In my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel, I comment that God respects us:
- God Respects You
Some of my more theologically inclined friends may be questioning this one, but God created humanity a little bit less than God (Psalm 8:4), and he allows human beings to make their own choices and plot their own course. He tries to communicate, but he doesnt force communication.
What I mean here by respect is that God allows us choices, but God also respects those choices. We often assume that God can do anything, and in His infinity, that is likely close to true. But when operating in finite space and time, God has to meet priorities. So the question is, what is God’s highest priority? Is it our safety and comfort? If it is, he should make the world “child-safe” so that we cannot injure ourselves or one another. On the other hand, suppose God valued our intelligence and independent decision making more than our comfort. In that case, he would have to allow our decisions to be independent, to leave us to live with the results of our decisions. Every act taken to make us safer involves a constraint on our decision making or on respecting the consequences of those decisions.
It’s interesting that in responses to my book, two things have predominated. First, many have told me that they appreciate the book, but that they question (or are disturbed by) my support of evolution. Second, folks are interested in an expansion of my views on salvation and what it means, and this is a key element of that second point. The two points are related. In the process of salvation, God respects human choices, and in the process of biological evolution, God respects the freedom of his creation.
This principle is expressed in Galatians 6:7, “. . . you reap whatever you sow” (NRSV). A great deal more theology is built on the earlier chapters of Galatians, but it is instructive to note that Paul ends his epistles generally by discussing the life of the Spirit–the change in life that is to take place in a follower of Jesus. When he does this, he makes it very clear that our choices and our actions are critical. I believe this principle of sowing and reaping applies on a much wider basis than we usually assume, and in fact applies even in issues of salvation.
For those who track “Henry’s heresies” I go past Arminian in my view of salvation and am at least semi-pelagian, if not fully pelagian in my theology. Since that’s a certified heresy, so to speak, you now have a clear case over which to make such an accusation. 🙂 Specifically, I believe that salvation is dependent on a free choice to put one’s trust in God, and that the resulting salvation includes, as something that is essential and not optional, a change or spiritual restoration in the individual. Thus people can make good choices and bad choices and that God respects those choices by allowing the results of such choice.
Would freedom truly be freedom if there were no consequences of actions, either positive or negative? I’m honestly not sure of the answer to that question. I am certain that freedom would be quite meaningless. Yet frequently the Christian theology of prayer seems to imply that God should alleviate or eliminate the results of our own choices. This can go even further when people pray that a hurricane be turned aside from them, or that it simply be completely dispersed. But such dangerous weather patterns are actually a positive part of the environment, though they are terribly inconvenient for us. (For more of my views on prayer see The Hand of God, The Hand of God: Miracles, and The Hand of God: Prayer.)
So what does all of this have to do with evolution? It is very common for Christian advocates of evolution to indicate that evolutionary thinking does not make any difference to theology, that a Christian can accept evolutionary theory without it having any impact on faith. Depending on one’s starting point, that may or may not be true. Young earth creationists, for example, assume an early “good” state, that they believe is described in Genesis, in which there was no death and sin. They assume that all death entered the world with sin. In order to accept evolutionary theory, they would have to change that view. One might decide that spiritual death entered the world along with sin, but that physical death happened all along.
This is one issue on which old earth creationists face the same problem as do theistic evolutionists, with one difference. Old earth creationists would have to explain why God would use a progressive form of special creation in which so much death was required, when death is not actually part of the creation process. What is the purpose of life, death, and major extinction events, if repeated interventions on God’s part are nonetheless required to produce new categories of creatures.
But there are two issues that stand out. Inefficiency in creation via evolution and the extreme violence of the process, as animal eats animal. I’m obviously not the first to notice this.
There, indeed, those who flatter themselves with the notion of reading the purposes of the Creator in his works ought in consistency to have seen grounds for inferences from which they have shrunk. If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals. They have been lavishly fitted out with the instruments necessary for that purpose; their strongest instincts impel them to it and many of them seem to have been constructed incapable of supporting themselves by any other food. — John Stuart Mill, On Nature
In addition, I have heard this particular objection in many private conversations. What does it say about God if he used such a violent method to produce diversity? Well, in my view, the evidence is in, and biological evolution, variation + natural selection, is the means by which he chose to diversify life. From the point of view of theology, the question is simply to ask what this reality means.
Young earth creationists can defend against this charge of violence by saying that God created things good, but that they have been messed up by sin. Thus they hope to avoid the problem. God does things well, but they have been corrupted. I would like young earth creationists to construct a model of an “ecology” in which nothing dies and no creature eats another one. They could follow that up by constructing a world in which there actually was choice, but nobody every made a less than optimal one. (I think the latter is possible, but suspect the world would be pretty boring.)
Even if we don’t find it troubling that animals devour one another, what about people? When human beings are involved we call it the “problem of evil.” The focus of this question is often the holocaust, though human history provides plenty of examples of human beings oppressing, torturing, and killing one another. I find it interesting that it is difficult for some people to stomach the notion of myriads of animals killing one another over millions of years, yet somehow manage to deal with the number of people who have killed one another in the world’s history. One explanation is that God is doing this for a demonstration to the universe (presumably people on other worlds) about the nastiness of sin, but one would have to wonder just how dense the “universe” is if it takes this long to figure out that there’s a problem. I think there actually is some light in the “demonstration to the universe” view, but I think we need to go a bit further.
As I suggested before, while we may call God “good,” we need to reexamine our understanding of God’s priorities. It seems pretty clear to me that God’s priority on the preservation of physical life is a bit lower than ours. If God chose to diversify life by having creatures compete for limited resources, then he made it necessary that the results of various actions of the creatures, and numerous random factors, be negative and even fatal. The freedom of creation is more important than its comfort. Now in this latter case “freedom” doesn’t mean the same thing as in conscious choices, but the same principle is involved. Action produces reaction. Choices, conscious or not, have consequences.
Thus to me the fact that God chose natural selection as the guiding force in diversifying life suggests that God puts a high priority on freedom, and that he does not choose to alter reality for our comfort or to protect us from the results of our own choices, or from more or less random factors such as destructive weather or earthquakes.
This adds a division to miracles, as I discuss in my Hand of God essays (see links above). God likes the natural laws by which he manages the universe. We should not expect miracles to alter that reality for our convenience, nor should we expect them to be necessary to alter the processes of nature or the production of life. The key miracle, apart from existence itself, is that God reaches out to communicate with us. I would also expect that such communication would not be forceful; that God would not intervene to directly alter our minds and understanding.
Let me add a note here. In any basic course in the Philosophy of Religion, students are presented with the problem of evil. God is omnipotent, God is good, yet there is evil. If God is good, one would assume that he would want to eliminate evil. If he omnipotent, he should be able to eliminate it. So what’s the solution? The professor will tell you that there is no way to deal with the problem without dealing with at least one of the legs of the triad. You can say God is not omnipotent, and so is unable to eliminate evil. You can say “good” means something other than what we commonly mean by it. Finally, we could decide that evil is not really so bad after all. In a sense, I have done all three here. First, I’ve suggested that God must have an order of priorities when acting in a finite realm; that limits omnipotence. He can’t create a world in which the results of creatures’ decisions are respected, and yet also make certain that everyone is comfortable. Second, “God is good” does not necessarily mean that God wants every small animal, or even every person to live a comfortable life. Third, by looking at the positive effects of hurricanes (and I’ve experienced a number of these lately!) I’ve questioned whether evil is really evil.
In this system the answer to the question of why the holocaust took place is that evil people made evil choices and took evil actions, and that apathetic people made ineffective choices and did not prevent those evil actions. There were either an insufficient number of good people, or they also made choices that did not effectively stop the evil actions. The solution, therefore, is for people to learn to make better choices. If God solves this problem, he will do so by communication, but the choices and the actions will remain with people. Taking the “reaping what you sow” principle seriously means that we can’t assume that God will come and solve our problems for us. God is expecting us to take responsible action ourselves.
Thus evolution shows to us a God who allows freedom in his creation. It’s not a safe universe, but it is an interesting one.