What Should Christians Believe about Creation and Evolution?

QUESTION: What should Christians believe about creation/evolution?  Did God make everything at once or could God have made the snails first knowing humans would need something to eat?  I’m not sure about the Bible’s story of creation, but I’m serious about Christ and want to know what I should believe about this.

RESPONSE: A short answer is that Christians are divided in how they think God created. Some are OK with some version of the creation story that science tells us, the idea that things changed slowly.  Some think God used that process or partially used that process of evolution to make people over many eons. Others think God did it quickly, all things at once a short while ago.

The three main camps we break into are:

– Theistic Evolutionists.  These are Christians who believe that the theory of evolution as we learn it in school can basically be reconciled with Scripture’s account of creation.  They think Genesis is metaphor and tells us the ‘why’, but science tells us the ‘how’.  They believe God superintended the process of evolution by setting up the exact initial conditions of our universe, thus making the creation of man possible through a natural process without denying the infusion of God’s image on man at some point in the distant past.  Some well-known adherents of this view who are deeply committed Christians who take the Bible seriously are Francis Collins and CS Lewis.

– Progressive Creationists.  These are Christians who believe that the theory of evolution has many scientific problems.  They don’t have a preexisting theological issue with the idea that biological things may change over time or that the universe is very old.  They see, however, that in reconciling Scripture with the natural record, that a Designer must have been actively involved in creation infusing design and information all along the way.  Some see God creating new types (including modern man) during different creative epochs stretched over vast ages.  Intelligent Design and Day/Age theorists fall into this camp and a vast array of views fit here.  Some prominent adherents are Philip E Johnston and Hugh Ross.

– Young Earth Creationists.  These are Christians who believe that no part of the theory of evolution can be reconciled with the biblical record.  They see the anti-supernaturalist motive in play in many of evolution’s adherents since the theory explicitly rejects a “theistic” interpretation because this process is ‘unguided’ by definition.  Because of this bent, any sign of apparent conflict between the natural record and Scripture must be resolved by siding with a literal reading of the Genesis record and attempting to make the data fit it.  Thus any signs of age in the universe must be “apparent” age, since they are committed to creation happening in 7, 24-hour days some time in the recent past.  God created all life forms, all at once, in a ‘perfect’ ecosystem that had no carnivorous death until the fall.  Some notable adherents are Henry Morris and Ken Ham.

There’s a basic theological tension involved in whichever view you adopt.  In other words, there’s no ‘default’ position that Christians can take on this issue without bringing up some controversy in their faith assuming that you are deeply committed to the inspiration of all of Scripture.

For example, the more you lean toward the textbook explanation of origins through evolution the more you have to deal with questions about the nature of Salvation.  Salvation in the Christian view is a work that God does to restore His creation design, first in fallen human hearts but finally in creation as well.  But in the evolutionary view there never was a ‘creation ideal’ – in fact, the theory says things are getting more complex and better designed and more ‘fit’ as time goes on.

So fitting in classic Christian teachings like the special creation of people in the image of God and the catastrophic Fall of mankind into sin and how that brought curse to us and our world (and thus the need for Christ’s redeeming work) is a key issue for any who try to adopt the molecules to man view.

On the other hand, the more you lean toward a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1, the more closed you may be to what the data may be saying from an honest study of nature.  This is not just a challenge to intellectual honesty, it’s a challenge to the very teachings of our Scripture which tell us that God is speaking a message to us through Creation (Ps 19 and Romans 1).

This tendency sets us up to believe in a God who is somewhat duplicitous, telling us one thing in the World and another in Word.  One simple example will suffice to outline the difficulty:  if the universe is 6000 years old, then the light coming to us from other stars and galaxies is a “show” and not reality.  God would have had to create the photons en route for them to get here in a such a short period of time.  This essentially means the heavens declare a fiction of God, and not his glory.  Some explanations are offered to resolve this particular problem, but the reliability of God and natural revelation is a key issue for any who adopt a young earth view.

If you’re wondering what is a sort of minimum that Christians really must believe about creation to be serious about their faith in Christ and take their Bible seriously, the answer is this: we believe that God speaks in two books: the book of God’s Word (the Bible) and the book of Nature. Some things between those two books seem to be in conflict with each other, but if so, all true Christians believe that this means we are reading one or both of those books wrongly.

Is this possible?  Yes!

It’s possible for science to misread the book of nature. The best science of the 19th century was certain that Aboriginal peoples were closer to Orangutans than white Europeons who were considered much high on the evolutionary scale. It’s also possible for us to misread the book of Scripture and think that the Bible is making a scientific claim it’s not really making. Some church doctors in the Middle Age assumed that the Bible demanded a Geocentric model of the solar system. It’s clearly possible to misread both books.

Some day, maybe we’ll read both Books perfectly well and see exactly how they are both telling us the exact same true story of God’s creating work… until then, there’s lots of debate in the Church about HOW God did it. But if God is the God of Creation and Scripture, then both books must be consistent somehow.

Some note that the Genesis story seen one way fits almost every creation model:

  • The universe is not eternal, but finite with a Cause outside itself
  • Creation began in an explosion of light.
  • Creation unfolded, not all at once, but over time.
  • The youngest species, appearing last, is mankind who is made, not out of nothing, but from the existing material of earth out of which he sprang.

It’s really something to marvel at; that these 4 tenets, first taught in Genesis, are something that even rigid naturalists can agree with!  I’ve also heard some very compelling harmonizations between the Genesis account and the timelines offered by modern cosmology. See one here.

Now, aside from these basic facts, there is much disagreement among Christians about how God did it.  I myself used by a Young Earth Creationist, but I’ve changed my camp and would now consider myself some sort of progressive creationist.  But what all serious Christians agree on is that God is our Creator and that God made people special, to be stewards of creation and that He made us in His image.  We further believe that we fell out of right relationship with God in the distant past through sin and this brought us and our world under a curse – this is what we all believe about the ‘whys’ of Creation.

Because this is such a rich and potent bit of agreement, we ought to clearly separate in our minds, the “how” and the “why” questions of Scripture.  The Bible claims to be true in all the matters it touches on, but it does not claim to give exhaustive truth on matters of God’s methods.  Yet on matters of God’s meaning in creation, and in the New Creation in Christ, the Bible is explicit.  So when debating the “how”, we do well to listen to a great scientist who also happened to be a devoted follower of Jesus Christ and who had some experience wrestling with the tension of faith and science and what the Bible teaches:

From these things it follows as a necessary consequence that: since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still: whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane: nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind. And the motion or rest of the earth and the sun is so closely linked with the things just named, that without a determination of the one, neither side can be taken in the other matters. Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, and that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: ‘That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.

Galileo (1632)