Evolution and Evil/Morality

Evolution and Evil/Morality October 29, 2012

“Darwinism subverts religious belief in a supremely wise and loving Creator who has providentially planned life on earth … [and may be taken to be] a bungling, or a chillingly indifferent, god.” These are the words of Philip Kitcher as quoted by Jeff Astley in his fine exploratory essay on evolution and evil in the book Reading Genesis after Darwin. The cosmos, then, becomes evidence against a good God. The issue is not quite as stark when it comes to personal evil, the evil humans perpetrate, but the issue remains: Why would God create a world like that?

Astley proposes a spirituality that explores the significance of evolutionary theory for morality. It’s an essay worth your reading, even if my summary cannot do justice to his complexities and abstractions.

In essence, the Darwinian world is one in which competition, struggle and suffering, not to ignore death and extinction, are the way the world is. Darwin called it the “war of Nature.” The difficulty is for the Christian to explain that kind of world as God’s good world.

Theodicy seeks to defend or explain or justify the ways of God in this kind of world. Astley thinks faith, or better yet, hope, come into play as one seeks to explain a spirituality of evil. In other words, he thinks another way of chasing theodicies is to do so through spiritual perception. Why? Because spiritual perceptions are “powerful engines for living” (166).

In natural evil… nature selects, competition heats up and maladapted descendants disappear. Could God have made a different world? This is where the spirituality issue arises: How does a person of faith explain it all? Hick and others suggest suffering is part of God’s plan to build human character and moral choice. He asks, “So does God create a tough environment in which pain is inevitable for the sake of a greater good that God doesn’t just want (intends) but desires (really intends)?” (167). I like this … I have at times myself pondered these very questions, and however one explains origins one has to explain the reality of suffering and death. (Punishment for sin is one such explanation.) The issue with Hick’s view is that the rewards don’t match up to the amount of suffering (argument of Dewi Phillips).

So Astley proposes this convoluted sentence that might make sense: “the truth about suffering is to be found on two levels. God intends the evil (at one level, the general level) that he really intends (at another level) that we should work to overcome” (168). As for how God works in this world, Astley seems to side with Peacocke’s “interactive panentheism.” But he thinks we can go further: he opts for a cruciform reality and that we need to embrace Brother Death as part of God’s self-emptying love. Thus, he has a “spirituality that includes an acceptance of natural evil.” Thus, the cross (and resurrection?) provide a lens through which to see the reality of death as part of God’s good world.

On moral evil … here he embraces evolutionary theory and our ancestors as part of our moral make-up. He sees the Fall, in part at least, as “our awakening into a new consciousness of sinfulness and moral choice” (173). I would say At least this but more, too. Again, he is proposing a “spirituality of accepting life with all its imperfections” (173).

Our perception of evolution, then, turns on our humility: we are dependent and we are responsible.

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  • Mike M

    There is a lot to be said about his perception of “moral evil” which is a human-directed concept but I don’t like the idea of anthropomizing natural selection (i.e. as being “evil). Even in his own day, the concept of survival of the fittest (which originated with Herbert Spencer and not Darwin), was challenged by the likes of Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. Their focus was on how cooperation between individuals of any given specie (including Homo Sapiens) results in an evolutionary advantage. So we have 2 faces of the same coin: grab what you can to guarantee your own survival (which is evidently thought of as “evil”) and love others as you love yourself to guarantee survival of your tribe, community, state, and world, perhaps even at the risk of your own life.

  • phil_style

    I’m not convinced that the “red in tooth and claw” type argument is really much more difficult to “theodicy” than the classical/ traditional model of special creation.

    Suffering has always posed theological issues. Or, rather, theism has always proposed intellectual problems in light of pain and suffering.

    Scenario 1: The traditional defense of suffering was that is was a corruption of God’s intentions, brought about by the disobedience of the created order. In some sense then, it could be argued that it was only fair, or was at least justified. BUT, is that a satisfying answer? God still has (or had) the choice to over-ride the corruption and restore, in an instant, an un-corrupted world. So, there is still a responsibility on the God of this scenario for allowing continued suffering and pain.

    Scenario 2: A created order that was subjected to suffering and pain through no fault of it’s own, basically starts off in the absence of pain. In fact.. pain doesn’t arrive until the first forms of life develop the appropriate pain receptors. The replication of life, until that point proceeds in a completely painless environment. Once pain does develop, it does so purely in order to enable further flourishing of life, in increasingly complex physical environments. But, as pain developed so do all the other “pleasant” emotions.
    In fact, the “evolutionary” scenario, by the time we get to the development of pain & suffering is quite similar to the “post corruption” scenario. It is a scenario where pain has entered into the universe. In either case, God could have interviewed to stop it.

    So I’m not 100% convinced that the required theodicy is so much more difficult in the second scenario.

  • I’m going to make a suggestion, I don’t know if anyone has proposed this particular approach before.

    I suggest that we have spent far too much time thinking about evolution as a problem when it is simply an inevitable result of something far more fundamental. Instead, we need to understand that the universe has always been open to the effects of chance.

    We don’t know how the universe came into being, all we can say is that we have a pretty good idea how it developed after the first tiny fraction of a second. But we DO know that right from the outset randomness and chance were fundamental to its development. Sub-atomic particles flashed into existence and then, just as suddenly annihilated in a tiny burst of energy. They still do.

    Chance is necessary in a universe where there is to be freedom of choice. We can only choose if we live in a universe where nothing is determined in advance. My understanding is that Yahweh created a universe in which intelligence would arise and in which any intelligent life forms would be able to know him and choose to love and follow him.

    To put it very simply, love requires a universe in which things are not directed, volcanoes can erupt and earthquakes can shatter cities and hurricanes can flood coastal plains.

    It seems to me that the real wonder is not that bad things sometimes happen, but that they happen so rarely. We should not blame Papa for random disasters, but we should thank him for such an exquisite combination of personal freedom and relative day to day safety. This supreme balancing act is something worthy of great praise, awe and gratitude.

    We have to take a small amount of rough with the surprisingly large dollop of smooth. Thank you, Father, for doing such a great job!

  • This “defense of God” is “achieved” without the slightest attention to the Genesis account where “good” is illustrated in the form of herbivorous animals (no sin and death), human well-being (they were naked and totally at peace) and the plentiousness of creation (98% of our species have disappeared subsequently.)

    The Bible also promises the “restoration of all thing” (Acts 3:21), but to what? The survival-of-the-fittest?

    If God’s supreme creative mechanism was the survival-of-the-fittest, who could blame Cain for killing his less adaptive, more naive brother? Who could blame Adam and Eve from eating from the tree to be all that they could be? God should have been thrilled!

  • Richard Jones

    Chris Jeffries: If “the universe has always been open to the effects of chance,” then is that not tantamount to saying also that God is subject to the effects of chance? Do you truly believe that our God (perhaps better as “god”) can have His purposes thwarted by “darn poor luck?”

  • CGC

    Hi Daniel,
    Do you eat meat? If so, you are very inconsistent! And if we were created to not kill in the original state when it came to animals killing animals and people killing animals, why did God create us with flesh tearing teeth for animals as well as humans? And what about bugs? For all the Christian vegetarians, what about bugatarians? 🙂

  • Richard (5) – I’m not saying that at all. He would only be subject to what he has made if he was part of what he made – in other words only if he made himself. That seems absurd! (That’s why it is so extraordinary that the Son ‘became flesh’. He entered in to his creation.)

    Rather than saying Yahweh is somehow affected by chance, I am saying he created chance because it served his purpose to do so. If you want to create a square you must make four sides of equal length and join them together end to end correctly. I’m suggesting that if you want a universe to contain intelligent agents capable of love you must put an adequate amount of chance into that universe. Without chance it will be sterile.

    I’m further suggesting that chance events are not only common in the universe as it is now, but were always so right back to the earliest beginnings. There is plenty of evidence for that.

  • Fish

    Evolution is better boiled down to “survival of the most adaptable” than “survival of the fittest.” There is nothing tooth-and-claw about it.

    Many of the teenagers in gangs who die young are far fitter for survival in a kill or be killed world than bankers and lawyers, but whose children will have the advantages?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Chris (3)

    Well said!

    Jon Levenson puts essentially the same thought like this “The (traditional) image of God’s creating out of nothing leads rather easily to a conception of God as against nothing: there is nothing he is against.” And Levenson is not saying that this conception is a good thing!

    I’ll stop quoting and leave this provocative statement as it is. Rest assured, Levenson is not a dualist nor is he saying that God has not created (is not creating) everything. I recommend his book “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” for great insight into believer’s fundamentals for what may be behind what sometimes seems to us a world unworthy of so great a God. You will come away from Levenson’s book with Chris’ words “Thank you, Father, for doing such a great job!”

    I see the book is pricey, even on Amazon, which is a great pity. If you can get your hands on it, please read it. If you don’t have time, please read his Preface to the 1994 Princeton University Press edition. The original was published in 1988.

    Like Chris, I imagine, I long for the day when we evangelicals can get to the fundamentals where there is so much work to be done. Arguing over the results of outstanding and well established science is not the solution. It is just displacement activity – often unintentional to be sure – but displacement behaviour nevertheless.

  • Luke Allison

    This is where Greg Boyd’s “warfare worldview” has been very helpful to me.

    And yes….I think we have to assume a world in which “free agency” can in some ways be more powerful than God…because that’s the way he made the world to work!
    This is why I can’t be a traditional theist: their view of sovereignty and “power” is not cruciform. The power of God is revealed in the cross, not the sword. The idea that God must have everything in control or he’s not God is completely counter to the story of Jesus, completely counter to the gospel of Philippians 2:5-11 and the subsequent pattern of Christian life, and runs directly in the face of the way God seems to be working in the world.

  • Luke Allison

    That is: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, leaven, a farmer who sows, weeds and wheat coexisting until the end, etc.
    NOT like a Roman phalanx, an Empire conquering, a Caesar scheming, or a Satan manipulating.

  • Bev Mitchell


    I love your last line “Our perception of evolution, then, turns on our humility: we are dependent and we are responsible.”

    Not having read Astley, I will go out on a limb and suggest that from your summary he may well agree with much of what Jon Levenson has to say. I know I promised (sort of in #11) to keep it to one quote, but then decided to write a summary of that book based on only his 1994 Preface. This is not intended as a hijack of your recommendation, but to point out what may well be a complimentary treatment from, I assume, a quite different perspective. It is so good to consider this topic from somewhere closer to the root of the issue.

    Anyway, here goes, to anyone who may find it useful.

    A glimpse of Jon Levenson’s “Creation and the Persistence of Evil” from the Preface to the 1994 Princeton Uuniversity Press edition.

    “You will win, O Lord, if I make claim against You,
    Yet I shall present charges against You:
    Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
    Why are the workers of treachery at ease?
    You have planted them, and they have taken root,
    They spread, they even bear fruit.
    You are present in their mouths,
    But far from their thoughts.
    Yet You, Lord, have noted and observed me;
    You have tested my heart, and found it with You.
    Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
    Prepare them for the day of slaying! Jer. 12: 1-3 (Jewish Study Bible)

    Levenson suggests that the “Drive them out!” answer in the verses above is a philosopher’s taunt – a piece of rhetoric. The real message is “The answer to the question of the suffering of the innocent is a renewal of activity on the part of the God of justice.”

    Tying this with Job (which sort of begs to be done in any case) Levenson says: “If the answer seems inappropriate, it is only because we have mistaken the function of the question. The same holds…..for Job……It is true that God never provides Job with an intellectually satisfying justification of his suffering. But…..he does finally end his silence and, more to the point, he ends Job’s suffering as well……”

    After reviewing Jer. 12:1-3, commenting on God’s “solution” for Job and on Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego’s firm refusal to set their God aside, no matter what, Levenson says “The experience of deliverance is taken as normative and characteristic; the experience of continuing affliction, or even martyrdom – that is, freely chosen death occasioned by service to God – is seen as real but aberrant nonetheless.”

    He then ties this tension set up between real deliverance and real continuing affliction to thoughts about creation itself. “The affirmation that God is the creator of the world is directed against the forces that oppose him and his acts of creation – the forces of disorder, injustice, affliction, and chaos….. The radical implication in this must be faced…… creation is a positive that stands in pronounced opposition to the harsh negative of chaos. The world is good; the chaos that it replaces or suppresses is evil.”

    Levenson comments on what he considers the overly abstract conception of nothing held by the traditional view by suggesting that the ancients “more likely….identified ‘nothing’ with things like disorder, injustice, subjugation, disease, and death. To them, in other words, ‘nothing’ was something – something negative.” He then, waxing almost poetic, offers this “When order emerges where disorder had reigned unchallenged, when justice replaces oppression, when disease and death yield to vitality and longevity, this is indeed creation of something out of nothing.”

    Levenson’s warning about missing the above point should be considered carefully. “This crucial point will be lost on us if we follow the long-standing philosophical tradition of identifying God with perfect being, so that his opposite is non-being, or ‘nothing’ in the sense if void.” And following this, a real zinger “It will equally be lost if we draw a sharp distinction between creation and redemption.” We would be well advised to think long and hard on this one. Someone should write a book on this theme. Maybe someone already has. Maybe it’s called the Bible!

    Please note that Levenson is not saying that God is not perfect. He is rightly critiquing our tendency to define God’s perfection by what is not perfect, to make him the opposite of non-being or of void.

    Levenson follows this with an astute observation about many current views of creation. “…….it has long been argued that the God of Israel is better understood in relational than in classical philosophical terms…..When it comes to creation, however, there remains a strange but potent tendency to resort to static affirmations of God’s total power”.

    Critiquing Niebuhr’s version of “radical monotheism” he wonders if this view does not remove the boundary between light and darkness. It is so radical that perhaps we should read Gen 1:3-4 to say “God said, ‘Let there be darkness and light’; and there were darkness and light, and God saw that both darkness and light were good.” You see, there is even humour here.

    Levenson considers three lines of traditional thinking as clouding our understanding of creation as presented in the Hebrew Bible. (1) “Aristotelian conception of deity as perfect, unchanging being” (see above for a comment on what this critique does not mean) (2) the uncritical tendency to affirm the constancy of divine action (3) the conversion of biblical creation theology into an affirmation of of the goodness of whatever is.” He sees the combined effect of these lines of thought as (trivializing the acts of) “creation by denying the creator a worthy opponent.”

    He thinks we should not make creation self-referential nor a tautology nor a truism, with “no serious alternative……entertained”. This is exactly what we get however when “cosmic evil (is) identified with non-being and unreality.” Then comes another zinger “….it is no great accomplishment to have triumphed over a non-entity or (to be) proven superior to one’s own handiwork.” And then, in another place the one I perhaps like best of all, “The worshiping community does not burst into song because they have suddenly recalled the uniform, uninterrupted truth that God is in control.”

    Nor does the theology of grace escape his sharp critique when he focuses in on (undue) “fear of works righteousness.” “Carried to an extreme…..the theology of grace deprives the deeds of human beings of any role in the cosmogonic-soteriological drama: the cultic community is reduced to the status of a passive beneficiary of God’s arbitrary and unmotivated action rather than a junior partner in his ordering of the world.” More bracing still are these thought-provoking words “The identification of ‘nothing’ with a void rather than with chaos has certain affinities with the extreme forms of the theology of grace. Both have the indirect effect of denying the moral and interactive character of God’s action. When God creates something in a void, his act of creation is no longer a victory for justice and right order, nor can it be continued or reenergized by human action.”

    Levenson affirms the essential role of liturgy and obedience (to God) if we are to understand the “true role of humanity in the ordering of the world in the Hebrew Bible….” Of course, as an Orthodox Jew, Levenson’s view of obedience is different, in detail and to some extent in practice, from the Christian view. But we all believe that obedience is recognized by God and demanded by him as well. And, in this view of creation (past and presently ongoing) human obedience to God is an essential part of the process of creation.

    All of this emphasis on the spiritual opposition that God must continually overcome to give us the universe that we enjoy can (will) be an embarrassment to many. Levenson refers to this view as “these biblical conceptions of creation” and points out that the things seen as a weakness (embarrassments) of this reading “may prove to be an outstanding asset” (that is) “their deep engagement with the problem of evil and their inseparability from the engaged religious life.”

    Finally, a quote that I couldn’t fit in but is too good to leave out: “……creation is positive because it is an instance of God’s active opposition to the negative.”

  • NateW

    Great comments Luke. I used to think that the crucifixion was something that happened to Christ, but now I know that it was the central revelation of Gods eternal character. I used to think that Christ revealed God in his power and healing but that the crucifixion was his being punished for us, but now I know that God has been lovingly subjecting himself to crucifixion out of love for every person since the moment creation began. The pain and suffering that many people go through is real and I will not try to reason it away because God does not either. Rather he steps into it himself and by love, not theodicy, manifests hope that those who are born into natural suffering will be blessed in resurrection and those to whom temporal freedom from natural suffering is given are expected to step down into co-experience of suffering with the less fortunate. A very hard thing to do.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite recent Bob Dylan songs “Spirit on the Water” from h is 2006 album “Modern Times”. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of songwriting that sounds like a sweetly tragic love song on the surface, but really is a song about God’s continual death for us, the unfaithful object of of his unwarranted affection, throughout history, all the way back to creation itself. Dylan speaks from Gods perspective as one who has very concretely torn himself apart, risking his very self, to speak the word of Love to us.

    A man deeply in love is often called a fool and a God who, deeply in love, manages to get himself killed over and over again, could well seem like a “bungling…chillingly indifferent” God to one who expects him to conquer with power instead of drawing with affection.

    From East to West
    Ever since the world began
    I only mean it for the best
    I want to be with you any way I can

    I been in a brawl
    Now I’m feeling the wall
    I’m going away baby
    I won’t be back ‘til fall

    High on the hill
    You can carry all my thoughts with you
    You’ve numbed my will
    This love could tear me in two

    I wanna be with you in paradise
    And it seems so unfair
    I can’t go to paradise no more
    I killed a man back there

    You think I’m over the hill
    You think I’m past my prime
    Let me see what you got
    We can have a whoppin’ good time

  • If I may engage in a wee bit of self-promotion, I wrote a post not long ago which came to many of the same conclusions:
    One of the things that happens when you reject literal creationism and embrace the testimony of the world that God has actually created is you have to let go of the fairy-tale that we once lived in a magical place where nothing ever experienced physical death and there were no mosquitoes or parasites or earthquakes or lightning strikes. Which means that God never did intend for us to live in a world which we humans would consider “perfect”. In fact, God himself never claimed that the Garden of Eden was perfect – he called it “good” and man and woman “very good”. The plan always did include us dealing with discomfort and people we love passing into the afterlife and even sickness and loss. That’s the world and life that we were made for. The plan was that we would encounter God walking in the garden – not that he’d be following us around swatting away that one mosquito carrying malaria so we didn’t get sick. . .
    God didn’t make this world for himself. He made it for us and gave it to us and it’s high time we stopped waiting for Jesus to float down on a cloud to set the whole thing right. That’s our job. God didn’t create a cure for malaria – we did that. God didn’t create musical instruments for us to make music with – we did that. God didn’t create animals that would walk right up to us to be slaughtered or carry our loads or just sit and let us pet them – we worked that out. That’s our job – to take what God has given us and use it for good things. God has provided us with amazing abundance – we’re the ones who took it and made a world where Paris Hilton’s dogs can have their own air-conditioned mansion while other people can’t get food and water. God’s not the one who is failing us – we’re failing each other.

    Of course, understanding this philosophically can be quite different from understanding it personally when everything is going wrong. And what am I – just one person – supposed to do in the face of the great mess we’ve made of the whole thing? i suppose that’s where faith comes in. Jesus said we are supposed to be like yeast or salt or a lamp. And it only takes a little yeast to make the bread rise. A little salt to season the dish and one lamp to light the table. So maybe if I do my best to follow Jesus’ Way – really follow it – that will indeed change things. I’m not sure what other option there really is.

  • Mike M

    Rebecca: it may be one person lighting one room at a particular moment but it is also millions of lights, millions of grains of salt, and millions of loaves of bread. You have your part to do but you are not alone.

  • Marshall

    The point of Darwinian evolution isn’t death and extinction, it’s trying different things and seeing what works. It isn’t necessary to assign the bearers of unsuccessful ideas to an eternity of conscious suffering; they can live out their lives same as the bearers of successful ideas; only few or none will want to imitate the unsuccessful. From the point of view of the individual, the distinct being with a unique point of view all their own, it really doesn’t matter at all. “Species” is a constructed concept. When a species goes extinct, nothing extra happens, except that some possibilities are cut off.

    Some death and extinction and other suffering is generated by the choices of created beings, so that remains a problem, but it has become a problem about sin nature … why are humans so often so violently uncooperative? … not directly a question of God’s benevolence, or at least not an argument about the evolutionary process.

    Daniel Mann @4: If God’s supreme creative mechanism was the survival-of-the-fittest, who could blame Cain for killing his less adaptive, more naive brother?

    God had regard Abel’s lamb but not for Cain’s bread, so Abel was the better adapted. Cain was only fitter in the sense of being more successfully violent. He had the spirit of division and so he was cursed “from the ground”. Abel’s death arose from Cain’s sin nature => his bad choices. Goes against the evolutionary ideal, actually.