The seemingly endless debates over creation, evolution, science and faith are being renewed again of late with several new books contending for some form of theistic evolution (the view that God created the world and human life using the processes of evolutionary development) as well as others contending that evolution disproves faith altogether. When I was a young Christian, it seemed to me that there was no real contradiction between some form of evolution and the creation story of Genesis 1, but I changed my mind partly under the influence of Francis Schaeffer’s “Genesis in Space and Time”, which argues that Genesis 1-11 had to be considered real history in the light of parallels elsewhere in the Bible. So is this view still valid? Is it reasonable and biblically necessary to reject evolution in favour of some kind of creationist theology?

Let’s make a few things clear from the start. I want to do this because this debate has often generated far more heat than light: creationists have been overly strident, anti-creationists have frequently been patronizing and dogmatic. Too often both sides have talked past each other. I want to avoid doing that if possible. But I also need to acknowledge up front that I am not a scientist, more an interested lay person who comes to this debate (so far as professional qualifications are concerned) from a perspective of theology and philosophy. So some initial introductory thoughts:

1. What do we mean by evolution? It seems that the process of biological evolutionary change is a given: we can observe it happening and the ideas of natural selection have proven explanatory power in biology. But more problematic is the effort to explain everything on the basis of evolution. So when I criticize evolution, it is this macro-explanation I am sceptical of.

2. What do we mean by creation? All Christians (just about) believe in creation; that is, that the ultimate reason why the universe exists comes back to God as Creator. We need to insist on this because some creationists act as if Christians who doubt their version of things do not believe in creation at all. We also need to note that there are varieties of creationism around: the young earth, literal seven days view espoused by “Answers in Genesis” is not the only Christian alternative to macro-evolution. For instance, one creationist view (held by theologian Millard Erickson, for instance) suggests that there were six creative interventions by God followed by slower periods of natural development that may have been millions of years long. Christians have come up with many explanations that have tried to reconcile old earth geology with Genesis, starting even before Darwin.

3. There can be no ultimate contradiction between science and Christian theology if both are true. “All truth is God’s truth.” Any attempt to rule out one on the basis of the other is making some kind of category mistake, Christians insist. There is at least some truth to the idea that science and theology have different territories and these must be respected: science helps us understand how and theology why. Some of the debate comes from people on both sides invading the other’s turf.

So then, on whose turf is the question of origins? Some creationists argue that science cannot comment on the first origins of the universe, the world or life because there was no human observer of these events and we cannot run experiments on them in the nature of things. All views on origins come down to faith. In other words, origins is part of theology’s turf, science has to keep off. This idea is asking for trouble. Scientists are invariably curious, that’s one reason for scientific progress, and asking them to keep out of certain seemingly legitimate questions as “How did it all begin?” (especially when they legitimately ask, “How did some things begin?”) is unreasonable. So, for example, scientists may or may not be right about the “Big Bang”, but this is a perfectly reasonable scientific position to advance and theologians have no right to rule it out on purely biblical grounds.

However, theologians and philosophers also have the right to comment on origins from their perspectives. They have the right to ask questions like, “What happened before the Big Bang?” and “What does the Big Bang model imply about a universe with a beginning?” At the least, such a model makes room for the possibility of a creator. They can also legitimately ask other “Why?” type questions: such as, “Why did the universe happen?” (as opposed to how). More controversially, they also have the right to investigate the philosophical (that is, epistemological) assumptions that, say, cosmologists are working with and question whether or not these are valid.

In other words, Origins is common turf in one respect and divided in another. The distinction is not so much in subject matter as in methodology. Neither science nor theology or philosophy has a monopoly on truth, a point often forgotten.

At this point I want to make some philosophical-theological comments on science. As several protagonists in these debates have pointed out, science (as we have understood it since the 17th century) is inherently or methodologically atheistic, or more accurately agnostic, or more accurately still, naturalistic. Scientists look for natural causes, not supernatural. To put it another way, supernatural causes are outside science’s turf. Scientists have to assume that no supernatural causes are necessary to explain how things work or how they came to be as they are now; at least in their work as scientists they have to make this assumption.

Therefore, it is no part of science to draw supernatural or faith-type conclusions from natural investigation. Thus, for example, Intelligent Design is not science. That doesn’t make it wrong; it just puts in in the realm of philosophy or theology. In other words, it invites us to draw theological conclusions from natural facts, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but something that science as such is forbidden to do on pain of becoming something else than science.

However, the other corollary of this is that science has limits. It can’t investigate the possibility of supernatural activity in our world, but nor can it rule such supernatural actions out. Science can’t, therefore, say that the universe was not created by God. It can’t rule out the possibility that God has intervened in all kinds of ways in history; it just can’t rule it in either.

We all know that science has limits, by the way. In spite of some people trying to come up with “scientific” views of ethics or beauty or justice (for example), we all know that this is just spin, an attempt to trade on the prestige of science in the modern world in the interests of other agendas. Thus, for example, there is nothing anti-scientific about dictatorship or warfare; we have to argue about these things on philosophical or theological grounds. This I think is partly what is wrong with Dawkins’ anti-Christian arguments. Science as science cannot prove or negate theology.

Let me crystallize this by looking at a central question of Christian apologetics: the resurrection of Jesus. What can science say about that? Absolutely nothing. Or rather, all it can say is that there is no natural reason why someone could come back to life after being dead for three days (or at least no natural reason we know of; it is perfectly legitimate for critics of Christianity to pose the possibility that such a natural explanation may be found). But does that mean the question of the resurrection is just a matter of faith? Well, if by that you mean that you have to believe it because the Bible says so, without any questioning or looking at evidence, no! No one should believe such an extraordinary assertion as that Jesus rose bodily from the dead without carefully sifting through the historical evidence. But all the historical evidence may show is that there is no natural explanation for the events of Easter. This then allows the apologist to conclude that supernatural forces must have been at work. Which is a perfectly reasonable conclusion to draw, especially in the light of Jesus’ own words, the apparently eye-witness reports and the growth of the early church, but it does not amount to saying that the evidence proves the resurrection.

Seemingly then we are at a stalemate. Evolutionists and creationists can’t debate each other. And in one sense this is so; they cannot prove each other wrong. However, they can perhaps contribute to a debate that cannot be resolved definitively by science.

Let’s see how this might play out in a particularly controversial question: the age of the earth. Evolutionists (indeed, scientists generally for the most part) argue from scientific investigation into agreed evidence (such as fossils) using accepted methods (such as potassium-argon dating) to draw scientifically plausible conclusions, such as that the earth is billions of years old. What else can they do? Unless other evidence comes to light, or unless someone comes up with a better natural explanation for the data we have, they are entitled, even compelled, to draw such conclusions.

But can they then insist, this is how it happened, so theologians and believers are wrong? Not so fast. They cannot rule out supernatural intervention that might have speeded up the natural processes or redirected them in some way. It may be compatible with the natural evidence to believe that supernatural causes played a part, though it is never required and scientists must keep looking for natural causes in their work as scientists, whatever they may be convinced of as believers in Christ.

So let’s now think about the biblical side of the subject. Here I think we have to keep two things in view if we are going to be faithful to the Bible’s overall story-line and teachings.

First, it is clear that the early chapters of Genesis are not a scientific dissertation, let alone a comprehensive explanation of origins. This is evident from their structure and from their genre: that is, comparing them with other ancient literature. Rikk Watts’ article brings this out clearly. There is mythical language used, for example: talking snakes and the like. Therefore it is wrong to insist on taking everything in Genesis 1-11 literally, if by that we mean reading them like today’s newspaper, for example.

But on the other hand, to read Genesis 1-11 purely as legend or allegory is equally a wrong strategy. In the context of Scripture as a whole, Genesis 1-11 demands to be treated as real history, even if sometimes expressed in a pre-modern thought form. This is the point that Francis Schaeffer made, convincingly to my mind. Other parts of the Bible, including the New Testament, refer back to the creation stories as historical and authoritative. So if we throw out any historicity in Genesis, we are throwing it out of the Bible as a whole, and if we start doing that, where do we finish? Christianity is a historical faith in the sense that it is based on real historical events: creation, fall, flood, exodus, exile, cross, resurrection and so on. If any of these events are reduced to myth, the basis for faith in Jesus is undermined and Christianity becomes indeed a matter of “blind faith.”

So then I have major problems with macro-evolution: that is, with accepting even a Christianized version of evolution as an overall explanation for origins:

  • it has yet to be shown scientifically; that is, we still have no evidence, for example, for a purely chemical origin to life.
  • it depends on a series of (I think) unprovable presuppositions, for example, that natural processes have always operated in the same way and at the same speed as they do now: uniformitarianism as opposed to catastrophism. And yet there seems to be evidence that the earth’s history has included major catastrophes.
  • it fails to explain central realities of human experience, such as the power of love or the existence of human sin.
  • it is ultimately inconsistent with any historical reading of Genesis.
  • it causes major difficulties with a range of major Christian doctrines; not just creation as such, but the whole idea of a personal “interventionist” God, our common descent from Adam, the idea of humankind being created “in the image of God” and the historical fall of humanity, which is the Bible’s main explanation for the evil in the world and for our need of a Saviour.

This last point needs a bit more development. One of the major questions we all ask is, “Why is there evil in the world?” Not so much natural disasters (which may be explicable by natural means alone) as humanly caused evil- sin, to use the biblical word for it- cruelty, injustice, betrayal, deception, etc. Many explanations have been adopted, but to my mind the weakest is the explanation based on some kind of incomplete evolution, because it is both historically unbelievable and morally disempowering. That is, it makes nonsense of any attempt to struggle against sin in ourselves or in the world. To take up a current issue, why fight against pollution or global warming if all this is the result of natural evolutionary processes?

To me the Christian explanation for sin makes a lot more sense: that it comes from a historical rebellion by our first ancestors against God’s good laws for them, a rebellion that has since been entrenched in human behaviour. This explanation cannot (of course) be proved historically or scientifically. But it is perfectly consistent with the course human history has taken (for instance, it helps explain the universality of human sin) and it encourages us to turn against sin and take action against it. Combined with other Christian doctrines (such as creation and our being made in God’s image and placed in charge of his earth, based in Genesis 1) it gives us a reason to do something about global warming, for instance.

And most importantly, it shows why the life and death of Jesus make sense, not only as a kind of protest against that primal and ongoing rebellion, but as the God-given answer to that problem.

In conclusion, a strong doctrine of creation and the historical origin of sin is an essential part of the Christian gospel and this is difficult to reconcile with any form of macro-evolution.