You don’t often see it, but it’s almost always there, the “real reason” I believe Christian anti-evolutionists reject the theory of common descent. It has nothing to do with the scientific evidence, or supposed lack thereof; that’s secondary. It’s not even because of the Bible — not really. The main reason Christians deny evolution is because they simply don’t like it.
They say the problem with accepting the scientific history of the world (which includes not just evolution, but billions of years of geological history), is that it involves mutations, disease, catastrophic natural events, pain, suffering and death — lots and lots of death. I get why Christians don’t like it — no joke. I can understand why a Christian would choose a narrative that involves a few thousand years of human-caused suffering over one that involves billions of years of God-caused brutality — especially when the “expert” who offers the choice tells them the two options are equally valid.
Of course, as I’ve said before, questions like this are sort of irrelevant in determining whether evolution is a viable explanation for the origin of species. If evolution happened, then it happened, and it doesn’t matter if it makes you uncomfortable or wrecks your theology. Tough luck, cupcake.
But, as a Christian, it’s still an important issue to discuss. And, in my opinion, there is one very, very large theological problem I see with Christians using mutations, disease, natural catastrophes, pain, suffering and death as an argument against evolution. You see, I feel fortunate in that — even though I write this blog primarily for Christians and tend to do annoying things like quote the Bible pretty frequently — I do count a number of atheists, agnostics and non-Christians among my readership.
And when I’m talking with them, do you know what they most commonly use as evidence against the existence of the all-loving, all-powerful God of the Christian faith? Why, it’s the fact that the world is chock full of things like mutations, disease, natural catastrophes, pain, suffering and death. In other words, natural evil. Now, as a Christian, I have a different perspective on suffering and death than a non-theist does, and I do my best to explain that to them, even though it’s not always easy.
But, do you see where I’m going with this? Quite simply, when a Christian uses natural evil as an argument against evolution, they are accepting the non-believer’s definition of suffering and death. They are, in fact, rejecting the Bible’s more nuanced views of death and suffering, and enthusiastically agreeing to look at creation exactly the way an atheist does.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s a very good idea.
Again, this is something I’ve said before, but the idea that there ever was a point in history where physical pain and death was impossible is not in scripture. You can believe in it if you want to — by all means. But you can’t say the Bible supports the notion because it’s simply not in there. It’s a fairy tale, every bit as cartoonish and ridiculous as Answers in Genesis portrays it to be.
Disagree? Then find me a verse — a single verse — that says physical death was impossible in the prelapsarian world. Genesis 1:29? Nope. It says green plants are God’s gift. It does not say animals were forbidden to eat meat (this would be like me telling a friend, “Help yourself to the fridge,” and him interpreting that as a prohibition against eating food from a grocery store or a restaurant).
God calling creation “very good”? Iffy at best. All throughout scripture, we see God calling for genocides and directly causing natural catastrophes and plagues that kill hundreds of thousands of people. God’s body toll in the Bible is higher than John Rambo’s on his best day. But at the same time, “God is all light, and in him is no darkness at all.” So, although it certainly makes for a nice story, the evidence does not support the idea that the God of the Bible wouldn’t call the world “very good” simply because death was possible in it.
Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21? Nuh uh; Paul is obviously talking about spiritual death, not physical death. Notice what he goes on to say in Romans 7:9, “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.” I see only two possible interpretations here: Either Paul was an extremely eloquently zombie when he wrote the Epistle to the Romans, or he’s talking about a different kind of death.
Now, I have a few questions for the literalists who insist the “plain reading” of scripture reveals there was no death in the world before human sin. For one, what possible purpose could the tree of life have served in the garden of Eden, if no living thing was capable of death anyway? It would have been completely useless. And another thing — a world where all creatures are called to be fruitful and multiply would soon be a very unpleasant one if there were no death. The earth would have been “filled,” and its resources completely exhausted, within a handful of generations. Also, in a world where there is no pain, why did God curse Eve saying he would increase (or multiply) her pain in childbirth? Sounds like Eve already knew what pain was and was fully capable of experiencing it.
There’s more. God’s warning about the tree was that Adam would die “the day” he ate of it (“day” means “day,” after all; right, literalists?). Eve clearly expected the death would be immediate, to the point she thought she would even die from touching the fruit. But they did not physically die that day. The literal reading of the text would indicate they both lived hundreds of years after the Garden. And, last one: God’s words in Genesis 3 say nothing of animal death being part of the curse. You’d think he might have mentioned it. He thought Adam should know about thistles and thorns, but not the fact that the lions and crocodiles that used to be harmless would now be killing machines?
All of this is just to say that the existence of pain, suffering and death is a theological problem for all Christians. The problem does not vanish simply because one chooses to read Genesis 1-3 literally.
Now, to the real question at hand: Is evolution worthy of God? I say, unequivocally, yes it is.
I think grandeur can indeed be seen in the evolutionary process (once one stops insisting that we accept the atheist’s view of creation, that is). Yes, death is part of the world as we know it. But in the light of evolution, we see that death — far from purposeless — is in service to the emergence of new and greater life. Even when something is destroyed, it is in the creation of something else. A God who brings new life out of death, out of even the worst possible darkness? This is not just a Christian theme; this is an idea at the very core of the gospel message.
In light of evolution, we get some sense of the glorious mystery of God’s creation and the complexity of his power. This, unlike the simplistic account peddled by the young earthers, is consistent with the God who called to Job out of a whirlwind and asked if he could even understand the answers he sought. In light of evolution, we see his devotion to his creations, that he is not a God who created strict kinds and abandoned them to a corrupted world, to fend for themselves, fight each other and, in many cases, go extinct. He is, instead, revealed as a God who created life so masterfully that no catastrophe has ever managed to extinguish it, and who — over countless ages — perfected it into endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful. Evolution shows us God’s immense wisdom, patience and creativity.
And finally, it shows that God takes joy in life. That’s right. In Job, God takes great pride in his creations: the mountain goat, the wild donkey, horses, birds of prey. I, for one, am not inclined to believe that God just sat around for 4 billion years, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for humans to come down out of the trees. No, I think he exulted in the fearsome and terrible power of the dinosaurs as much as he ever did in the lion or the Behemoth (whatever that thing is) and sang with the blossoming of the first flower, nearly 130 million years ago.
So why, I ask you, must billions of years of evolution mean that God revels in death? It is just as reasonable — and far more supportable biblically — for the Christian to suppose that billions of years of evolution means that God revels in life, and that only a few thousand years of it simply wasn’t enough to satisfy him.