[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
Evolution and the Character of God
by Allan R. Bevere
Does biological evolution explain our world? I’m not sure how that question in and of itself is significant. I answer “yes” to that question, but it seems to me the importance of the question can only be found in the inquiry that must lay behind it– “Is biological evolution consistent with the character of God who created the world and the universe?” Without that prior concern, the main question for discussion here is of little significance, at least for those who believe in God. So, in answering the question given to me, I will make in initial case that evolution is consistent with the character of the God, who created all things including life on Earth.
Prior to the main subject of this post, a few caveats are in order:
First, I don’t think we can separate the biological evolutionary questions from the evolutionary nature of the universe itself. If the universe has evolved and is evolving than it reasonable to assume that biological evolution on Earth makes sense. When we isolate how human life came to be from the rest of the cosmos, I think we confuse one issue making it two. Why would God create the universe in one fashion while bringing human life in another? Thus, I must deal with the question of evolution in general, which includes the cosmos and life on Earth.
Second, since I accept evolutionary theory, that means I do not believe that Genesis 1 and 2 should be interpreted, as they say, “literally” (an oft abused term). There’s a mythology in many fundamentalist and evangelical circles that the church unanimously interpreted the creation narratives literally until Charles Darwin came along in the nineteenth century. In fact, the church has debated for almost two thousand years how to read the creation material as Daniel Harrell points out quite well.1 The reason I mention this is that often creationists will do a bait and switch arguing that only those who hold to a literal reading of the creation narratives believes in the authority of Scripture. But what is authoritative is Scripture, not a particular hermeneutic. One can hardly accuse St. Augustine, for example, of denying the authority of the Bible. So, let’s take that criticism off the table and stick to the actual substance of the debate.
Third, that means those who take issue with my position on evolution must do so based on the science alone, not on guilding the data to fit a particular interpretation of Genesis. For me, Genesis is one thing, and science another. Genesis 1 and 2 answer the why of creation. Science answers the how. My use of Scripture in this post will highlight the character of God and why I think his character is consistent with evolutionary creation. My concerns with Scripture are theological, not scientific.
Now, on to the main argument.
First, God is truth and does not create deception. The Bible is clear on this:
God is not a human being, that he should lie,
or a mortal, that he should change his mind.
Has he promised, and will he not do it?
Has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it? (Numbers 23:19; see also Titus 1:2)
1 John 1:21 states, 21I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.
The point for our purposes in this post is that since God is truth God cannot create in a deceptive way. Creation itself and its coming into existence with reflect that character. If the age of the universe is not 14.6 billion years and if the age of the Earth is not 4.5 billion years, and the appearance of homo sapiens on our planet was not approximately 200,000 years ago, why is that not obvious? It would seem that God in creating rocks that appear old God himself has created a deception. And those who believe that the universe and the Earth are not obviously old are clearly guilding the evidence. We can accurately measure light from distant stars that tell us their distance. The farthest stars known to us are anywhere from 750,000 to 900,000 light years away, and those stars are not close to the center of our galaxy or for that matter the center of the universe. Contrary to what some will argue, scientific dating is an accurate way to assess the age of rocks and bones and other earthly things as well. The oldest rocks discovered on our planet are anywhere from 3 to 4.4 billion years old.2 Again, we must wonder why God would deceive us in creating a universe and our Earth that only appear old? This is not in character with the God of the Bible.
Moreover, why would God work in a microevolutionary way, something that even creationists acknowledge, but fail to do so in a macroevolutionary manner since microevolution happens by the exact same mechanisms as macroevolution?3Is this not inconsistent? Why allow evolution to occur within a species (microevolution), but not between species (macroevolution)? Is God’s character inconsistent and doesn’t this make God even more deceptive, to create one way on a large scale and a different way on a small scale?
Second, evolution is about a relational universe and world, and God is inherently relational. One does not need to know the Bible forward and backward to know that God is relational and desires to be in relationship with human beings and all of creation. Theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne has argued cogently that the universe is inherently relational4 and we should expect it to be no different in character from its Creator.
In Romans 8:19 St. Paul writes,
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Salvation in the New Testament is cosmic in scope. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is not about individual human salvation alone, but about the redemption of creation. Just as God desires to be in relationship with men and women, so God desires relationship with the cosmos he created. Just as our relationship with God grows as we evolve (mature) as disciples, so creation itself evolves as God enjoys seeing the cosmos develop and mature. Indeed, even creation itself is inherently relational with itself. John Polkinghorne writes,
Einstein went on to develop the theory of general relativity, showing that space, time and matter are closely interconnected in a kind of integrated package, in which matter curves spacetime and spacetime curves the paths of matter. The cosmic ‘container’ and its contents are not separable, but intimately linked with each other.5
The interrelatedness between matter and spacetime is only one of many examples. This inherent relationality not only reflects the character of a Trinitarian God, which St. Augustine referred to as a fellowship of love, but it also strongly suggests that this cosmic relationality is revealed in the evolutionary process. One cannot have microevolution, which we know takes place, without a macroevolutionary process that is intimately related to it.
Third, creation is dynamic just as God is dynamic, not static, as creationist accounts suggest. In creationist accounts of the universe the world was created in six twenty-four hour days and when it was completed, it was done. The problem with this notion of creation being completely finished is that we know it is simply not true. The universe even now is expanding. New galaxies and stars and worlds are being created. The cosmos is not statically finished, but it is still being created. Alister McGrath notes,
The twentieth century saw dramatic changes in our understanding of the origins and development of the universe. The first two decades were dominated by the assumption that the universe was static…. The solution of his [Einstein’s] equations indicated that the universe was not static, but expanding.6
McGrath goes on to argue that such a dynamic universe that is evolving does not reflect the static deistic God of the Enlightenment, but better reflects the dynamic Trinitarian God of Christianity.7 It seems to me quite problematic for creationists to reconcile the dynamic, relational God of Scripture with their static understanding of how God created.
Fourth, and finally, through the evolution of creation, God allows the universe freely to make itself. In a sense, God has built freedom into the universe. If God is inherently relational and wants to be in relationship with his creation, he must allow the freedom of creation. This does not deny God’s providence, but “a balance is struck between the actions of God and the actions of creatures.”8As human beings are free to choose their own way, so the evolution of creation is consistent with the character of God that allows creation itself to go its own way. Once again, I quote John Polkinghorne:
A creation allowed to make itself can be held to be a great good, but it has a necessary cost not only in the blind alleys and extinctions that are the inescapable dark side of the evolutionary process, but also in the very character of the processes of a world in which evolution takes place. The engine driving biological evolution is genetic mutation and it is inevitable in a universe that is reliable and not capriciously magical, that the same biochemical processes which enable germ cells to produce new forms of life will also allow somatic cells to mutate and become malignant That there is cancer in creation is not something that a more competent and compassionate Creator could easily have eliminated, but is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself.
God acts within the open grain of nature and not against it. God interacts with creatures but does not overrule them, for they are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. It follows from this that not everything that happens will be in accordance with God’s direct will. The divine sharing of the causality of the world with creatures will permit the act of a murderer or the incidence of cancer, though both events run counter to God’s desires9
Such freedom is seen countless times throughout the Bible in reference to human beings who also unfortunately all too often choose to go their own way. Why would it be any different with the entire creation? And it is in such freedom and in God’s desire to be in relationship to his creation, that God takes the risk of becoming human in Jesus Christ; and in the cross and resurrection, displays his willingness to allow human beings in their freedom to reject him on Calvary, and in his providence to insist otherwise in the empty tomb.
Does evolution explain our world? Indeed it does. It explains the very character of the universe because all of creation reflects the character of God.
- Daniel Harrell, “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin? http://biologos.org/common-questions/biblical-interpretation/early-interpretations-of-genesis
- Becky Oskin, “Confirmed: Oldest Fragment of Early Earth is 4.4 Billion Years Old,” http://m.livescience.com/43584-earth-oldest-rock-jack-hills-zircon.html
- Evolution at different scales: micro to macro http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/0_0_0/evoscales_01
- See John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 60-87.
- Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity, p. 73.
- Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009, p. 112-113.
- McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe, p. 118.
- Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity, p. 99.
- Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity, p. 72.