What is evolution and why is it controversial among Christians?
Although the Theory of Evolution was not particularly disturbing to Christian believers when it was introduced in the 19th century, various theological disagreements and culture war battles have propelled it to a controversial status among Christians today. As the scientific consensus of the last hundred years has settled on the evolutionary model as an uncontested fact, many 21st-century Christians have singled out evolutionary theory as opposed to their faith and understanding of the Bible and dangerous to society and the church.
What is evolution?
In biology, evolution is the word used to describe the process by which a population of organisms changes over time. Given a long enough period of time, the process of evolution brings about new life forms descended from ancestor life forms. This model of how new species arise, often referred to as common descent, explains the great diversity of life observable on Earth today and in the fossil record.
Robust evidence for common descent is found by making comparisons between organisms using five independent areas of investigation: studying comparative anatomy, observing how organisms develop as embryos, categorizing which creatures are found in different strata of the fossil record, performing DNA analysis, examining the distribution of species geographically over time, and observing adaptations in modern organisms over time.
The theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859 in his book On the Origin of Species. Darwin hypothesized that an organism born with features that make it more suitable to its environment will have a better chance of surviving and reproducing than other organisms in the same population that lack those beneficial features. As these features that increase chances for survival and reproduction are passed along to offspring, the advantageous traits become more prevalent in the population as a whole.
Some people use the word “Darwinism” as a synonym for evolution, but modern evolutionary theory goes well beyond Darwin’s original ideas. Darwin’s ideas about common descent and natural selection as the driving mechanism of evolution were later combined with the discovery of genetic inheritance into what is called the modern synthesis. Modern synthesis developed in the first half of the 20th century, and was a way of understanding evolution that primarily focused on genes, the segments along a DNA molecule.
Changes in genes are called mutations and are one way of introducing new alleles (variations of a gene) into a population. Mutations can be introduced into an organism’s genome by random errors in DNA replication or repair or by damage caused by chemicals or radiation. Most of the time, mutations are either harmful or neutral. Occasionally, a mutation is beneficial and increases the organism’s ability to survive and reproduce. Beneficial mutations become more prevalent in successive generations by natural selection, and they eventually spread 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 becomes reproductively isolated. Also, neutral mutations and random changes in the frequency of alleles in a population contribute to evolution through a process called genetic drift. The mathematical modeling of changes in the frequencies of genes and alleles in populations became known as population genetics and established evolution as the central paradigm in biology.
As new discoveries are added to the scientific body of research and new technologies make it possible to understand genetics and biochemistry on an increasingly deeper level, scientists continue to refine the evolutionary model. Even so, the main tenets of evolution have held for centuries and evolution is one of the most well-attested, thoroughly substantiated scientific models in the history of science. It is considered foundational to current scientific consensus in paleontology, geology, genetics, and developmental biology.
The debate over evolution in Christian communities
Despite the consensus around evolution in the scientific community, some contemporary Christian leaders have resisted its acceptance and have invested significant resources in attempting to undermine the credibility of evolutionary science. Collectively, these Christians are usually referred to as Creationists, because their understanding of the Christian God as a Creator depends on reading various passages that describe the creation of the world and of life in the Bible as descriptions of literal history or factual science.
Creationists, then, tend to see the scientific community and their conclusions as antagonistic to faith, and they present science and Christianity as fundamentally opposed to one another. Other Christians, however, reject this idea that science and faith are incompatible enemies and try to interpret the Bible and traditional Christian doctrines in ways that harmonize with what science has concluded about natural history. Affirming that God is the Creator and that science gives an accurate description of how creation has changed over time is called theistic evolution or evolutionary creation. These Christians advocate approaches to interpreting biblical texts other than the literalist approach used by Christians who reject evolution. Creationists tend to oppose a culturally contextualized approach to Bible interpretation, and they further object to evolutionary creation in three major areas.
Why Some Christians Reject Evolution
The first area of objection stems from the characterization of evolutionary science as “Darwinism” or “evolutionism,” an entire worldview opposed to God, the Bible, and faith. Therefore, Creationists who adopt a literal interpretation of the biblical origin of humanity characterize Christians who try to make peace with science as too compromising or as people who want to consort with the enemy for personal gain. Although it may be true that some atheists or some philosophical naturalists (people who deny the supernatural and believe the natural world is all that exists) extrapolate philosophical conclusions from scientific observations, that does not mean that the evolutionary model is by itself a worldview, or that science is opposed to God and the Bible.
The scientific method relies on methodological naturalism, which is a way of saying that science cannot empirically study the supernatural or posit supernatural causes. The method is so effective because people from all different worldviews and religious beliefs can use it and arrive at 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 is acquired through a systematic empirical study of the natural world and then using logic and math to draw conclusions from observations. But relying on methodological naturalism to do science does not require those who use the scientific method to deny that a supernatural facet of reality exists or require them to affirm that science answers every question. 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 believe all death and predation, disease, and disaster are a direct result of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command and eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This act of sin, the Fall, brought death into the world and fundamentally altered creation.
This picture of the beginning of time does not correlate with evidence from the fossil record, which testifies to billions of years of life and death on Earth before humans arrived. Creationists frame the evolutionary model as predicated on a bloody and violent quest for survival, which does not fit with their view of a perfect and sinless creation prior to the Fall.
Christians who accept the fossil record and evolution note that the Bible teaches that God’s creation was good, not perfect and that death can be a good and necessary part of the natural cycles that sustain life. They are also less likely to take the account of Adam and Eve in Genesis as a purely historical account, and they believe human sin led to spiritual death for humanity, not mortality for every living thing or herbivores suddenly changing into carnivores.
God’s Image Bearers
The last major area of concern for Creationists has to do with the creation of humanity and the Christian belief that humanity is created in the image of God, set apart from the rest of creation. Creationists do not accept that a species that evolved from – and shares characteristics with – other animals due to common ancestry, qualify as God’s image bearers. They believe that this requires a special act of creation in which God uniquely designed humans to set them apart from other forms of life on earth. They also reject scientific findings about the origins of humanity because they do not fit the Creationist timelines and account of Adam and Eve that they believe the Bible teaches as history.
Some Christians believe that God “revealed” scientific facts to the writers of the Bible, years before that same science was discovered by modern scientists. Others are convinced that Psalm 139 contains a factual account when it reveals “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 preference. For more information check out Answers in Genesis.
An Original Couple?
Scientists say that on the one hand, there is no evidence that Homo sapiens can be traced back to a single couple, and on the other hand, there is compelling evidence that humans evolved as a population. So the Creationist interpretation of Adam and Eve as the sole biological progenitors of all of humanity in fairly recent history, as recently as 6,000 years, is contested by scientific findings.
According to the evolutionary model, Homo sapiens developed from apelike ancestors over a period of approximately 7 to 8 million years. Scientists theorize that the first hominins (all the species in the human lineage, which evolved after the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged from a common ancestor, including some species that are not direct ancestors of Homo sapiens) evolved in Africa.
All the oldest hominin fossils, which range in age from 7 million to 2 million years old, come from Africa and have not been found in other parts of the world. The ability to walk on two legs evolved over 4 million years ago and the earliest stone tools date to 3.3 million years ago. Groups of Homo sapiens migrated from Africa into the Middle East, Europe, and Asia over a period of many millennia. Migrating groups of modern humans from Asia went on to populate other parts of the world, probably coming to Australia within the past 60,000 years, and to the Americas within the past 30,000 years. Agriculture and the rise of the first civilizations occurred within the past 12,000 years.
Reconciling Science and Theology
There are different approaches to reconciling the account of human evolution with Christian theology among those who accept the basic premises of the evolutionary model. Some Christians believe animal life on Earth evolved while humans were specially created by God in a unique act of creation. Therefore they do not share common ancestry with animals.
Some Christians who accept the evolution of the species Homo sapiens reserve the designation “human” to refer to spiritual or moral capacities that set humans apart from their ancestors and other animal species. 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 hominins) 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.
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.
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