5. What can a Christian believe about evolution?

    Does "natural" mean "it happened without God"? 
    Our universe is "just right" for life: Was it designed? 
    Can we prove the existence and activity of God? 
    Did God design nature to be naturally-assembling? 
    Is "theistic evolution" an impossible combination? 
    Should we eliminate "God of the gaps" criticism? 
    What is an "appropriate humility" about creation? 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

A condensed version of this page is in my Overview-FAQ.
I recommend reading it first because it's shorter so you can get quick overview of the ideas, and because after initially writing both pages I've been more diligent in revising/supplementing the Overview-FAQ (especially in Sections 3-7) so it currently includes some ideas that are not in this page, but some other ideas are only in this page.



5A. Does "natural" mean "it happened without God"?

      Do natural events occur without God?  Sometimes Christians behave as if we believe this.  The normal operation of nature doesn't grab our attention, and a natural process (a normal-appearing process) is what we expect, so we assume it's just "the way things happen" and they happen without God.  For a Christian, this is a wrong way to think.
      In a Judeo-Christian worldview, natural does not mean "without God" because God designed and created natural process, and continually sustains its operation.  And natural does not mean "without control" because God can guide natural process to produce a desired natural result instead of another natural result.

      Sunshine warms our bodies, grows our food, and lets us see.  But why do we have sunshine?  It occurs due to a balance between opposing natural forces, in a cosmic tug-of-war that has lasted billions of years, with some forces constantly pushing the sun's fiery atmosphere outward, while other forces pull it inward.  Neither set of forces can "win" due to a fine-tuned balance that depends on the mass of particles, conversion of mass to energy (e = mc2), rate of nuclear reactions, and relative sizes of nuclear and gravitational forces. *
      How should Christians respond when we learn that science can explain how sunshine is produced by natural process?  Should we be sad because sunshine occurs without God, who isn't necessary?  No.  Instead we should rejoice, praising God for the wonderful way He created nature in a way that is "just right" to naturally produce sunshine!

      * Stars produce the atoms that form our bodies and our planet.  Yes, we and our home are made from stardust!   /   In the Middle Ages, alchemists dreamed of converting lead into gold.  Now we know that alchemy cannot do this, but stars do convert hydrogen into gold.

      An enhanced appreciation for natural process will give us more freedom in thinking about the history of nature, and appreciating the science that helps us understand the nature created by God.  More important, it will also help us develop a better perspective on everyday life.
      In conventional Christian theology, God is constantly aware of what is happening, and He is caring for us.  Christians believe that God can change our situations and our thoughts and actions, and that He responds to prayer.  Usually, all of this happens in a way that appears normal and natural, yet God is actively involved.  We tend to ignore what God is doing when His actions are not obvious, but this is not a good way to view life.  Instead, in our worldview — in our "view of the world" that we use for living in the world — each of us should acknowledge the natural-appearing actions of God.  We should pray for these actions, and praise God for them.  This thankful awareness is an important part of the "living by faith" character that is highly valued by God, with a trust in God serving as the foundation for all thoughts and actions in daily living. 


5B. Three explanations for a "just right" universe? 

      An amazing discovery of scientists, in recent decades, is that many properties of the universe are "just right" for life.  To understand why scientists think the universe is fine tuned to allow life, imagine that you are sitting in front of a control panel with dozens of dials.  To allow life, each dial — which controls one property of the universe — must be tuned to a specific setting within a very narrow range.  You are alive, reading this web-page, because all dials are properly tuned, and this produces a wide variety of life-permitting natural phenomena that include stable atoms and molecules, stars that produce the energy and atoms needed for life, the amazing chemistry of DNA, water, and proteins, and much more.
      Most scientists are convinced that constraints on a life-allowing universe are very tight, that small changes would make the existence of intelligent life impossible.  Based on scientific evidence, there is little doubt about this conclusion.  But there are two main theories (and three explanations) for why our universe is what it is:

      Intelligent Design — "Wow!" is a rational response to the mountain of evidence for fine tuning.  And the simplest causal theory is to propose that our universe was designed and created by an extremely intelligent and powerful designer/creator who wanted to make a wonderful world with sunshine, proteins, and people.  A Judeo-Christian theist will propose that God is the designer.
      Multiverse — Scientists think the probability of a life-supporting universe is extremely low.  If there is only one universe, and it was not designed for life, we must be extremely lucky.  But if there is an immense number of universes (in a multiverse) with properties varying throughout the entire range of possibilities, the odds would favor having at least one universe with intelligent life.  Basically, this theory is a way to beat the odds, and it can be used to "explain away" all evidence for design, whether this evidence occurs at the level of the universe, origin of life, or development of life, or you winning ten consecutive lotteries, because everything will happen if there are enough universes.

According to Robin Collins, a multiverse is scientifically possible (although currently speculative) but "even if a ‘many-universes generator’ exists it seems to need to be well designed" in order to produce a multitude of universes with widely varying properties. 
      Therefore, the choice is not
      EITHER design OR multiverse,
      but instead is
      EITHER designed universe or designed multiverse OR non-designed multiverse,
      so we have three explanations for our fine-tuned "just right" world.

      Universe Observation, Grand Unification, Anthropic Principle
Can scientific observations help us know if we live in a universe or a multiverse?  No, at least not directly.  According to the most common multiverse theories, other universes are in a different space-time framework, or are very far away, so they cannot be observed.  Therefore, the fact that we don't observe other universes does not count as evidence against a multiverse theory.  But we haven't observed any other universes, so there is no direct evidence for them.
      Some scientists hope that eventually a "grand unified theory" will show why the properties of nature MUST be what they are.  If they do, would this support a theory of materialistic non-design?  Or would it be more rational to conclude — if there is only one way to make a set of properties, and if this one set produces a universe that allows life — that the universe, operating as described in this elegantly unified theory, has been cleverly designed?   { Or perhaps the unification is simply a deterministic property of the "strings" in our universe. } 
      Or maybe we should just say "so what?" because if we are observing a universe, obviously it must have properties that allow our existence.  This anthropic principle — which states that because humans exist, the universe we observe will be consistent with our existenceis logically valid, and is compatible with either the presence or absence of a designer, so it doesn't favor either theory.

      No Conclusion?
How did our universe begin, and why does it have properties that allow life?  All three explanations seem impossible to prove or disprove, mainly because our evaluations are hindered by an absence of data when we ask "what existed (and what happened) before the Big Bang Beginning?"
      An atheist assumes the existence of a materialistic capability for creating our universe.  A theist assumes the existence of God, who has this capability.  Each asks the other, "Can you explain what caused the existence of what you assume as the starting point?"  Neither offers an answer that satisfies the other, and neither assumption can be proved.  Due to a lack of data, choosing one of the three explanations (or "none of the above") can be strongly influenced by personal preference for a particular worldview and its effects on the way you live, as explained below.

      faith and praise:  Christians believe that God designed and created our world, even though we cannot prove it.  And we praise God for his clever design of nature that allows a wonderful world with sunshine, proteins, and people!


5C. Can we prove the existence and activities of God?

      Sometimes debaters, using logic and philosophical arguments, try to prove or disprove the existence of God.  But proof seems impossible, and this is frustrating for those who seek certainty.
      In the salvation history of humans, as recorded in the Bible, God does miracles and occasionally provides other attention-getters, such as angels who become visible and audible.  But why doesn't God do spectacular miracles more often?  Why didn't the risen Jesus go to downtown Jerusalem and show everyone that He was alive?  And why doesn't God give everyone a persuasive "Damascus Road experience" as with Paul in Acts 9?
      In the formative history of nature, "origins questions" don't have obvious answers.  When we study nature and the Bible, we can find evidence to support a wide range of views, including young-earth creation, old-earth progressive creation, evolutionary creation, and atheistic evolution.  If God wants us to recognize Him as Creator, why is there evidence — like a general increase of biocomplexity and biodiversity, with features giving an appearance of common descent, and long delays between major biological innovations (such as 3 billion years from the first life to the Cambrian Explosion) — that might lead some rational people to propose "atheistic evolution" as an explanation?
      Perhaps the universe was cleverly designed so all creation would occur by natural process.
      Or maybe "miracles in formative history" would be accepted by scientists if their theories were not being constructed in a community biased by its assumption that everything has occurred by natural process.  For example, we currently have scientific reasons to question a natural origin of life, yet scientific questioning is not encouraged in the community of scientists.
      Or maybe during creation there is "intentional ambiguity about miracles" — either because miracles were not needed, or did occur but were "veiled" so they're not easily detected by scientists — because God wants it this way.  Maybe it's one aspect of a state of uncertainty intended by God, who seems to prefer a "balance of evidence" with enough logical reasons to either believe (in God's existence and activities) or disbelieve, so a person's heart and will are free to make a heart-and-will decision, without being coerced by overwhelming intellectual evidence.

      some clarifications:
      Absolute truth does exist, even though we cannot know with absolute certainty what this truth is.
      Despite the impossibility of proof, evidence can affect our estimates for the plausibility of various worldviews.
      God does miracles, but they are personalized (for a person or group) rather than general (for everyone).
      I'm not advocating a spiritual agnosticism claiming that if there is not enough evidence for certainty, the most rational decision is to not decide;  as explained below, each of us is living by faith in what we believe.

      Each person can use evidence — historical (as in the Bible), personal (with God giving us individually customized evidence for His existence & activity, and drawing us to himself by interacting with us through his Holy Spirit), interpersonal (by talking with others, or reading what they write, to share in their experiences and thinking), scriptural (based on what we learn from the Bible), and scientific (by carefully studying nature) — to estimate the plausibility of various worldviews.  But there is no logical proof for any worldview.  We have freedom to choose what we really want to believe, which is influenced by how we want to live, and the lack of certainty forces each of us — no matter what we believe in our unique individual worldview — to live by faith in what we believe.  Those placing their faith in Christ have an opportunity to develop the "living by faith" character that is highly valued by God, with a trust in God serving as the foundation for all thoughts and actions in daily living.

      Worldview Asymmetry:  At least one miracle in salvation history — in the resurrection of Jesus — is essential for Christian belief, but "no miracles in formative history" (or in current daily life) is fine for a Christian.  By contrast, undeniable evidence for any divine miracle, during either formative history or salvation history, would be devastating for the worldview of an atheist, deist, or rigid agnostic.

The views above are explained more thoroughly, along with ideas from C.S. Lewis and speculations about Life as Drama, in a page asking Why isn't God more obvious?


5D. Did God design nature to be 100% self-assembling?

      Our observations of nature, interpreted in science, tell us that many properties of nature are "just right" to produce a universe that is at least partially self-assembling.  But current science is not conclusive when we ask, "Is nature 100% self-assembling?"  And is total self-assembly even possible?  Maybe.
      There might be a tension between operation and assembly, and perhaps a universe with optimal operation cannot also be totally self-assembling, so a choice is necessary, so if God wants a universe with optimal operation he cannot design it for total self-assembly.  To illustrate this possibility, Walter Bradley asks whether a car designed to change its own spark plugs would be a good design, or if this unnecessary requirement would hinder the car's effectiveness in other ways that are more important.  Or maybe a combination of optimal operation and total self-assembly is possible, and God did design nature to be totally self-assembling by natural process.

      Which universe is more impressive?
      If the universe was designed to assemble itself by natural process, this would be impressive (and glorifying for God) since it requires a clever design.  But miracles are also impressive (and glorifying) and they eliminate the need for total self-assembly.
      But natural self-assembly, either partial or total, doesn't mean "without God," and God may enjoy interacting with his creation in a non-deistic way — by a divine guiding of natural process and/or with miracles — like a gardener caring for a garden by preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering, pulling weeds, and harvesting.
      In our search for truth, when we ask "Is the universe totally self-assembling?" we are influenced by differences in personal preference, which occur for reasons that are scientific, theological, philosophical, emotional, and aesthetic.  Some people want the universe to be self-assembling, while others prefer a process that includes miracles.  Neither preference for "the process of creation" seems to be clearly taught in the Bible, but both seem compatible with what is clearly taught.


5E. Is "theistic evolution" an impossible combination? 

      Is evolution inherently atheistic, or can it be part of a Christian worldview?

      Two Bad Arguments
      Some people, both atheists and Christians, criticize theistic evolution in a two-step argument:  First, they accept the atheistic claim that natural process happens without God.  Second, this bad theology is used to justify a claim that "natural evolution is atheistic, so theistic evolution is impossible."  Of course, this argument is theologically illogical because it's based on atheistic theology.
      Here is a related argument:  An atheist (or a deist, or semi-theist who is drifting toward deism) will almost always accept evolution.  This fact is the basis for guilt by association, implying that "atheists are evolutionists, so evolutionists are atheists." *   But this claim is false, for the same reason that "all dogs are animals, so all animals are dogs" is false.  Those proposing "evolution" include atheists, deists, pantheists, agnostics, and others, plus some Christians.   /   * Here is another way to state the claim: "if atheism (or deism) then evolution" is true, so "if evolution then atheism (or deism) is true."  This is also logically incorrect, because "if dog then animal" doesn't mean "if animal then dog."

      Theistic Evolution and Miracles
      A person who accepts scientific theories of evolution can have theology that is either strong or weak, that ranges from devout Christianity through minimal theism and deism to atheism.
      The Bible clearly states that God sometimes does miracles, so all Christians should be open to the possibility of miracles during any part of history.  But a devout Christian who believes "miracles occurred in the salvation history of humans (as recorded in the Bible)" could, after a careful evaluation of science and theology, conclude that "formative history was all-natural."

      Theistic Interpretation of Naturalistic Theories
      A nontheistic interpretation of neo-Darwinism views the process of evolution as being not designed by God, using matter not created by God, driven by only chance and selection that were not guided by God.  {an example: biology teachers (in NABT) claim evolution was "unsupervised"}   But these claims are theological, not scientific, and a theistic interpretation can disagree by viewing the evolutionary process as being designed by God, using matter created by God, and (at least sometimes) guided by God.
      Scientifically, theistic evolution agrees with conventional neo-Darwinism, but  theologically (with its theistic interpretation of neo-Darwinian natural process) it is a theory of divine creation.
      In most fields of science — ranging from the physics of rain to the chemistry of embryological development and physiological operation — there are no theological criticisms of scientists who accept naturalistic theories that propose "only natural process."  Theistic evolution just extends this general acceptance into another area.

      Other Objections to Evolution
      Advocates of young-earth creationism claim that all old-earth views (both evolutionary creation without miracles, and progressive creation with miracles) are theologically unacceptable because Genesis 1 must be interpreted as a 144-hour creation, and no death could occur before human sin.  And they, along with some progressive creationists, think Genesis 2 — with God forming Adam from "the dust of the ground" and Eve from his rib — teaches a non-evolutionary special creation of humans.
      These questions are discussed in FAQ-4 (What does Bible-information say about age?) and HUMAN ORIGINS.

      Is it possible?
      A scientific/theological theory of evolutionary creation (also called theistic evolution) proposes that natural evolution was God's method of creation, and this was possible because He designed the universe so complex physical structures (galaxies, stars, planets) and biological organisms (bacteria, fish, dinosaurs, humans) would naturally evolve.
      The previous section asked "is this [a total self-assembly] possible?" and answered "maybe."  Is it theologically wise to claim that God could not do this, or would not do it?  In our current state of scientific and theological knowledge, humility seems appropriate, with "no" (for the "could not" claim) and "maybe" (for the "would not" and "did not" claims) as the most justifiable answers.

      Could unguided evolution achieve the goals of God?
      If natural process was materially sufficient (to produce physical and biological complexity), would it be theologically sufficient (to achieve the goals of God)?
      When thinking about this question, we need to ask:  1) How precisely defined were the goals of God?  Did God want to create exactly what occurred in nature's history, or would something slightly different, or very different, have been satisfactory?   2) If evolutionary history was allowed to occur a thousand times with results determined only by unguided chance, what would be the variability in results?
      Even if unguided evolutionary history would be less variable than most scientists think, it seems that some guidance would be necessary to achieve the goals of God, especially for creating humans with the characteristics (physical, mental, emotional, ethical, spiritual) and environment (planetary, ecological,...) desired by God.

      an I.O.U. — Later, a section about "human origins" will be added to this FAQ (and there will be a links-page with views by different authors about HUMAN ORIGINS) to show how a divine creation of humans by a process that includes "pre-human hominid ancestors," with or without miracles, is compatible with what the Bible says about humans and our relationship with God.

      Natural Evolution could be Actively Guided by God
      Evolutionary creationists can propose that evolution was more than just minimally theistic (or even deistic) with God setting nature in motion and then "letting it run" by using only the foundational divine action (with initial action determining the characteristics of nature, and sustaining action letting nature continue) that is necessary to allow history.  They can claim that the process was actively theistic because it included active divine action (in natural-appearing supernatural guidance) that makes a difference in history, but without miraculous-appearing action because it was not needed.

      Difficult Theological Questions
      Of course, a claim for active divine action (either natural-appearing or miraculous-appearing) that "makes a difference" leads to important theological questions:  Can God (or does God) control everything? (i.e., do any unguided events occur outside God's control?)   if God is guiding, is He responsible for harmful random events (genetic defects,...) and evolved organisms (deadly viruses,...) that happen in history and in the present, and why does He allow bad things to happen in nature and in our everyday lives?
      These are difficult questions, but one part of a satisfactory answer is the incarnation of Jesus, when God lived among us, shared our joys and sorrows, and (on the cross) suffered the consequences of moral and natural evil.


5F. Should we eliminate "God of the gaps" criticism? 

      What does "God of the gaps" mean?
      When current naturalistic scientific theories (about some aspect of formative history) seem implausible, is this science gap due to the inadequacy of current science, or does it indicate a nature gap (a break in the continuous cause-effect chain of natural process) that was bridged by miraculous-appearing divine action?
      Sometimes a theory proposing a nature gap is ridiculed by calling it a "God of the gaps" theory.  This is confusing because "God of the gaps" can have many meanings, but the intended meaning is rarely clarified, so this term simply attaches a derogatory label instead of clearly expressing a logical concern.  It can cause confusion (when a reader wonders "what is the intended meaning?") and miscommunication (when a writer intends one meaning and a reader receives another).

      When someone says "God of the gaps," ask "What do you mean?"
      • If they are pointing out the foolishness of claiming "God acts only in gaps" — of claiming that "natural" means "it happened without God," so "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it" — their criticism is justified.  But check to see if this really is being proposed, and don't allow an either-or choice between "only in the gaps" and "never in the gaps" as if these were the only choices.
      • If they are criticizing a claim that "a nature-gap is possible so we should consider this possibility," ask "What is the alternative?  Are you claiming that a nature-gap is impossible?  Or do you know with certainty that a 100%-natural evolution (astronomical, geological, chemical, biological) of everything in the formative history of nature did occur?"   A "never in the gaps" claim could be based on a theological argument that a gap is impossible (an atheist will claim that a non-existent God could not do it, while a theist can claim that God would not do it) or a scientific argument that God has never needed to do it.
      • If they're questioning a specific claim that "in this historical situation a gap did occur," you can have a respectful discussion about the theological and scientific merits of this claim.  Similarly, a specific claim that "in this situation a gap did not occur" should be evaluated based on its theological and scientific merits, and so should a general claim that "a gap has never occurred."   /   At the two extremes of evaluation are decisions to conclude automatically — independent of evidence — that "a science-gap must always be a nature-gap" or "a science-gap could never be a nature-gap."  A claim that "in this situation a nature-gap was bridged by miraculous-appearing action" is sometimes criticized as an "argument from ignorance," but if this criticism is generalized to all of life it would be impossible to recognize a miracle in any situation.  For example, people in the Bible recognized the natural patterns for how God usually works in nature, and this let them recognize situations in which there was an obvious exception to these patterns, and this led them to claim "it's a miracle!"  In everyday life and in science, what criteria should be used when concluding that a miracle probably has or has not occurred?  This question is examined in Section 7B when we ask, Can scientific methods be used to detect design?

      • And if a critic says "maybe God did miracles during formative history, but a theory proposing miracles should not be a part of science," they are proposing methodological naturalism, which (along with "future science") is discussed in FAQ-7.   { views of other authors — GOD OF THE GAPS }
      • A related example of the term's vague plasticity — and the appeal of trying to exploit its negative connotations (by turning an opponent into a verbal target) — is a claim that evolutionary creation is "god of the gaps" thinking when it optimistically appeals to future science (as a god with the magical power to automatically fill every possible science-gap) by assuming it certainly will fill all current science-gaps, thus concluding there are no nature-gaps.

      a proposal:  If we want to improve the precision in our thinking and communicating, we should eliminate the term "God of the gaps" (which has many meanings) and replace it with a series of terms, as described above, whose meanings are more specific and clear.

      not either-or, and not either-or
      Christians should avoid two false dichotomies:
      First, we should not imply — and we should gently but firmly disagree when others imply — that "natural" means "without God," that "if it isn't a miracle then God didn't do it," that if something happens by natural process it isn't divine action, so it "counts against God" in our worldview-thinking about divine action.
      Second, we should not imply that if someone claims God can (or did or does) work through miracles, in formative history or salvation history, they are denying God's activities in natural-appearing situations.
      Both of these extreme demands — claiming that you must make a choice because "either it's a divine miracle or it's divine inaction," or "the actions of God are either always-natural or never-natural" — are false dichotomies, because the Bible clearly declares that God works in BOTH ways, usually through natural process and occasionally through miracles.  Affirming one mode of divine action does not require rejecting the other.
      Both either-or dichotomies are useful for atheists, in a clever "heads we win, tails you lose" argument — if there are no nature gaps then it all happens without God, but it's wrong to claim a nature gap — that uses the either-or claims made by some opponents and proponents of evolutionary creation, respectively.  Christians can respond by rejecting either atheistic argument (heads or tails) but — considering the humility that is justifiable in both science and theology — it seems wiser to reject both.


5G. What is an appropriate humility about creation?

      In science and theology, our humility should be appropriate — not too little, not too much.  In each area we can make some claims, but not others, with confidence.   Other parts of this FAQ look at appropriate humility, regarding the reliability of historical science for age-questions & design-questions, and deciding whether not old-earth & not evolution are essential theological doctrines in Christianity.   But some other Christians disagree with my choice of the claims that can and cannot be made with confidence, so this section just describes my own view of appropriate humility.

      In my opinion, theological and scientific arguments are not decisive when we ask, "Can natural process (guided or unguided) lead to a total self-assembly of the universe into its present state?"
      The Bible clearly states that God used miracles in salvation history, but is less clear about miracles in formative history, so each view — proposing a formative history either with or without miracles, including two modes of divine action or only one — seems compatible with what the Bible clearly teaches.  Therefore, instead of criticizing either possibility as being "a less worthy way for God to create," it seems wise to adopt a humble attitude by deciding that, either way, God's plan for design-and-creation was wonderful and is worthy of our praise.
      When science helps us discover any aspect of God's clever design for natural self-assembly, we should praise God.  We should also praise God for miracles.  Whether a feature of the universe (stars or stardust, first life or higher life) was created by natural process and/or by miracle, we can praise God for his intelligence, power, and wisdom, for what he created and how he created it.
      You and I should say in public — and believe in private, in our hearts and minds — that "IF God created using another method (differing from the way I think he created), then God is worthy of our praise."  But this humility (if... then...) is compatible with also explaining why we think a particular view is most likely to be true.  We can be humble while we explain — using arguments based on theology and science, based on our interpretations of scripture and nature — why we think one view is more plausible than other views.
      An appropriate humility requires a balance between two desirable qualities — confidence (which if overdeveloped can become rude arrogance) and humility (which can become intellectual laziness, timid relativism, or aggressive postmodernism) — that are in tension.  But most of us tend to err in the direction of overconfidence in our own theories, so the virtue of modest humility usually has a beneficial effect.

      Even when Christians disagree about the details of creation, we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we can join together in our praise of the creator, joyously proclaiming that "you are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. (Revelation 4:11)"


This page is one part of
responses to Frequently
Asked Questions about
Creation, Evolution, 
and Intelligent Design,

written by Craig Rusbult,
with an ASA-disclaimer.
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