Theistic Evolution: What Difference Does It Make?
|Author: Dean Davis
In a recent statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II lent the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to the theory of evolution, saying that “. . . fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.”
Further remarks seem to indicate that the Pope was espousing “theistic evolution,” the theory that God, over immense periods of time, used evolutionary processes to create all physical life-forms from a single living organism. When at last a suitable hominid was produced (what the Pope called “pre-existent living material”), God allegedly deposited within it a human soul, thus “creating” the first man. Whether or not this was the Adam referred to in Genesis (and in the Gospels and epistles as well), remains unclear.
For many orthodox Catholics and Protestants, these concessions to evolutionary theory –echoed by numerous evangelical leaders as well–are both surprising and deeply troubling. They are surprising because the “fresh evidence” we are aware of is contrary to evolutionism, rather than favorable to it. Space does not permit me to discuss it here, but interested readers of a scientific bent need only consult such works as Evolution, a Theory in Crisis (Michael Denton), Darwin on Trial (Phillip Johnson), Darwin’s Black Box (Michael Behe), Origin of the Species, Revisited, (ed., William Ball), Evolution: The Fossils Still say No! (Duane Gish), to realize that much has changed since the heyday of Neo-Darwinism back in the 1950’s. When respected British paleontologist Colin Patterson admitted in 1981 that he did not know one thing about evolution that was certainly true, he spoke for many of his less candid peers. One could wish that news of his refreshing honesty had reached the Vatican.
My concern, however, is for the spiritual implications of the Pope’s remarks– which are troubling indeed. I will state my thesis bluntly: theistic evolution is a serious departure from the historic Christian faith, one that represents a grave threat to the spiritual well-being of God’s people and the effectiveness of their mission in world. It should be resisted, not recommended, by leaders in the Church.
Doubtless many would call this alarmism. “What difference does it make,” they ask, “how God created? The important thing is that He created.” To this oft-repeated question let me offer a brief, theologically oriented response.
To begin with, we must understand that human beings are “wired for a world-view.” By this I mean that God has implanted deep within our hearts the need to find answers to the fundamental questions of human existence–“Where did I come from? Why am I here? How should I live? Why is there evil and suffering in the world? Where is history going? What will happen when I die?”
All people–especially young people–yearn for satisfying answers to these questions, and in our modern world the seeker for truth certainly does not lack for world-view options. Naturalism, Marxism, New Age pantheism, and a host of theistic religions all present themselves to inquiring minds for consideration.
Historic Christianity enthusiastically enters this fray, passionately arguing that in the Bible we have a revelation from God that supplies not just a world-view, but the world-view: the truth about the ultimate questions of life. I would submit that second to the Lord Himself, this world-view is the Church’s greatest treasure. And my concern is that in attempting to adjust it to modern theories of cosmic and biological evolution, we are in danger of destroying it altogether.
To explain why, let me use an illustration familiar to the children of our church. The message of the Bible may be likened to a life-line which God throws out to a spiritually drowning humanity. This life-line is comprised of three strands of truth, indissolubly braided together: creation, fall, and redemption. Very significantly, theistic evolution undermines all three.
The first strand is creation. The Biblical view is that God supernaturally created “out of nothing” a beautiful, harmonious world in six days. The brief creation week perfectly suited His purpose, which was to provide a home and a stage for the chief actor in the forthcoming drama of history, man- the creature uniquely made in His own image and likeness. Indeed, so special was man that God gave him prince-like authority over all nature, commissioning him lovingly to “subdue” it for his own enjoyment and the greater glory of the Creator, (Gen. 1:24-28)
Here, then, in the creation account, is a child’s first exposure to the wisdom, goodness, and power of God, as well as to the dignity and uniqueness of man in the creation. But theistic evolution (and so-called “progressive creationism” as well) undermines all this. It denies, of course, the plain biblical chronology and sequence of God’s creative acts (Gen 1,2, Ex. 20:8-11). But even more seriously, it attacks the very character of God, identifying His creative activity with the violent, painful, deadly, and often purposeless course of evolution. Furthermore, it obscures the majestic “creation hierarchy” that God established in the beginning–God over man, and man over nature, with all three dwelling together in peace (see, e.g., Ps 8). Accordingly, theistic evolution subtly undermines the dignity and sanctity of human life (a theme dear to the Pope’s heart), transforming the prince of creation into a virtual after-thought of the creation
process, and tracing his physical origins to the animal kingdom rather than to the immediate hand of God.
The second strand is the fall. According to Scripture, the first man, Adam, dwelt in Eden as the father and representative of the human family. When he failed God’s simple test of love and obedience, the entire race fell with him into guilt, indwelling sin, sickness, suffering, and death (Romans 5:12f). Not only this, but nature itself was also brought down, so that henceforth the ground was cursed, the elements disturbed, and the animal kingdom wounded, (Gen. 3:17). In the words of the apostle Paul, through man’s sin the whole creation was “subjected to futility” and “enslaved to corruption.” As a result, the whole creation waits and groans for “the revealing of the sons of God” in resurrection glory at the return of Christ–for as in sin, so in final redemption: the destiny of the creation is inextricably bound to the destiny of man, (Romans 8:20-22).
This biblical teaching on the fall supplies a reasonable and spiritually comforting explanation for the presence of evil and suffering in the world–an absolutely crucial component of any satisfactory world-view. Furthermore, because it pictures sinful passions as alien to original human nature, it motivates us to resist them, directs us to seek help from Him who is opposed to them, and encourages us to believe that, in due season, those who fight to the good fight will be delivered from them.
Theistic evolution, however, again throws all into confusion. As mentioned earlier, it implicitly makes God the author of suffering and death, thereby diminishing our sense of His holiness and goodness. Furthermore, despite brave theological efforts to rescue an historical Adam from the torrent of evolutionism, theistic evolution will always incline us to identify ourselves with the (fallen) animal kingdom. This in turn beclouds our sense of man’s direct responsibility for the presence of moral evil in the world, as well as for the management of it. (see Gen. 4:6-7). In sum, by obscuring both man’s origin and fall, theistic evolution damages the foundation of ethical aspiration–an incalculable loss
for society at large, and most especially for the effective spiritual training of our young.
The third strand of the biblical life-line is redemption. Though the theology of redemption has humbled the greatest of minds of the Church, its basic truths are readily understood even by a child. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to become “the last Adam,” (Romans 5:12, ff., 1 Cor. 15: 45 49). The former Adam “sold” mankind into sin and the peril of eternal judgment. The latter, in behalf of all who trust in Him, paid the debt to God’s justice, thus “buying them back” into God’s family through His own life, death, and resurrection. The rich inheritance of these believing sons and daughters includes forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, spiritual transformation, and hope of eternal, resurrection life in a glorious new world that Christ will create at His return, (Phil. 3:20-21).
We find, then, that the infrastructure of the message of redemption is the stupendous revelation of the two Adams–a revelation which definitely presupposes a recent creation. But again, theistic evolution strikes at its very heart. This is because the compromise with evolution almost inevitably leads to a denial both of the historicity
of Adam and his ruinous fall. Thus, as a sequel to the Pope’s remarks, we learned from Catholic theologian R.P. McBrien that, “No Scripture scholar today would say we are literally descended from two people,” (Time Magazine, 11/4/96). Evolutionism clearly undermines the first Adam. But what, we must ask, is the effect of this on the Last Adam,
whose very mission, according to Scripture, was to do what the first Adam failed to do, and to undo what the first Adam had so disastrously done?!
Insightful critics of theistic evolution have often commented on its inherent anti- supernaturalism. For this reason, the Pope–and his evangelical advocates (e.g., David Neff, Christianity Today,1/6/97)– should pause to consider that an aversion to the supernatural in creation and fall will sooner or later infect our understanding of
redemption as well. The tendency, of course, will be to direct the eye faith away from the cross and second coming of Christ towards a divinely directed evolutionary process.
Interestingly, we already have an example of this tendency in the theology of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who rejected the orthodox doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, heaven, and hell, in favor of the view that all humanity is gradually evolving towards a mystical, pantheistic union with God. Similarly, New Age theorist John White affirms, “The final appearance of the Christ will not be a man in the air before whom all must kneel. The final appearance of Christ will be an evolutionary event.” (Understanding the Times,David Noebel, p. 146)
What difference does it make how we view creation? A very great difference indeed! For we find that theistic evolution, which at first glance seems a reasonable compromise with “science,” not only undermines the biblical doctrine of creation, but the entire biblical world-view. Those who would try to cut one strand out of God’s truth should beware, lest they destroy His life-line altogether!
Let me close, therefore, by affirming once again: next to the Lord Himself, the biblical world-view is the Church’s greatest treasure and her greatest gift to the world. It unveils the glory of God, ennobles our understanding of man and nature, comfortingly explains our plight, lovingly guides us to our Redeemer, stimulates us to holy living, and encourages us with the hope of a better world to come. And the doctrine of a recent, supernatural creation is integral to all.
Let us not, then, distort or discard any part of this great treasure in favor of the ever-changing opinions of science or philosophy. Indeed, is it not time to admit that evolutionism–whether naturalistic, theistic, or pantheistic–is the foundation from which the modern world system launches nearly every ideological attack against the faith of Christ? Here, brethren, is where the battle is raging in our time. Here, then, is where we are called to stand and fight.
In His own day, and in His own fight, our Lord stood firm–and was therefore crowned a “faithful and true witness” to the truth of God, (Revelation 3:14). If we wish to share that crown, we are going to have to do the same.
Dean Davis is a graduate of Melodyland School of Theology. He presently serves on the pastoral staff of Good Shepherd Fellowship, and is Director of Come Let Us Reason, a Bible teaching ministry specializing in Biblical Theology and Apologetics. He lives in Santa Rosa, Ca., with his wife Linda and their five children.