What’s the problem with theistic evolution?
20 May 2005
A theistic evolutionist submits a criticism, and the many misconceptions are addressed by Dr Jonathan Sarfati, CMI–Australia [now CMI–USA].
Your arguments in the section on theistic evolution are muddled, but I am open to learning more. In my view, evolution is a highly visible aspect of creation. According to the vast majority of biologists, evolutionary theory is absolutely central to biology’s understanding of the miracle of physical life. But evolutionary theory does no disrespect to God, and the spirit of inquiry that bore it is a divine gift. The physical world must be as it is because God wanted it that way, whether or not God did most of His work of creation all at once or over a much longer haul. Far be it from me to tell Him how to do His work.
Modern biology explains quite a lot, but its explanations only go so far. Science only attempts describe and explain those observable phenomena that it can describe and explain, and the rest is left to God. That leaves God at the helm, hardly in the gaps. The beauty of quantum physics is that it suggests how God could be there, everywhere, all the time, within the things we can’t see or measure. Yet miraculously the physical world behaves with striking consistency and predictability, as if God established physical laws so that they could operate without continuous divine intervention, if He ever so desired. Science is only about testing concepts that are testable.
What’s the big problem if a day in Genesis was longer than 24 hours? A day is merely how long it takes for the earth to rotate. God’s schedule might be different from ours. Mistranslations from ancient to modern languages occurred frequently. What language did God use when he dictated the Bible? What’s the problem if creation unfolded gradually or if creation’s consciousness of itself, morality, God and Divine purpose evolved slowly. What is so frightening about trusting in God by living with some uncertainty in these areas? The unquestioning devotion to a single, rigid interpretation of scripture seems like a sign of weak faith, and plainly has caused much intolerance and persecution throughout history. Can God be reduced to words? If God was clever enough to challenge us by creating a universe with the physical appearance of expanding over eons, then why not allow that He could have placed hidden or indirect meanings in scripture? The Church admitted it was wrong about Galileo, so why couldn’t it be wrong about other aspects of the physical world, as well?
Your arguments in the section on theistic evolution are muddled,
Is there any particular argument you have in mind, and why?
but I am open to learning more.
A good place to start is actually to study what you’re criticizing.
In my view, evolution is a highly visible aspect of creation. According to the vast majority of biologists, evolutionary theory is absolutely central to biology’s understanding of the miracle of physical life.
First, truth is not decided by majority vote. Secondly, while the vast majority may pay lip service to the importance of evolution (that’s if they are really talking about goo-to-you transformism as opposed to mere change), in reality most of them conduct their research without any mention of it. See this admission from an evolutionist and the articles Evolution and practical science and Is evolution really necessary for medical advances?
But evolutionary theory does no disrespect to God, and the spirit of inquiry that bore it is a divine gift.
This newfound respect for ‘God’ seems disingenuous after G.N.’s previous diatribe against ‘religiosity’. This is aside from what we pointed out about the self-refuting characteristic of ascribing the origin of beliefs to Darwinian mechanisms (i.e. it means his belief in Darwinism is likewise due to mutation and selection for survival, not because it necessarily corresponded to reality).
However, we are seeing more and more of this disingenuity. E.g. the rabid anti-theist Richard Dawkins is infamous for saying that Darwinian evolution made it “possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”, and had utter contempt for those who claimed that god might be behind evolution. But recently he has urged evolutionists to team up with bishops who support evolution. Of course, Dawkins realizes that a god being somehow behind evolution differs in no practical way from evolution working by itself. See also the parable of the horse and the tractor.
Dr William Provine, atheist professor of biology at Cornell University reinforced this:
‘… belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people. One can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.’ [in ‘No free will’; in Catching up with the Vision, Margaret W Rossiter (Ed.), Chicago University Press, p. S123, 1999.]
(Of course, if there is no free will, in the sense of voluntarily initiating thought, then it follows that Provine really couldn’t help believing this! Rather, his beliefs are fully determined by deterministic laws of brain chemistry.)
Another atheistic anti-creationist, Eugenie Scott, who has won humanist awards for her campaigns, has also said
‘I would describe myself as a humanist or a nontheist. I have found that the most effective allies for evolution are people of the faith community. One clergyman with a backward collar is worth two biologists at a school board meeting any day!’ [Research News and Opportunities in Science and Theology]
However, Christians should not be surprised at such disingenuity from atheists. They are being consistent with their belief that our sense of morality has merely evolved for some sort of survival advantage, rather than because there is objective right and wrong. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, “Without God, everything is permissible; crime is inevitable.” So when Christians debate atheists, we should heed the warning of the 18th century British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke: “There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men” [meant inclusively in those days] (Reflections on the Revolution in France, p. 249). And please check Bomb-building vs. the biblical foundation for what we are saying about atheists and morality to understand the moral argument—we don’t claim that atheists can’t be moral, but that they have no objective basis for their moral claims.
The physical world must be as it is because God wanted it that way, whether or not God did most of His work of creation all at once or over a much longer haul. Far be it from me to tell Him how to do His work.
This sounds very pious, but true piety involves actually believing what God has told us—He did his work (creation) in six days. See Did God really take six days? and ‘He could have done it that way … couldn’t He?’
Modern biology explains quite a lot, but its explanations only go so far. Science only attempts describe and explain those observable phenomena that it can describe and explain, and the rest is left to God. That leaves God at the helm, hardly in the gaps.
The ‘God of the gaps’ view is a straw man. As creationists we never seek miraculous intervention in the gaps in normal ‘operation science’. Rather, we use the basic scientific principles of causality (everything that has a beginning has a cause) and analogy (e.g. we observe that intelligence is needed to generate complex coded information in the present, so we can reasonably assume the same for the past). And because there was no material intelligent designer for life, it is legitimate to invoke a non-material designer for life. Note that this is not based on a lack of knowledge, but squarely on what we do know about complex specified information and the laws of chemistry that refute chemical evolutionary ideas of origin of life.
The beauty of quantum physics is that it suggests how God could be there, everywhere, all the time, within the things we can’t see or measure.
Is this now the ‘god of the quantum gaps’ advocated by the theistic anti-creationist Kenneth Miller? I actually wonder whether Miller or this critic actually understand quantum physics (an important part of my own Ph.D. research).
Yet miraculously the physical world behaves with striking consistency and predictability, as if God established physical laws so that they could operate without continuous divine intervention, if He ever so desired. Science is only about testing concepts that are testable.
Once again, this misunderstands the difference between origin and operational science which we have explained in detail. We have also cited the succinct thoughts of philosopher and apologist J.P. Moreland:
‘But some will object, “If we allowed appealing to God anytime we don’t understand something, then science itself would be impossible, for science proceeds on the assumption of natural causality.” This argument is a red herring. It is true that science is not compatible with just any form of theism, particularly a theism that holds to a capricious god who intervenes so often that the contrast between primary and secondary causality is unintelligible. But Christian theism holds that secondary causality is God’s usual mode and primary causality is infrequent, comparatively speaking. That is why Christianity, far from hindering the development of science, actually provided the womb for its birth and development.’ [Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation, Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, p. 226, 1989.]
What’s the big problem if a day in Genesis was longer than 24 hours?
Quite simple—it denies the time length that God told us He took, not only in Genesis but in Exodus 20:8–11 with the giving of the Ten Commandments. And God inspired the Bible to teach us (2 Timothy 3:15–17), but if words in a certain context don’t have a definite meaning, then how can we learn what He wants? Dr Marcus Dods, a liberal theologian and Hebrew expert, said
‘If the word “day” in this chapter [Genesis 1] does not mean a period of 24 hours, the interpretation of Scripture is hopeless’ (see Did God really take six days?).
A day is merely how long it takes for the earth to rotate.
Now you have the right idea! So it does not mean billions of years in the context of Genesis 1 (with evening and morning plus a numeric)—did the earth take billions of years to rotate once on its axis some time in the past?
God’s schedule might be different from ours.
Again, how could God teach us if words didn’t mean the same to God and man? A reductio ad absurdum of this idea is to consider any other word in Scripture. Perhaps what God meant by ‘steal’ or ‘murder’ in the Decalogue isn’t what man means either? After all, this was a ‘special case’ where God wrote with His own finger. And since Jesus is God and He was in the grave for three days, were these days not literal either? This whole approach is existentialist nonsense.
Also, God doesn’t even need a schedule, because He is outside time! Therefore, when He said ‘day’, in the context of Genesis, He meant day from our perspective, since we are the creatures in the created space-time dimension who experience time.
Mistranslations from ancient to modern languages occurred frequently.
Then please inform us of some examples (even one?), demonstrating this from the original languages? After all, it’s illogical to claim that a mistranslation has occurred unless you can show what the correct translation should be.
What language did God use when he dictated the Bible?
Dictation is a straw man. Rather, we have cited theologians who pointed out
‘… inspiration is … God’s superintendence of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs.’ [Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine, Moody Press, Chicago, p. 38, 1972.]
In answer to your presumed question, God inspired the Old Testament in Hebrew (with a few Aramaic parts) and the New Testament in Greek. And these languages have been very well studied.
What’s the problem if creation unfolded gradually
The problem, as we have often pointed out, is that this is not what God told us He did. And we have also pointed out the atheistic Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod said:
‘[Natural] selection is the blindest, and most cruel way of evolving new species, and more and more complex and refined organisms … The struggle for life and elimination of the weakest is a horrible process, against which our whole modern ethics revolts. An ideal society is a non-selective society, one where the weak is protected; which is exactly the reverse of the so-called natural law. I am surprised that a Christian would defend the idea that this is the process which God more or less set up in order to have evolution.’ [The Secret of Life, broadcast interview, 10 June 1978.]
See also Some questions for theistic evolutionists—as you should have already checked according to our feedback rules.
or if creation’s consciousness of itself, morality, God and Divine purpose evolved slowly.
This is a false panentheistic ‘god’ of your own making, not the Sovereign Creator of biblical Christianity.
What is so frightening about trusting in God by living with some uncertainty in these areas?
It is illogical to prefer uncertainty to certainty. Would you cross a bridge if the engineer was uncertain whether it could hold your weight? Fortunately, there are no relativists in engineering!
The unquestioning devotion to a single, rigid interpretation of scripture
But this is absurd. A single, rigid (as you put it) interpretation is essential for communication. Perhaps as an MD, when you prescribe 30 units of insulin for a diabetic, it would be OK for him not to hold to a single, rigid interpretation of your prescription. Instead, should he be free to interpret insulin as ibuprofen, or 30 units as 3,000 units?
seems like a sign of weak faith,
Au contraire, it is a strong faith to trust what God has revealed and oppose the majority opinion of one’s fellows.
and plainly has caused much intolerance and persecution throughout history.
This is a revisionist view of history and also a revisionist meaning of “intolerance”. Tolerance really means being civil to someone you disagree with. But this presupposes that there are different viewpoints, and that some things are objectively right and others wrong—for a start, that toleration is right and intolerance wrong!
But now ‘tolerance’ has been twisted to mean that all views are equally valid. Of course, this is except the view that some views are right and other views are wrong—this must not be tolerated because all views must be tolerated (liberal advocates of the new ‘tolerance’ don’t exactly have logic as a strong suit).
Also note the persecution that has come from the evolutionary Nazi and Communist régimes last century, far outweighing all the religious persecution from all centuries combined.
Can God be reduced to words?
It would be better to propose an actual argument rather than resort to cheap slogans. How can we know what God is like, except from the words He has used to reveal His attributes? How do you propose separating God’s Word from who He is, without making him a liar? The Creator Jesus is the Word (John 1:1–3), and He said, ‘the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63). And He said
‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels’ (Luke 9:23).
Of course that does not mean that words are fully adequate to reveal the glory of God in all its majesty, but that is because of our limited ability to understand as mere mortals, not because God has not communicated accurately.
If God was clever enough to challenge us by creating a universe with the physical appearance of expanding over eons,
This is begging the question—assuming something that requires demonstration. God has done no such thing—these eons are the result of interpreting certain physical data under a naturalistic paradigm that rejects what He has told us plainly. See also The earth: how old does it look? and the Parable of the Candle.
then why not allow that He could have placed hidden or indirect meanings in scripture?
Because He inspired the words of the Bible to teach us, not trick us. That’s why Jesus repeatedly said, ‘It is written’, not ‘it is encoded’. You might also like to consider the following passages that indicate that God generally wrote Scripture with straightforward meanings:
2 Corinthians 4:2
‘Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.’
In context the ‘truth’ is God’s Word and Jesus confirms it is in John 17:17.
‘All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; There is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands, And right to those who find knowledge.’
The Church admitted it was wrong about Galileo, so why couldn’t it be wrong about other aspects of the physical world, as well?
Actually, this is more revisionism as we explain in Q&A: Galileo. In short, you are claiming that the church should adopt the scientific consensus today (on evolution and long ages). But you castigate the church of four centuries ago for adopting the scientific consensus of its day, i.e. Aristotelian/Ptolemaic astronomy. Note that Galileo’s main opposition came from the scientists at the universities, while he and the other pioneers of geokinetic astronomy—Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, were all young-earth creationists!
Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D.
CMI – Brisbane, Australia