Nearly 60 percent of Americans overall think faith and science conflict with one another, but a new book argues that Christians can believe in the theory of evolution. It may be surprising to hear, but a large percentage of self-identified Christians in various denominations do accept the idea, and PJ Media reached out to scholars to understand how and why.
“We don’t think God’s ‘two books’ (the book of God’s Word and the book of God’s world) ultimately contradict each other,” Jim Stump, co-editor of the recent book How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science, told PJ Media. “But there have certainly been times when our understanding of science contradicts our understanding of the Christian faith.” In such circumstances, Stump said, we need humility about our own views, and an unshakeable faith that God is the author of both creation and the Bible.
“I’d encourage folks to read C.S. Lewis, John Stott, B.B. Warfield, Billy Graham,” Kathryn Applegate, the book’s other editor, said. “All of them are heroes of the Christian faith who knew and loved their Bibles, but who were also open to evolution. If there’s one take-away, it’s this: the Gospel is centered on the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, not on being on the correct side of the creation/evolution culture wars.”
Both Stump and Applegate allege that many corners of the Christian church are openly hostile to evolution and even to committed Christians who are willing to accept the theory. Nevertheless, two evolution skeptics with a background in faith and science both said it was possible for a committed Christian to believe in a limited kind of evolution without contradicting the Christian faith.
Jay Richards, author of God and Evolution and assistant research professor at the Catholic University of America, emphasized that there are multiple perspectives about human origins that do not conflict with Christian theology. Stephen C. Meyer, author of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, argued that the scientific consensus on evolution is starting to fall apart, so while Christians can believe in evolution, they may not want to.
This position is not without its critics, however. PJ Media also spoke with Daniel J. Phillips, pastor of Copperfield Bible Church in Houston, TX, and author of The World-Tilting Gospel: Embracing a Biblical Worldview and Holding on Tight, who flatly declared that the Bible’s text excludes acceptance of a few widely-accepted scientific theories, especially evolution. Nevertheless, he also insisted that “true science will always accord with God’s Word.”
While Christians may disagree on the specifics of the biblical account of creation, they all agree that science and faith — while they may seem to be in conflict at times — ultimately will harmonize as humans understand God’s truth more fully.
Despite the skepticism of pastors like Phillips, a surprisingly large portion of the Christian population also accepts a version of evolution when it comes to human origins. According to a religious landscape study from 2014, a full 66 percent of Roman Catholics and 65 percent of Mainline Protestants believed that humans “evolved over time,” either due to natural processes or guided by God.
Even 38 percent of evangelical Protestants held this view, along with a full 50 percent of Protestants in historically black churches and 49 percent of Orthodox Christians. These numbers raise the question of how a committed Christian, regardless of denomination, can embrace evolution.
This is the question this article seeks to answer, and to do so, it is necessary to lay out specific arguments, first about the very definition of evolution itself.
Next Page: Why it matters how you define “evolution.”
1. Evolution does not mean there is no God.
“Whether orthodox Christians can (consistently) believe in evolution depends entirely on the meaning attached to the word ‘evolution,'” Richards wrote PJ Media in an email statement.
Stephen Meyer pointed out that there are three different possible definitions of evolution:
- Change over time, meaning very small-scale changes among groups of animals over time. This is called “microevolution,” and the best example is how darker moths survive and lighter moths die when trees in an area become covered in soot.
- The theory of universal common descent, that all living beings are descended from one common single-celled organism.
- The idea that a completely undirected, unguided process known as natural selection caused universal common descent, and while there is an appearance of design, there is no actual design behind life.
Meyer argued that the first meaning of evolution is so broad as to include everyone — of course there is change over time. He also added that the second definition can be reconciled to Christianity, although there are scientific problems with it.
“The place where you definitely run into trouble is evolution number 3,” Meyer concluded. “You can’t say that natural selection and random mutation are the whole causal explanation for everything and say that God is a creator in any meaningful way.”
Richards agreed, arguing that “there’s no contradiction between Christian theology” and the “modest claims about life” involved in the argument that “some organisms share common ancestors and that natural selection and random variation explain *some things* in the biosphere.”
“That said, the word ‘evolution’ often means far more than that,” Richards added. “If evolution means that all of life is the result of blind and purposeless process, then no Christian could believe that while also remaining a Christian.”
The authors of the new book on evolution also agreed with Meyer and Richards. Jim Stump emphasized the difference between scientific theories and philosophical claims.
“The science of evolution works like other sciences do: scientists make observations now and then make hypotheses about what might have occurred in the past to bring about what they observe now; then their hypotheses are tested,” Stump explained.
He argued that “the hypothesis of common ancestry has been tested like this over and over in the fossil record and now quite dramatically in genetics.” Nevertheless, “it is not part of science to claim that evolution is purposeless or meaningless. These are philosophical interpretations.”
“We Christians can interpret the same data as being guided and governed by God for his purposes,” the author explained. “At [the Christianity and science organization] BioLogos we affirm that God intentionally created human beings, and that evolution is the best scientific description of that process. We don’t see a conflict between these theological and scientific claims.”
Next Page: What about Genesis 1?
2. There are multiple interpretations of the creation story in Genesis.
Many Christians argue that the Bible story of creation in Genesis 1 explicitly states that God created the world in seven 24-hour days, and that any evidence of the earth or the universe having existed for millions or billions of years is somehow misinterpreted. This is called the “Young Earth” interpretation, and many believe it is the only accurate way to understand Genesis 1.
Others disagree. “I hold an Old Earth position,” Meyer explained. “What strikes me about the Genesis 1 narrative is that the events are clearly in the right order. The last few days, you’ve got birds and sea reptiles, animals, and man. There’s a nice concord possible: the sequence of events described in Genesis pretty closely match the sequence of events” revealed through biology and paleontology.
The “Old Earth” position argues that scientific methods of dating the age of rocks and the distance of light from faraway stars are reliable, and that the universe and the earth actually are billions and millions of years old, respectively. Meyer’s view seeks to reconcile the general outline of Genesis 1 and the long, slow process described by modern advances in scientific dating techniques.
Richards laid out another argument against the Young Earth position. “The days in Genesis 1 are clearly *not* normal earth days,” he argued. “Earth days are set by the movement of the sun across the sky. But the sun and moon don’t even show up until day four in Genesis 1.”
Jack Collins, professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary and Old Testament chair on the translation committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible, told The Christian Post that the Young Earth view is not supported by the biblical text. He echoed Richards on the problems of the fourth day, and added that God’s rest on the seventh day is “an analogical presentation, because God doesn’t really get tired and need rest as we do.”
In Genesis 2, which traditionally has been seen as an expansion of the sixth day of creation, there were no plants on the land until God made it rain. Collins argued that this is a reference to the climate cycle in Mesopotamia. “You need to have the climate cycle to be in effect for at least one year — that tells you that the creation period is longer than a regular week.”
Kathryn Applegate, co-editor of the new book on evolution, argued that the text of Genesis 1 is more metaphorical than scientific. “Personally I favor the framework view of Genesis 1: the first three days describe creation of ‘kingdoms,’ while the final three days describe ‘kings’ to fill them. So for instance, the sun, moon, and stars, created in day 4, fill the light and dark, created in day 1.”
“The structure of the prose argues against a wooden literalism or strict concords with events in natural history,” Applegate added. She argued that the early chapters of Genesis “refer to real events–God actually created everything that exists–but I don’t believe they are meant to be read as an eyewitness account of creation.”
Instead, Genesis 1 emphasizes “who God is, how we are to relate to him, and what our roles are as stewards and image bearers.” The early chapters of the Bible “reveal humanity’s brokenness in sin and foreshadow the coming of a Savior. They provide a foundation for marriage and family. None of that is disturbed by acceptance of evolutionary theory.”
Next Page: But wasn’t the Young Earth view always accepted by Christians, going back to the beginning?
3. The recent date of Young Earth Creationism (and Old Earth Creationism, for that matter).
While many Young Earth Creationists (YECs) argue that the “literal” interpretation of creation in seven 24-hour days has always been a central part of Christian theology, there have actually been multiple interpretations of Genesis 1, going back as far as St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.).
“I think the popularity of YEC among evangelicals is simply an artifact of history: it was developed in the 1960s by some thinkers within American evangelicalism, so that it’s mostly unknown among Catholics and mainline Protestants,” Richards argued. He also pointed out that St. Augustine did not have a Young Earth, or even an Old Earth, view.
“Note that although Augustine took the days of Gen. 1 to be allegorical, he did NOT have an evolutionary or old earth view,” Richards added. “No one until a couple of centuries ago had any reason to imagine the earth and universe might have been billions of years old. Augustine just figured that God created everything all at once, but that Genesis spoke of God creating during a work week as a sort of mental model for humans.”
Applegate also emphasized the debate about Genesis which long pre-dated Young Earth or Old Earth Creationism. “Christians have been debating how to interpret the Genesis accounts of creation for millennia–these questions are by no means new, but they are made more urgent by discoveries in modern geology and biology.”
“By Darwin’s time, many Christians already accepted that the earth was much, much older than a few thousand years,” Applegate added. “It was only in the 20th century that so called ‘young earth creationism’ rose to prominence.” Perhaps ironically, one of Charles Darwin’s closest friends was a committed Christian by the name of Asa Gray. He accepted evolution as the means by which God created life and man.
Next Page: What about the fall, sin, and death?
4. Animal death is different from human death, and evolution doesn’t contradict Adam and Eve.
Collins, the Old Testament chair on the ESV translation, argued that human death and animal death are different in kind. He acknolwedged that many Christians — especially Ken Ham — say no animals died before Adam’s sin, because Scripture says that death entered the world with sin. But the Bible does not portray animal death as evil. Indeed, Psalm 104:21 praises God for giving lions their food.
“Biblically, the death of humans is the problem, the death of animals is not,” Collins flatly declared.
As for Adam and Eve, their historical existence “is hotly debated,” Applegate wrote. “A number of discoveries in genetics and genomics all point to the fact that the human population was never as small as two individuals, and that human beings share a common ancestor with other primates.”
Nevertheless, “it is possible that God in his wisdom chose to begin his relationship with humanity through a chosen pair who were living in a larger population, just as God later chose Israel from the surrounding nations.”
Applegate argued for Adam and Eve as a historical pair “because certain New Testament passages (e.g. Rom. 5, 1 Cor. 15) seem harder to understand otherwise.” Even so, she argued that the Gospel does not depend on Adam and Eve — “it seems self-evident to me that all people sin and are therefore in need of salvation.” Applegate quoted Acts 4:12, explaining that “the Bible reveals that Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved.”
Jim Stump also deemphasized the importance of Adam and Eve. “I personally am not persuaded that orthodox Christian faith depends on there being a historical pair–even a representative sort,” he said, but he added that he is open to criticism on this. “At BioLogos, we’re firmly committed to conducting the dialogue with graciousness.”
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, presents a “not unlikely tale” which reconciles the story of Adam and Eve with the scientific theory of evolution. “God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself,” Lewis wrote.
Then God “caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness… which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.”
Lewis seemed to believe that God directed evolution and thus created human beings from dust (Genesis 2:7), but then added more — breathing His spirit into Adam and Eve. This theory explains how the two could still be the first humans, even while other biological humans (not yet fully “in the image of God”) also walked the earth. Eventually, the spirit of God given to Adam and Eve would spread to all men and women, as would their sin and death.
This helps explain how Christians can believe in evolution, but there are two major reasons why they may not want to.
Next Page: Scientific problems with evolution.
5. The theory of natural selection is falling apart.
Meyer argued that while Christians can believe in evolution, they may not want to. The scientific theory has faced some huge challenges, and a conference later this year will attempt to resolve them by creating a new theory of evolution.
The current understanding of evolution fails “to solve the fundamental problems of new information and new form — you need new information to build new forms of life.” Scientists today cannot explain the origin of the information-rich systems like DNA which are necessary for life, nor huge events in the fossil record like the Cambrian explosion, where vast numbers of species come into existence, seemingly from nowhere.
Meyer explained that evolution has already gone through one great “scientific revolution,” from Darwinism to what he called “Neo-Darwinism.” As scientists realize the shortcomings of the current theory, they might discover “an extended synthesis,” or a “third way,” neither full Intelligent Design nor Darwinism.
“The evidence of design is powerful and it’s faith-affirming, and it leaves space to figure out within ourselves these subsidiary issues,” he added.
Ironically, as Christians begin to accept evolution, scientists might begin to reject it. Meyer chided the church for focusing on the wrong issues. “Fighting in the Christian world about how old the earth is rather than contesting the claims of Darwinians that there’s no design in nature” is a mistake, because “the big issues of worldview are much more important than the narrow issues of biblical interpretation.”
Next Page: Final arguments against evolution, a defense of the Young Earth thesis.
6. Young Earth Creationism revisited.
Pastor Daniel Phillips’ position would be at variance with many of the arguments above, and he used a bold interpretation of scripture to back himself up. “If you’re asking, ‘Should a Christian affirm a theory that is at odds with what the Bible teaches?’ then of course, I’d say, ‘No (1 John 2:1a).'”
“The person who anxiously searches for a minimalist faith — enough to get him into Heaven, while sparing him the world’s mockery and scorn — is, mildly put, not in a good place,” Phillips added, citing James 4:4.
When it comes to the days in Genesis 1, he admitted that humans would have a hard time measuring time before the sun and moon were created, but “the narrator is God, not man.” The pastor added, “I think that God knows how to tell time just fine without a sun, and He says the days were normal-length days.”
“How else could God have moved Moses to express that thought more clearly?” Phillips asked. He added that a Christian should not ask himself, “What might a passage mean, if we torture it long enough and apply enough fancy exegetical chiropractics to it?” but rather, “What would the passage have meant to the author and his readers?”
“While the Hebrew word for day in itself may have a range of meaning, when used with a number (e.g. day one, third day), it never means anything other than a 24-hour period,” the pastor explained. “Add ‘evening and morning,’ and the impression is locked in.” He cited Exodus 20:9-11 as evidence that God himself interpreted Genesis 1 as literal days.
Phillips concluded with a powerful statement. “It was this very consideration, as to how to understand Scripture, that God used in converting me from a mind-science cult to faith in Christ.”
Nevertheless, Phillips did not discount science, rather he presented it in a way that purposefully integrates an understanding of the world with a biblical worldview. “My fear is that every time you say ‘science,’ you don’t mean observation, experiment, and measurement, so conducted as to rest on the starting-point of the all-encompassing programmatic datum of God’s Word.”
“My fear is that [by ‘science’] you mean ‘One current fad built on assumptions of human autonomy, rationalism, materialism, and uniformitarianism, on which some professed Christians, eager to be accepted by the establishment, have lightly sprinkled a little God-dust,” Phillips boldly declared. “There is no squaring ‘science,’ defined that way, with Scripture.”
Each of the thinkers quoted above would also disagree with this view of “science,” but Phillips’ central focus on scripture as the litmus test for Christian belief is commendable. While others may disagree with the way he interprets scripture, his bold faith is indeed inspiring.
Nevertheless, it is important for Christians who share Phillips’ bold faith in a young earth not to ostracize those with conflicting scientific opinions. Applegate warned that since “the received wisdom in many Christian schools and churches is that evolution is an atheistic enterprise, not a legitimate scientific theory, it is still risky for Christians who accept evolution to speak out, lest they be labeled as heretics and cast out of their community of faith.”
Humbly, I would submit that Paul’s advice in Romans 14 about not causing your brother to stumble is important for both sides of this discussion. I would caution Young Earth Creationists to avoid making it seem as though there cannot be any disagreement on this (leading to a “culture of fear” as Applegate calls it), but I would also caution Old Earth Creationists to be careful to avoid causing a crisis of faith among those who hold to a strict Young Earth interpretation.
Applegate argued that “Christians can accept evolutionary theory while maintaining orthodoxy by insisting that we distinguish between core doctrines and the interpretations of those doctrines.” She pointed to practices on baptism and theories of atonement as examples where Christians already agree to disagree. “Christians agree on the importance of baptism but disagree on whether adult or infant baptism is the best.”
“In the same way,” she humbly submitted, “Christians affirm the doctrine of creation, including the fact that people are made in the image of God, but disagree on the age of the earth and the biological origin of humans.”
Christians may never entirely agree on the origins of mankind and the right way to reconcile the apparently contradictory claims of science and faith, but we should all approach such subjects with humility and grace, putting our trust in Jesus Christ ahead of disagreements on such issues. After all, Christianity is not about the age of the earth, but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.