Writing anything on creation and evolution within these pages feels akin to sticking a sign on my back reading, 'Kick me!' I'm exposing myself to attack from one side or another - or maybe from every side! What drives me to stick my head above the parapet is a couple of strong convictions. First, I am absolutely convinced that Christians who disagree should be discussing the issues in a loving, gentle, humble way rather than attacking each other. It seems to me that attacking each other is becoming more common as the debate becomes more polarised. My second conviction is that by focusing on controversy, we are missing significant opportunities to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ in a world, which desperately needs to hear it.
So here are ten things you need to know about the creation/evolution debate - six this month, four in the follow up feature in September issue. Wherever you're coming from on this issue, I would encourage you not to instantly write off things you disagree with, but give them some more thought. If we're ever going to sort this issue out it seems to me that we have to approach the questions more open-mindedly than perhaps we've ever done before.
1. Not all Bible-believing Christians see things in the same way
Christians who love the Bible and believe it to be God's inspired, truthful and authoritative Word disagree about the timescales of creation. That in itself should make us stop and think.
At one end of the spectrum are people who believe that Creation happened exactly as Genesis 1 appears to describe: God created the world in six literal days, and rested on the seventh. These people are Young Earth Special Creationists. They are 'young earthers' because if you do some sums based on the ages of people in the Bible, reigns of kings and so on, you can arrive at an age for the earth of a few thousand years. In the 1600s, Archbishop Ussher gave a date for creation of 4004 BC but many young earthers would now simply say it was a few thousand years ago. They believe in special creation - that is, God acted in very direct, immediate ways to bring about creation.
As we move along the spectrum we find Old Earth Special Creationists. They accept the scientific evidence for an old universe and an old earth, but not for biological evolution. There's quite a range of views among old earthers. Some people see a vast time gap between verses 2 and 3 of Genesis 1 and believe that, although the earth is a few billion years old, the rest of creation took place in six days. Others point out that Psalm 90:4 indicates that God's view of the passage of time is not like ours. So perhaps each day represents an age - in which case there is no difficulty in accepting much of the scientific evidence concerning the age of the earth, fossils etc. The order in Genesis 1 is very similar to that in the fossil record. Many people adopting this position would think in terms of six acts of special creation separated by immense periods of time.
Others, however, like Derek Kidner in his Tyndale Commentary on Genesis, see the 'days = ages' interpretation of Genesis 1 as entirely consistent with the generally accepted scientific view of evolution by natural selection. These people are often known as Theistic Evolutionists because they believe that God is behind the process of evolution. A better term would be Evolutionary Creationists or Process Creationists - they still believe that God is the Creator. Many process creationists see the ordering of days as a literary structure rather than as a reflection of the timeline of creation. They point to the way the first three days describe three stages of separation (light from dark, water above from water below, land from sea), leading to various environments, whereas the next three days describe a filling, or the creation of things to inhabit the environments (lights, birds and fish, land animals and humans).
It is important to remember that all these people believe that God is the Creator because they all believe Genesis 1. The issue is not whether or not they believe the Bible, but what they believe is the right way of interpreting part of it. It is vital that we have respect and humility towards those with whom we disagree.
2. Evangelicals have not always tended to hold to a six literal day model
A common idea is that evangelical Christians have always tended to believe in a six-day creation, and that this was the traditional view of the church until the time of Darwin. In fact, Christians have always had a range of opinions on how to understand the time frame within Genesis 1, and, more recently, have had differing attitudes towards evolutionary theory.
Before the 18th century, of course, nobody had given any thought to how you could discover the age of the earth in any way other than by calculations from the Bible, so the majority of people had no cause to question figures like those of Ussher. Even so, the argument for the days of Genesis 1 not being literal days goes back a lot further. In AD 391 Augustine wrote a commentary on Genesis in which he said that the days of creation were not literal days but were a way for the writer to talk about the whole of creation. He was insistent that 'No Christian would dare say that the narrative must not be take in a figurative sense.'
The response to Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species in 1859, was not divided on Christian/non-Christian lines, as we often assume. Actually Darwin was initially opposed by scientists as well as church people, and he was supported by other Christians, as well as by other scientists. In fact, historian James Moore states that, 'With few exceptions the leading Christian thinker in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution' (The Post-Darwinian Controversies, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p.92). This includes people like B.B. Warfield, one of the signatories to the document defining the Fundamentals of the Christian faith. Almost all American Protestant zoologists and botanists accepted some form of evolution within a decade or so of the publication of Darwin's The Origin of the Species. Young earth creationism in its modern sense didn't take off until the 1920s, and then again in the latter decades of the last century.
3. This issue creates real tensions for some people - especially students
Many young people feel torn during their education - especially further education - because they assume that the evolutionary view of origins they're learning is not compatible with their Christian faith. This is a key reason for why Ken Ham, executive director of Answers in Genesis, attacks evolution so vehemently. He says: "People who go to university and college know that if evolution is true in the sense that chance, random processes formed man and he just evolved, then the Bible's account of history is not true. Then they … say, 'Well, we're not going to trust the message of morality and salvation from the Bible'."
It is an important pastoral issue, but Ernest Lucas, tutor in biblical studies at Bristol Baptist College, has a very different perspective on where the problem lies. He says: "I've seen too many students who've had their faith wrecked when they've gone to university because they've come from a very narrow background and people have said to them, 'Unless you toe this line, you're not truly a Christian'. Then when they have found that the scientific evidence they're faced with means they cannot toe that line, they can often flip over into a rebellion against their background and that often means a rebellion against God and Christianity. That's tragic." For Ernest, who has PhDs in biochemistry and Old Testament studies, the solution is to help young people to understand what the early chapters of Genesis really are saying - and what they're not.
4. Believing in evolution can stop people taking the Bible seriously
Young earth creationists insist with Ken Ham that, "Evolution is one of the big stumbling blocks to people today being receptive to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
"The gospel itself is founded on the historicity of the events in Genesis," says Paul Garner of British Creation Ministries. "And if Genesis 1-11 is not historical, if Adam was not a real person, and if there was not a real fall and a real curse, then the whole of the Gospel no longer makes sense." Young earthers see evolution as inextricably linked with atheism. But it's not simply about intellectual belief, because beliefs shape actions. For some people, including Ham, belief in evolution is undermining the moral foundations of a once Christian society.
Young earthers see evolutionary creationists as having compromised themselves. David Tyler, secretary of the British Creation Society says, "As Christians they do claim to base their thinking on the Bible and yet, whenever one does get close to the Bible, people pull away and I find them very fuzzy about human death being the consequence of sin. … [and] about the historicity of Adam and Eve. I think the modern theistic evolutionists have abandoned trying to get concordance between the Bible and science."
John Bryant, chairman of Christians in Science, responds: "I think that's an outrageous statement… We're not throwing the Bible out, we're saying you need to read it as a set of books, not as one particular kind of literature. What it needs to tell us is that we are God's creation and we're made for relationship with him, and we have a special place in the world. And Genesis does that extremely well. I often ask, 'Which version of the creation are you reading literally?' Because there are two, and if you try to dissect them stylistically the second text is older than the first one."
5. Believing in a literal six-day creation can stop people taking the Bible seriously
John Bryant continues, "I've never been an aggressive 'evolutionist' but I'm very distressed to see the whole thing being rubbished now, because I've seen the effect that this will have on me attempting to share my faith with students, all of whom are biologists." The former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Professor Sir Ghillean 'Iain' Prance echoes this when he says, "I think it's not doing us any good to ignore the scientific facts. It's not helping Christianity that people are denying what we can see are facts, or are trying to distort the facts."
Bob White, professor of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University, is far from alone in thinking that the much-heralded Intelligent Design (ID) Movement (see box) is also deeply flawed: "It's God of the Gaps by another route. They don't have a robust view of God's actions in the world, so there are two dangers. One is that they say, 'This thing is so complicated that it must have been created and can't have evolved,' and that suggests that God only acts at that point in the world and he doesn't act in all the other things. That's the implication and it's bad theology. It's also a bad way of approaching things because what happens if one day somebody does explain it - where has God gone?"
Denis Alexander, head of the Molecular Immunology Programme at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, is not sure that Intelligent Design arguments are always very useful in bringing people to faith: "You don't end up with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; you end up with a heavenly engineer who fiddles around with bits and bobs which didn't work out by some other mechanism. The worry I have about the ID movement is it gets people as far as Antony Flew perhaps. Flew [for years a prominent atheist philosopher] has been persuaded by the ID argument and has become a Deist (belief in a supreme being). I don't know if it's such a great advantage. If it's a pathway to theism then maybe it is. But it's really not necessarily such a good thing that people start believing only in a heavenly engineer because it might even prevent them coming to know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So I'm not sure that the design argument, even if it's completely valid, really gets you theologically where you'd like people to go."
6. Science and the Bible have different agendas, and humans aren't perfect
One of the reasons for the apparent conflict between science and faith is that we have forgotten that science and theology have different approaches. Science is limited to describing the physical space-time world of matter and energy. It can do no more than understand how things work. Ultimately it can make no comment about why. The Bible can and does comment on the why. It is not concerned primarily about mechanisms but about meanings. These are complementary, not conflicting, levels of talking about reality. As creator and sustainer of the universe, God stands behind all that we see around us - the laws of physics are his laws.
Science has its ideas about how life came into existence. But it cannot answer some of the most fundamental questions of life: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? These are the kind of questions the Bible is interested in and Genesis introduces the answers. We will miss the point of these wonderful early chapters of Genesis if we come to them with a scientific agenda rather than a theological one. Ernest Lucas says it can only lead to trouble: "I think that attempts to read scientific information out of it are misconceived and lead to all sorts of problems with distorting it."
The Bible's main purpose is to reveal God to us and show us how to respond to him, not to satisfy our scientific curiosity. It wasn't written as a science text book and we shouldn't treat it as one. The questions we can and should ask are about bigger issues: ''What is the nature of the world around us?' 'What does it mean to be a human being; what are my responsibilities?' and 'What has gone wrong with our world?'
For further reading
- Denis Alexander and Robert White, Beyond Belief (Lion, 2004)0745951414
- Denis Alexander, Rebuilding the Matrix (Lion, 2001)0745912443
- David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11 (Bible Speaks Today) (IVP, 1990)0851106765
- RJ Berry, God and the biologist - faith at the frontiers of science (Apollos, 1996)0851114466
- Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (IVP, 1984)0851113214
- William Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answer ing the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, (IVP (USA) 2004)1844740145
- William Dembski, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (ISI Books, 2004) 1932236317
- Michael Denton, Evolution: a theory in crisis (Woodbine House, 1996) 091756152
- Philip Duce, Reading the mind of God - interpretation in science and theology (Apollos, 1998)0851114628
- Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (IVP, 1993)0830822941
- Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC) (IVP, 1967)0851118232
- Kevin Logan, Responding to the Challenge of Evolution (Kingsway, 2002) 1842911104
- Ernest Lucas, Can We Believe Genesis Today? (IVP, 2001)
- Paul Marston and Roger Forster, Reason, Science and Faith (Wipf & Stock, 1998)1854244418
- Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: genes, memes and the meaning of life (Blackwell, 2004)1405125381
- Andy McIntosh, Genesis for Today: Creation and Evolution (Day One, 2001)1903087155
- Del Ratzsch, Science and its Limits (IVP, 2000)0851114660
- David Swift, Evolution under the Microscope, (Leighton Academic Press, 2002) 095435890
- David Tyler, The Guide: Creation - chance or design? 0852345445
- Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution 0895262002
- Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary Genesis 1-15 (Word, 1987)0849902002
- David Wilkinson, The Message of Creation (Bible Speaks Today) (IVP,2002)0830824057
- David Wilkinson, God, Time and Stephen Hawking (Monarch, 2001) 1854245448
- David Wilkinson and Rob Frost, Thinking clearly about God and science (Monarch, 2000)1854243330