Christianity has a bitter history with the sciences. We accused Galileo and Copernicus of heresy. We reviled Darwin for exalting himself above Genesis. Then we fought him fiercely for 150 years in a war that has taken far too many casualties.
Even today, we are engaged in battle with contemporary science about sexual orientation, stem cell research and the precise beginnings of life in the womb. But the conflict is not simply between Christian brethren and their heathen counterparts.
Even among evangelicals, there is a heated and sometimes unruly debate between Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth Creationists, Progressive Creationists and members of the Intelligent Design movement.
For a community of peacemakers, we have a disturbing history of conflict when it comes to our Creator.
God and Darwin have been pitted against each other for a century and a half, to the point where spectators have grown tired of waiting for a verdict.
In his New York Times bestselling memoir, Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller captures the existential angst of being innocent evangelical bystanders to the intellectual arguments of the high-minded.
He says, “Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now its about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”
Miller’s indifference is understandable, but in recent times a new breed of thinkers are asking whether the conflict between science and the Bible—particularly Genesis and Evolution—is nothing more than alleged or superficial, giving rise to theistic evolution as an alternative explanation for the origin of life.
As it is, creationists are at odds with each other—some believing in a literal six-day creation and others accepting the present, longer scientific age of the earth—but theistic evolution takes the debate into a direction few of us could have foreseen.
When we speak of evolution, a vital distinction needs to be made between metaphysical and scientific naturalism. We ought to be suspicious of the former, which assumes that evolution can answer all our questions about life and dismisses the need or existence of a Creator.
Dr. Richard Dawkins, for instance, would believe that evolution turns the Bible into a collection of fairy tales. However, Dr. Francis Collins, a theistic evolutionist, believes that scientific naturalism does not pose a threat to Genesis. On the other hand Dr. Philip Johnson, the father of the Intelligent Design movement, believes there is an irreconcilable conflict between scientific naturalism and the Bible. There once were only two bulls in the ring. Now there are three. And its hard to tell who’s winning.
Genesis itself remains suspiciously silent. Its pre-scientific in time and non-scientific in purpose. It was written by a prophet to a newborn Jewish community to introduce them to their Creator.
To take Genesis from the wilderness into the laboratory is to undermine the heart of its message to the world—that God is our Creator who made us in His image and called us to be stewards of His creation. That is where our trumpet must sound the loudest.
There is a danger in equating Genesis with a scientific theory. When Genesis 1-2 is used as a banner for our scientific persuasion, whether creationism, theistic evolution or intelligent design, the debate itself becomes meaningless. We’ve sold our horse to buy a cart.
The tragedy is that evolution frightens far too many of us into silence. For many Christians, belief in God requires a rejection of evolution. This puts enormous pressure on Christians, who don’t have a scientific bone in their body, to prove their evolutionist friends wrong and win them over to Christ, even if they know nothing about creationism or evolution to begin with.
These Christians who have found life in Christ are unable to share their faith because they simply don’t know how to get past the scientific questions. Its been ingrained in them that science and the Bible are at odds with each other and ironically, its the promising message of Genesis that suffers the consequences.
With that in mind, theistic evolution is a liberating choice for scientific people who believe that evolution is true and for non-scientific people who are least bothered by how God made the world, just as long as He did it.
Along with its competitors, the view is still wrestling for acceptance and fighting for favor, but it is giving freedom, comfort and harmony to thinking people who want to believe in God and evolution, without feeling guilty about it.
Theistic evolutionists take a position of “no-conflict” and argue that, as a scientific theory, evolution is neither theistic nor atheistic.
In fact, when On the Origin of Species was published, Asa Gray, a leading Harvard botanist and devout Christian wrote to Charles Darwin. He said the Bible always told him that God made the world, but it never said how He did it.
Gray confessed that Darwin’s theory offered a possible answer to his nagging questions. Darwin may have had Gray in mind when said in a letter, “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”.
Dr. Francis Collins, a preeminent biologist whom US President Obama selected to be the Director of the National Institute of Health, says, “I see no conflict in what the Bible tells me about God and what science tells me about nature. Like St. Augustine in A.D. 400, I do not find the wording of Genesis 1 and 2 to suggest a scientific textbook but a powerful and poetic description of God’s intentions in creating the universe. The mechanism of creation is left unspecified.”
Needless to say, the idea that God would use apes to turn us into men is offensive and absurd to many evangelicals. Theistic evolution, like its competition, has its own set of unanswered questions and theological problems.
First of all, it raises the question of death before sin and the fall of man. Furthermore, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says “For one thing, there’s the issue of human ‘descent’. Evangelicals must absolutely affirm the special creation of humans in God’s image, with no physical evolution from any non-human species. Just as important, the Bible clearly teaches that God is involved in every aspect and moment in the life of His creation and the universe. That rules out the image of a kind of divine watchmaker.”
Other concerns relate to the consequences of giving credibility to evolutionary thought. The implications of such affirmation are frightening for some to consider.
But despite its critics, the view has found acceptance among leading thinkers in the evangelical community, most notably Dr. Alister McGrath, Dr. John Polkinghorne, Dr. Alvin Platinga and the aforementioned, Dr. Francis Collins.
Even Billy Graham, a Genesis literalist, expressed openness to the idea. In his biography by David Frost and Fred Bauer, Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man, he says, “…I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man….whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.”
As thinking Christians, we have a lot to chew on. Ultimately, the diversity of opinion on the creation story is not a cause for concern, but rather a challenge to character. To a community that were fighting over spiritual gifts, God says if they have not love, they have nothing.
Jesus’ poignant new command to His divided disciples was to love each other as He had loved them. But our history of bitter conflict harshly testifies against us. Its a sobering thought to consider that, in our efforts to honor our Creator, we might have misrepresented His character by our incessant infighting.
We would do well to learn from our tragic history of conflict and be gracious with each other. There is perhaps no better way to honor our Creator than to reflect His grace to our dissenters, whether or not they trace their ancestry to apes.
Furthermore, theistic evolution removes a major intellectual obstacle for thinkers who are not convinced by creation science.
Ten years ago, I met an atheist who couldn’t accept the Christian view of creation. I felt bound by the urge to prove evolution wrong and couldn’t take the conversation beyond the debate. Over the years, I released my firm grip on creationism to be more welcoming, albeit uncommitted, to theistic evolution.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a seeker who firmly believed in the evolutionary theory. He asked me whether he would have to reject evolution if he turned to Christ. It felt liberating to tell him there was a diversity of opinion on the subject and that theistic evolution was one of the options on the table.
The conversation was unbound and we got to the heart of the message of Genesis, the character of God and the way He relates to humanity with unmerited favor.
Perhaps our conversations would be more fruitful if we moved from the peripheral questions of how we got here to the fundamental questions of why we are here. The writer of Genesis would weigh in heavily on that discussion.
Finally, perhaps the central conflict between science and the Bible has more to do with the heart than with the mind.
Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Richard Dawkins worked on the Human Genome Project together. Ironically, after the project, Collins wrote The Language of God to affirm the existence of God and Dawkins wrote the popular anthem for atheism, The God Delusion.
Both believe in scientific evolutionary theory, but one wants to delete God and the other wants to worship Him.
The psalmist says the heavens proclaim the glory of God. Every nation can hear its voice if they tune their ears to the song the sky is singing, every day and in every language.
Paul tells the Romans that God’s eternal qualities are clearly seen by those who can see with their hearts.
The Bible calls us to marvel at our creative Maker who redeems us after we have fallen and restores us by His grace into the likeness of His Son. All else is debatable, and will be so to the end.
Image Credit: National Institutes of Health Library