A Christian View of Evolution
Evolution today is taught in schools and universities (and on the BBC) as fact. There is no mention that it is a theory for which hard scientific evidence is curiously missing. We are told that human beings and indeed all living creatures evolved over hundreds of millions of years from a common ancestor. The evolution of increasingly complex species was driven by natural selection working on random genetic changes, ensuring the survival of the fittest.
To deny the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution is as intellectually respectable as to believe in a flat earth. And yet the theory poses serious problems for many scientists and philosophers; and, for many, their doubts are not based on religion.
However, from the moment the theory was propounded it was clear that, if true, it posed serious problems for Christians. Evolutionists are for the most part explicitly materialistic. George Gaylord Simpson, an American scientist, for example, said “Although many details remain to be worked out, it is already evident that all the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or materialistic factors. They are readily explicable on the basis of differential reproduction ( the main factor in the modern conception of natural selection ) and of the mainly random interplay of the known processes of heredity. Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind”.
Another problem for Christians is the power of the current scientific mindset - epitomised by the statement of one of the most prominent evolutionists of the day, Professor Richard Dawkins, in his The Blind Watchmaker - 1986 - “It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that)”. Science has itself become a religion. Scientists behave as if non-science was non-sense. Many Christians feel reluctant to question scientific facts.
Until very recently, I had assumed, no doubt like many other Christians, that it was a proven fact that all creatures, including Man, descended from a common ancestor. As a Christian, however, I could not accept that this was all due to random chance. God’s hand was in it. To be an evolutionist in the purest sense you have to believe that life is developed by random chance and you have to reject any supernatural intervention. This essay, therefore, is not intended for the eyes of evolutionists; they would all echo Dawkins’ view. It is intended rather to put forward for Christians some alternative ideas about the development of life on earth and of the origin of mankind.
So, where does a Christian start? We have to start with Divine Revelation and Divine Providence. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made”. (John I vv. 1-3). Christians believe that all Divine Wisdom and all Divine Truth is in the Word - the Holy Scriptures, the Old and the New Testaments. But we will obviously not find anything in the Bible specifically relating to evolution. When Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was first published, it was seen by many as undermining the relevance and authenticity of the Bible. Darwin’s theory was a stark contradiction of the account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. If that account was myth, might this not strike at the validity of the Bible as a whole? Might not the virgin birth, the resurrection and the miracles performed by Jesus also be mythical?
It is really rather surprising that the account of creation in Genesis could ever have been taken literally. The first few chapters of Genesis have a quite different character from the rest of the Bible. The stories of the Creation, of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, and of Noah and the Ark are a relic of a much older Word, predating Moses and the Prophets. Other books of that earlier Word ( which has been lost ) are mentioned in Moses and the Prophets. In Numbers XXI vv. 14 & 15 - “Wherefore it is said in the book of the Wars of the Lord”, referred to elsewhere as the book of “The Wars of Jehovah”. Again, in 2 Samuel I v. 18 David says “ .. Behold it is written in the Book of Jasher”.
From Genesis VII onwards, the Old Testament is partly historical and partly prophetic. If we are to accept the truth of the account of the Israelites in their progress from Egypt to the land of Canaan, we have to accept miracles - the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the waters of the Red Sea, the provision of manna and so on. The Israelites were not an attractive people; they frequently lapsed into idolatry, were self-centred and materialistic. The history of the Israelites could not be, as we believe, the container of Divine Wisdom if it did not also have a deeper meaning. Their progress from Egypt to the land of Canaan is factually true, but it is also allegorical, the progress of the human soul from ignorance of God and reliance on factual evidence ( Egypt ), through temptation ( forty years in the wilderness ) to regeneration ( crossing the river Jordan ) and acceptance in Heaven ( arrival in Canaan ). The allegorical meaning I have derived form the 18th century scientist/theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, in his book Arcana Caelestia. There is also a still deeper meaning. We read in Luke XXIV of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who met the risen Lord without recognising him (v. 27) “ ... and beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself”.
Before returning to the question of evolution we need to see what the Bible tells us about Divine Providence. We know from the first chapter of John - already quoted above - that “All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made”. Divine Providence is in every particular. In all the history of the Israelites Jehovah takes a direct hand in events, determining the outcome of battles, on occasions destroying the enemy, who all represent evils, without the Israelites even having to wield a sword. Jesus tells us that God is involved even when a sparrow falls. This is not to say that everything that happens is God’s will. God is goodness itself and cannot will anything evil. And yet evil is all around us. Evil comes wholly from man and is an inescapable concomitant of God’s gift to man of free will.
By free will I do not mean the common concept amongst modern philosophers - to quote Provine of Cornell University - “ .. the freedom to make un-coerced and unpredictable choices among alternative courses of action”. Prof. Provine goes on to say about this concept - “it simply does not exist. There is no way that the evolutionary process as currently conceived can produce a being that is truly free to make choices.” “Free Will’ for a Christian is the freedom to choose to obey God’s commandments or to reject them. In other words the freedom to choose between good and evil. One’s choices are, of course, heavily influenced by heredity and environment, but the Christian doctrine of regeneration means that man is judged by his works. We can either give in to hereditary desires or we can, with God’s help, resist them and seek to love God and and to love our neighbour.
Man was made to love God and to love his fellow men; and true love cannot be forced. So man has the freedom to choose to love God, and this means that he is also free to love worldly things, his own self-interest, power for the sake of commanding others and wealth for its own sake - thus to love evil. So if, as Christians believe, Divine Providence is in particulars, involved in absolutely everything that happens in the universe, what is God’s relationship to evil? The answer must be that he permits it and strives, constantly to turn it to good use. The process of regeneration - to be born again of the spirit rather than of the flesh - is that of overcoming temptations. The temptations are evil and are being put to good use.
Providence acts in the context of eternity. We must not, like some modern theologians (Sir John Polkinghorne, for example, and my old tutor at Oxford, Austin Farrer) place God wholly in the material universe. God made ‘the seen and the unseen’ (the Nicene Creed). He is concerned with this world as the seminary of the next. His purpose for man is eternal usefulness in heaven. God’s intervention in the outcome of accidents is not primarily concerned with the material well-being of survivors or of the relatives of those who have died, but with the welfare of their eternal souls. Death for Christians is not the end; it is a new beginning.
I wonder whether the latest developments in cosmology will encourage theologians and philosophers to be less materialistic. I am beginning to have doubts about the Big Bang. I saw a documentary film a couple of years ago about the Hubble telescope. It was mainly concerned with the amazing technological achievement of repairing the telescope in space, but it also mentioned (without comment) some of its most significant findings. They were, first, that the Universe is rather younger than previously thought - around 12 billion years and not 16. But much the most extraordinary finding was that the telescope can now photograph galaxies of about that age. Cosmologists were expecting to find the earliest galaxies still unformed, in process of condensing into stars. But every single galaxy was mature and fully formed. The documentary went on to say that a new and more powerful telescope was to be built. What might such a telescope find? Cosmologists might find that there are in fact a few signs of galaxies further than twelve billion light years away; and they might turn out to be what they are hoping for, namely galaxies in process of condensing. But, they too might be fully formed. Or more likely, they may find that their initial calculation of the age of the Universe was right and that there was absolutely nothing to be seen beyond twelve billion light years. It is beginning to look to me that all galaxies were fully formed at birth! So, where does that leave Big Bang and galactic evolution? It begins to look as if science will come to conclude that the universe is eternal. But again, I am sure that it will be many years, perhaps many centuries, before cosmologists accept that conclusion - supernatural intervention again.
Let us now look again at evolution. I want to explore this in two parts; first the development of life on earth up to the primate apes and secondly the creation of Man. The true evolutionist position is not compatible with religion. As Provine, quoted above, says “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Richard Dawkins has said that the theory of evolution allows him to be “a fulfilled atheist”. So no Christian can accept the full blooded evolutionary theory. It might, however, still be possible that all living creatures (and plants) had a common ancestor. That would be evolution, but the Christian would attribute the guiding force behind it to God rather than to random chance and natural selection.
But did all creatures develop from a common ancestor? We are told that the fossil record shows a progression of increasing complexity from single cell amoeba through fish (and plants) to amphibians, reptiles, mammals, primate s and eventually Man. But is this what the fossil record actually shows? The answer seems to me to be emphatically ‘no’. If all creatures had gradually evolved over millions of years by small changes, cumulatively becoming increasingly complex as changes increased their fitness to survive, the fossil record would show thousands of intermediate forms. Darwin himself recognised that, in his time, there was a marked dearth of such fossils, but with some plausibility - the study of fossils was very recent in his time - was confident enough that ‘missing links’ would be found.
Nearly one hundred and fifty years later none has been found. Richard Milton in The Facts of Life says “no-one has yet discovered a fossil creature that is indisputably transitional between one species and another. Not a single undoubted ‘missing link’ has been found in all the exposed rocks of the earth’s crust despite the most careful and extensive searches.” Many species have, of course, shown variations. Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches are a case in point - but despite their changes they are all still indisputably finches; they have not become, nor are they on the way to becoming, new species.
What the fossil record actually seems to show is a quite remarkable stability in species - no transitional specimens - and all new species appear suddenly, fully formed. As Phillip Johnson (a distinguished American lawyer) says in Darwin on Trial: “ ... the prevailing characteristic of fossil species is stasis - the absence of change”. As Michael Denton says in Evolution. A Theory in Crisis - “ ... the last ichthyosaurus by which the genus disappears in chalk is hardly distinguishable from the first ichthyosaurus which abruptly introduces that strange form of sea-lizard in the Lias. The oldest pterodactyl is as thorough and complete a one as the latest.”
Back to Phillip Johnson. “There are numerous ‘living fossils’ which are much the same today as they were millions of years ago”. In my own garden I have a deciduous conifer - metasequoia glyptostroboides (the Dawn Redwood) - which until 1945 was known only from fossils over one hundred million years old. Some were then found growing in Western China, cuttings were taken and propagated at the Arnold arboretum in New York and were first introduced into this country around 1950. They are in every respect identical with the fossils even after the lapse of millions of years.
Another remarkable ‘living fossil’ is the coelacanth, a fish believed from the fossil record to have possibly been an intermediate species between fish and amphibians. Its front fins were thought to have been on the way to becoming limbs with which it would have been able to pull itself up a beach. In the 1950s a live coelacanth was caught off the coast of East Africa. It was identical with the earliest fossil records. But its front fins proved not to be proto-limbs (that was a figment of the evolutionist imagination); moreover it was an unlikely precursor to amphibians since it was found at a very great depth, miles from the shore.
Darwin says in his Origin of Species - “If it should be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down”. Developments in biochemistry, a science no more than forty years old, seem to have demonstrated precisely such complex organs. Research to investigate life at the molecular level - individual cells - has shown these to be quite remarkably complex organs. Some cells have as many as two hundred proteins. Professor Behe (in Darwin’s Black Box) has shown that all cells are organisms of ‘irreducible complexity’ - that is, every component has to be present for the cell to perform its functions. If cells did in fact evolve from simpler structures, it could not have been the result of natural selection. To quote Behe - “ ... natural selection, the engine of Darwinian evolution, only works if there is something to select - something that is useful right now, not in the future”. “ ... if a protein appeared in one step with nothing to do, then mutation and natural selection would tend to eliminate it. Clearly, if something was not put together gradually, then it must have been put together quickly or even suddenly”.
Behe goes on to say “ ... the straightforward conclusion is that many biochemical systems were designed. They were designed not by the laws of nature, not by chance and necessity, rather they were planned. The designer knew what the systems would look like when they were completed, then took steps to bring the systems about. Life on earth at its most fundamental level, in its most critical components is the product of intelligent activity”.
Behe is a catholic, but also a scientist and the scientific mindset comes out on top. For he goes on to say “the conclusion of intelligent design flow naturally from the data itself - not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs. The conclusion that something was designed can be made quite independently of the knowledge of the designer”. As a scientist he seems to deny God as the designer and seems to believe that a materialistic explanation for intelligent design will eventually be found.
Behe’s final conclusion is worth quoting. “The result of these cumulative efforts to investigate the cell .... is a loud clear, piercing cry of ‘design’. The result is so unambiguous and so significant that it must ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science”. Behe’s concept of systems of ‘irreducible complexity’ seems to me to be central to the validity of the theory of evolution. Biochemistry has, I believe, produced that very evidence, which in Darwin’s own words, “makes my theory absolutely break down”.
So, how did new species come about?
“If the divisions of nature really are fundamental and cannot be crossed gradually through a series of functional transitional forms, then the only alternative is to conceive of evolution in terms of a succession of frozen accidents whereby wholly new organ types and adaptations suddenly emerge as a result of some sort of fortuitous macro-mutational event” (Michael Denton). This concept had been given the name ‘saltation’ evolution. Conventional evolutionists cannot accept this. For them, to quote Phillip Johnson, “Saltations or systematic macromutuations by which all organs of a body change harmoniously in a single generational leap, are out of the question as virtual genetic miracles ”.
And yet, how exactly did new species appear? Evolutionists seem to give very little attention to the big transitions - from fish to amphibians, amphibians to reptiles, reptiles to mammals and birds. At some point, even for an evolutionist, an oviparous creature (reptile) must have produced a viviparous creature (mammal). On some day a reptile’s egg must have hatched a mammal. And even more extraordinarily, at least two eggs must have been hatched on the same day - one with a male offspring and one with a female so that they could reproduce. The possibility of such an event occurring seems remote indeed.
The important conclusion for us is that something ‘miraculous’ must have occurred. The whole process of of producing a series of species each of irreducible complexity cannot be explained without intelligent design - and to Christians that must mean God. People these days find it very hard to accept miracles and try, sometimes rather desperately, to find some material explanation for them. Of course, I understand the scepticism. Swedenborg tells us that the age of miracles - direct divine intervention - is over; there has been no need for them since God came into the world as Jesus. This reluctance to accept miracles leads even distinguished theologians to the most extraordinary ideas. Sir John Polkinghorne in his book, Science and Providence, speculated whether the miracle at Cana could have been the result of accelerated fermentation. How water could ferment at all, I don’t know; the Gospel quite specifically mentions water and not grape juice. The point of quoting this absurd idea is that it shows a greater willingness to accept a lesser miracle ( with some kind of material explanation) than a full blown miracle .
Returning again to the origin of species, there seem to me to be only two possible explanations. One, which I suppose is the lesser miracle, is saltation evolution. At successive stages of the development of life on earth species gave birth to totally new forms of life. The greater miracle would be if God himself at the appropriate stage created new forms of life. So far as I know, there is no evidence in the fossil record of any new species appearing since the creation of man. So there would not have been any man to witness the sudden appearance of a new species. As a Christian I have absolutely no difficulty with instantaneous Divine creation. Before moving on to consider the origin of man, we may wonder why different species appeared when they did and why it took so many million years. If there was no evil in the world until man appeared - the possibility of evil being an inescapable concomitant of free will - then everything that happened in the universe up to and including the creation of man has to have been God’s will. God made everything - “and without him was not anything made that was made”. God created everything, including dinosaurs, snakes, lambs and doves. They all had a purpose. As Swedenborg has said (Arcana Caelestia) - “the whole natural order is a theatre representative of the Lord’s Kingdom”. The order in which all creatures and plants appeared must have a deeper significance. It must surely represent, like the first chapter of Genesis, the spiritual of development of man. The many monstrous dinosaurs, for example, no doubt represented the evils which man has to contend with in his spiritual regeneration. They are overcome before that state has been achieved and, accordingly, disappear from the fossil record.
Let us return to the the origin of Man. It is perfectly possible to believe that man evolved, under God’s guidance from primates. The problem, as with all evolutionary theories, is to explain the transition. At some point in time a creature which was unmistakably an animal either gave birth to a man child or was transformed into man. However improbable, this seems to be what Darwin and subsequent evolutionists think. Darwin said (Descent of Man), “The homological construction of the whole frame in the members of the same class is intelligible, if we admit their descent from a common progenitor, together with their subsequent adaptation for diversified conditions. On any other view the similarity of pattern between the hand of man or a monkey, the foot of a horse, the flipper of a seal, the wing of a bat, etc. is utterly inexplicable. It is no scientific explanation to assert that they all have been formed on the same ideal plan”.
The significant word in this passage is “scientific”. If God created all creatures, it is not a bit surprising that there should be common patterns - but that, of course, is not science. Darwin was the first, but not the last evolutionist to consider non-science as non-sense.
Man has qualities which are quite distinct from animals. Aristotle speaks of the real difference between animals and humans being the perception, on the part of man, of good and evil and of the just and unjust. Professor Anthony O’Hear in Beyond Evolution says - “A self-conscious person does not simply have beliefs or dispositions ... does not just respond to or suffer the world. He or she is aware that he or she has beliefs, practices, dispositions and the rest. It is this awareness of myself as a subject of experience, as a holder of beliefs, and an engager in practices, which constitutes my self consciousness. A conscious animal might be a ‘knower’ and we might extend the epithet ‘knower’ to machines, if they receive information from the world and modify their responses accordingly. But only a self conscious being knows that he is a knower. It is this conception of oneself as a perceiver, as a subject of pleasure or pain, and as an agent in the world with a remembered past and an intended future which characterises self-consciousness as opposed to mere consciousness.”
If we look again at the transition from animal to human, we have to say that the creature (ape, proto-human or whatever) suddenly reaches the point where he ‘knows that he is a knower’. Surely, there can be no half way house between consciousness and self-consciousness. Interestingly, O’Hear speaking of the development of language says - “But how did the process get started in the first place, from ur-speakers, grunting and signalling automatically without thought or intention, to speakers of language in the full sense? The answer to the question is shrouded in the mists of time, and we can only guess at the answer: a community of proto-humans gradually gets into a stage where they can (suddenly?) act as language users”.
Note the inherent contradiction between ‘gradually’ and ‘suddenly’. We are back to the problem of the transition. Man must have become man suddenly. There seem to be only two ways in which this could occur: proto-humans were suddenly imbued with self-consciousness - what we might call the lesser miracle - or man was instantaneously created by God (the greater miracle). There is one more important characteristic of man that is not mentioned by O’Hear or any evolutionist. As Christians we know that man has an eternal soul. You either have an eternal soul or you don’t. There can be no half way house.
Man must have come into existence suddenly. One minute all living creatures were conscious, but not self-conscious, ‘knowers’, but not knowing that they were knowers, and finite. The next minute there were in existence self-conscious men and women (and children?) with eternal souls. Man - like all other creatures before him - was created instantaneously, the final species in God’s order. Man did not evolve, and will not evolve, even after millions of years. For better or worse, man will always be man. Looking at the world as it is today - where self-seeking is seen as acceptable, where we pride ourselves on man’s scientific excellence and where we talk of “the sanctity of human life” - it is hard not to conclude that for very many, Man is God. Rather than acknowledge that God made man in his image, we behave as if man made God in his image. The theory of evolution is a major contributor to this phenomenon and. more specifically, the belief that all creatures have a common ancestor. What is damaging in this theory is that it implies that man, gradually and almost imperceptibly evolving from anthropoid apes, was initially a brute savage who, if he had a religion at all was some kind of animist. Monotheism is therefore widely believed to have been invented by the Israelites, from Abraham through to Moses. Religion is seen as something created by man ‘to meet his spiritual needs’. This is surely a profoundly mistaken view and incompatible with Christianity.
All humans of whatever age, race or colour have eternal souls and are granted free will, that is the power to choose between good and evil. Man, unlike animals, is born with no innate knowledge of how to survive; a human baby cannot even find its mother’s breast; in contrast, a baby kangaroo climbs unaided up its mother’s belly and settles into the pouch; ducklings can swim within minutes of hatching from the egg. Man has to be taught everything; how to survive and how to behave. Man cannot exercise that choice between good and evil without instruction. Man’s inherited nature is to put himself and the satisfaction of his material needs first. All souls have the power to become regenerate, and to do this they have to be taught what to do to achieve it. The very first men had to have some equivalent of the Ten Commandments, and because of his very nature, man could not have been the source; the only possible source was Divine Revelation. To become regenerate man has to have Divine Revelation. So it must have been available to the earliest men - in visions, no doubt, since there was not yet the written word. The first men must also have been monotheists, believing in the one God, Jehovah.
Early man knew the significance of every creature, plant and natural phenomenon - “the whole natural order .... a theatre representative of the Lord’s Kingdom”. As that knowledge faded, so they came to be treated not as representatives of truths and goods, but to be worshipped as Gods. Animism and polytheism are degenerate forms of that early spiritual knowledge. They were not the first steps in developing religion to “meet man’s spiritual needs”. Religion was not made by man, but given to man by God. At the appropriate moment God began to restore that knowledge to man. Abraham did not know Jehovah until he was revealed to him. Moses too did not know Jehovah and had to be instructed. Two thousand years ago God became man. The universe is believed to be somewhere between 12 and 16 billion years old, and God did not make man until very recently - perhaps 50,000 years ago. Scientists and many Christians believe that the world will one day come to an end and that the whole universe will eventually become so cold that no life would be possible in it. From what Swedenborg tells us we know that this is profoundly wrong. The spiritual universe and the material universe have, he says, a kind of symbiotic relationship and neither can continue without the other. In Heaven and Hell (para. 304), he says: “..... the connection and conjunction of heaven with the human race is such that one continues in existence from the other, and that the human race apart from heaven would be like a chain without a hook; and heaven without the human race would be like a house without a foundation”.
Since Heaven will continue to eternity, so will the world and the universe. It is unthinkable that the Lord should allow the planet on which he was born and lived for 30 years to be destroyed. Moreover the deep symbolism of the Holy land will endure. We are at the very beginning of human history; 50,000 years is but the blink of an eye compared to the billions of years still to come. We really have come quite a long way in the last two thousand years. Man did not evolve. He was created suddenly with an eternal soul. We all, thanks to God’s intervention in the form of Jesus, are free to choose to obey his commandments or to allow our hereditary evil to take over.
See also my new article - The Origin of Man
Guy de Moubray, Buxlow Manor.
30th August 1998 and revised 8th October 2004