This is the last post on the recent book by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. This book has its origins in the avalanche of questions unleashed on Collins following the publication of his earlier book The Language of God. But this new book is not an encyclopedia of frequently asked questions – it is a readable book walking through many of the frequently asked questions and the important issues in a narrative form. It is written for the non-scientist and will make a good resource for those with questions, for discussion groups, and for church leaders.
Chapter eight of The Language of Science and Faith addresses the always controversial issue of evolution and human beings. Here we hit on what I find to be the center of conflict between evolution and Christian belief. Yes, the issues of the interpretation of Genesis one, the reliability of scripture, and the place for God in creation are important. But the significance of humans in creation, nature of what it means to be human, and the centrality of human sin to Christian doctrine provoke serious theological conundrums in the context of evolution and common descent.
In this chapter several questions are posed and discussed. Did evolution have to result in human beings? Is human evolution an accident? So how did God create humans? What about Adam and Eve?
It is popular among some who describe evolution for a lay audience (or a scientific audience) to describe the appearance of humans as a “glorious accident.” Yet from a Christian perspective mankind is a significant part of creation, perhaps the most significant part of creation. We are created in the image of God (Gen 1) a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8). God sent the son so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3). This is not the interaction of a creator with a glorious or ignoble accident.
There are both theological and scientific responses to the assertion of purposeless creation and accidental humans.
What do you find most troubling in the idea of evolutionary creation of humans?
First the theological approaches to evolutionary creation. Here Giberson and Collins provide three possible scenarios. We’ve suggested all of these in posts and comments over the years.
1. God outside of time.
For starters, a sovereign God can certainly create humans through an inevitable process that appears entirely random from within the system, so to speak. While we cannot know how God relates to time, it may be that God’s purposes are largely invisible from our vantage point. … There may be trajectories of purpose within the universe that we can only dimly perceive or not perceive at all. (p. 199)
2. God active in creation within time.
Another way to think about God’s relationship to evolution is to view God guiding the evolutionary process, working within the randomness. In this view, God is within time, working through the laws of nature in ways that only become apparent much later when we see how things turned out. … What appear to be genuinely random events might actually be the subtle influence of God working within the system of natural law. (pp. 199-200)
3. God uses freedom within creation to create, but the playing field, the “fitness landscape” ensures the intended result.
Finally, we might also imagine, as a third possibility, that God intentionally integrated freedom in the evolutionary process and chose not to predetermine the detailed trajectories of its many winding pathways. But perhaps there are favored directions within the system that tilt the playing field, so that things tend toward certain results. (p. 200)
In each case the evolution of human beings is an intentional and necessary part of God’s grand plan in creation. The first two scenarios do not speak to the scientific issue of evolution – evolution may appear random with patterns, deviations from randomness that are impossible to discern from the inside. We take the evidence as given and develop our scientific conclusions. But God is at work, either transcending time or directly active within the temporal progress of creation. These are plausible scenarios.
The third possibility requires some scientific evidence in conjunction with the theological assumption. If the playing field is tilted there should be scientific evidence for the inevitability of life, and once life is established for the inevitability of humans as a product of the process. I find this scenario particularly attractive and believe that there is, in fact, evidence for or reason to believe in the inevitability of humans given the constraints of the physical universe within which we live and breathe. Simon Conway Morris describes this in his book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Here he works through an approach to evolution that sees humans as inevitable and evolutionary convergence as scientific evidence for this position. I have had scientific conversations with non-Christian colleagues who take a similar view at least in part. Giberson and Collins summarize the arguments in their book (pp. 201-205). (I posted on the book about a year and a half ago, you can find the links in the Science and Faith Archive on the sidebar.)
Unless we assert that such details as five fingers and one central protruding nose are essential features of what it means to be human the scientific evidence is fully compatible with the intentional and purposeful creation of humans in the image of God.
What about Adam and Eve?
Here we run into a number of issues. Literalist historical readings of Genesis 1-11 are not textually consistent, historically consistent, or scientifically consistent with the evidence available including archaeological evidence, geological evidence and genetic evidence. Here we can list several points starting with the text of scripture itself. Genesis 1 and 2 are distinct creation accounts, Cain clearly had a wife, feared the people, and built a city. Scientific evidence indicates a substantially larger population, with persons spread around the globe 10,000 years ago. Genetic data demonstrate descent from a population of several thousand, not two. The similarities with creation stories in other Ancient Near East sources and the clear inclusion of ancient cosmologies also inform our understanding of Genesis.
Genesis 1-11 is true, but must be read for the text it is looking for the intended theological message. There are several possible directions to take regarding Adam and Eve, but these must be both theologically and scientifically sound.
1. Non literalist readings with Adam and the fall as an “everyman” story. The story reflects the dark side present within all of us. We all rebel against God and we need God’s grace. This interpretation runs into problems with Romans 5 and our understanding of the atoning work of Jesus. It is not so much that Paul thought Adam was an individual as that he thought the Fall was real and cast his understanding of Jesus in this context.
2. Rather than an “everyman” story, some suggest that the story of Adam is the beginning of Israel not the beginning of humanity. Pete Enns has suggested this “Adam is Israel” approach as an angle on the text and put it out for discussion. (See Adam is Israel).
There are two ways of looking at this parallel. You could say that the Adam story came first and then the Israelites just followed that pattern. But there is another way. Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins.
3. Finally, there are also historical views that work with the evidence.
A common synthetic view integrating the biblical and scientific accounts sees human-like creatures evolving as the scientific evidence indicates, steadily becoming more capable of relating to God. At a certain point in history, God entered into a special relationship with those who had developed the necessary characteristics, endowing them with the gift of his image. With this spiritual gift came the ability to know and experience evil – an opportunity grasped with tragic consequences that have carried through the history of our species. (p.212)
Personally I lean to the third option here. This is similar to the view suggested by CS Lewis in The Problem of Pain, CH 5 The Fall of Man:
For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. … Then in fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that is could perceive time flowing past. … We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell.
Christ is the point. The central point of Christianity is Christ – God’s relationship with his people and the incarnation of God becoming human, entering time and creation. If salvation through Christ requires only that humans are sinful and accountable before God any of these three scenarios are possible. If we conclude that the entrance of sin is a key piece of the theology of atonement, then a historical scenario of some sort becomes the preferred route. Much more conversation and prayer is required to think through all of the details.
What do you think? Which of these scenarios for understanding evolutionary creation in general and Adam in particular seem reasonable?
Are there other scenarios making sense of all the data, from both scripture and nature, that you would suggest?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net