The Tortuous and Torturous Path of Evolution (RJS)

What about death?

The next few chapters of Daniel Harrell’s book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, looks at the theological questions raised by the possibility of evolutionary creation.

Providence. He considers the question of providence and introduces some categories. There is ordinary providence (the everyday workings of the “natural” world), extraordinary providence (as when God employs the wind or the locusts), and supernatural providence (resurrection being a prime example). The latter is an out-breaking of God’s future in the present. None of these are outside of the nature of God – he is equally active and equally consistent with his nature in the natural, the extraordinary, and the supernatural.

Thinking Too Much. Evolutionary creation sees God’s action and providence in the “natural” process of evolutionary change. But, unless you don’t think to much (and Harrell admits that he thinks too much), it is not enough to simply say regarding creation that science tells us how and the Bible tells us who and why.  This may be true, in fact, I am convinced that it is true, — but it is not enough.  Harrell puts it like this:

The scientific evidence is too strong in evolution’s favor to reasonably deny its occurrence. You can refuse to believe it, but that still won’t make it untrue, any more that denying God exists proves that he doesn’t exist. The overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution has led plenty of Christians to suggest that the Bible tells the who and why of creation (the primal or final cause), leaving evolution to describe the how (the secondary or efficient cause). And that works as long as you don’t think about it too much. This is my problem. I think too much. Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator – God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals – namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness – you can’t help but wonder about that faith and about the God to whom that faith points. (p. 46)

Evolution is both tortuous and torturous … or so it has been described.

Of course Harrell doesn’t leave us hanging here. In the next sections of Ch. 3 (What Happens When I Think Too Much) and in Ch. 4 (E-Harmony) he works through many of the issues involved in understanding an evolutionary creation.  He wanders through a discussion of faith, randomness, purpose, heaven, love, and the image of God.

E-Harmony. Harrell discusses what he calls ‘E-Harmony’, the way faith and science integrate, in the context of a conversation with a friend, Dave, who is content (especially when peckish) to deny and ignore the possibility and the questions of evolutionary creation. But we need to face the facts – not ignore them or fiddle with them to match what we already believe. Here Harrell looks at interpretations and data and the power and limitations of reductionist thinking. An example he doesn’t use, but I as a chemist find useful. … One can explain in exquisite detail the properties of hydrogen and of oxygen atoms in isolation. The equations are really quite simple (if one doesn’t dig too deeply into the nucleus). But one can’t derive the properties of the water molecule simply from the isolated atoms, one must consider the influence of each on the others. Likewise one cannot derive the properties of liquid water from a single isolated molecule – one must consider how the molecules interact and the influence this interaction has on the properties of the individual molecules. The elementary equations remain simple (if unsolvable) but because of interactions the system is immensely complex. And it only gets worse. Harrell (he has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology after all … and as a pastor he works with people) looks at the complexities of nutrition and human society to explore both the power and limitations of reductionist thinking.

Interpretation. Harrell has a good introduction to the problem of interpretation. “A fruitful dialog between faith and evolution requires a particular kind of relationship between knowledge (“the way we know”) and reality (“the way things are”). (p. 62) Is objectivity a pipe dream with reality unknowable aside from one’s interpretation? … or is there a reality and objectivity (at least when averaging over a large enough group) possible?

Reality itself does not depend upon our ability to know it. While perceptual capacity and personal bias clearly are factors when it comes to making sense of reality, they are not determinants of the reality itself. God was there before anybody believed in him. Evolution occurred before Darwin boarded The Beagle and sailed to the Galapagos Islands. God is not a product of faith any more than evolution is a product of science. So to say that God and evolution are at odds is an interpretative statement, not one that the realities themselves dictate since both existed together before interpretation was possible. (p.63)

And a bit further down the page:

Reality exists independent of me. But knowledge of reality is never independent of me. We have to be honest with our own biases and proclivities. … My belief in God affects my view of nature. My beliefs about nature effect my belief in God because I believe God reveals himself in nature, and this makes evolution part of God’s revelation. Therefore to study evolution is to further understand God. And what I understand about God helps me to better understand evolution. Christian theology doesn’t have to submit to accurate scientific findings, only to account for them. Authentic faith strives to believe in what is rather in than in what we wish was. All truth is God’s truth, however you look at is and whether you like it or not.

God is infinite and independent reality. Even when we know everything we can know about him, there will still be infinitely more to know. That is what makes theology so interesting. Every time we think we have God figured out, some new experience or new realization comes along that unmasks our convictions as idols in need of breaking. (p. 63)

We want God to be simple and straightforward, our faith an acknowledgment of solving the equation – connecting the dots. But there is nothing in human experience, and nothing within Scripture, that indicates that this is reality.

Death. One of the things that evolution requires us to rethink (or at least many of us to rethink) is the role of death in God’s good creation. I’ll end this post with two brief video clips where Daniel Harrell reflects on the question of death. In this first clip he gives a perspective on death and evolution.

God does many things in ways we would not expect, and in ways we would not if we were God. After all, who really understands either crucifixion and resurrection? And yet this is, we believe, God’s method for transforming his creation and bringing the Kingdom of God, in an already/not yet paradox. For 2000 years Christians have still died.

And in this clip … Harrell elaborates a bit more on making sense of death.

If Adam had not sinned would he not still have died? In some sense at least the answer is yes. Even John Calvin (no liberal Bible denier he) thought that Adam would have moved from earthly existence to the world to come. The Garden was not the intended end for mankind.

These clips are short – no final answers, and not even Harrell’s complete thoughts on the questions. And yet they make good conversation starters to begin to think through the question.

What is the relationship between what we know and the way we know?

Is death a big problem for evolutionary creation?

Do Daniel Harrell’s thoughts on this make any headway? Where would you agree or disagree.

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  • Perhaps the greatest glory of this universe is that it’s capable of such complexity and chaos. You alluded to this, RJS, when you wrote about hydrogen and oxygen atoms forming a water molecule and water molecules forming liquid water.

    For me, the absolutely astonishing truth is that pretty well everything in this universe is based on simplicity generating ever greater complexity. And that’s true of life, too, of course.

    Everything that has a beginning must have an end. Birth and death are equally fundamental for the existence of life. Life is the temporary state of dynamic metastability between conception and decay. Death is part of the definition of life!

    But there are some specific facts we must face concerning death. The starkest of these is that there can be no animal life without death. Every time we eat a meal we are consuming the products of life. All our energy comes from living things that have died, be they plant or animal.

    Without death, I could not be! Recycling is not optional, it is fundamental. Every new generation needs the materials used and recycled by previous generations.

    It seems to us that the Creator of the universe must be infinite, eternal, and unchanging, yet dynamic at the same time. Within the universe such a state is not possible. His ways are indeed higher than ours.

    The key to understanding this is to see that the Creator is outside of time. Outside of time there can be no beginning and no end. Outside of time eternity is not just possible, but inevitable.

    Does this help? Or does it just make it all more difficult?

  • Calvin’s description of passing to greater life did not include anything close to what we know as death, and I would think mentioning him in support of Adam’s death without the transgression is a bit disingenuous.
    Calvin said, “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.” (Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, chapter 3, verse 19)
    Calvin’s description does not fit Harrell’s presumption that Adam would have died because biology dictates a bodily breakdown.

  • Steven

    The biggest problem I have with an evolutionary view is the impact it has on Jesus Himself. According to the New Testament writers, Jesus is the means by which He created, not an evolutionary process (John 1, Hebrews 1, Hebrews 11). If we adopt an evolutionary view, then what exactly was Jesus’ role in creation? This is a question that no one on an evolutionary side is answering!

  • I don’t see death as a big problem for evolutionary creation. I think that has been dealt with adequately by a number of theologians. I think that the big ramaining problems in the minds of many Christians are historical Adam (yes or no), original sin, the references to Adam in the New Testament, biblical inerrancy, and the acceptability of allowing science to guide the interpretation of Scripture. Denis Lamoureux, Peter Enns, Daniel Harlow, Daryl Domning and John R. Schneider have made progress, but they need to be joined by others, who unfortunately risk getting fired or retired if they do so. As someone once said with regard to science, progress will be made one funeral at a time.

  • RJS

    Dan Salter,

    You are right – and I’ve written about this several times with the complete quote. My only point here is that even Calvin didn’t think that the garden was the permanent home of any person. I tried to make that clear in the post, but thanks for the clarification.

  • “What is the relationship between what we know and the way we know?”

    Philosophers themselves differ on their definitions of “knowledge”. It makes more sense to replace “know” with “believe”.

    The way we form our beliefs will necessarily determine the beliefs that we have. Because people are usually at best experts in one field of knowledge, they usually rely on experts to tell them what they should believe. On the other hand, an expert in a field of knowledge usually relies on himself to a great degree (but usually also taking into consideration the views of his fellow experts) to inform him of what he should believe about that particular field. The former way of believing I believe is what Paul called a “child-like” faith. The latter is an “adult” faith (1 Cor 14:20).

  • I’m sorry, RJS. I didn’t mean to jump past your point. I guess I was just trying to fit the point into where I thought it might be leading. There’s another example of “thinking too much.” 🙂

    I think I still have a problem with harmonizing death in a pre-fall world. Almost every instance we have of death’s mention in a philosophical context through the Bible is in relation to sin whether as curse or judgment. And that seems to apply to the non-human aspects of creation as well (Romans 8:19-23). But I don’t mean for anyone to have to repeat arguments here. I’ll do some more research over at the BioLogos site.

  • EricG

    I think death is a big issue, and I don’t find Harrell’s videos very helpful. He doesn’t deal with the depth of the problem – sure, some sort of end of life may be embedded in our reality for some reason, but why is there so much physical pain and agony associated with it, and why was such misery the actual mechanism for creation via evolution’s processes?

    Paul Bruggink suggests above that death isn’t a big problem, that it has been “dealt witn adequately,” and that the real issue is biblical inerrancy and things like that. I couldn’t disagree more. The death problem related to evolution has been avoided by most, and the ones who do address it have been very week (like Harrell, in my view). Inerrancy, on the other hand, seems just a hang-up for a certain brand of very conservative evangelical who hasen’t been willing to drop the presuppositions they bring to the Bible. Someone sitting in a pew, going through life’s difficulties, is much more likely to have a deep existential problem with death than with some doctrine like inerrancy.

  • RJS

    Eric G,

    Thanks. I think Harrell’s discussion of death here is sketchy. Perhaps it is weak, but more importantly it is only 4 minutes of contemplation. It can’t get very deep.

    It doesn’t really reach anyone who is struggling with the reality of pain, suffering, and death.

  • @EricG: Perhaps we aren’t talking about the same “death problem.” I was referring to the YEC problem wherein Adam’s sin brought death into the world, which is inconsistent with biological evolution. IMNSHO, that issue has been dealt with by numerous writers, in addition to the ones I mentioned in #4 above.

  • Phil Miller

    The biggest problem I have with an evolutionary view is the impact it has on Jesus Himself. According to the New Testament writers, Jesus is the means by which He created, not an evolutionary process (John 1; Hebrews 1; Hebrews 11). If we adopt an evolutionary view, then what exactly was Jesus’ role in creation? This is a question that no one on an evolutionary side is answering!

    I don’t understand how this makes any difference. Even if you don’t accept evolution, you have to admit that there are natural processes taking place everywhere in creation right now. The fact that these things are going on exists regardless of how the processes were originally set in motion.

    But in one hand you’re correct – science can’t really explain how something can come from nothing. So I think it’s perfectly within the bounds of Scripture to say that Christ was the means of Creation in the sense that He was active during the ex nihilo creation event.

  • “Is death a big problem for evolutionary creation?”

    Well, I’d say it’s not as big a problem for evolutionary creation as it is a huge one for Christianity itself (that’s under the assumption that it is a problem; I don’t think it is).

    Isaiah 45:7
    New English Translation (NET)
    7 I am the one who forms light
    and creates darkness;
    the one who brings about peace
    and creates calamity.
    I am the Lord, who accomplishes all these things.

  • Joe Canner

    EricG #8: “…why is there so much physical pain and agony associated with [death]…?”

    This is a theological/philosophical question (theodicy) and/or a medical question that has nothing to do with evolution. Neither Genesis nor the theory of evolution say anything about why death is sometimes painful.

    “…why was such misery the actual mechanism for creation via evolution’s processes?”

    Again, death, not misery, is required for evolution. Perhaps that slow antelope didn’t feel a thing when it got ambushed by the speedy cheetah. Moreover, evolution is also driven by sexual selection, which doesn’t entail pain and agony (although some teenage boys may wish to differ…).

    It’s hard for me to imagine a world without death. Without death, the earth would have quickly become overpopulated and required a transfer to some other venue (as per, for example, what Calvin said) for all creatures. So the problem really is inerrency, or at least interpretations of Genesis that assume that there was no physical death prior to the Fall.

  • norman

    Often times it seems to me that we forget some of the basic understandings that we are learning about God’s creative process in Genesis. Walton essentially lays out that Genesis is built around a Temple Creation motif that doesn’t carry the connotation of material creation aspects. It’s what he calls a “functional creation” and I like to demonstrate to others that Genesis 1 and Rev 21 have great examples of this Temple Creation and De-Creation application if we will pay close enough attention.

    In Genesis 1 there is a functional assignment of the Sea, the Sun and the Moon to the cosmic order of the First Heavens and Earth. The cosmic mandate is simply a way of describing the ordering of how God’s Covenant people were approaching God in their covenant existence. However when you turn over to Revelation 21 you see that we have a de-creation of all three of these entities in the cosmic ordering that is established in Christ newly enabled Kingdom. Simply it is Cosmic language used to describe a changing of the guard from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.

    In the Old Covenant there was a separation from the Land and the Sea, this represented the Covenant People of Israel being separated from humanity at large (this was represented in Temple ornamentation via the Bronze Sea’s and the Outer wall that restricted Gentiles). In the Old Covenant the Sun and the Moon were needed for the application and determination of their festivals, days and Sabbaths. Rev 21 says in the New Heavens and Earth there would be no more Sea, this is simply following the pattern of the New Covenant order in which there is no more separation between Jew and Gentile (land and Sea). Later in Rev 21 it is also noted that the Sun and the Moon are de-created in the New Heavens and Earth because with Christ He is the light and there is no more need for setting Temple worship according to days and seasons. In fact there is no more need of the Temple itself because God and Christ are the Temple. All of this imagery is built around cosmic language that was displayed in the Tabernacle/Temple but those were just “types” of the better things to come through Christ the New Temple.

    When we recognize the extensive use of types and analogy in presenting these understandings by the Hebrews then we can sit back and recognize that we have gotten way off course by trying to literalize them in some material fashion. It’s like the authors of the Aesop fable coming back 2000 years after his moral stories written with animal motifs and finding out that people are trying to decipher the literalness of the animal images when they were just mediums for telling story. We simply run amuck with our ANE investigations and think the Hebrews were doing things from a material standpoint when they weren’t.

    It’s the same thing with “death” in the Genesis 3 story which is employing types is presenting theological concepts using human anthropomorphic means. The “death” concept is not physical but covenantal “death” in question. Now this does not answer the more difficult questions regarding our evolutionary physical death and suffering; I direct you to Job and his Hebrew story approach for that investigation.

  • EricG

    Joe Canner,

    I strongly disagree – evolution has much to do with the amount of misery, and it raises serious questions about a God who would use it to create as RJS’s title to this post seems to imply (torturous path). To give just a few examples, RJS once posted a talk by Polkingorne saying that somatic mutations causing cancer are part of the evolutionary process; evolution led to nasty creatures like worms that survive off human eyes, and many others like that; evolution works through the process of painful deaths. Yes, this is in part a theodicy question, but that doesn’t somehow remove it as a very serious question posed by evolution for faith in a loving God. The question of inerrancy in contrast is very far removed from the important questions of everyday life.

  • Joe Canner

    EricG #15: Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but I think you have the directional arrows mixed up. Mutations and nasty creatures are a fact of life: whether God created them or they evolved, either way you have a theodicy problem. (I suppose there a third alternative: that they are a result of the Fall; a theory which has little theological OR scientific support.)

    While death is a necessary condition for evolution, I think it would be a mistake to say that it is a “cause”. Evolution happens because some organisms do a better job of reproducing than others. All organisms die sooner or later and since no one seems to have any explanation for how things would look if there was no death, I don’t see why (physical) death is the villain here.

    Yes, the debate over inerrancy is not a practical question of everyday life. But inasmuch as it strongly influences the way people view science, it is very practical. No, understanding evolution is not going to solve the big questions of human suffering, but I don’t think anyone here is claiming that it does.

  • EricG


    I don’t have the arrows mixed up at all. The point is that if God chose to create via evolution, which entails cancer, eye-boring worms and evolution via large amounts of miserable death that natural selection entails, that presents a problem. You can say that it is no worse a theodicy problem than already exists, but at least traditional Christianity could claim that the fall distorted creation and led to suffering; as you suggest, that is no longer a viable claim. And a more direct creation would not have entailed such a “torturous path” of evolution through painful death; all that could have been bypassed. Besides that, many other belief systems (atheism, process thought, non-monotheism, religions that do not believe God is love, etc.) do not present such an obvious conflict with evolution. In contrast, evolution presents a much more substantial challenge to traditional Christian views about a loving God. The Harrell videos seem to try to respond to that problem; my point is that they don’t seem to do a good job with the very real question presented.

  • K.A.M

    So…How do you pronounce that ‘T’ word in the title? Not ‘torturous’, but the other one?

  • RJS

    (Google it)
    The play on words comes from one of these two chapters in Harrell’s book. I liked it.

  • Phil Miller

    You can say that it is no worse a theodicy problem than already exists, but at least traditional Christianity could claim that the fall distorted creation and led to suffering; as you suggest, that is no longer a viable claim.

    It depends on how we conceptualize the fall. If we view a singular, historic event, than, yes, I guess it can create a problem. But if what if the fall isn’t so much something that happened once and infected everything all at once, but, rather, it was the start of created agents rejecting God?

    I would also say that things like cancer, eye-boring worms, etc. exist regardless of evolution. If the problem is that an evolutionary view states that these things are necessary for progress to occur, I guess I don’t see how that’s much different than simply saying God can bring good from evil.

  • TJR

    It seems we are dealing with two concepts the fact of death and the manner of death. We could place the manner of death under the problem of theodicy. For me theodicy is a big problem whether evolution is true or not. If evolution were not true there would still be pain and suffering in the world. The idea that animals and small children who do not have the free will to sin, suffer because of Adam’s sin just as much of a problem as the evolution option.

  • EricG

    Phil Miller,

    I agree that we do not need to read the fall as a one time event. But I don’t see how that impacts what I am saying? Either as one-time event or not, the fall doesn’t explain cancer and other suffering.

    As to your second paragraph, I don’t think we could say cancer, eye-worms, etc. are necessary; the traditional God could create the world without them, it seems. In addition, He could also create without the torturous process mentioned above.

    TJR –

    I agree with you; evil and suffering are a problem with or without evolution. Although what I’m saying is that evolution makes the problem even worse in this sense: there is more unnecessary suffering than without evolution. It at least causes one to wonder: why would a good God use such a process?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Several correspondents seem concerned over the messiness of life. If you want some really good examples of this, read Bernd Heinrich’s recent “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death”. Life consumes stuff, both living and dead, organic and inorganic. Life will expand to the limits of available resources. Life is alive, and has been so for over three billion years. This is amazing! Not that it’s been easy. Life must continually overcome all manner of obstacles. Mass extinctions have threatened much of the living world many times. But life never dies. The creator and sustainer of life is in charge.

    Life even lives on life and with life. Recent biology is revealing how individual organisms are not really individuals but depend on symbiotic relationships with other organisms for essential processes. It’s been known for some time that our very mitochondria, the energy production/management organelles of our cells, were once free living bacteria – they still have their own DNA! But we now know much more. Have a look at the late Lynn Margulis’ fine presentation at Oxford in 2009
    (I recommend reading the commentary by James McAllister before viewing the Margulis presentation in Part 2.)

    For a good, broad-ranging review of this rapidly developing part of biology read “A Symbiotic View of Life: We have never been individuals” by Scott F. Gilbert, Jan Sapp, Alfred I. Tauber in The Quarterly Review of Biology, December 2012, Vol. 87, No. 4 pp 325-341.

    We Christians, and many of other faiths, believe that God made life possible and sustains it. Most would call it a rather amazing success. We still have lots to learn about it. Our theology, and the related interpretation of scripture need to take into account the real complexity of life, and the obvious need for a life-death-life cycle. The evolutionary aspect of the story of life is just one of the big ideas we must incorporate into our Christian thinking, and its formulations have been around long enough for many believers to do this. And there is more coming down the pipe. It’s time to re-think a number of things scripturally and theologically. This is what people like RJS, Pete Enns and others are saying in many helpful ways. We must get beyond discussions over whether or not biology is true, good, or bad – or even worse, where and when it is good or bad. Life is messy, successful and a gift from God. Our theology needs to do a much better job of taking all of these aspects of biological life into account.

  • EricG


    You say: “We must get beyond discussions over whether or not biology is . . . good, or bad – or even worse, where and when it is good or bad.”

    I think it is an important question to ask, given that evolution is true, what it says about the nature of God – particularly given the nasty aspects of evolution I’ve mentioned above. Are you disagreeing? If so, I don’t see the basis for your statement. “Life is messy” is not an answer to cancer, eye worms or torturous creation processes.

  • Phil Miller

    As to your second paragraph, I don’t think we could say cancer, eye-worms, etc. are necessary; the traditional God could create the world without them, it seems. In addition, He could also create without the torturous process mentioned above.

    Perhaps. I guess the question of whether something is necessary is interesting in and of itself. Some amount of death is necessary simply for life to exist at all. By sheer numbers, a human body actual contains more bacterial cells than human cells. These bacteria are reproducing and dying all the time. It just seems when we get down to certain areas of biology, it gets very hard to label things as good or bad.

    I think that existence in and of itself requires some amount of suffering. It is hard to conceive what life would be like with no suffering at all. So once I’m at that place, it’s just a matter of degrees. As a Christian, I guess what I can say is that even though I don’t understand it all, I do believe that suffering can lead to a greater good. I won’t say that I think all suffering has meaning, because there certainly does seem to be a lot of ambiguity in suffering. But I do believe that God can and will eventually bring redemption to everything.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Phil largely gets at my point, I’ll just take a little longer. I think that listing facts about living things and the processes of life and trying to categorize them as good or bad is the wrong way to go. Life itself, as a whole, is good – otherwise we wouldn’t be here to make that statement or hold that belief. Life itself, from Scripture, seems to be spiritually opposed. Yet, death is necessary for the development of complexity. In addition, and spectacularly, without death, nature would have been over-run long ago by the fastest reproducing organisms, that in turn would have eaten themselves out of house and home. Worms or no worms, the way life unfolds is messy, from our perspective and using a common definition of messy. Biologists usually have a somewhat different take on this. 🙂 Life and its processes are the way they are. My point is that we should accept this as a given and review our theology and interpretation of Scripture in case some adjustments are needed. Too much of the discussion, at least in evangelical circles, seems to carry the underlying hope that all this messy biology will eventually go away.

    There are those who are working hard on just this sort of thing. For example, Amos Yong, a systematic theologian, suggests that science and Christian theology can complement each other and should not be expected to converge in every sense. This is a reasonable beginning. You might want to check out his “Spirit of Creation”. I’ve written a review of this book on Amazon that may be useful. The questions, as you point out, do not have easy answers. But, accepting biological reality is one essential move toward progressing theologically toward answers.

    As for theodicy, which necessarily is involved in this, we can either try to explain how God, in total control, lovingly makes all of this somehow good (probably by saying that we just don’t understand what goodness and love are), or, we go with Scripture and conclude that God faces serious spiritual opposition to what he wants to bring about, including life. If we take the latter view, however, we probably should not spend time trying to locate evil’s claw marks in biology any more than we try to identify God’s fingerprints (à la Intelligent Design).

    On all of this, unless we are experienced theologians and biblical scholars, we probably should listen closely to the conversations of those who are. On the theodicy front I recommend Greg Boyd’s “Is God to Blame? which has often been recommended in these pages.

  • EricG

    Phil and Bev,

    I don’t think it is sufficient to say that death and some level of suffering are necessary – you’ve got to show that the level of suffering we actually have makes some sense. Otherwise we’re just watering down the question. That is what I have given a couple of specific examples (of many) – I don’t think we can say cancer, eye-worms, and torturous natural selection are necessary. A sovereign God could have created without those things, right?

    Phil, you suggest that suffering isn’t good, but God can use it to lead to a greater good. How would that be true of an infant that dies a terribly painful death from some disease? I assume the answer is we can’t know. But I can’t even dream up such an explanation. And as Ivan says in Bros. Karasmov, if the suffering of one child is the price of some other good, who among us would ever really think it justified?

    Bev, the other suggestion you give is that it could be that spiritual opposition to God is what leads to these problems. I’ve read Boyd, and understand he relies on this. But the traditional Christian view is that God – not the devil – was sovereign in the act of creation, and he found his work good. Spiritual forces, if they exist, we’re not involved in creation under the traditional view. So this can’t explain God’s choice to use evolution to create, it seems.

    Perhaps the traditional Christian views don’t work, and we should explore something like process theology where God is not the agent of creation.

    The other possible suggestion I’ve heard is that we aren’t allowed to arrive at any conclusion on this question, by God’s design, because it would disrupt our ability to commiserate with those suffering. In my view, saying there is no answer is better than giving the answers I’ve read theologians giving, which don’t really work and can tend to cheapen the suffering that exists.

    Bev, I also fully agree that we need to move beyond the question of whether evolution is true. But very few are addressing the separate question we are discussing here – how evolution (given that it is true) affects our understanding of God. I don’t see theologians addressing this question (I don’t think Boyd does, for example).

  • Phil Miller

    Phil, you suggest that suffering isn’t good, but God can use it to lead to a greater good.

    Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I did not say that suffering necessarily can lead to good. I’m saying that God can bring good from suffering. I’m not saying that means God necessarily had that purpose in mind for the suffering in the get go. I don’t believe God has a divine blueprint as how everything should turn out. I believe there are real and genuine possibilities in the universe.

    As far as forces contra to God’s will being involved or having a hand in Creation, that doesn’t really seem all that controversial to me. If you read some of the Church Fathers, they seem to imagine Satan having greater powers than we assume, not less.

  • Bev Mitchell


    You say, “Perhaps the traditional Christian views don’t work, and we should explore something like process theology where God is not the agent of creation.”

    You make a huge jump here. There are many positions between the particular traditional view you appear to be using and process theology. Sanders, Pinnock, Boyd, Oord, Yong, to name only a few clearly are somewhere in this middle ground. It seems they would all agree with Boyd that “We aren’t called to accept everything as God’s will; instead, we are called to transform everything into conformity with God’s will.” (from “Is God to Blame?”)

    As for how evolution affects our understanding of God, it seems to me the relational theologians listed above, and others, at least offer indirect help with this. They all, along with Reform theologians like T.F. Torrance, advise us to take our foundational understanding of God’s nature from the Incarnation, life of Christ, the Cross and the Resurrection. From there we work outward to deal with Scripture and other revelations of God’s work. Clearly we need more good theological work to flesh this out, which is why I suggest reading Amos Yong’s “The Spirit of Creation”.

    You are absolutely correct that our view of God greatly influences how we deal with suffering, pain, ugliness of all kinds in this world. The more relational theologies are making good progress here.

    As for God being opposed at creation, a very strong case for this has been made by a highly regarded orthodox Jewish biblical scholar, Jon Levenson in his 1988 book “Creation and the Persistence of Evil”. Boyd, Oord, Yong and others often refer to this work.

    Of course, one can remain unmoved by the relational theologians and stay with the traditional blueprint view (Boyd’s term for it). But, if one does, all of the problems you raise re evolution, and more, remain essentially unaddressed.

  • Morbert

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see a problem at all. The most devoted, genuine Christians still die in the sense that their bodies stop moving and they are buried in cemeteries or cremated. If this non-spiritual death is compatible with the doctrine of redemption and salvation, why would similar deaths in nature be incompatible?