Friday, 7 June 2013

Evolution or Creation: a false choice

God wrote two books

One of the fundamental Biblical doctrines is that the universe owes its origin to a creative act by God. This point is repeatedly stressed throughout the Bible, no more so than the opening verse of the Bible, which succinctly makes this point. Another first principle, arguably of equal importance is that the Bible too is divine in origin, being a work inspired by God Himself. Every other Biblical first principle is directly or indirectly based on these two fundamental precepts.

As God is therefore the author both of the book of Life and the book of Nature, a careful examination of both not only will reveal the character of God and His plan for His creation. As both are the product of one Mind, they cannot be in disharmony when correctly interpreted. The emphasis on a correct interpretation is deliberate, as many problems in the vexed area of properly relating the “two books” of God arise from a failure in this area.

That raises the question of how do we accurately read these two books. As a detailed reading of the natural world needs scientific expertise that either did not exist in the past, or is available after some training and study, the only book that has been readily accessible (if not always understandable) has been the Bible.

Historically, the Christian world has read Genesis literally, believing that the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago, with the human race beginning with Adam and Eve. Although some scholars such as Origen postulated allegorical readings of Genesis, a plain reading of the narrative has been the norm up until the emergence of science as a discipline in its own right provided us with a reading of the book of Nature that was at variance with a plain reading of the book of Life.

Evolution contradicts a literal reading of the Bible. Must we reject it?

Christianity has generally been receptive to correcting flawed readings of the Bible in the light of evidence from the natural world. This is readily demonstrated by the emergence of the gap theory, the day-age theory, the days of revelation and other ways of reading Genesis to accommodate the fact that (as bre. Thomas and Roberts freely acknowledged) the earth was not thousands of years old, but millions. However, the theory of evolution, while generally accepted by conservative theologians and believing biologists and geologists when it was first advanced, has caused no end of consternation among many believers, as it has been perceived as directly threatening the historical basis of the Fall. No amount of creative interpretation, many argue, is able to evade the fact that Paul believed that Adam was a literal man who sinned, and brought sin and death into this world.

Biblical literalists maintain that if a reading of the natural world contradicts a literal reading of the Bible, then it is the former that must be wrong. The problem here is that it is assumed, often without justification, that a plain reading of the creation narrative is the only option available. The fact that alternative readings of Genesis exist (such as Origen’s allegorical reading) does not mean that they are right. What they do show is that one needs to justify why a literal reading should be preferred over others, rather than simply assuming it.

Another problem arising from insisting that a literal reading must trump the evidence from the natural world is that it is setting up a genuine crisis of faith for many believers who are trained in the life sciences and medicine. Many young believers (the present writer included) have discovered on entering university to study medicine or the life sciences that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and that the arguments used against evolution were answered long ago. Some believers have been forced to choose between a faith that demonises a branch of modern science, and the overwhelming evidence for evolution that they have studied for themselves. It is not unheard of for such believers to abandon their faith, rather than live an intellectually dishonest life and pretend to disbelieve the evidence for evolution.

Finally, there is the problem that literalists are not consistent. As many orthodox Christians realise, a literal reading of the gospels would teach that demon possession causes disease. Furthermore, no attempt is made by the gospel writers to correct this error. No Christadelphian would insist that demon possession is taught by the NT, even though these events occur in prose narrative sections that are meant to be read literally. However, the opening chapter of Genesis clearly refers to the creation of a solid firmament (the same Heb. word occurs in Ezekiel 1 where the context is clearly referring to a solid object) that separated the waters above from the waters below.

Biblical literalists will argue that the NT reference to demons is not meant to be taken literally, but as an accommodation to pre-modern views. However, they fail to do the same for when a literal reading teaches something as patently false as a solid firmament. This is not the only example, as a literal reading of Genesis teaches the creation of the sun before light (the Hebrew does not permit us to read this as an appearance of the sun). Biblical literalists who reject much of mainstream science are not consistent in their literalism. Furthermore, they are selective with their use of mainstream science, as they accept that astronomy refutes the concept of a solid firmament, but reject the solid consensus from geology and biology on the antiquity of the earth and the evolutionary origin of the species.

God accommodated His revelation to the a pre-scientific world

God is the author of both books, so properly interpreted they cannot be in conflict. What this means is that if a particular interpretation of the Bible is contradicted by well-attested scientific principles, then it is likely that particular interpretation of the Bible needs to be revised. This is not compromising to the wisdom of this world. How can it be, since the natural world is a revelation from God? Rather, we are correcting a flawed reading of one of His revelations to man with an accurate reading of the other revelation to the human race.

The example of demon-possession is a splendid example. Medical science has shown quite clearly that illness is caused by infection, genetic errors, environmental toxins, radiation, poor diet, degenerative processes or auto-immune phenomena. They are not caused by demonic possession. Insight from medical science has allowed us to recognise that disease has a natural cause, and therefore the attribution of disease to supernatural entities is incorrect. However, we must not look down on the ancient world for thinking this way, as medical science as we know it did not exist. The reference to demon possession (which curiously is largely absent in the OT) suggests that this is an accommodation to a pre-modern understanding of the natural world.

Understanding the cultural context of the age in which the Bible was first written is important is vital. While the message of the Bible is for all people, it was not originally written to us, so we need to keep this in mind, and refrain from reading it through 21st century eyes. If we forget this, we may well read into it our preconceptions and fail to hear what God is telling us.

Genre and Context in Genesis 1

No one would read a book of poetry as if it were a history book, and believe that tigers really did burn bright at night as William Blake memorably put it. Likewise, one would not read Revelation and insist that in the future, hybrid locust-lion-women monsters would one day invade Earth. In both cases, one needs to recognise the genre of the text, that is, whether it is history, poetry, parable, proverb, prophecy or drama. Once we do this, we can then adjust how we read it, and take away the meaning intended by the author.

There are cues which allow us to do this. For example, poetry can use rhyme, meter and structure. Fairy stories are fairly formularised and often have standard openings and closings. In Genesis 1, we can see that the style is somewhat different to Genesis 2. The first chapter is repetitive and highly structured, while chapter 2 reads much like prose narrative.

In Genesis 1, the first group of three days shows a marked degree of parallelism with the second group of three days:
Day 1: Separation of light and dark

Day 4: Creation of celestial bodies

Day 2: Division of  waters above from waters below

Day 5: Creation of bird life and marine life

Day 3a: Creation of dry land

Day 6a: Creation of land animals

Day 3b: Creation of vegetation

Day 6b: Creation of humans

The first group of days are describing the creation of ‘domains’ while the second group of days are describing the creation of ‘domain inhabitants’. The parallel between vegetation and man becomes clearer when one looks at chapter 2 and realises that it details the creation of a garden (domain) and the creation of Adam and Eve (domain inhabitants).

In fact, this reading helps answer the common criticism that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are contradictory creation accounts. The order of creation in Genesis 1 will contradict the order of creation in Genesis 2 if we read the former literally. Once we recognise the genre of Genesis 1, and read it accordingly, we realise that it is a framework, where creation is detailed thematically, not chronologically. This structure leads us to the central theme of the creation of man and vegetation, which links it firmly to the next chapter. Far from being contradictory accounts, the two chapters are tightly linked. This remarkable fact is not appreciated if we insist on literalism.

Genesis 2 – 4: Even more historical than we would have thought

Once we leave Genesis 1, the genre changes appreciably, becoming prose narrative, with the occasional element of metaphor as seen in the punishment handed out to the serpent, which does not literally eat dust. There is little doubt that the author of this narrative intended us to believe that Adam and Eve were direct creations of God who were placed in a garden and tested. The author also wants us to realise that they failed, and were expelled, and later had two children, Cain and Abel. However, because of a belief, driven by naïve literalism, that Adam and Eve were the ancestors of the entire human race, we have missed a subtle clue in Genesis 4 that would have allowed us to avoid some of the problems arising from what modern science has shown us about the antiquity and the unity of the human race.

Genesis 4 relates the drama of Cain and Abel; a story well-known to every reader of the Bible. What is also well-known is the famous problem of from where Cain obtained his wife, as the account does not mention the birth of any other children to the first couple at this time. Strained explanations exist, such as the assumption that Adam and Eve already had many other children who would have provided Cain with a wife, and have been the source of those who wished to kill him. However, Genesis 4 is entirely silent about these hypothesised children, and a plain reading clearly tells us that Cain and Abel were the only children of Adam and Eve at that time. The reference to Seth as being a replacement for Abel also emphasises this reading. Chapter 5 furthermore tells us that Adam and Eve had other children, but it is clearly an ad hoc interpretation to insist that they were born before Seth.

However, if we read chapter 4 plainly, we see that it assumes as a fact the existence of other people on the earth at that time. Furthermore, if we take another look at Gen 1 and Gen 2, this is in fact something we would expect. Genesis 1 if we recall is a thematic overview of creation, which uses a literary framework of six days to tell Israel (the original audience of Genesis) that it was Yahweh, and not the false gods who made the world.

One final inference – a vital one – is that since it is mentioned that God explicitly revealed Himself only to Adam and Eve, the other people on the Earth at this time would have up until that time been ignorant of God. Without any divine revelation to these people, the concept of sin and death by sin would be meaningless. When they died (and the fossil record is replete with human beings who died tens of thousands of years before Adam and Eve were created if we date them to the first recorded evidence of animal domestication in the Ancient Near East), they would have died like the “beats that perish.”

The NT and Adam: How to understand Paul’s Adam

A careful reading of Paul suggests that he believed Adam and Eve were the first people with whom God entered into a relationship. He may well have even believed that they were the first people, though as we have seen, there are clues in Genesis 4 that infer the existence of other people on the planet at that time.

Let’s assume that Paul believed that Adam and Eve were the only people on the planet when they were created. Does a literal reading of Romans 5v12 mean we have to ignore not only the overwhelming evidence from science that Adam and Eve could not have been the sole ancestors of the human race, and that human origins actually stretch back millions of years into the remote past? Of course not! As we’ve noted, the natural world is a revelation from God, and properly interpreted both the Bible and the natural world will be in harmony. Furthermore, we have evidence from Genesis 4 that other people were already on this planet at the time of Cain’s sin.

Does that mean Paul is in error? Arguing this is missing an essential point about inspiration. We have already seen that in the NT, people believed that demon possession caused disease. We also know that the disciples believed in ghosts and spirits, as they mistook Jesus for one when they saw him walking on the waves. What we don’t see in either case is Jesus immediately correcting these false ideas.

Inspiration gave Paul authority on all matters of religion. It is arguing too much to believe that it gave him insight into anthropology and biology. Besides, Paul’s message is independent of whether Adam and Eve were the first people on the planet or not. Remember what was mentioned before, that any human being outside the garden would have no knowledge of God, and therefore would have died as the beasts that perished. Adam and Eve were the first members of a covenant community. They had knowledge of God, and knowledge of sin. Once they sinned, they fell under the law of sin and death.

If we look at Romans 6v23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”, one can see that eternal life is being contrasted with death. But what sort of death? This death is death by sin – a judicial death. Every human being dies, as that is what happens to creatures of flesh. However, those who sin and are unrepentant will die, and be judged. As Paul points out in Rom 5v12, sin and death entered the world through one man. Before Adam, people were living and dying like beasts. Once Adam came into the world, he set a malign example plenty have followed.

The belief that we need to be lineal descendants of Adam in order to inherit “sin and death” is an utterly unbiblical one. Adam and Christ are two examples set out for us to follow. Adam’s sin introduced death by sin. Christ’s obedience introduced eternal life through faith. Lineal descent is simply not needed for us to follow either example.

Evolution – More than a Theory

What we have done is outline a Biblical case for the following:
  • God created the universe over an unspecified time frame, including human beings.
  • These human beings had no knowledge of God, and lived and died as the beasts that perish
  • Several thousand years ago, God specially created two people, with whom he entered into a covenant relationship
  • They sinned, and introduced sin, as well as death by sin into this world. From this time, the example of obedience require by God was clear to all, but no one until Christ was able to meet that standard
  • Christ set the perfect example for us to follow – we have the example of Adam and Christ to follow, and eternal death and eternal life follow respectively from both examples

What this means is that while Adam and Eve were not the first human beings, they were the first members of the covenant community, the first people with whom God formed a covenant relationship

This does not contradict with what we know from evolutionary biology about how the diversity of life appeared. What we know is that the first life appeared around 3800 million years ago, and has become progressively more and more complex. Around 6 million years ago, the lines that would eventually become human and chimpanzee diverged. The human line diversified into various species such as Australopithecus afarensis, Australopithecus anamensis and the various members of the genus Homo, including Homo sapiens. The first anatomically modern human being appeared in Ethiopia around 200,000 years ago, while civilisation as we know it is around ten thousand years old. Animal and plant domestication in the Ancient Near East is around ten thousand years old, while metal working in this area is a few thousand years younger.

What modern biology has shown is that all life is interrelated. We share common ancestry with the great apes, which in term share common ancestry with other mammals – this can be expressed as a great evolutionary family tree. While the Bible is silent about the mode of creation, we have no reason to expect that we should be somehow superior to other life. Ecclesiastes 3:19 paints a very unflattering picture of humanity:

Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.

What evolutionary biology tells us is that not only do we have the same fate, but the same origin. If we have reason to feel pride in our human achievements, both the Bible and science tell us that we have no reason to exalt ourselves.


There is little doubt that the subject of evolution and creation is an emotional, controversial one that has caused considerable trouble in the Christian world. We are not immune to this, as demonstrated by the zeal with which many denounce even the concept of an old earth, let alone the evolutionary origin of life. However, it is pointless trying to demonise a scientific fact. Irrespective of whether one accepts common descent or not, the evidence for it remains. The evolutionary biologist TR Gregory points this out:
In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin cited independent lines of evidence such as the biogeographical distribution of species, homology of structure, the occurrence of vestigial organs and atavisms, and the already well established process of extinction as all pointing to a conclusion that species have changed over time and are connected by descent from common ancestors. Through the force of Darwin’s argument and the mass of supporting data he presented, it was not long before the contemporary scientific community came to acknowledge the historical reality of evolutionary descent.


Over the past 150 years, this initial list has been supplemented by countless observations in paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, molecular biology, and (most recently) comparative genomics, and through direct observations of evolutionary change in both natural and experimental populations. Each of thousands of peer-reviewed articles published every year in scientific journals provides further confirmation (though, as Futuyma notes, “no biologist today would think of publishing a paper on ‘new evidence for evolution’ ... it simply hasn’t been an issue in scientific circles for more than a century”). Conversely, no reliable observation has ever been found to contradict the general notion of common descent. It should come as no surprise, then, that the scientific community at large has accepted evolutionary descent as a historical reality since Darwin’s time and considers it among the most reliably established and fundamentally important facts in all of science. –  TR Gregory “Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path” Evo Edu Outreach (2008) 1:46–52

Arguments against common descent made by special creationists are poor arguments that have been refuted for years, and it does us no credit to repeat them. The evidence for common descent based largely on evidence from comparative anatomy, embryology and the biogeographical distribution of life was regarded as convincing, and what many literalists today forget, is that believing scientists in the 19th century accepted the evidence, not because they were capitulating to atheism, but because the evidence for it was overwhelming.

Today, the unmanageably rich fossil record and the new discipline of genomics have made the case for common descent unassailable. The same technology that is used for DNA matching at crime scenes and establishing paternity is also the same technology that tells us that humans and apes share a common ancestor. If we continue to insist that a literal interpretation of Genesis and Romans trumps the overwhelming revelation of nature that common descent is a reality, not only will we link the cause of Christ with a fringe view, but run the risk of forcing the next generation to choose between evolution and faith.

This decision is entirely unnecessary. As we can see, the Bible is silent about the mode of creation, but does tell us that Adam and Eve were not alone when they were created. This is what we find from science, and this coincidence alone should give us cause to reconsider the wisdom of literalism. The issue ultimately is not where we came from, but what example we shall follow: Adam or Christ.

This article first appeared at my Facebook page here