Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution

Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution

There are two extremes in how Christians respond to the possible theological implications of evolutionary theory once they are convinced that the theory of evolution is valid. The first is to claim that there are no implications whatsoever. This is represented by the statement: “The Bible tells us that God created; science tells us how he did it.” The second is to grab evolutionary theory and run with it, extracting implications about God all over the place.

The weakness of the first option, in my view, is that evolution does have implications for theology. Mass extinctions don’t go well with the idea that God created the world, put it in the care of humanity, and expected humanity to exercise responsible dominion over it. I’m not saying the two notions can’t be reconciled, but one has to stop at thing, at the very least.

The weakness of the second option is the same as for those who draw philosophical implications from evolutionary theory. What is may not be the same as what ought to be. What we observe may not be a sufficient sample of God’s activity to allow us to extrapolate large amounts about his character.

My inclination, nonetheless, is to the second option. Evolutionary theory has profoundly influenced elements of my theology, including my views of death, of the directness of God’s care and intervention, of the nature of the fall, and even of redemption. I don’t say they are altered to the point of being unrecognizable, though a critic or two might say so, but I don’t think the same thing about them as I did when I was a young earth creationist.

Is cautious iconoclasm an oxymoron? Perhaps. Some people claim my self identification as a “passionate moderate” is as well. What good is language if you can’t play with it? (Don’t answer that!)

Steve Martin posts about the problem of death as God’s tool for Christian theology. Let me note that Steve’s blog is a great source of information on theological controversies related to evolution and a great source for theistic evolutionists or evolutionary creationists.

But I have a bit of a problem with something he quotes. He’s blogging on the book Paradigms on Pilgrimage, which I must surely get my hands on. Here I’m just responding to the single point, represented by this quote, which is Martin’s summary:

It is not primarily evolutionary mechanisms like genetic mutations, or even natural selection, which is the problem. It is in fact, the limited amount of resources available to God’s creatures.

(You can read more extended quotes in the post cited above.)

I’m afraid I really don’t get this one. It’s a nice way of talking around the point, but the fact is that if there wasn’t a differential in the rates of survival, new mutations would not become fixed in the population. (Perhaps some of my more scientifically inclined readers can correct me on this.) Yes, it is the variation that allows creatures to survive changing environments, but it is the limitation of resources, and the changing environments that cause one set of characteristics to persist rather than another.

In other words, death is a tool, whether inflicted by falling logs, lack of food, or changing environment. You can name the tool something else, but the same thing still occurs. If God was as concerned with the death of creatures as I believed he was when I was a young earth creationist (sparrows falling, though note that the scriptures just say God sees, not that he prevents), then he could not use this mechanism.

It seems dangerous to me to try to brush past the implications, and on first glance this looks like an effort to do so, or at least an attempt to frame the issue in a more favorable light. The wording sounds nicer, but the creatures are still dying, and evolution would not occur if they didn’t. Similarly, I think, one could look at a hurricane as the cause of new life, and in fact such “disasters” have a role to play in the environment. But looking at them that way doesn’t cause them to leave less death behind.

14 thoughts on “Dealing with the Theological Implications of Evolution

  1. Yes, death is necessary or we’d be in a closed system where entropy would prevent life from ever emerging. Death and reproduction recycle matter and recombine it and refresh it– whether by eating/excreting/rebuilding cells or by limiting lifespans and reproductive cycles to keep the gene pool fresh and allowing for adaptations to emerge. But we are in denial about this. I’m not blogging much this summer because I’m wrestling with this honestly. If death is such an essential tool, why do we pretend it isn’t and why do we base our religion on a diety that we don’t get to meet face to face until we become disembodied — when all evidence points to consciousness as a property that depends on biological processes? There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance when we honestly face the necessity of death within the biological and physical laws of this universe. And that’s precisely why it’s dangerous to face the strength of the evidence that evolution is true.

    For New Creation to happen, all the laws of this universe will have to change. Without death we will necessarily exist in a closed system, and I’m not sure that qualifies as life. Thoughts? Please don’t be too hard on me! I’m just now having the courage to face questions that have been crawling around the back of my mind for my whole life.

    1. I won’t be too hard on you. 🙂 Those are good questions. What I would suggest is remembering that our conceptions of God and the afterlife may themselves be in need of adjustment. Basically, keep all options open.

      A time of questioning is good.

    2. Kathy, I understand your viewpoint on this, and can sympathize. I’m working through many of the same issues, but consider it OK to struggle with it (Phil 2:12).

      I wonder if we sometimes take too critical a view of life processes, focusing on the negative aspects without considering the positive. Its easy to try and project human emotions and feelings onto all life, and say the futility we sometimes feel must be felt by the struggling organisms that have come before. To use a crass analogy, my dogs always seem happy or complacent, even when ill. They don’t know that with each breath their life is getting shorter, and don’t seem to worry about it. Is their life not worth living because they will be viewed, in 2 million years or so, as just one of the struggling organisms that lived solely to contribute to the gene pool at that future time?

      The problem really comes with self-awareness; I know the system is built upon death, and I must die. I don’t want to die. Knowing that I must is the basis of Pain, as fear and dread enter into the equation. Perhaps only a cruel god would allow a creature to develop who knows its fate. It seems certain that only a loving God would provide an antidote for that most difficult situation in something as simple as faith.

      Our observation of the natural world informs our view, and must inform our theology as Henry points out. But our natural world is bigger than our observations, and the implications of certain theoretical concepts (string theory, parallel universes, etc.) will modify our understanding more once they are proven. Until that time, using theology and theoretical cosmology to reconcile what seems irreconcilable is certainly acceptable.

      I classify myself as a conservative Christian, so there is a bit of trepidation proposing what might seem to be “malleable doctrine”. But Christianity has always been about truth, and reasoning toward the truth (our founder never wrote anything down, so from the beginning, we had to debate and decide even the most basic aspects of our faith). Theology, our “observation” of God, must evolve just as our cosmology evolves.

    3. “all evidence points to consciousness as a property that depends on biological processes”

      What evidence, Kathy? I haven’t seen any real scientific evidence linking consciousness to anything biological, although I know that Roger Penrose has published some speculations in this area.

  2. Hi Henry,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments on my post. I agree that evolution does have implications for the Christian faith, and that we need to re-examine some of our theological assumptions. In an earlier post, Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation Part 2: 5 common Faith Stoppers I did summarize my view on the theological challenges. After briefly reviewing how I personally reconciled these challenges, I listed 5 other challenges that I still find difficult. (Actually, I feel I’ve now made progress on some of these).

    The point I made in Part 1: Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation: An Introduction, was that evolution actually has some positive implications for Christian theology. The current post that you reviewed was really posted in that context – one positive aspect of evolution for Christian theology. I probably should have stated this context in the post itself.

    So briefly to your main concern: the issue of theodicy and evolution. I’m going to quote from a reply I made to a reader on my own site (the part in italics is itself a quote from the Part 2 post I linked above):

    Theodicy is a very difficult problem for Christians. How can an all powerful, all loving God allow so much evil to exist? Why did he even allow the possibility of evil in his creation? Couldn’t an omniscient designer have done a better job? These are excellent questions but ones that, I believe, are unrelated to the process of evolution. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred. Theodicy is a challenge for Christianity and theism in general, not just for evolutionary creationists.

    The summary is this: On philosophical arguments alone, I’m afraid we as Christians can not win the debate if the argument is confined to theodicy. All of us, no matter what our view on origins, are in the same boat. (But fortunately, the Christian message is so much more than an intellectual argument & about so much more than theodicy). However, there are aspects (I believe) about the evolutionary creationist view that make the Christian worldview, and even the topic of theodicy, more palatable. The evidence for evolution, in my opinion, is not a good reason to ditch the gospel.

    1. The evidence for evolution, in my opinion, is not a good reason to ditch the gospel.

      I would agree here, but it might be time to make some adjustments to the details. Since I’m writing a series on theodicy (loosely conceived), I’ll hit on some of the things that I think we need to examine.

      BTW, your original post went into the moderation queue. I can’t see why it did. I approved one comment and deleted the duplicate. Sorry for the delay.

    2. Steve,

      Let me respond to a couple more points here. There is a significant difference, I think, between my theological starting point and yours. I am coming from a fairly liberal derivative of Wesleyan theology, and I’m guessing you are more to the (reformed?) evangelical perspective. Though I prefer “passionate moderate” those who call me liberal do not do so without some warrant. As a result, the main value in my commentary on your material may be more to point out the difference in our starting points. I think that is an adequate reason to comment.

      But further, I quite agree that we don’t need to win the argument on theodicy. In my view, if we truly do believe that God is the creator, i.e. we are placing our faith in a creator God revealed in Jesus Christ, we must also believe he is revealed in creation, and thus that the way to determine what has happened in the natural realm is through studying the natural realm–science. (That sentence may deserve a wordiness award!) Thus nothing theological impacts the acceptance or rejection of evolution other than my conviction based on theology that the natural sciences should work.

      I also agree with you that all players have a similar problem. In my current series on theodicy, I’m trying to point out that there are many actions, such as the flood, that are derived from scripture that present much more difficulty for theodicy. Everyone other than the young earth creationists share the “death over long periods” problem.

      That is why I think the best thing to do is to face up to it. God apparently doesn’t like a universe that is as orderly as I might prefer. God has less concern about death than I do. What does that mean? I think it is an issue in theology to tackle head on.

      I hope I’m getting clearer hear than I was at the start!


  3. I think you are right that there is little or any practical difference between death and limited resources.

    Here are links to six web pages arguing that there was, or even must have been, death before the Fall.

  4. Peter, I’ve got family responsibilities today but I will send you some links about consciousness when I have time. 🙂 In the meantime, I hope others will chime in.

    Henry, thanks for your thoughtful response.

  5. The discussion about conscious is a philosophical roadblock in my own understanding of evolution as a theory of origin. I understand (or think I do) the idea that survival of a species is an underlying driver for evolution as we understand it. What I really don’t understand is how organisms that are “not conscious” or “self aware” can anticipate that they should “survive”. What ultimately compels survival?

    This seems to me an unanswerable question that ultimately limits evolution as a theory of origin. It is possible that evolution is responsible for our origin – but I don’t know how you come up with a compelling scientific reason for why it is that survival is sought after as a positive trait and how it is that organisms came to “understand” that or even how the impetus came about.

  6. Hi Henry,

    As one who takes the scientific story of evolution on board (though not without an intelligent design a la Mike Gene’s Design Matrix) I heartily agree with your sentiment.

    On this subject, I highly commend to you David Hart’s The Doors of the Sea. It is by far the best thing I’ve read on the problem of evil (including C. S. Lewis). I agree that to deny this problem is to deceive ourselves, and be in immanent danger of blasphemously calling evil good.

  7. Larry B wrote

    I understand (or think I do) the idea that survival of a species is an underlying driver for evolution as we understand it.

    “Survival of a species” is not a driver, underlying or otherwise, for evolution. To a first approximation, all species are extinct — the species alive today are a tiny fraction of all that have existed.

    What I really don’t understand is how organisms that are “not conscious” or “self aware” can anticipate that they should “survive”. What ultimately compels survival?

    In a word, nothing. Organisms do not anticipate that they “should survive.” Some do, most don’t, depending on their traits and features (and a fair helping of chance). But none do so on account of some urge to perpetuate the species; that some species persist is a by-product of the different reproductive success of individuals that are more or less well adapted to their circumstances.

    Put another way, what “compels survival” is the fact that those organisms that survive had traits that enabled them to more successfully reproduce than their conspecifics. Across the spectrum of life the great majority of both individuals and species fail at that. Evolution is an incredibly wasteful process.

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