You’ll probably be hearing a lot about evolution this month. February 12 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his famous book On the Origin of Species, which set forth his theory of evolution. While Christians agree about who created everything, we disagree about how. This can result in serious conflicts, even crises of faith, especially for young people who head off to university.
Jennifer* grew up in a Christian home. During her teenage years, she made a personal commitment to Jesus. Her family, pastor, and Sunday school teachers encouraged her to enroll in a nearby university when she finished high school. But they warned her about atheists at the university who would attack her faith. She was told that atheist professors would use evolution to try to convince her that God doesn’t exist. Her youth group leader showed a video that defended creationism and argued that evolution couldn’t happen.
During her first semester at the university, Jennifer joined a Christian student fellowship group where she met Professor Walker. Walker was the faculty mentor to the group and encouraged the students to keep their spiritual life strong through regular Bible study, prayer, and worship.
Walker was a successful scientist studying disease-causing bacteria and had a reputation as a good teacher. In part because of his inspiration, Jennifer decided to become a doctor. She registered for a biology course he taught, thinking that it would be both interesting and safe.
On the first day of class, Jennifer noticed that the textbook assumed the theory of evolution was true. She guessed that Professor Walker simply had to use a textbook approved by his department. But as the semester wore on, he said things in class that suggested he actually believed the theory of evolution. Finally, Jennifer went to his office to ask him about it.
Walker carefully explained that a great deal of scientific evidence clearly supports evolution, and that it is OK to believe that God used evolution to create species.
When Jennifer left the professor’s office her head was spinning. It was the first time she had heard anything like this. Jennifer had great respect for Professor Walker; she had seen his faith in action. But if he was right, then her pastor, Sunday school teachers, and parents must be wrong, and she had great respect for them too. She didn’t know whom to believe or where to go for answers.
In the 150 years since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has often been a battleground for competing religious claims. Those battles continue in the North American church today. Young people are often caught in the middle, wanting to pursue their scientific interests and hold to their faith, but unsure how to do so—especially since some people tell them it’s impossible to do both.
This issue involves important and sometimes difficult questions about scientific evidence, philosophical worldviews, and biblical interpretation.
One strategy for framing the discussion is to view both nature and Scripture as God’s revelations. The Belgic Confession, Article 2, states the means by which we know God:
We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book. . . . Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.
Both books, nature and Scripture, are revelations from God and therefore cannot conflict with each other. Instead, conflicts arise at the level of human interpretation: biblical scholars can make errors in interpreting Scripture, and scientists can make errors in interpreting nature.
In a 1972 statement on biblical authority, the Christian Reformed Church’s synod wrote,
In both creation and Scripture God addresses us with full authority. The conflicts that sometimes arise are due to discrepancies in our responses to these two modes of revelation. As Reformed Christians we must take both revelations seriously (emphasis original).
Our response to conflict should not be to throw out science just because it appears to disagree with the Bible, nor to throw out a biblical interpretation when it appears to disagree with the natural world. Rather, we should re-examine our human interpretations (both science and biblical interpretation), looking for the underlying unity of truth that God has revealed in his two “books.”
Throughout history, God’s people have affirmed the authority of Scripture while disagreeing on how best to interpret it. This is particularly true of the first chapter of the Bible. (In our book Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution we discuss nine different interpretations of Genesis 1.)
How do Christians decide which is the best interpretation? Reformed theologians teach us that a good strategy is to first consider how the inspired human author and the original intended audience understood the text, then apply that message to today. This strategy helps us avoid projecting our modern biases onto the text.
The first step involves translating the text accurately, studying its literary genre and context within Scripture, and considering the cultural and historical context of the time. This gives a better understanding of the original message, which is applied today in the second step.
Note that this two-step strategy doesn’t always lead to non-literal interpretations. For example, Luke 1:1-3 has the earmarks of a nearly modern style of historical writing. Luke and his readers understood Jesus’ literal death and resurrection as central to the gospel, and so should we.
If we apply this two-step strategy to Genesis 1, what do we learn? The cultural context for the ancient Hebrews was the surrounding nations of Egypt, Babylon, and Canaan. These cultures did not view the physical world as we view it today. They believed the Earth was flat, was formed out of a watery chaos, and that a solid dome (“firmament”) held back the waters above the sky. This physical picture is assumed in Genesis 1—and elsewhere in the Old Testament—because it was the common view in the ancient Near East.
When God inspired Genesis 1, he accommodated his message to the people by not attempting to explain that the Earth is spherical and the sky is a gaseous atmosphere. As John Calvin wrote in his Commentaries on the Book of Genesis, “Moses . . . states those things which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated, and which are in common use. The common language of this text has made it accessible to the people of many times and cultures, aiding the communication of the gospel around the world.”
The Genesis account does, however, include some striking differences from the creation stories of Egypt, Babylon, and Canaan. In those stories, the firmament was a god, the sun was another god, and the watery chaos another god. The world formed through battles among the gods and humans appears only as an afterthought.
The first Hebrews to hear Genesis 1 would not have noticed anything particularly interesting about physical structures like the “firmament” or the sequence of events (they had heard it many times before), but they would have been captivated by the idea that the God of Israel is the only god in the story. The sun is not the Egyptian sun god Ra, but a physical object made by Israel’s God to mark time.
The primary message to the ancient Hebrews was about the who and why of creation—that Israel’s God is the sovereign creator of all and humans are God’s image bearers—not the when and how of creation.
If God’s purposes in Genesis 1 did not include teaching scientific information to the Israelites, then we should not look there for scientific information about the age of the earth or the formation of species. Instead, we can look at what God has revealed in nature itself to understand the when and how.
What Does Evolution Mean?
If someone says, “I don’t believe in evolution,” or “Evolution has been proven scientifically,” it’s important to find out what he or she means by the term evolution. Debates about evolution are often confusing because people mix different meanings. To avoid such confusion, we distinguish here four different definitions:
1. Microevolution refers to small changes in species caused by random mutation and natural selection accumulating over a few decades or centuries.
Microevolution allows a species to adapt to a changing environment and sometimes to split into two or more species. Random mutations in DNA, such as copying errors, cause changes in genes. Most genetic mutations are neutral and have little effect, but some mutations help individuals live longer and have more offspring. Those genes become more common in later generations.
For example, some cichlid fish in Lake Victoria in Africa were isolated from other cichlid when a sandbar formed about 3,700 years ago. Since then, small genetic changes have helped the fish adapt to their new environment. They have microevolved into five new species that do not interbreed. Nearly all Christians, including most Young Earth Creationists, agree that microevolution occurs. It is a marvelous process that God created, allowing species to survive in new environments.
2. Common ancestry refers to the idea that all species are linked in a “family tree.” Modern species descended from earlier species, and all species descended from a common ancestor. For example, modern species of dogs and wolves and coyotes descended from some ancestral wolf-like species that no longer exists. Similarly, all dogs, cats, and other mammals descended from a common ancestor even longer ago.
Darwin developed this idea based on evidence available in the 1800s from fossils and biogeography (the geographical distribution of species, such as finch species in the Galapagos Islands). While common ancestry describes the pattern of species rising and falling, it doesn’t give a mechanism to explain how species change and split over time.
Young Earth Creationists reject common ancestry and believe that God separately created different types of plants and animals using miracles. Proponents of Intelligent Design accept some or all of the common ancestry in the fossil record but believe God must also have used some miracles along the way.
3. Theory of Evolution refers to a modern version of Darwin’s theory. It states that random mutation and natural selection not only produce small changes over centuries (like the cichlid fish), but also produce large changes over millions of years. All species of plants and animals descended from a common ancestor, and the mechanism of species changing and splitting over time is random mutation and natural selection.
Darwin didn’t know about DNA, but in recent decades modern genetics has confirmed and refined his theory by showing the genetic similarities between species that are closely related in biogeography and the fossil record. (Chapter 9 of our book explains multiple independent lines of evidence for the theory of evolution.)
Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents reject the theory of evolution. A third group of Christians, Evolutionary Creationists, accept the theory of evolution as the best scientific interpretation of God’s revelation in nature, and they believe that God oversaw and used evolution to create life on Earth.
4. Evolutionism refers to philosophical claims that the theory of evolution supports atheism. Unlike the first three definitions, evolutionism is not a scientific model—it is an atheistic worldview. Evolutionism claims that “there is no creator” and that “life arose without guidance or governance by God.” Many examples of evolutionism appear in popular books and in media stories. In his essay “In Praise of Darwin” (Discover Magazine, Feb. 1982), biologist Steven Jay Gould wrote, “No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature. . . . No vital forces propel evolutionary change. And whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature.”
All Christians reject evolutionism. We disagree, however, on the best strategy for combating it. To illustrate this, let’s take a simplified argument for evolutionism:
Premise 1: If the scientific theory of evolution is true, then Christianity is false when it says that God created all the plants and animals.
Premise 2: Science shows that the theory of evolution is true.
Conclusion: Christianity is false.
Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates combat evolutionism by attacking the second premise. They argue that the scientific evidence does not support the theory of evolution. Evolutionary Creationists combat evolutionism by attacking the first premise. They argue that God could work through biological evolution to create the species, just as God works through natural processes like evaporation and condensation to govern rainfall.
There is not space in this short article to address other important questions, such as What is the scientific evidence for an old earth? Would God use so-called random processes to do his work? Did humans evolve? If so, what about Adam and Eve? What about original sin? We address these questions more fully in Origins.
The Unity of Believers
Jennifer’s Sunday school teachers actually have a lot in common with Jennifer’s professor. They agree about who created everything, who redeemed them, and how they should live out a Christian life. They also agree that the atheistic philosophy of evolutionism is wrong, but they disagree how best to challenge it.
By recognizing these areas of agreement, Christians with different views on evolution can maintain a charitable attitude toward each other and need not break our unity as believers. We can work side by side to advance God’s kingdom.
Imagine what might have happened if Jennifer hadn’t met Professor Walker. She might have taken a biology course from a stridently atheistic professor who promoted evolutionism. If so, she probably would have dropped the course and given up the idea of becoming a doctor.
Or imagine if she had taken a course from a professor who simply presented the scientific evidence for evolution and never mentioned religion. As the evidence piled up, it could have caused Jennifer to question everything she learned from her church back home.
How can we avoid such outcomes for our young people? We can be careful not to add to the gospel. We can tell them that there are several Christian views on evolution. We can tell them that they don’t have to choose between studying science and following Christ—they can do both.
This article is based on excerpts from their book Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, and Evolution, published by Faith Alive Christian Resources, the publishing ministry of the CRC (see www.faithaliveresources.org/origins).
- Does all truth come from God? Is it a problem that many scientific discoveries are made by people who don’t believe in God? What can we do if they add an atheistic spin (like evolutionism) onto their scientific discovery?
- Numerous Bible passages besides Genesis refer to aspects of Ancient Near East cosmology such as the firmament and waters above the sky. Look up Psalm 104:1-13, Proverbs 8:22-29, or Job 38:4-11 in various Bible translations. (Several translations are available at www.biblegateway.com.) Read them in context. What words or phrases fit with the Ancient Near East picture?
- Of the three views mentioned in the article (young earth creation, intelligent design, and evolutionary creation), which have you heard of before? What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of each?
- The article described the experience of a fictional student called Jennifer. Do you know anyone who went through a similar experience in real life? What happened?
- What can Christians do to maintain their unity as believers while they disagree about a particular issue like evolution?