Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution

GENESIS RECAST Conference

For too long Christians in North America have thought the Bible was in conflict with biological evolution. Yet many orthodox Christian theologians of the nineteenth century (including Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield) saw no conflict in principle.

The Manufactured “War” between Science and Religion

This famous “war” of science and religion (of which the creation-evolution battle is the most prominent example) is a relatively recent invention, manufactured from the atheist side by John William Draper (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874) and by Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896), and on the Christian side by fundamentalists who misread the Genesis creation accounts as scientific.

But this is a serious genre mistake. Many atheists treat “science” as a full-fledged worldview that claims to tell us that there is nothing to reality but the natural world and that the scientific method gives us all the valid knowledge there is. Likewise many Christians treat the Bible as a science textbook, when the point of creation accounts in the ancient world (of which Israel was a part) is to explain the meaning of life and how we are to live.

Of course, the issues are a bit more complex than that. But to find out more you will need to attend an important conference that is coming to the Buffalo, NY area on September 18-19, 2015.

Genesis Recast—The War with Science Is Over

This is the provocative name of the conference, which will headline John Walton, Old Testament professor from Wheaton College, on how the read the Genesis creation accounts. His orthodox Christian faith in connection with his expertise in the Bible and the ancient Near East admirably equips him to guide us in how the interpret the Genesis creation accounts in line with their original intent.

Of course, we need to go well beyond a declaration of “peace” between the Bible and science.

The Positive Role of a Biblical View of Creation

The biblical view of creation claims that the cosmos is “very good” (Gen 1:31) and is imbued with God’s wisdom and order (Prov 3:19-20). Indeed, the wisdom literature of the Bible encourages us to understand the world, in which God’s wisdom is embedded, that we might live better in it.

Furthermore, God’s creation of humanity in his own image, with the task to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and tend the garden of creation (Gen 2:15), implies an exalted role for human beings, which includes the possibility of science. As stewards of earthly life, we are commissioned with a vocation that encompasses (but is not limited to) the scientific understanding of the world in which we live.

Not only can the world be studied scientifically, but a biblical view of God’s good creation suggests that human knowledge of the world (while not infallible) is possible and (when proper testing is in place) is reliable and trustworthy.

So far from being threatened by evolution, Christians who embrace a biblical understanding of creation may see the hand of God in the deep time of the cosmos and the complex processes of biological evolution. In fact, we may be in awe of the amazing creativity of this great God of ours.

Living with Unanswered Questions

Does this mean that we’ve solved all problems of how theology and the Bible relate to what we are learning about the cosmos and the evolution of life on this planet? By no means. I myself am working on these issues and have lots of questions. But whoever said that we would have all the answers, especially within our lifetime?

Expecting all the answers now is a decidedly modern form of hubris.

Instead, Christians need to learn the virtue of patience, and to take a long view of things. If we trust in the God of creation, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, we can learn to live with the unanswered questions we have—indeed, to love the questions, as Rilke suggested, until that day when we live into the answers.

More Information on the Genesis Recast Conference

While John Walton is the keynote speaker for the Buffalo conference, there are other speakers, addressing issues relating to the New Testament, genetics, and implications for the church. You can find details about the other speakers on the conference website, as well as in my previous post on the subject.

Registration is so cheap as to be ridiculous. If you live within driving distance, there is no excuse not to go, since a conference of this caliber won’t come this way again in a long while.

I hope to see you there!

If you need flyers (4×6) or posters (13×19) for your church or organization, let the conference organizer know [iyouthguy@gmail.com], and he will send them to you.

What I Learned at the Evolution Conference

I promised a report on the the March 26-28, 2015 conference of the Colossian Forum entitled “Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. I’ve been back for a week now, so it’s time to share some of my thoughts.

In general, I had a stimulating time of listening to thoughtful speakers and networking with a variety of scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians, and biblical scholars—a very worthwhile event.

My presentation on “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution” was well received, and resulted in many great conversations afterwards.

Photo of me giving my presentation on March 27, tweeted by Jamie Smith.

New Opportunities Arising from the Conference

While at the conference I was asked by BioLogos, the organization that funded the conference, to do a series of blog posts on the topic of my presentation (which I accepted). I was also invited to a BioLogos meeting of pastors, scholars, and others in San Francisco this Fall (all expenses paid) on the theme of the science/ faith intersection, called “Celebrating Creation.”

While at the conference I had a meeting with Jim Kinney and Steve Ayers, from Baker Academic (the publisher of my latest book, A New Heaven and a New Earth). Jim invited me to publish my next book with them, something I am happy to do. It is tentatively titled The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job (on lament prayer). I just sent Baker Academic a preliminary proposal.

What was my basic takeaway from the conference? There were two main points that struck me as important.

Taking Evolution Seriously

The first thing that struck me is that there are many orthodox Christian scholars, working in different fields, who fully embrace the evidence for the biological evolution of humanity over millions of years; they have no trouble being committed Trinitarian Christians while taking evolution seriously. This was a heartening realization, because it coheres with what I believe should be the outworking of a biblical doctrine of creation. Believing that the Creator made a world that is “very good” (Gen 1:31) suggests that we should trust that reliable knowledge of creation is possible, and this knowledge includes the findings of science, including evolutionary science.

Of course, science is an ever-changing field, as new data are uncovered, and not everything that scientists claim at a particular moment will still be claimed in the future. This is certainly true of the details of hominin evolution, including issues like precisely when Homo sapiens migrated from Africa or the precise dating of the male and female ancestors of all persons living today (which depends on understanding the rate of mutations of the Y chromosome and Mitochondrial DNA). Nevertheless, the general outlines are pretty clear and the fact of evolution is not really in dispute in the scientific community.

Taking the Christian Faith Seriously

If there was one significant difference of opinion that I picked up at the conference, it was over the issue of how we relate the Christian faith (including the doctrine of sin/the fall) to evolutionary science. While many scientists and some theologians at the conference clearly wanted to harmonize (in some way) the biblical accounts of origins and the fall with what we know (or think we know) about biological evolution, not all were convinced this was the best route to go.

The reasons were twofold.

The first has to do with the ever-changing field of scientific knowledge. Peter Harrison (a past Gifford lecturer, who has written extensively on the history of religion and science) gave a brilliant presentation on historical attempts to relate biblical teaching about the cosmos to contemporaneous science. He showed how quickly harmonizations of the Bible and science in the modern period had to be revised, as science grew and progressed, leaving some of the authors of new books on the subject looking quite foolish. So we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to an explanation of how biblical truth relates to the latest science.

But the second reason for resisting immediate harmonization is even more important. The biblical accounts of creation and fall have their own integrity, and these accounts make theological claims about origins in their own right. The danger in harmonization (laudable though it is to try and show connections between theology and science) is that we are in danger of changing what the text is actually claiming (for example, many attempts to connect the biblical accounts of origins to evolution end up denying the Bible’s affirmation of a good creation or the historical origin of human sin).

We need to attend to the fact that the Bible wasn’t written to satisfy our scientific curiosity about the cosmos, but rather has a salvific and ethical purpose. This was a point made especially by theologians and biblical scholars at the conference.

It was the judgment of many (though not all) at the conference that the church needs to attend to its own articulation of the significance of creation and fall, indwelling its own scriptural narratives in their full depth, without feeling pressured to make the Bible “fit” what science is currently telling us. This is not a matter of mistrusting science, but rather of respecting the integrity of the biblical witness to God’s purposes for the world articulated in texts like Genesis 1-3.

I was particularly struck this past weekend, as my church celebrated the paschal, mystery followed by Easter, in a series of services, of the amazing richness of the biblical story of Christ’s victory over death, which is meant to frame all of our lives, and guide us towards holy living. Far from us needing to explain away our faith to make it fit contemporary science, the existential truth and power of this deep mystery is a guide for living and thinking, including our thinking about and our practice of science.

My Own Approach to Evolution and the Fall

Not all the presentations at the conference explicitly addressed Genesis 3, the the classic “Fall” narrative. But, as an Old Testament scholar, that was the focus for my own paper.

When I began working on my paper, I initially framed it as an alternative to naive concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). The former approach is what I grew up with in the conservative evangelical church, where Scripture was understood as teaching scientific truth about the cosmos, including a young earth and a non-evolutionary history of biological organisms. The result is that much of modern science is rejected, and the rest is made to harmonize with Scripture.

NOMA is the approach advocated by Stephen Jay Gould, the famous agnostic scientist who wanted to respect what the various religious traditions said. He therefore affirmed that their truth was of a different order from that of the sciences, so that the various “magisteria” (science and religion) could never actually contradict each other.

I was dissatisfied with both approaches—the former since it doesn’t take science seriously and the latter since it seems to erect a concrete wall between science and faith that admits of no interaction.

I initially conceived of my paper as an attempt to get beyond both concordism and NOMA. To that end I set out to explore various theological motifs in Genesis 2-3, such as the creation of humans and animals from the earth, the meaning of the tree of life, the prohibition of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the significance of the snake and its dialogue with the woman, the subsequent narrative of transgression and judgment, and the spread of sin and violence in Genesis. Along the way, I made some tentative and speculative comments about how elements of this story might relate to a virtue ethics approach to the development of moral consciousness and also with the state of our current knowledge of evolutionary anthropology.

While some of my suggestions for possible connections with evolution were intriguing, in the end I came to the conclusion that our primary need is to understand the story of Genesis 2-3 in its own right before we try to relate it to evolutionary history. We need to take the time to understand (and indwell) this powerful narrative as the deepest truth of our origins as human beings and the origins of our falling out with God and one another. Only then will be in any position to think clearly about how this text might relate to human evolution.

Note: The conference proceedings are now published as essays in Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017), ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith.

Singing Lies in Church

In a previous post entitled “The Bible’s Best Kept Secret” I summarized the logic of redemption in the Scriptures—that God loves this world and intends to redeem it. Grounded in the holistic worldview of the Old Testament, the New Testament envisions God’s renewal of creation at Christ’s return, rather than God taking us out of this world to “heaven,” conceived of as an immaterial realm. Indeed, contrary to much popular eschatology, nowhere does the Bible ever say that “heaven” is the eternal destiny of the righteous.

The Eschatology of Classic Christian Hymns

So why do so many in the church assume a heavenly afterlife? The answer lies in Christian hymnody. It is primarily from what they sing that those in the pew (or auditorium) typically learn their theology, especially their eschatology. And the trouble is that a holistic vision of the future is found only rarely in popular Christian piety or in the liturgy of the church. Indeed, it is blatantly contradicted by many traditional hymns (and contemporary praise songs) sung in the context of communal worship.

Preparing for Heaven

From the classic Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” which anticipates being “changed from glory into glory/ till in heaven we take our place,” to “Away in a Manger,” which prays, “And fit us for Heaven, to live with Thee there,” congregations are exposed to—and assimilate—an otherworldly eschatology.

Some hymns, like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” inconsistently combine the idea of resurrection with the hope of heaven: “On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,/ And the glory of His resurrection share;/ When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,/ And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Some hymns even interpret resurrection without reference to the body at all, such as “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” which in one stanza regards death as liberation (“Till death shall set me free”) and in another asserts: “O resurrection day!/ When Christ the Lord from Heav’n comes down/ And bears my soul away.”

A hymn like “When We All Get to Heaven” may be too obvious, but notice that “The Old Rugged Cross” ends with the words, “Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away/ Where his glory forever I’ll share.”

And “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” climaxes with the lines: “When my feeble life is o’er,/ Time for me will be no more;/ Guide me gently, safely o’er/ To Thy kingdom shore, to Thy shore.

A Perpetual Worship Service

This notion of a perpetual worship service in an otherworldly afterlife is a central motif in many hymns, like “My Jesus I Love Thee,” which affirms that “In mansions of glory and endless delight,/ I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright.”

Likewise, “Come Christians, Join to Sing” affirms that “On heaven’s blissful shore,/ His goodness we’ll adore,/ Singing forevermore,/ ‘Alleluia! Amen!’”

In a similar vein, “As with Gladness Men of Old” asks in one stanza that “when earthly things are past,/ Bring our ransomed souls at last/ Where they need no star to guide” and in another stanza expresses the desire that “In the heavenly country bright/ . . . There forever may we sing/ Alleluias to our King!”

From Hymns to Contemporary Praise Songs

Thankfully, most hymnals no longer have the sixth verse of “Amazing Grace,” which predicts: “The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,/ The sun forbear to shine;/ But God, who called me here below,/ Will be forever mine.

Yet Chris Tomlin’s contemporary revision of this classic hymn, known as “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” reintroduces this very verse as the song’s new climax, ready to shape the otherworldly mindset of a fresh generation of young worshipers unacquainted with hymnals.

And this just begins to scratch the surface of worship lyrics that portray the final destiny of the righteous as transferal from an earthly, historical existence to a transcendent, immaterial realm.

As the popular theologian and preacher A. W. Tozer is reputed to have said: “Christians don’t tell lies; they just go to church and sing them.”

Perhaps that is too harsh; nevertheless, I can testify to the steady diet of such songs that I was exposed to, growing up in the church in Kingston, Jamaica, which certainly reinforced the idea of heaven as otherworldly final destiny.

An Alternative Vision of the Future

I am, however, perpetually grateful that along with such exposure I came to know, through sheer proximity, the this-worldly theology of Rastafarianism, especially as mediated through the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers. While I am a committed Christian and thus cannot affirm everything found in Rasta theology, I nevertheless discern a deeply rooted biblical consciousness in the lyrics of many Wailers’ songs.

For example, the song “We an’ Dem” (on the Uprising album) claims that “in the beginning Jah created everything/ and he gave man dominion over all things” and “Pass It On” (on the Burnin’ album) asserts that “In the kingdom of Jah/ Man shall reign.” These lyrics express (in androcentric language, admittedly) the biblical vision of this-worldly dignity granted humans at creation, a dignity which will be restored in the kingdom of God.

And Peter Tosh’s version of “Get Up, Stand Up” (a song he co-wrote with Marley), understands well the implications of eschatology for ethics, when it contrasts the doctrine of the rapture with a desire for justice on earth:

“You know, most people think,/ A great God will come from the skies,/ And take away every little thing/ And lef’ everybody dry./ But if you know what life is worth,/ You would look for yours/ Right here on earth/ And now we see the light,/ We gonna stand up for our rights.” (From the Equal Rights album.)

The song goes on to critique the “preacher man” for taking the focus off earthly life and affirms that the singer is “Sick and tired of this game of theology,/ die and go to heaven in Jesus name.”

This is the very theology that leads Marley, in the song “Talkin’ Blues” (from the Natty Dread album), to admit, “I feel like bombing a church,/ now that you know that the preacher is lying.”

But if Tozer is right, it isn’t just the preacher who is lying, but also the worshipers who blithely sing hymns of escape to an ethereal heaven—when the Bible teaches no such thing.

What the Bible does teach is the theme of my new book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014).