Can Darwin be Saved? (RJS)

It is common in some circles to extol Darwin as one who makes it possible to be a fulfilled atheist and in others to vilify him as the servant of Satan who set out to destroy the faith.  The truth, of course, is much more complicated.  And many influences are at play both within Darwin and the development of his thinking, and within our culture, the development of the theory of evolution, and our view of the conflict between science and faith.

In his recent book, Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, Karl Giberson, Professor of Physics at Eastern Nazarene College and director of the Forum on Faith and Science at Gordon College, writes about the history of the interaction of ideas that led us to the present state of conflict.  Gilberson’s book is not a science book, it is a history book, an attempt to provide context and a sense of perspective as we wrestle with our understanding of the faith. Giberson is an excellent writer and many of the ideas in this book are worth discussing.  With this post we will begin the discussion where Giberson begins — with Darwin himself.

Darwin and His Journey

The story of Charles Darwin is familiar, he started out at Cambridge studying theology, with the intent of a career in the ministry, took a position on The Beagle as naturalist  and  as a companion for the Captain, and the rest is history. Darwin’s turn from faith to agnosticism  and doubt is well known, documented in his writings.  But his theory of evolution per se had little to do with his belief or disbelief in God and the Christian story.

Giberson makes the case that Darwin’s loss of faith had more to do with the faulty theology of the church than with the theory of evolution as an explanation for creation.  Darwin was an intelligent man, a sincere family man, and an acute observer of the world around him.  His own intellectual skepticism and expanding world served to undermine the God of his church as he understood it.

William Paley had extolled the virtues of God as designer, the “watchmaker” who created the world.  The intelligence of God’s world, it was said, is obvious to one who looks, a creation that is exquisitely and beautifully designed.  But why then does a cat torture a mouse? Why is a goose with webbed feet designed for swimming placed on dry land, far from water? Why are there flightless birds; bees who die after stinging because of the loss of their stinger; wasps who implant eggs in a caterpillar, eggs that hatch into larvae with the instinct to eat the host in a fashion that preserves its life as long as possible?  None of these make much sense in a picture where each species is placed fully formed, designed by a beneficent, omnipotent creator for a purpose.  All makes better sense or can make sense when the mechanism of creation is gradual evolution and competition for survival.  All of these observations, and many more, are integrated into a unified whole under the umbrella of Darwinian evolution.

Darwin, in a letter to Asa Gray in 1860, quoted by Giberson (p. 35),  wrote: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.  There seems to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and  omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.

But evolution had its own problems. In his autobiography Darwin reflected: “A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.

The observation of nature and the theory of evolution shook, but did not dissolve Darwin’s faith. There was much more involved than just this – Darwin struggled with all of the doubts common to 19th century England: the veracity of the gospels, the issue of hell, the breadth of religious experience around the world, the cultural connectedness of religious experience.  He ruminates on all of these in this autobiography. But his shaken faith dissolved most profoundly in his personal pain and suffering. The church preaches a good and beneficent God who cares about the fall of sparrows, the hairs on our head, and the health of our children – yet this God allowed his beloved daughter to die, took her away, at the young age of 11.

This brings us to one of the most profound or troubling questions in the church – the problem of pain.  Both men and animals have lived, suffered, and died throughout the ages. But many Christians have suffered great pain through disease, human evil, systemic evil, or accident without loss of faith.  Many Christians have suffered persecution and death for standing up for the way of God and the name of Christ. Any talk of Christian doctrine must wrestle with the existence of pain and suffering falling as rain on the just and the unjust.

But is evolution and natural selection part of the problem or part of the solution?

One portion of our church finds comfort in the idea that all pain and suffering and death was initiated a scant 6000 years ago by the sin of the original man. Thus we are responsible for sadistic cats and parasitic wasps.  We are responsible for tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones, and volcanoes as well as murder, mayhem, oppression and assault.

But I don’t think that this view stands in the light of the evidence – the evidence for an old earth and the existence and extinction life forms before the advent of mankind or the textual evidence of the nature of God’s revelation in scripture. Scientifically this view requires at least two assumptions that many of us are unwilling or unable to make. The first assumption is that the universe suffered at least two, perhaps more, complete revolutions in the nature of being and in the laws of physics that govern all matter.  The first occurred at the fall – when death enters on the scene and creation is “cracked.”  The second occurred at the time of Noah – with changes in geological process, nuclear physics, chemistry, and optics to name a few. The second assumption is that God designed the world with evidence deeply embedded to make it appear as though an old earth, evolution, and common descent are his method of creation and gave us scripture, especially Genesis, Romans 5, and 1 Cor. 15, so that we would know the truth.

Think about it.  Why would God fundamentally change the laws of physics at the Fall and then again at the Flood – but leave the fallen laws intact following his single most important act in history – the death and resurrection of Jesus?  This is, after all, the very intervention through which we as Christians believe that he redeemed and restored the world.

I find it much more fundamentally consistent to believe that God created gradually and through evolutionary process.  That science analyzes it and scripture interprets it.  That the laws of physics have not changed multiple times. That there is a purpose and a plan to creation – and that everything works together for his purpose.  Parasitic wasps, sadistic cats, and web-footed land dwellers are neither accidental nor specifically designed.  Death, biological death, is in some ways a part of the process of God’s design in the universe.  I am not disturbed by this as Darwin was. But spiritual death, human destruction, separation from God is not a part of the design.  Evil, systemic human evil, individual human evil, total depravity, are a direct result of human rebellion, human sin. Scripture relates historical events in the life, death, resurrection of Jesus and interprets those events as the pivotal work of God to redeem us, forgive us, and enable us to move forward in his plan, in his mission, and in his will.

So can “Darwin” be saved? How do we deal with the problem of pain – a beneficent, omnipotent God and yet a world where misery and oppression abound? It seems to me that our understanding here must hinge on the foundational question: What is the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ?

  • Kyle

    “That science analyzes it and scripture interprets it.”
    I’m glad that comment stuck with you RJS. My fear after making it would be that some would take it to mean that Scripture must interpret how we analyze science, and I don’t think that’s the case. Anyways, I finally got around to reading God’s Universe this morning…what an oustanding little book! I’m glad you recommended it.
    “How do we deal with the problem of pain – a beneficent, omnipotent God and yet a world where misery and oppression abound?”
    If you haven’t read David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea” then I’d suggest you pick it up immediately. It’s one of the most beautiful discussions of this topic that I’ve ever read.
    I think that the Incarnation and my Trinitarian understanding of reality factors into how I think about this question. I no longer believe that God chose our universe out of a plethora of other possibilities so that this is the “best possible world” in an Enlightenment philosophy sense (whether their is a multiverse or that ends up simply being speculation). My understanding of the Trinity requires that God become flesh. As such, I don’t think that God created a world and at some point along the way decided, I think I should become incarnate as a human. Instead, I suggest that God’s incarnational desire was a part of his creative act…after all, through Christ all was made that has been made.
    Therefore, in order for God to become human, which factored into the way the universe was created (or whatever is larger than the universe, such as a multiverse), this is the way things had to be. We needed a world with consistent physical properties, where entropy and eventually death were a part of that world. As “God’s Universe” put it, that means that there had to be a meteorite that crashed into the earth 65 million years ago that killed out many creatures, and “just happened” to allow for mammalian life to flourish, which when combined with millions and millions of other events that “just happened” means that humans came about and that in “the fullness of time” God might reveal himself as a human. In those events that “just happened” we find out that we are the only species we know of that is attuned to understand such a revelation, and at the same time that we are uniquely in a place in the universe where we have access to figure out other aspects of God’s Creation. Sure, such abilities may lead some of us to think we are self-sufficient and reject that it’s even God’s Creation at all, but for some of us it simply causes us to worship even more passionately with all of our hearts, strength and minds.
    Of course, the response to this view could be that it’s speciesism and too anthropocentric, but it still seems to make the most sense from the way I understand things. Since I also believe that through Christ, God reconciles all things to Godself, then that could be one way around this response though.

  • phil_style

    Kyle, just a quick note. I always appreciate your comments.
    That is all . . .

  • Ben S.

    So I am trying to wrap my mind around a lot of these types of issues right now and am quite intrigued by this post RJS. Thank you for this post. I am curious what you imagine or how you interpret God’s seeing that everything is “good” in the garden in Chapters 1 and 2. I don’t think that the introduction of death or evolution combats that notion at all, but I have always had the notion that the evolutionary process seems like such short brutal lives as Tom Hobbes would put it. Or is that part of existence part of the goodness that God saw? Were there specific points in the evolutionary stage that God pinpointed as good? Any insight would be great.

  • Brian McL

    Challenging thoughts as always, RJS, thanks. You end this good post with a question about suffering and pain as it relates to evolution. I don’t have an answer to that, but simply to say that the issue of a good God and evil in the world transcends the discussion of Darwin. It plagues all theists regardless of their understanding of origins. So I don’t think it will help save or deny Darwin at all.
    Two theological points: 1) per your recommendations I’ve read Falk and Collins and enjoyed them both. My main concern with Falk and your post here is the separation of spiritual and biological death. Falk claims that spiritual death is all that is referred to in Romans 5. This strikes me as bad exegesis and dualistic theology. 2) IF laws of physics were changed with the fall, there is good reason why they remain even after Christ: the same reason sin remains. God began the process of reconciliation but has not completed it (already/not yet).

  • Eric

    Thanks RJS, this is a really important question to me, that I have been struggling with. Its not just the problem of pain and suffering (which is of course a hard one), but it also raises huge theological questions, including Brian’s (#4) dualism point — what did the fall mean, if death and decay have been part of the universe from the beginning? What does Romans 8 mean, if not that the resurrection cures the physical decay that resulted from the fall?
    I agree that there really isn’t any way around the science that suggests that death and decay have been baked into the universe from the start. In fact, they are actually the way that God created us, if you agree with evolution (and I think you need to, based on the genetic evidence).
    I went to a talk by N.T. Wright last week, and asked him the theological questions noted above (he, of course, emphasizes Romans 8, and the fact that the resurrection has cosmic implications for ending material decay across all of creation; he is also constantly preaching against anti-material dualism; but he also accepts that death and decay were part of the universe from the beginning, as noted in Surpised by Hope). His explanation to me wasn’t very satisfying — he believes that there was a second layer of decay that resulted from the fall, but admitted that he didn’t have a very good explanation for it. I don’t think there is any scientific support for some significant changes to the laws of science post-fall.
    I recently read Polkinghorne’s chapter that addresses both the dualism and pain and suffering points. He seems to suggest that human evil can have some effects on creation decay (e.g., our failure to take care of the environment), but most of the decay has been around from the start, pre-fall. In a nutshell, his explanation is that (1) our spiritual separation from God turns the physical death that was always part of creation into something far worse than it would have been without the fall, (2) we should recognize that death and decay were necessary for the process God used in making beings with a free will, and (3) God himself became incarnate, suffered, and took the full force of evil, so he isn’t some remote God who doesn’t care about our own pain and suffering.
    I found Polkinghorne’s points helpful, but not entirely satisfactory. I still struggle with (1) the pain and suffering point, and (2) the question whether we need to rethink our traditional thinking that the fall had a physical effect on creation. One more question: If we do rethink (2), and also accept that the resurrection is partially intended to cure death and decay (i.e., Romans 8), does that mean that we would have needed the resurrection even if the fall never happened? I find that troubling, but a possible implication from accepting (2).

  • Rick

    Eric wrote:
    “God himself became incarnate, suffered, and took the full force of evil, so he isn’t some remote God who doesn’t care about our own pain and suffering.”
    Tim Keller stresses that very point.
    Also, the fact that we recognize good, evil, suffering, and even care about them, forces us to ask why that concern is universal. And, from that, is forces us to ask who gets to define those terms.
    Finally, we cannot ignore that spiritual warfare is going on “behind the scenes”. How does Satan play into this, before or after the Fall? (and I don’t mean in terms of messing with science).

  • Paul

    For the past few years i’ve leaned towards the same view that RJS has given above. However, I have allowed for the possibility of a young earth if God acted miraculously in the past.
    It would seem to me though, that to argue God has acted in miraculous ways (changing laws of physics, geology, etc) since the fall is completely unmeasurable. Therefore we would have to admit that the evidence (all we can measure) points to evolution, but we simply choose to ignore the evidence based on an assumption we hold before we look at the data.
    I don’t think I have encountered a person like this before, who has held this type of belief. While looking at the evidence with such a strong bias has many problems and issues, at least this seems more consistent. Most young earth Christians I encounter seem to feel that scripture gives us a young earth view and that science supports it.

  • JohnO

    I see the logic behind this stance. I guess I have one major question: It seems that the ancient near eastern people made absolutely no distinction between “material” death and “spiritual” death. If “material” death is part of the design, then what of the resurrection which ends “material” death (Jesus resurrected had a body). That seems to override the idea that “material” death is part of the design. Not to mention the gospel of John “he who believes in me will never die”, again the dualism is flatly rejected by Judaism over against Hellenism. From the Scriptures that appears rightly so.
    And if death = death of both material and spiritual, then nothing could have died before sin entered the world. That is my only dilemma on the issue of harmonizing Genesis and evolution. Unless there is some other ancient near eastern comparison I’m missing on the ‘death’ issue. (I hope the blog software emails me if I get an answer)

  • dopderbeck

    Great topic! I don’t like the notion that the physical constants of the universe were radically changed by the Fall, for two main reasons: (1) scripture seems to suggest otherwise; in the Psalms and other places there is no distinction between the present creation and a pre-Fall creation; (2) the anthropic principle says the physical constants can’t be tweaked even a little without destroying the possibility of carbon-based life. Nevertheless, 2 Peter could be read to suggest that the Noahic flood was a cosmic judgment. I suppose in a world of string theory and multiverses, stranger things could be true. But it doesn’t seem to be the best present response based on what we know.
    Kyle (#1) you mention Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea.” It is indeed a beautiful book. But, Hart’s position about the Fall is basically that of Origen — that there is a pre-creation reality that was fallen before the physical creation. Origen expressed this in terms of the pre-existence of souls. I think Hart’s view is sort of neo-Platonist. It has some interesting possibilities, but it’s a lot to swallow, I think.
    JohnO (#8) — even if you read theses passage to include physical death, look at them carefully — they refer to human beings, not to animals, plants, bacteria, etc.
    Here’s a thought: what would human society and technology look like if for all of our history we had perfect fellowship with God and with each other? Look at what biotechnology can do today, and what it might be capable of in the future. Could one aspect of the “Tree of Life” include knowledge of and access to technologies that could have avoided the human death, suffering and environmental degradation we’ve known throughout our history?

  • phil_style

    I’ve always thought that Paul’s analysis of Genesis (particularly in romans) seems to do a lot more to enshrine the idea of physical death being the result of Adam’s sins than Genesis does, and that (in Paul’s mind) death did not exist before then.
    However, on look at Genesis itself I note that:
    1. It was actually (in that story) Eve who sinned first.
    2. The fact that God would explicitly state that death was an effect of Sin (in his instructions) makes me think that Adam must have had some idea of what death was already.
    3. Adam was NOT inherently an eternal being, the tree of life was needed to make his stay alive in perpetuity.
    4. In the Adam story loss is already familiar to the created world. Adam’s rib is lost to make Eve. Both humans eat fruit (which surely means death or at minimum ‘decay’ in the biological sesne for the fruit?).
    I get a strong sense that Paul, in Romans is trying to justify what the ‘need for Christ’s death’ was. So he interprets Christ’s promise of eternal life as a redemption from the introduction of death into the world. Yet it seems to me that biological decay was already present, even in the garden environment. Paul thinks Jesus is making up for Adam, yet it was at least BOTH Adam and Eve and arguably Eve that first brought Sin into the Garden world.
    I think the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ give a lot away. I also think Paul’s main points in Romans are related to Judaic Law, and to somehow paint a picture of Christ that goes beyond the Abrahamic/ Mosaic covenants and reaches ALL humanity. His discussion about death ruling even when there was no law, seems to contradict his own point that without the law, there is not sin. I find Paul’s discussions in Romans to be very confusing at best, and I hesitate to rely on any one or two verses as universal truths for that reason . . .

  • samlcarr

    Thanks RJS for daring to ask the straight question. I am a great admirer of both Wallace and Darwin and I think it’s a shame that folks like Richard Dawkins can try to claim Darwin’s support against Christianity in particular and religion in general. It’s time our theology tackled the tough questions head on and starts to try to find some real answers.

  • Craig

    As perhaps an interesting side note, it appears from Luther’s comments on Psalm 90 that he believed in the presence of animal death prior to the Fall. Luther on Psalm 90:
    This Psalm reveals in striking fashion that the death of man is in countless ways a far greater calamity than the death of other living beings. Although horses, cows, and all animals die, they do not die because God is angry at them. On the contrary, for them death is, as it were, a sort of temporal casualty, ordained indeed by God but not regarded by Him as punishment. Animals die because for some other reason it seemed good to God that they should die.
    But the death of human beings is a genuine disaster. Man’s death is in itself truly an infinite and eternal wrath. The reason is that man is a being created for this purpose: to live forever in obedience to the Word of God and to be like God. He was not created for death. In his case death was ordained as a punishment of sin; for God said to Adam: “In the day that you eat of this tree, you shall die” (Genesis 2:17).
    The death of human beings is, therefore, not like the death of animals. These die because of a law of nature. Nor is man’s death an event which occurs accidentally or has merely an aspect of temporality. On the contrary, man’s death, if I may so speak, was threatened by God and is caused by an incensed and estranged God. If Adam had not eaten of the forbidden tree, he would have remained immortal. But because he sinned through disobedience, he succumbs to death like the animals which are subject to him. Originally death was not part of his nature. He dies because he provokes God’s wrath. Death is, in his case, the inevitable and deserved consequence of his sin and disobedience.
    Man’s death is truly an event sadder and more serious than the slaughter of a cow. This becomes most evident when one takes into account the propagation of evil. Moses says: “Thou causest men to die.” “Men” refers to the entire human race. Moses includes in this one word “men” all the offspring of our first parents. Therefore that which was created for life is now destined for death. This is the result of God’s wrath. So the entire human race plunged from immortality into eternal death.

  • RJS

    That’s interesting. Do you have a reference – i.e. is it from a commentary or some other writing?

  • MS

    I’m sorry weren’t you paying attention? The comments are from Martin
    Luther, Psalm 80 from the Bible.

  • RJS

    What I meant was – where did Martin Luther write this? Where can I look it up and find the original source and context for the quote or a translation of the original source? I would like the reference for future use. I believe that Luther wrote more than once commenting on Psalms, but I could be wrong.

  • Craig

    Hi RJS,
    I happened to run across that quote earlier today from a seminary student on another blog where I lurk. I’ll ask. Also, Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” could help reorient popular evangelicalism’s perspective on evil/suffering. David Wayne (PCA pastor, a.k.a the JollyBlogger) has pulled together a handful of links, each very brief, that introduce this theology and provide helpful insight into understanding suffering from this perspective. They are in the post on his cancer update – part one (

  • Tom

    Don’t want to get into the depths of the ‘suffering and a just God issue.’ Those are deep waters.
    But I appreciate your comments about Romans 5.
    Death obviously came into the world well before ‘Adam.’ Geologic death, ecosystem death, species death, plant death, animal death, the death of progenitors of homo sapiens, and the death of homo sapiens too.
    I just think Paul was wrong there. But no reason he should have been right given the information he had at the time.
    I like phil style’s attempt to get into Paul’s motivations for writing Romans 5.
    Agree, too, with a few other folks here who question ‘solving’ the problem by turning Paul’s obviously holistic understanding of death (physical and spiritual)into simply spiritual death. Doesn’t wash given the OT background and the rest of Paul’s stuff.
    None of that would be significant if Paul hadn’t based part of his argument for Jesus’ continuity with Genesis on those ultimately flimsy foundations.
    It gets harder and harder to remain a fundamentalist.

  • Peter Chang

    Went to the InterVarsity Following Christ conference in Chicago two weekends ago, where NT Wright and Dr. Frances Collins were two of the plenary speakers. Dr. Collins gave us a website that may be of some interest to the more scientifically inclined, (American Scientific Affiliation). ASA’s goal is to integrate Christian faith with scientific knowledge. While Dr. Collins’ views were not new to me, I had several friends who were shaken by his talk, and hopefully will lead to further investigation and discussion.
    He also signed his book for me…cool.

  • RJS

    Peter (#18)
    We’ve discussed Dr. Collins book here and linked to a number of his talks. He is willing to step up and defend the evidence – which is voluminous.
    We need to have discussions (as we are trying here) that take the evidence seriously and integrate it into our faith. This is the future. What kinds of questions do you find (or did your “shaken” friends find) the most important?
    ASA is a great organization – with a breadth of views represented, but including Collins and Falk and Gingerich to name a few.

  • Philip Henry

    I’d like to throw another book into the midst, if I may. Dr. Cornelius Hunter, adjunct professor of biophysics at Biola University, wrote a book enttled “Darwin’s God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil”. In this book he argues that the theory of evolution depends more on negative theological argumentation ( A “good” God wouldn’t create an “evil” creation), rather than positive proofs. Darwin sought to distance God from His creation and evolution provided the answer. It seems to me that many Darwinists, atheistic and theistic, use this kind of argumentation to try to prove evolution.
    The problem I have with the term “theistic evolution” is that it seems to me to be logically contradictory. As I understand evolution, it is an unguided process that moves along, in small steps, through natural selection and favorable mutations. What does an unguided process need a Guide for? Even if my characterization of evolution is wrong, and if you are able to successfully conflate “theism” and “evolution” you run the risk of ending up with a God who is something other than what the Scriptures portray. You will either have a Deistic view of God (He just set the universe in motion, and left it alone), or at the very extreme, a Gnostic God ( a”good” God wouldn’t sully His hands with creation, so He uses evolution as His instrument of creation).
    I just think that in discussing the relationship of God to His Creation, we need to be careful lest we end up with a God who is less than who He is. In discussing the problem of evil we must allow it to warp our understanding of who God is.
    I have certainly enjoyed the discussion to date. I’ve learned a lot (always a good thing, even when I am in disagreement), and it has stretched my thinking.

  • Peter

    During the Q & A session with Dr. Collins after his talk, the issue discussed most often was the 6-day creation account, whether it means literally 6 24 hour days, or not.

  • Kyle

    Please read some of our past discussions about this topic and look at what some of the more prominent theistic evolutionists have said (check out ASA, the Faraday Institute, or read some of the discussion online at the Evangelical Views on Evolution blog). The dichotomy that you are setting up as the two concepts being exclusive isn’t necessary.

  • RJS

    Thanks Peter
    I guess it surprises me that this would be the most common question among highly educated evangelical Christians – but it probably shouldn’t. Most are not in the sciences and most don’t have to ever think about the real issues.

  • Craig

    I believe the Luther ref is from:
    Luther’s Works: Selected Psalms II, ed. J. Pelican, St. Louis,
    Concordia, 1965, Vol. 13, p. 94, 95, 96.
    - Craig

  • RJS

    Thanks Craig