Evangelicalism and Evolution ARE in Serious Conflict (and that’s not the end of the world)

[The following is adapted from the conclusion of  The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and is somewhat modified for blog consumption.]

There are two kinds of thinking that get in the way of the conversation evangelicals need to have over evolution.

One is exemplified by those who see red, cry “liberal,” and retreat to their safe doctrinal bunker with their fingers in their ears humming “la la la la la I do not hear you.”

The other type is exemplified by those on the other side of the spectrum, but whose thinking is just as harmful. They claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.

The former approach is obscurantist and stubborn; latter is theologically superficial. Both cause spiritual damage.

One advantage that the first group has over the second is the frank admission that evolution poses a serious challenge to how Christians have traditionally understood at least three central issues of the faith: the origin of humanity, of sin, and of death. That is true.

I argue in my book that sin and death are undeniable universal realities whether or not we are able to attribute them to a primordial man who ate from the wrong tree. The Christian tradition, however, has generally attributed the cause to sin and death to the first human, Adam. Evolution claims that the cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, is not viable. That leaves open the questions of where sin and death come from.

More than that, the very nature of what sin is and why people die is turned on its head. Some behaviors that Christians have thought of as sinful are understood in an evolutionary scheme as means of ensuring survival—for example, the aggression and dominance associated with “survival of the fittest” and sexual promiscuity to perpetuate one’s gene pool.

Likewise, in an evolutionary scheme death is not the enemy to be defeated. It may be feared, it may be ritualized, it may be addressed in epic myths and sagas; but death is not the unnatural state introduced by a disobedient couple in a primordial garden. Actually, it is the means that promotes the continued evolution of life on this planet and even ensures workable population numbers. Death may hurt, but it is evolution’s ally.

So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.

Evolution demands true synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.

The cognitive dissonance created by evolution is considerable, and I understand why either avoidance or theological superficiality might be attractive. But in the long run, the price we pay for not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work is high indeed.

Evangelicals are a defensive lot, tending to focus on the need to be faithful to the past, to make sure that present belief matches that of previous generations. I get the point, but we must be just as burdened to be faithful to the future, to ensure that we are doing all we can to deliver a viable faith to future generations. That too is a high calling. Ignoring reality or playing theological games won’t do—no matter how unsettling, destabilizing, perhaps frightening such a calling may be.

Such a journey must be taken, for the alternatives are not pleasant. Christians can turn away, but the current scientific explanation of cosmic and biological origins is not going away, nor is our growing understanding of the nature of Israelite faith in its ancient Near Eastern context. I do not believe that God means for his children to live in a state of denial or hand-wringing.

Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option. Despite the New Atheist protestations of the bankruptcy of any faith in God in the face of science, most world citizens are not ready to toss away what has been the central element of the human drama since the beginning of recorded civilization.

Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.

That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”

As for evangelicals, perhaps evolution will eventually wind up being more of a help than a hindrance. Perhaps it will remind us that our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself. That is a recurring danger, and the history of Christianity is replete with sad and horrific stories of how theology is used to manipulate and maintain power over others.

It may be that evolution, and the challenges it presents, will remind us that we are called to trust God, which means we may need to restructure and even abandon the “god” that we have created in our own image. Working through the implications of evolution may remind Christians that trusting God’s goodness is a daily decision, a spiritually fulfilling act of recommitment to surrender to God no matter what.

That’s not easy. But if we have learned anything from the saints of the past, it is that surrendering to God each day, whatever we are facing, is not meant to be easy. Taking up that same journey now will add our witness for the benefit of future generations.

It is time to stop playing games.

 

  • Loren Haas

    Peter, thanks for pointing out the elephant in the room. It is good to have a point to agree on when views are in opposition. It keeps the dialog going instead of reaching a roadblock.
    Secondly, what is the context of that horrific print? I am not sure I will sleep well tonight after viewing an enlargement.

  • Hite Baker

    Pete, your book gives me great hope. For me, the take-home message from this post is …

    “As for evangelicals, perhaps evolution will eventually wind up being more of a help than a hindrance. Perhaps it will remind us that our theologies are provisional; when we forget that fact, we run the risk of equating what we think of God with God himself. That is a recurring danger, and the history of Christianity is replete with sad and horrific stories of how theology is used to manipulate and maintain power over others.”

    This quote is critical to keep in mind; this is why the stress is worth it. Thanks.

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark wauck

    Peter, I apologize in advance that I haven’t read your book yet, so I hope these comments aren’t totally off base. However, based on what I’ve seen, it seems that — in common with most Evangelicals — you tend to focus on Scripture in approaching these problems of Christian belief. Thus, you focus in the book — as I understand it — on Genesis and Paul. Of course, that’s necessary, but I think that a review of early non-scriptural Christian doctrine can shed considerable light on 1) how early Christians understood their faith and 2) how and when the types of beliefs (re sin and death) that you critique arose. IMO, the result would show that early Christian belief was quite similar to the views that you propose, reflecting–in turn–a very similar understanding of Genesis and Paul. Further, I think that a study of early Christian doctrine could point toward a way forward, out of the current intellectual impasse in which Christian faith finds itself. Not easy, I agree, but far from impossible. I think many of your readers, including Evangelicals who may have reservations about your ideas, would benefit from such an approach. It does appear to me that there is a greater openness among Evangelicals–Mark Noll is a good example–to such considerations.

    Anyone interested may wish to consult J. N. D. Kelly’s thorough, almost encyclopedic Early Christian Doctrines.

  • James Elliott

    How can evolution claim “that the cause of sin and death, as Paul understood it, is not viable?” Is it a unified worldview or narrative that is uniquely equipped to counter that of Paul? What does it (or its chief spokespersons) know anyway about sin as transgression or death as separation from God? After all, evolution has mainly to do with natural and biological sciences and Paul with theology. I agree certain interpretations of modern science seem to challenge some traditional interpretions of Genesis and Paul. But it is not either/or. Rather, it is like comparing apples and oranges–knowledge of both is enhanced in the process.

  • Mel Duncan

    Dr. Enns,

    I’m curious. How does sin enter the world? And at what point does mankind fall?

    • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark wauck

      Sin is not a “thing” that enters the world. Sin is a characterization of human acts that are disordered, i.e., a sinful act is an act that causes us to be less human than God intended when he created human nature. “Mankind” doesn’t “fall,” since mankind is an abstract concept. Each individual human falls when he commits a sinful act, which we all do, per Paul (and common human experience): “since all have sinned.”

  • Ken Singleton

    I just wonder why there is such a dogged insistence that the “death” introduced into the world by Adam’s sin is primarily “biological death”. That certainly didn’t happen on the “day” that he sinned as God insisted that it would. It seems to me that this is the blind alley that is causing so much confusion. Biological death was just one more consequence of the banishment from God’s presence (relational death) and that didn’t take place for 930 years.

    • Rustywheeler

      I would guess that the dogged insistence arises from these two facts:

      1. the phrase “relational death” appears nowhere in scripture.
      2. the word death has a clear meaning. (“the action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of a person or organism.”)

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  • Rustywheeler

    …at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.

    Hmm. But that’s not really what you’re saying. You’re saying, “the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide,” and that by faith, you can see said reality.

    Not the same thing. It seems to me that the humility honorably exemplified in the first statement is neutralized by the hubris in the second.

    Why not just stop with “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this”?

  • Ken Singleton

    1) Neither is “Trinity” included in Scripture – but banishment from the Garden and separation from God and the tree of life is clearly acted out – that is death.

    2) If the word “death” has a clear meaning then why are there so many different understandings of it among Christians, including you and I?

    3) If biological death is the only, or even primary, sense of death then God got it wrong and the serpent got it right because Adam didn’t die biologically in the day he ate of it – or perhaps we can just ignore the given time frame of the sanction?

    4) I guess when the saints “died” with Christ they must have died biologically then? (Rom 6:8)

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