. I would claim only that it is especially plausible to see human consciousness and the capacities that it enables as metaphysically irreducible to—something ‘over and above’—the underlying physical properties that give rise to them.”

The Problem of Pain

Fourth, gradualism has no moral explanation for animal pain. If humans are the product of an earlier ancestor, it may have taken thousands or millions of years for life to evolve to that point, or for humans to evolve from an earlier primate ancestor. How can the pain of these creatures (some of them quasi-human or proto-human) be justified? This is specifically the issue that worries many Christian ethicists about cloning. Each experiment in animal cloning has produced hundreds of “monsters” before the clone is successful. What if we were cloning humans? What would be the moral implications of creating hundreds of “monsters” just to develop one clone?

BioLogos’ Response: Although the problem of pain is an extremely difficult issue, it is not clear that it rules out the possibility of God having chosen to create through the evolutionary process. In Jeff Schloss’s response to John Hammett, he wrote: “The possibility of pain may be requisite to that of fulfillment, or death may be conjoined to life as a function of metaphysical, logical, or biotic necessity. Death and its pains may be fully consoled, and necessary for the experience of consolation, in a life to come. The existence of death, in a finite world, may be a necessary form of ‘taking turns’ so that both the number and the diversity of creatures that experience and manifest life are maximized. The capacity for pain and the possibility of relinquishing life itself may present the option—even to animals—for the most morally salient and fullest expression of life’s goodness: caring for others to the point of sacrifice. None of these approaches is problem-free, though neither does it appear that any may be dismissed out-of-hand.”

The unanimous view is that this would be morally unjustifiable, but this is uncannily similar to the notion of creating animals who suffer for millions of years before evolution finally produced humans.

BioLogos’ Response: Significantly, Jeff Schloss’s response to John Laing is entitled “The Evolutionary Role of Death and Natural Selection.” If one was to read only one posting in the entire series, I think it is likely that this is the one I would most recommend. Jeff very briefly summarizes some recent developments in evolutionary biology including evidence for the significance of cooperation between individuals (as opposed to competition) as a shaping force in life’s history. He draws things to a conclusion by stating, “Scientifically death does not ‘drive’ evolution.” (Emphasis in the original.) 

In the biblical creation accounts, pain and suffering comes into the world after the Fall and as a result of the Fall of the earliest humans, and thus God is absolved of direct responsibility for this pain. In this gradualist account, pain and suffering precede the Fall. Millions of generations of sensate beings would have suffered and died before the Garden of Eden. Why would God allow this suffering of innocents for millions of years?

BioLogos’ Response: We do not believe there is a clear answer to this question. However, Jeff’s response to Laing summarizes both our sentiments and the incompleteness of our knowledge this way: “Unlike John, I do not see anything in evolutionary theory to reduce, and I see much to augment the sense of grandeur and (for that matter) the appreciation of sheer goodness—both earthly and divine—evoked by the wonders of the living world. Yet grandeur and goodness are not perfection. My Dad is still dying. I still wince at the suffering of clearly sentient animals. And, truth be told, I tremble at the biblical images of universal herbivory: even metaphors are metaphors of something, and in the case of biblical revelation, that something can be taken to be real and important. So like John, I confess to profound gratitude tempered with a lingering unease at the state of nature. Though I believe in a Fall, this unease is not rationally relieved by attributing to an Adam the present state of all nature. Nor is it resolved by the various alternative considerations I’ve described and which, taken together, seem to have considerable merit but not sufficiency. Notwithstanding, I thankfully affirm that ‘I have known the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.’ And I look to the day when we may say together, ‘My ears had heard of You, but now my eyes have seen You’ (Job 42:5).”

Ironically, Hunter’s Darwinian explanation in Darwin’s God doesn’t work for the BioLogos perspective at this point, because God is somewhat more directly involved at several steps in creation than in the purely Darwinian perspective, so it is God who must shoulder the blame for this undeserved pain.

BioLogos’ Response: In Schloss’s response to John Laing, he states that “It is not clear that evolution puts God on the hook in any way that is not generated by the long-recognized, wondrous-though-uncertain testimony of creation itself. As Blaise Pascal noted, ‘If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ, and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity…’” 

Another attempt to affirm a gradualist view of creation in which pain preceded the creation of humans was by William Dembski, who in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World2 proposed that the animal world existed in pain for millennia before the creation of humans, and thus the pain of these animals was applied retroactively from the later Fall (pp. 9-10). This proposal was not well received by many in the evangelical world because it depicts God causing pain to sensate beings even before the cause of the pain took place, and Dembski ultimately felt compelled to post a clarification of his views.3 So, the reality of animal pain before the Fall in the gradualist account of creation heightens the problem of evil rather than resolving it.

Death and the Nature of God

Fifth, in orthodox Christian theology, death is seen as the ultimate punishment for the Fall of Adam and Eve. There was a time of created goodness from when humankind has fallen. All human suffering, animal suffering, natural disasters, and death was ultimately the result of the God’s punishment for human sin, the curse after the Fall as described in Genesis 3.

BioLogos’ Response: Here is Jeff Schloss’s take on this issue: “Although all Christians have traditionally affirmed resurrection (for both the redeemed and unredeemed), there have been longstanding debates about whether the life that is redemptively restored in Christ and the death that is brought about by sin is ‘spiritual’ (involving the vitality or disruption of communion with God) or ‘physical’ (involving the viability or dissolution of biotic function). Of course these are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps they are not even ultimately distinguishable. But however one understands death to be an incursion upon human telos, it does not answer or even clearly bear upon the evolution-related question of whether other living beings beyond and before humans were created to be immortal. ‘Violence’ in western thought has often been understood as a disruption of natural ends: but do we assume that all creatures share the same ‘natural end’? For instance, is the nature or telos of worms immortality? Is death a violation of all creaturely natures that was therefore absent from earth prior to initial human intimacy with and subsequent estrangement from God? Significantly, not a single one of the scriptures John cites explicitly refers or even vaguely alludes to the general place of death in the natural order: virtually every one emphatically focuses on death as a consequence of sin for uniquely human moral agents, and—correspondingly—on eternal life as God’s special purpose for supernaturally redeemed humanity. Indeed, I am at a loss to find in the entire Bible a scripture that clearly teaches death across the entire biotic realm postdates and is a consequence of human sin. Neither is this point affirmed or even mentioned in the most prominent historic creeds of Christian orthodoxy.”

However, in the gradualist evolutionary account, there is no Fall.

BioLogos’ Response: Lemke’s concerns about the reality of Adam, Eve, and Eden in this section are best answered with this brief statement from our response to Keathley: “[N]othing in evolutionary biology precludes the possibility that God began a covenantal relationship with a real, historical first couple who brought about spiritual death as a result of their disobedience.”

If anything, there is a “rise,” as human beings “come of age” and become morally responsible at some point in the process of evolution from prehuman primates. There are multiple problems with this proposal from a theological perspective:

  • It is one thing to apply symbolic interpretations to the first three chapters of Genesis; it is another to eliminate the historical reality of the Fall altogether. (See BioLogos response).
  • In the biblical view of creation, God creates humans in a paradisical Eden, and humans are ejected from Eden after their sin. In the gradualist view (See BioLogos response), there never was an Eden, and humans never enjoyed the kind of original created goodness described in Scripture.
  • In the biblical view of creation, separation from God and death are the punishments for human sin. In the gradualist view, there never was an Edenic paradise, and persons were created to die. Sin has no real causal connection with physical death.
    BioLogos’ Response: As Jeff Schloss reminds us in his response, “Although commentators differ over whether the Pauline description of death in Romans 5 refers to spiritual and/or physical death, the passage clearly focuses on humans. It identifies humanity as the subject of infection, instigated and promulgated by initial and ongoing human sin: ‘in this way death came to all people, because all sinned’ (Romans 5:12).”
  • In the biblical view of creation, humans were created “a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). In the gradualist view, humans emerged from previously created nonhuman primates. This is a profound re-envisioning and diminishment of the Christian anthropology found in the Bible.
    BioLogos’ Response: Darrel Falk put it this way: “Christians recognize that our material ordinariness is radically transformed by the presence and promises of God. Exactly as with the people of Israel among the nations, so humans among the animals: our special identity rests in the free choice of the Creator to give us his himself and his name. If we recognize that human specialness rests on God’s fellowship with and call upon us, and that we—alone of all creatures—are enabled by God to bear his image in the world, then anything Darwin said about the physical continuity between humans and animals is irrelevant.”
  • The Bible describes God creating a beautiful paradisicial Eden with sinless humans, which was lost only because of human rebellion and sin. The gradualist account posits God creating a substandard world that had to evolve to reach even the sad levels of contemporary life. This imperfect creation reflects on the nature of God. Why would a perfectly good God create such an imperfect world? Why or how could a moral God create humans to be already fallen? Orthodox Christian theology affirms that God is already perfect in all His attributes, and does not evolve or change in His essence. The theology more apposite to the gradualist account is Process Theology, in which evolution in creation mirrors evolution within God himself, as he moves from a powerful but imperfect being toward a more perfect being. In fact, Process Theology was designed with a view to harmonizing Christian theology with evolutionary presuppositions. But Process Theology is not held to be orthodox by most evangelical Christians, particularly with regard the nature and perfection of God.
    BioLogos’ Response: We think this last significant issue raised by Dr. Lemke shows just how important this Southern Baptist Voices Series has been, because it highlights the fact that many of the theological concerns raised here do not emerge from the scientific data about life’s origins or the discipline of evolutionary biology. There are surely theologians who look at creation this way, but to the extent they do so, their views emerge from their own theological considerations; they are not obligatory extrapolations which emerge from the science itself.

At the core of the Christian worldview is the biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, and redemption. The evolutionary gradualist perspective radically rewrites this standard Christian account by essentially merging the creation and fall into a single event. Humans were created as finite and fallen, not placed in a paradise with created righteousness. This gradualist approach squares well with an evolutionary account, but it does not square well with the biblical creation accounts in Scripture.

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