Evolution and the Christian faith1
Published: 17 January 2019 (GMT+10)
Almost 160 years have passed since Charles Darwin’s famous On the Origin of Species book took the world by storm. Ever since that time, there have been professing Christians who have both embraced evolution as ‘historical fact’ and sought to modify their understanding of Scripture accordingly. Theistic evolution is a commonly-held view in today’s Church. Many are quick to profess their evangelical orthodoxy, while simultaneously reimagining plain biblical teachings—for example, a historical Adam and Eve or a literal Fall into sin. This, they insist, is both sensible and right if Christians are to do justice to ‘science’, not to mention retain respectability and influence in modern society. Recent years have witnessed a steady stream of books from theologians and professing Christian scientists (examples here and here) which purport to bring Genesis up to date for the modern reader. However, since most Christians lack theological or scientific credentials, how can they know with confidence what to think or believe about origins?
The Bible gives us very practical help in answering this sort of dilemma. We are to assess the claims of such people against Scripture—to “test everything; [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Doing this does not denigrate people or attack their scholarship. Rather, it recognises that the best of men are only men at best. Scientific research and theological theorising are useful, but only insofar as they are subordinate to the Truth of God’s Word. All thinking must be assessed in the light of that perfect standard (see Psalm 19:7) and, where necessary, bow the knee to it. Fail to do so and it is possible for true Christians to damage the very Gospel they value and profess—hence the sobering warning about God’s stricter judgment for those who teach within the Church (James 3:1). In the last analysis, it is not what ‘scholars’ say that really matters, rather what God has to say.
The Daniel Test
The famous oil painting Belshazzar’s Feast, by the Dutch artist Rembrandt (1606–1669), hangs in London’s National Gallery.2 It pictures the scene in Daniel 5 where King Belshazzar held a vast banquet. This involved the profane, idolatrous use of drinking vessels from the temple in Jerusalem. Rembrandt’s painting captures the scene just after a hand mysteriously has appeared and written an inscription on the plastered wall of the palace room. The king’s face is itself a picture. What he saw terrified him:
Then the king’s colour changed, and his thoughts alarmed him; his limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together (Daniel 5:6).
The king called upon the prophet Daniel to decipher the writing on the wall. Daniel reminded him of “the Most High God” (v. 21) who had dealt with the pride of his predecessor, King Nebuchadnezzar. But Belshazzar had not learnt from that lesson. He had utterly failed to honour the true God.
The handwriting, explained Daniel, was a message to the king from God himself, declaring his displeasure. Daniel then read the inscription and interpreted it:
Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians (verses 25–27; my emphasis).
Before the day was over, the kingdom was invaded by Darius, king of the Medes (an ancient empire based in today’s Iran). Belshazzar forfeited his life, for God had judged him. It is at once both an interesting and a sobering account. Here was a godless king being held accountable for having corrupted the worship of God. God was not mocked. And if that was true of a pagan, how much more should professing Christians be careful to avoid corrupting the things of God?
Belshazzar made a huge error of judgment in thinking he could take the golden vessels of God’s temple (precious things) and use them for his own ends. Such a perversion of their intended use brought swift condemnation. The king failed what I shall call ‘the Daniel Test’: his handling of sanctified things was weighed in the balance by God and found wanting.
Rightly handling God’s Word
As special as the temple vessels were, much more precious are the words of Almighty God:
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times (Psalm 12:6).
The rules [judgments] of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold (Psalm 19:9–10).
The Daniel Test, then, is an assessment of our handling of the precious Word of God. How Christians deal with Scripture really matters. Whatever our intentions may be, it is clear that the distortion or twisting of the Scriptures is something which God takes very seriously indeed (see 2 Peter 3:16).
Weighed and found wanting
It mattered greatly to the Apostle Paul that his teaching was free from anything which might corrupt the minds of his disciples and readers (2 Corinthians 7:2), that his handling of Holy Scripture was above reproach. Likewise, the Daniel Test might be applied to areas where the Bible is under attack in our own day. Jesus commands Christians to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). True love for God will certainly show itself in a Christian's reverential and careful handling of the Word of God.
My new book, Evolution and the Christian Faith, reflects the burden of my heart. I look out on today’s Church and observe many ways in which professing Christians attempt to justify their disbelief in Genesis as history, in order to accommodate evolution. It is my earnest conviction that, when theistic evolution is weighed in the balances, it is found wanting both biblically and theologically.
To find out how I arrived at these stark conclusions, I urge you to read the book. Here is what my colleague, Dr Don Batten (Managing Director of CMI-Australia) had to say upon reading it. As an ex-theistic evolutionist myself, I resonate completely with what he shares:
I once tried to believe in evolution and the Bible; I was a theistic evolutionist. However, deep down, theistic evolution (TE) unsettled me. I tried not to think about it because I think I knew it would be problematic. Philip Bell’s Evolution & the Christian Faith delves into all the reasons that TE should trouble any Christian who genuinely follows Christ as Lord and Saviour (as I did, even while accepting TE). Philip covers even more reasons for why I ended up rejecting TE and returning to the authority of God's Word. I went from being ‘over’ the Word to being ‘under’ it. That is, with TE I was working at making God’s Holy Word fit my evolutionary thinking, whereas we are called to obey, not overturn its clear teaching. When I was ‘over’ the Word, I readily trotted out evangelical affirmations of the authority and even infallibility of the Bible, but in reality I did not actually believe it. When I jettisoned TE, it was like being born again, again, such was the transformation in my walk with Christ. Philip’s book explains why TE is so devastating to our Christian faith; it undermines everything; if you think about it! Evolution & the Christian Faith will help you think about it. I don’t think that anyone who accepts TE could read this book with an open heart before God and not be convicted by the biblical arguments. I would plead with anyone in this position to please read it, prayerfully and carefully, and be ready to repent of this destructive view.
My sincere prayer is that God might use the book to overturn the compromised thinking of fellow believers and liberate them to enjoy a firmer stand upon His holy and infallible Word—and thus to more fully love Him with the whole heart and mind.