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What is Evolution?

The theory of evolution made popular by the naturalist, Charles Darwin, emerged in the 19th century. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather who was also a naturalist among other things, was known to have inchoately conceived of the theory as early as the 18th century. It argues that species of organisms undergo gradual change over geological periods of time in order to adapt to their changing habitats. Charles Darwin’s theory of gradual evolution included concepts such as the survival of the fittest, natural selection, and ongoing speciation (that is, a number of different species can emerge from a single common ancestral species). Initially, these evolutionary ideas did not trouble Christian believers. However, thinkers of many kinds have since made it a contentious topic among Christians.

Some naturalists saw Darwin’s theory as support for the conclusion that living organisms were not created but the result of chance in an ongoing chain of physical events. Many of these thinkers used this claim to then argue that there is no creator. Given such a scientific explanation for the occurrence of life, it seems that God is no longer necessary to explain the origins of living things. Over the past century, the scientific community has largely accepted the theory of evolution along with the superadded conclusions that life arose from inorganic material which in turn indicates divine intervention as an unnecessary cause. Certain aspects of these ideas are obviously at odds with the Christian faith in one way or another.

Why is it controversial among Christians?

This theory and some of its proposed consequences have sparked a lively debate among scientists, philosophers, theologians, Christians, non-Christians, theists, and atheists which continues today. The debate is commonly referred to as “evolution versus creationism” and is a prominent point of discussion in the wider debate of the supposed conflicts between faith and reason, science and religion. This controversy has even stirred debate among Christians themselves. Certain Christians, such as Catholics, have always embraced reason as a valid source of knowledge and have even acknowledged the possible compatibility between the theory of evolution and creationism. Such Christians view the “evolution versus creationism” moniker as proposing a false dichotomy. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s (Benedict XVI) book, ‘In the Beginning…’ is a good source in recent years on this position.

Other Christians, tend to see anything apart from scripture and revelation with a great deal of skepticism. In such cases, Christian communities tend to explicitly condemn reason as a valid source of knowledge. Famous theologian, Karl Barth, was known to explicitly condemn the notion of natural theology (a philosophical discipline that seeks to arrive at the knowledge of God through knowledge of the world) because it seems reason can be used to justify any conclusion whatsoever. The admixture of reason and revelation, according to Barth, tended to abominable doctrines and so felt it was better to clearly separate the two in one’s thought.

What is evolution?

In biology, evolution is the word used to describe the process by which a population of organisms changes gradually over time. Given enough time, the process of evolution brings about diverse species from within the single family tree of life. This concept is often referred to as “common descent” and postulates that all life today is descended from the same parents when traced back far enough. Other Naturalists, such as Alfred Russel Wallace independently arrived at similar ideas at roughly the same time as Darwin. The composition of corroborating observations and ideas over time gave rise and credibility to the scientific theory and study of evolution.

The study of evolutionary biology and evidence for common descent emerges from five distinct research areas. Evolutionary biologists perform studies of comparative anatomy, observe organisms’ development from embryos, categorize creatures according to the strata they occupy in the fossil records, analyze DNA sequences and gene flow, examine the geographical distribution of species over time, and study the adaptations in modern organisms over time. When these data points converge, it suggests an evolutionary change has taken place.

Natural Selection

Charles Darwin proposed evolution by the process of natural selection in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species. He suggested that organisms with physical traits that are better suited to their environment and for sexual selection are more likely to survive and reproduce. In reproduction, a member of an individual species passes on its genetic material to the next generation which is the driving force behind evolutionary processes. Over time, natural selection works to sift out the noncompetitive traits while advantageous physical traits are passed to offspring, becoming more common in the population.

Some equate ‘Darwinism’ with evolutionary theory, although modern theory far exceeds Darwin’s initial ideas. Concepts of common descent and the theory of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution eventually merged with molecular biology and genetics, forming the modern synthesis. This synthesis, arising in the early 20th century, considers evolutionary theory to include viewing evolutionary processes on a molecular and genetic level.

Mutations

Changes in genes are called genetic mutations and are one way of introducing new alleles (variations of a gene) with its corresponding physical characteristics into a population. Mutations enter the genome of individual organisms through DNA replication or repair errors, damage by chemicals, or radiation. Most of the time, the slight changes on the molecular level brought about by DNA mutations are either harmful or neutral. Occasionally, a mutation is beneficial and increases an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce. Beneficial mutations become more prevalent in successive generations by sexual reproduction, reproductive success, and natural selection, eventually spreading throughout the population.

New alleles can be introduced when a population migrates and interbreeds with a closely related population. Alleles can become lost in a population when a subpopulation with less genetic variation enters reproductive isolation often through environmental barriers. Neutral mutations and random shifts in allele frequencies within a population fuel evolution through a process called genetic drift. This is the basis for species change, although when a population is considered to be a different species is a matter for the philosophy of biology. This process, along with the mathematical modeling of changes in gene and allele frequencies, forms the basis of population genetics. Together, they establish evolution as the central paradigm of biology.

As new discoveries and technologies deepen our understanding of genetics and biochemistry, scientists refine the evolutionary model. Despite this, evolution’s core principles have endured for centuries, making it one of the most well-supported scientific models in history. It is considered foundational to current scientific consensus in paleontology, geology, genetics, and developmental biology.

The debate over evolution in Christian communities

The Christian response to the theory of evolution is quite varied depending on different Christian understandings of evolution. All Christians maintain some form of creationism, the theory that the cosmos was indeed created and is in one way or another subject to some sort of intelligent design. The first line of scripture (Genesis 1:1) states, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is in direct opposition to the idea common among scientistic physicalists that everything is the result of chance, random processes, and the physical laws of nature. The differences in response to the theory of evolution are rooted ultimately in the different ways Christians understand Genesis 1-3.

Fundamentalist or literalist Christian leaders tend to resist the theory of evolution wholesale, investing resources to challenge evolutionary science’s credibility. They interpret Bible creation stories as literal history or science, emphasizing God as Creator. In addition, they tend to read into the creation of a “static” understanding of the world and its inhabitants. Taking the timeline presented in scripture also literally, they date the cosmos to be around 6,000 years old. This is one extreme of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum, Christians who are open to the light of reason, see a compatibility and potential harmony between scientific accounts of the universe and the history of life, and the account of creation as found in the bible. As opposed to reading the days of creation as literal 24-hour periods, rational Christians understand “days” poetically symbolize eons of time and the different stages of earth’s formation. Such Christians tend to see theories of evolution as evidence of intelligent design and ongoing divine providence governing a dynamic creation. In other words, they argue that the living world and the history of life is guided by God through the process of evolution. This position is known as theistic evolution or evolutionary creation. The same Christians will, of course, reject the conclusions that deny the existence of God on philosophical grounds, that is, that the scientists who argue for atheism make invalid philosophical arguments.

Fundamentalist creationists resist interpreting the Bible through a cultural lens and challenge evolutionary creation or creation science in three key areas.

Why Some Christians Reject Evolution

Methodological Naturalism

The first objection labels evolutionary thought as “Darwinism” or “evolutionism,” seen as a worldview against God, the Bible, and faith. Thus, Creationists with a literal view of humanity’s biblical origin see Christians engaging with science as compromising or introducing foreign elements to the faith. Many atheists or philosophical materialists (those who deny the supernatural and see the physical world as all-encompassing) draw philosophical conclusions from scientific findings. However, this does not imply the evolutionary model itself forms a worldview or science that opposes God and the Bible.

The scientific method is based on methodological naturalism, meaning it does not study or presuppose supernatural causes due to its empirical nature. Its effectiveness comes from its universal applicability, allowing people of various worldviews and religions to reach similar conclusions about the natural world. It removes philosophical bias and gives people a common set of tools, but of course, the tool kit of science is limited. Scientific knowledge comes from systematically studying the natural world empirically, using logic, math, and observation from the senses to make conclusions. Yet, embracing methodological naturalism for science does not force its practitioners to reject a supernatural reality or claim science answers all questions.

Christian scientists are free to pursue spiritual knowledge through ways of knowing other than science.

The Problem of Evil

The second reason Creationists object to evolution has to do with the problem of evil. In the Creationist conception of the beginning of life on earth, creation was perfect and free from all death. They attribute all death, predation, disease, and disaster to Adam and Eve’s disobedience by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Eden. This act of sin, the Fall, brought death into the world and fundamentally altered creation.

The fossil evidence, showing billions of years of life and death before humans, seems to contradict this origin story. Literal creationists argue that the evolutionary model, based on survival struggles, clashes with the idea of a prelapsarian creation.

Christians acknowledging evolution and fossils believe the Bible says creation was good, not perfect, and death is essential for life’s natural cycles. They view Genesis’s Adam and Eve story as non-literal, seeing sin as causing human spiritual death, not universal mortality or herbivores turning carnivorous.

God’s Image Bearers

The final major Creationist concern involves humanity’s creation in God’s image, distinct from other creatures. Creationists reject the idea that humans, evolving from and sharing traits with other animals, can embody God’s image. They believe that God uniquely designed humans to be distinct from other creatures on Earth. They also reject many scientific hypotheses on the origins of humanity that do not fit the Creationist timelines that have been created using genealogical accounts found in the Bible.

Some Christians think God disclosed scientific facts in the Bible long before modern scientists discovered these same truths. Others are convinced that Psalm 139 contains a factual account when it declares “For you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb; I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Those Christians feel that Biblical teachings take precedence. For more information check out Answers in Genesis.

An Original Couple?

Some scientists argue that there is no proof Homo sapiens originated from a single couple. Strong evidence supports human evolution from a population. Thus, the view of Adam and Eve as humanity’s only recent ancestors, possibly within the last 6,000 years, conflicts with some scientific evidence.

According to the evolutionary model, Homo sapiens developed from apelike ancestors over approximately 7 to 8 million years. Scientists theorize that the first hominids, that is, a species in the human lineage post-divergence from a common ancestor with chimpanzees, evolved in Africa. This includes species not directly ancestral to Homo sapiens.

The oldest hominid fossils, aged 7 to 2 million years, are exclusively found in Africa, not elsewhere. Bipedalism evolved over 4 million years ago, with the earliest stone tools dating back to 3.3 million years ago. Groups of Homo sapiens migrated from Africa into the Middle East, Europe, and Asia throughout many millennia. Modern humans from Asia migrated globally, reaching Australia within the last 60,000 years and the Americas within the last 30,000 years. Agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12,000 years.

Reconciling Science and Theology

Among Christians accepting evolution, reconciliation with theology varies. Some believe in animal evolution but maintain humans were a unique act of creation by God. Therefore they do not share common ancestry with animals.

Some Christians, acknowledging Homo sapiens’ evolution, use “human” for spiritual or moral traits distinguishing us from ancestors and other animals. They may speculate about when in history God bestowed his image (making people “truly human” or “spiritually human”). They may speculate about when H. sapiens (or perhaps other earlier hominids) became spiritually capable of relating to God or morally accountable for sin. Others see the image of God as a special calling given to humanity by God at a certain point in time, not capacities or qualities that humanity evolved or was given. If the image of God is a calling, then bearing the image of God depends on being chosen by God, not on being created or evolving in some special way.

Recent studies suggest the Creationist vs. Evolutionist debate may be a false dichotomy. Genetic evidence over generations does not disprove Adam and Eve’s existence or their status as the first humans, preserving the validity of Genesis’s literal interpretation. Furthermore, Genesis 4:14 mentions Cain’s fear of being killed outside Eden, implying the existence of other humans beyond Adam and Eve’s lineage. Therefore, dismissing Christianity or evolution due to perceived conflicts presents a false choice. Both Genesis and evolutionary science allow for the possibility of the other’s truth.

Conflict Narrative

More and more people raised in Christian faith communities find the conflict narrative around evolution uncompelling. It is not the case that Christian faith and evolutionary theory are fundamentally incompatible. Nor is it true that science is at war with faith. Questions are raised in any attempt to harmonize what science says about evolution and what Christianity traditionally understands about God, humanity, sin, and redemption. However, Christians committed to rigorous science and faithful Christianity are doing fruitful work in these areas. To investigate these ideas further, check out the following resources. BioLogos, American Scientific Affiliation, Faraday Institute, Disciple Science, Peaceful Science, or Science for the Church.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts below.

Too often, people answer faith questions with dogmatic certitude and neglect the historic diversity and complexity of Christian ideas. The Questions Project is a resource that responds to questions about faith, history, and scripture in a way that honors the historic diversity and complexity of Christian thought. But, this is a work in process and we need your help. Please provide feedback. We are particularly interested in knowing what we have missed and how we can improve our responses. Please keep all comments kind or risk deletion.

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  • Way too broad a brush here. The Christ-centered model for early Genesis, for one example, is creationist but does not believe in a deathless initial creation, that humanity descended from an original single couple, or that humans actualize their capacity to bear God’s image apart from pure fellowship with God. The relationship with evolution is complex, not one of opposition. Much like the Genealogical Adam and Eve model, outside the garden the relationship is more one that excludes naturalism in the past operation of evolution rather than the concept of evolution overall.

  • Dave McCarter says:

    Theistic evolution is at least as old as Darwinian evolution itself. The controversy is mainly among American Christians.

  • What you missed? How about the theory part of evolution? It has never been proven, far from it, they can not find the missing links in any species, the jump from one life form to another. rather, more evidence in rocks and tar pits that suggest no change in the species over time, you can not just say billions of years without the evidence..The bible is an historical account that has been proven correct so far..I would go with that..Chuck

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