Creation and Evolution, Part 1
The Conflict Continues
Nearly 100 years ago, the Scopes Trial exposed a deep rift between fundamentalists and modernists, paving the way for culture wars that persist today.
Among scientists, some big questions seem fairly settled. The universe is about 13.8 billion years old. Humans evolved from earlier life forms. Ninety-eight percent of professional scientists say these things are true.
Among Christians, however, conflict continues. According to the 2018 report of Pew Research, 18% of Americans reject macroevolution entirely, saying humans have always existed in their present form.
More specifically, evolution is rejected by 13% of Catholics, 16% of white mainline Protestants, 27% percent of black Protestants, and 38% of white evangelical Protestants (sociologists tend to categorize in terms of black and white, evangelical and mainline, Catholic and Protestant).
These percentages look high to scientists, but they are lower than ever in American history. Evolution has been steadily gaining ground. A large and growing majority of Americans say they accept evolution, especially if it is allowed that God had a hand in the process.
But many highly devoted Christians remain animated in their rejection of evolution. Decisions about which home school curriculum to use, which Christian college to attend, or even which church to belong to, may hinge on whether the teaching promotes evolution or a literal, one-week, young-earth creation.
However, is it possible to believe and teach both? Can an intelligent person both accept macroevolution and embrace a reading of Genesis in which God enacts a literal, one-week creation of the entire cosmos?
I think the answer is yes, though on the surface the two options appear fully at odds. More on this scenario momentarily, but first let me say why I think this issue matters.
First, it matters to the current climate of polarization. People who reject evolution are also more likely to doubt scientists and “experts” on other topics, such as climate change, vaccinations, or the safety of genetically modified organisms.
Second, it matters because these people are still being mis-portrayed as unintelligent or uneducated. In fact, evangelicals who hold unpopular views have often read and thought more about them than members of the majority who do not need to defend their positions.
As sociologist Jonathan Hill points out, most people do not come to accept or reject evolution as a result of poring over evidence but as “a symbolic gesture to indicate to others where they belong in the socio-political landscape.” This statement applies to both accepters and rejecters of evolution, but there is a popular narrative, dating back to the Scopes Trial, which insinuates that evolution accepters are well-read and erudite, while rejecters of evolution are backwoods yokels who don’t cotton to book learnin’.
Third, the debate matters because anti-evolutionists have a point or two in their favor. Though science has become almost synonymous with enlightenment and progress, a dollop of skepticism about the fruits of science is warranted. Science has given us medicines to cure disease, but also germ warfare to spread it. It has given us both smart phones and smart bombs.
While the Scopes Trial has been depicted as battle of scientific progress against religious recalcitrance, the actual facts of the case show a downside to science. The textbook in question was entitled Civic Biology, and it was blatantly racist. It advocated eugenics as the scientific way to improve the complexion of society, by decreasing “low and degenerate” populations. Hitler studied American and European sterilization policies, then proceeded to make eugenics infamous forever.
Hence, a better moral to the Scopes story: Detached from relationality with God, knowledge can prove deadly, as Genesis 3 recounts. At the same time, bad science does not negate but rather increases the need for good science. Science and technology are intrinsic to human betterment, since the first wheel and the first fire, but an uncritical acceptance of their fruits is not.
Fourth, a literal one-week creation matters because it matters to some of your friends and family members, and maybe to you personally. While Ken Ham and other creationists regularly stress that rejecting evolution is not a requirement for salvation, they also strongly suggest it is the ideal litmus test for whether a person is truly willing to take God at His Word. The saved person who fails to take a stand against evolution will, upon arriving in heaven, have some explaining to do.
For their part, biologists feel the basic explaining has already been done. They point to fossils, DNA evidence, and the fact that drug companies are constantly developing new antibiotics to combat ever-evolving bacteria. Young earth creationists work to poke holes in whatever evidence scientists present, because their conclusion is forgone. In their view, defending the Bible means opposing evolution. If Christians are put in a position of having to choose between science and the Word of God, then in some sense that choice is a no-brainer.
Fifth and finally, the issue of creation and evolution matters because heretofore the increasing acceptance of evolution has come at a cost—namely, the erosion of Biblical authority and loss of coherence in its narrative. The genealogy of Jesus goes back to Adam and Eve. The entrance of death into the world seems tied to the sin of Adam and Eve. So much of Genesis feels historical, in the sense that it narrates events that take place in actual time and space. In the creation week of Genesis 1, the word day (yom), when coupled with the phrase “evening and morning,” certainly seems to denote a 24-hour period. So if God created all things in one week, then how can we accept a process of billions of years?
In response, members of the evolution-accepting Christian majority will say, “not everything in the Bible is meant to be taken literally.” This oft-repeated refrain solves nothing. Instead it raises numerous conundrums. So the birth of Jesus is literal, but his genealogy dating back to Adam and Eve are not? Abraham and Sarah are literal (maybe), but Adam and Eve are not? The death of Jesus is literal, but his scientifically-implausible resurrection is not?
These questions need to be reframed. When it comes to narrating historical events, there may be options besides (a) did happen or (b) did not happen. A portrait by Leonardo or Rembrandt conveys a real person, and viewers often remark how “realistic” it looks. But the portrait is not a photo. Color, composition, light and shadow are employed to move us in remarkable ways. A good portrait does not diminish but rather elevates its subject. To suggest that God intends something similar in some of the Biblical narratives—to say that they are, as it were, portraits and not photographs—does not diminish the Bible’s truth or trustworthiness. Biblical narratives portray events in a way that is fully accurate to their purpose, which is to move us closer to God.
Meanwhile, a scientific mindset focuses instead on how objects move upon each other. It strives toward accuracy more like that of a photo than a portrait. Keeping this difference in view helps us to assess facts in the Bible. The physical fact of Christ’s resurrection matters to our resurrection. The physical fact that an orchid seed is smaller than a mustard seed—even though Jesus tells his audience a mustard seed is “the smallest of seeds”—does not matter to our faith; and faith is the point of the mustard seed parable.
Where does all this leave us with respect to Genesis? We live in a scientific age, so people may bring a scientific mindset to Bible reading. But the lens of science is not a good way to read Genesis 1-2. As an alternative, and as a push-back against science and technology, we witness the ascendancy of art and the artist in modern society. Viewing the Bible as a work of art also seems normal or natural. But this approach is also inadequate.
If we read Genesis as either a scientific document or work of art, we miss what matters most. Both science and art exemplify, even epitomize, the creativity of the human spirit. But the main focus of Genesis 1-2 is the creativity of God’s Spirit.
To read Genesis aright, and to see why there is no inherent contradiction between its message and today’s scientific theories, we need to begin again, at the beginning. We need to ask what it means for God to create (bara’) and for humans to be created.
If we come to a new and ancient understanding of what it means for God to create, it can transform how we read Genesis. And even transform the entire cosmos into a sanctuary for worshiping God.
Russell Haitch is Professor of Theology and Human Science at Bethany Theological Seminary.