Can A Christian Believe In Evolution? A Yes Response
Paul Rothrock and Ray Grizzle
Dept. of Environmental Science
Upland, IN 46989-1001
During one week this summer, severe thunderstorms boomed through our county every evening. Weather bulletins reported 3/4" hail. The local papers pictured property damage - fallen limbs and broken glass - and called the damage an "act of God." These crashing storms were followed by mornings bright and benign. These too were an act of God along with the ensuing flush of new growth in our pastures and fields of corn. Psalm 104 unequivocally says that all of these and more are the works of God's hand. He brings forth food from the earth, gives breath to each living creature, and, when he takes his breath away, returns them to dust.
In these observations is an important point. Some acts of God have yielded much of their mystery to human investigation. By studying the atmosphere, we can predict rain. We can compute the movements of the earth and sun. We have discovered the chemical pathways that cause corn to grow and that maintain the life of animal cells. As Christians, we realize that naturalistic explanations do not negate the fact that God is at work in his creation. Instead, scientific explanations potentially complement those derived by revelation. Each kind of explanation has its own purpose and focus. Each is arrived at through different avenues. Each is a necessary part of fully understanding the world in which we presently live.
Science generally seeks to understand how things work and under what conditions an activity will take place. Religion, on the other hand, seeks to answer even more difficult, ultimate questions related to our place and purpose as humans. Why are we here? Who made us? And how should we live? So, as an initial response to the question, "Can a Christian believe in evolution?" we suggest that evolutionary explanations answer specific questions from a naturalistic perspective. These answers should be viewed as complementing, not competing with, those derived from the Bible.
Of course, a debate over creation versus evolution cannot be solely answered on the basis of the different roles played by scientific investigation and religious revelation. We need to ask at least two additional questions: (1) "Is there adequate scientific evidence for evolution?" and (2) "What limitations does God's inerrant verbal revelation, the Bible, place on science?"
Regarding scientific evidence, our experiences in plant taxonomy and invertebrate zoology have led us to broadly agree with the vast majority of scientists. They see descent with modification as a clear pattern in the diversity of living things. Populations and species are remarkably dynamic in their behavior and genetic program. Many families of organisms are bewilderingly rich in species and, at times, the individual species seem less different than two popular cola drinks.
Conversely, we sense a profound misunderstanding of the natural world in much Christian writing. Popular publications expend an inordinate amount of time inadequately characterizing the fossil record. They fail, e.g., to carefully evaluate the fascinating transitional forms between reptiles and mammals. They disregard how incremental changes within the horse family, seen in a well-preserved fossil record, ultimately result in a very large difference between early and late equid species.
Even without a fossil record, a powerful case for descent with modification can be made by examining the pattern of characters exhibited by the many millions of presently living forms. Careful comparisons of structure allow taxonomists to classify organisms into genera, families, and other categories based on their degree of structural and genetic similarity. To use a familiar but remarkable example, we classify whales as mammals, not fish. Why? Whales have lungs instead of gills. They also possess complex mammalian structures such as hair, mammary glands, a four-chambered heart, a placenta, and a sophisticated brain. Even the bone structure of the flukes and skull as well as the protein chemistry and DNA are mammal-like. Connections with land mammals are confirmed by remnant hind-limb bones and pelvis.
In short, we believe that data from the study of nature indicate that successive episodes of speciation have led, over time, to very great changes in the forms of organisms. This conclusion harmonizes with the overall scientific picture of the natural world from astronomy, geology, and physics.
But what does the Bible teach about evolution? What limitations does the Bible demand from Christians in our interaction with science? To answer this we offer four observations derived from Genesis 1.
In interpreting Genesis, people often focus on how long it took God to create and whether he performed miracles or used natural processes to complete his creation. However, these questions divert attention from the central message of this portion of God's Word. The question people across the ages have needed to be answered is: "Who is God?" We learn that God is eternally existing. Unlike the pagan gods, he is neither a heavenly object, an animal, nor a human. This one, true God made all these things.
Within these points lie the limitations for the Christian in interpreting evolutionary science. There must be a Creator, and something does not come from nothing. Because there is a Creator, the processes of nature - the regularities observed by scientists - reflect nature's obedience to God's commands and are not accidental. For the Christian, nature exhibits God's wisdom and is fulfilling his divine purposes. And finally, humans, as God's image-bearers, potentially can know their Creator. In part we can know him through studying the mysteries of nature, whether thunderstorms or biological processes.
But for scientists and non-scientists alike, this earthly wisdom is never enough. Our sinful nature gets in the way. The greater part of knowing God is by faith in a most unfathomable mystery - God's gift to us of his only Son.
Suggested reading: R. T. Wright, Biology Through the Eyes of Faith (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989), 298 pages.
For more information, request a copy of ASA's booklet, Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, for teachers and others, on how to deal with the creation-evolution controversy.
American Scientific Affiliation
P.O. Box 668
Ipswich, MA 01938-0668