Can Christians believe evolution?
Published: 21 October 2010(GMT+10)
Illustration by Caleb Salisbury
As CMI has often stated, we regard evolution as contrary to Scripture, but Christians can still be saved despite believing in it (see related articles, below). Indeed, its founding chairman, the late Prof. John Rendle-Short, said he was a saved theistic evolutionist for 40 years before becoming a creationist.
So how can Christians hold to an anti-biblical doctrine? Here are a few things one should remember when considering whether a Christian can be an evolutionist:
(1) There are a range of biblical doctrines; and, while it’s important to be as consistent and biblical as we can, not every one is as “essential” as every other (even when we consider only true doctrines, as opposed to various misinterpretations). The Bible itself contrasts the “milk”, or “basic principles of the oracles of God”, with “solid food” for the “mature” (Hebrews 5).
No Christian is instantly (or even completely) mature. A brand-new believer shouldn’t be expected to have a reasoned position on the age of the earth … Few Christians have read the Bible through, so it would be asking a bit much to expect a new Christian …
Most Christians understand that there are certain “essential” doctrines, belief in which would define a Christian. A continuum might be made from “essential” to “important but non-essential” to “relatively unimportant” to “almost trivial,” and toward the bottom end there might be a wide variety of potential arrangements. But most true Christians would agree on the most important doctrines, which would be considered essential, at least some of which would be: the deity of Christ, His sacrificial death on our behalf, and His bodily resurrection from the dead.
Nearer the bottom of the list might be such things as whether Adam had a belly-button, the identity of the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4, etc. While even these things may be answerable from Scripture, few would consider them even remotely essential for genuine Christian belief.
Somewhere in that continuum would be one’s views on evolution. While I would put it far from the bottom of the list myself, I would place it some ways down from the top as well (i.e., below the “essential” doctrines).
(2) No Christian is instantly (or even completely) mature. A brand-new believer shouldn’t be expected to have a reasoned position on the age of the earth, let alone on something as non-essential as the identity of the Nephilim. Few Christians have read the Bible through, so it would be asking a bit much to expect a new Christian to have even heard of the Nephilim, let alone have a position on them.
I once read a tract from a group of people I at first admired for being Christian witnesses to those they came across on the street. I was disappointed, though, to see how their tract strongly pushed baptism as a requirement for salvation and speaking in tongues as a required evidence of salvation. I disagree with both views; but even if I agreed with the positions, I would still think it very foolish to include in one’s potentially first-time hearing of the Gospel two of the most divisive issues in Christianity, although I can understand that if one considered baptism essential for salvation, he’d want to include it—but why include the other if, as a “required” proof of one’s salvation, it would happen anyway? (Who tells someone to be sure his water boils when he brings it to 100°C? “Required” evidence is just that: it will happen. You don’t need to be told to “make sure” it does.)
Similarly, although I would always support the presentation of evidence against evolution in a general sense—and even promoting Genesis creation as the basis for the Gospel teaching on sin and the kinsman-redeemer and other Christian doctrines—I think it would be unwise to insist on the rejection of evolution as necessary for one’s salvation. Why shove a stumbling block in front of a new believer before he’s even had a chance to understand the ramifications of his belief or what Scripture teaches or how the two don’t really go together? I have a friend who’s spent most of his life studying and promoting evolution. Whatever evidence for Christianity he may (hopefully someday) accept in a moment in time, I don’t expect him just as quickly to reject his lifetime of evolutionary belief—regardless how contrary to Christianity he may eventually understand it to be. For example, South African geneticist Dr Jim Allan says he had a ‘double conversion’—his spiritual conversion and his conversion from evolution to accepting creation.
A consistent Christian who knows the Word will believe in a young earth. But inconsistency itself would hardly seem a true test of one’s salvation (otherwise the mere fact that we still sin would nullify it)
(3) It’s because no Christian is instantly mature, especially in his knowledge of all that the Bible teaches, that I believe there can be true Christians even in a cult group. Let me explain, before you gasp: I hear many say otherwise, although it may only be their lack of specificity concerning exceptions. In principle, though, I would guess most of them would agree with me about the following: A brand-new Christian may not understand the differences among denominations or even realize that some “denominations” are actually non-Christian cults. A true and growing Christian would (hopefully) soon realize that the teaching he’s receiving in such a group is unbiblical and leave for something better. Any person who’s fully aware of an actual cult’s teachings and accepts them can’t, I believe, properly be considered a Christian. Such is what “cult” (a non-Christian sect ostensibly based on Scripture) means. (It might be tempting at this point to get into the sidetrack of further defining a “cult”; but that’s not my point here.) Similarly, if a theistic evolutionist is shown conclusively that Jesus believed in a young earth and global Flood, but replies that Jesus was mistaken here, then his Christian faith is in question. My point is that for a short time a new Christian may not even be aware of the false teaching that the cult is known for (or even that it is a cult)—not that all of the cult’s positions can be considered mere “non-essential differences.” The fact that someone may darken the doorway of a “Kingdom Hall” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (for instance), without fully understanding the cult’s position, doesn’t immediately render him a non-Christian.
A consistent Christian who knows the Word will believe in a young earth. I can say that dogmatically, without any qualifications—except that “he’s consistent”. But inconsistency itself would hardly seem a true test of one’s salvation (otherwise the mere fact that we still sin would nullify it); or, as has been said, considered the “unforgivable sin”; and few new Christians can be expected to have a full understanding—or even familiarity—with Scripture. When people in the Bible became believers, it was often after hearing a brief sermon or hearing a passage out of God’s Word (e.g., Acts 2:1-41; 3:11-4:4; 8:12, 26-39; 11:19-21; 13:44-48; 14:1; 16:13-14, 25-34; 17:1-4, 10-12). It was rarely, if ever, after having the entire Bible (at the time) read to them, with all its doctrines—essential and otherwise—fully explained and cross-referenced. To think that a true believer can’t have some less-important beliefs that are inconsistent with the bare-bones gospel—at least for some amount of time—is unreasonable. Belief in an old earth can, when consistently applied and thought through, lead to compromise on and/or acceptance of evolution and indirectly to other worse doctrines. But it doesn’t have to (similar to how it doesn’t have to lead every evolutionist into dictatorial genocide as it did, if only by its influence, to Hitler) and, by itself, is “merely” (if I may use the word in a relative sense) an incorrect belief.
Certainly, older (and presumably more mature) Christians should be able to see the inconsistencies of claiming to believe Scripture while also believing in evolution. But they still can’t be ruled out as true believers, as though we know at what point in his growth each Christian should know better. God’s grace can cover our sins—it can surely cover our errors and inconsistencies as well. Sometimes it can take a while—after all, even CMI’s founding chairman, Prof. John Rendle-Short, was a theistic evolutionist for 40 years.
While some may perceive a conflict in “allowing” a Christian to believe in evolution while vigorously opposing it at the same time, the fact is that rejection of clear biblical doctrine can lead to compromise in other areas (John 3:12), a weakening of faith, and in the worst cases a rejection of Christianity altogether—even if such symptoms don’t appear until the next generation. This is why Creation Ministries International often presents articles on the effects of evolutionary thinking. Such articles are frequently disparaged by critics, who complain that they don’t prove evolution wrong, as though everything published here must present the case for creation. Much of CMI’s ministry is intended not necessarily for skeptics, but for believers, who often ask what difference evolutionary belief makes.
In all of this, I certainly don’t want to imply that cultic beliefs (or even the idea of an old earth) shouldn’t be corrected or fought against or that a new Christian shouldn’t, gently, be corrected according to 2 Timothy 3:16. My main point is that someone isn’t automatically not a Christian because of his mere presence in a group about which he (hopefully only temporarily) knows no better—nor because he hasn’t thought through the implications of a belief in the false doctrine of an old earth. While I strongly oppose the idea of an old earth, few Christians would consider that it contradicts an “essential” belief (especially given that most of them already compromise on this point).
Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m soft on evolution or long ages. There are likely few who are more opposed to evolutionism, geological or biological, than I am—even among those who are more knowledgeable, better debaters, or better presenters of creation evidence. All the same, I can’t consider the rejection of evolution as an essential belief for one to be a true Christian, regardless of how contrary it is to true Christian doctrine. My strong opposition to evolution, as I’ve indicated, isn’t dependent on my being the most knowledgeable person on Christian apologetics, although I have a reasonable understanding of the subject. But surely if there are more knowledgeable people than me (and there are many of them), there are also some who are less knowledgeable. It would be wrong for me to expect everyone “below” me to have the same understanding of the issues and the perception of how they relate to each other that I do, just as I don’t have the same abilities of everyone “above” me.