Where We Came From
Christians who study creation and evolution arrive at a wide variety of conclusions. Here’s an overview of ways that Canadian Christians approach these issues.
In 2009, a Canadian Evangelical named Gary Goodyear was asked whether he believed in evolution. Goodyear, who happens to be a member of Parliament and the minister of state for science and technology, the federal department that funds science research, initially replied that his beliefs were irrelevant. The story made headlines. Later Goodyear said he did accept evolutionary theory.
The affair prompted a number of commentaries on the relation of faith and science – and raised a lot of thought-provoking questions.
The media implied that Goodyear was reluctant to publicly reveal his beliefs, but what if his concern was trying to explain to some of his fellow Evangelicals an acceptance of evolutionary theory? How many Canadians are aware of the great variety of Christian perspectives on how Scripture and science interact?
Many of us feel ill-equipped to discuss such issues, in part because of all the strongly expressed opinions out there. In the public square, we’ve recently seen some pretty vicious arguments between the so-called New Atheists and religious believers, and in the Christian media world, many of us have seen how clashing biblical interpretations can bring out uncharitable attitudes and behaviour between believers.
It’s an issue that has some Evangelicals sitting on a “hair trigger,” says Brian Alters, McGill University’s science education chair and one of six experts in a recent American federal case about teaching intelligent design in public schools.
Though now agnostic, Alters was raised as an Evangelical, counts many Christians as friends, and understands the tide of emotions. He understands the natural human reaction of wanting to avoid uncomfortable public debates, and he also knows the fears that some religious parents can have about classes in evolutionary science potentially leading their children to lose faith.
Evangelicals would have more “peace of mind,” he says, “if they could reconcile these two things” – namely, evolution and creation, or more generally science and faith.
And there’s the rub. The issue is not simply an either/or choice.
Although that’s the way it’s often laid out in the media, in fact it is unrealistic to suggest that people either accept evolutionary theory together with atheism on the one hand, or believe in an Earth created 6,000 or 10,000 years ago on the other.
The reality is Evangelicals hold complex and wide-ranging beliefs from young earth creationism to evolutionary creation and everything in between.
Alters agrees that it’s a mistake to present faith and science as an either/or choice. “Science is a way to reveal the natural world, and in that scheme, evolution is considered factual. But saying that this proves there is no God leaves the realm of science and enters the realm of philosophy.”
That’s also why atheists get upset with Christians who maintain that creation ought to be also taught in schools – “a non-scientific thought proffered as science.”
Teaching evolution in school
David Herbert, a high school teacher in London, Ontario, has heard those calls to ban teaching about creation from the class-room, but he disagrees for more than simply religious reasons. He incorporates creationism into science class to help his students develop critical thinking skills, to consider the biases in various theoretical approaches.
“Even when you’re only teaching data in the schools, there’s always an underlying assumption with it, an interpretation,” says Herbert, who holds a PhD from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and has authored the biography Charles Darwin’s Religious Views: From Creationist to Evolutionist (Sola Scriptura, 2009).
It’s hard for Christians to avoid the conclusion, despite various levels of hesitation about evolutionary theory, that youth need to learn about it in school – at least to be better prepared to face what lies ahead in the broader world, if not at university. Gary Chiang helps university students with just those issues in his job as adjunct professor of biology at Redeemer University College. His approach is similar to Herbert’s: Chiang stresses the difference between the value-neutral aspects of scientific theories and the conclusions people draw from them, which are shaped by beliefs and assumptions. Absolutely everyone brings their “religious views” to the table, says Chiang, who authored Rescuing Science from Preconceived Beliefs (Doorway Publications, 2009).
“The evolutionist sees evolution in organisms reproducing, while the creationist believes that biological reproductive mechanisms prevent one species from evolving into another.”
By engaging in rhetoric, neither proponent develops an understanding for the foundation of their differences and “the facts are seen to support evolution or creationism once the mind has been trained to accept either worldview,” Chiang says.
But those facts that seem to point to evolution have to be dealt with, says Dennis Venema, who teaches genetics at Trinity Western University. “The church is needlessly setting up students for a crisis of faith” by avoiding evolution or offering superficial dismissals of it, he says.
Fears about teaching evolution are misplaced and counterproductive, Venema asserts.
Most “anti-evolutionary arguments won’t last through one university biology class,” he asserts. [Some Christian] students see the science and say ‘I’ve been lied to.’ ”
Fears about teaching evolution are misplaced and counterproductive, Venema asserts. Given Christianity’s venerable and robust history, Evangelicals should not be so worried that faith will be destroyed by claims that “observable natural processes, like heredity or evolution, are part of the providence of God.
“Calling something natural does not somehow pit it against God or Christianity. God is the Author of nature and the supernatural,” Venema says. When Christian youth are introduced to the variety of ideas rightly and early on, their faith will not be shaken even by any radically new future scientific discoveries.
Venema, who considers himself an evolutionary creationist, accepts that “God has revealed Himself through nature as well as through Scripture. I have a personal experience of the Holy Spirit, and feel that what we find in nature is revelation of God. These ways of knowing are complementary.”
The terminology can be a challenge, he admits. “I prefer ‘evolutionary creationism’ to ‘theistic evolution’ because it puts the emphasis on God as Creator through a providential evolutionary process. We see His glory in the complexity of nature. Why is it so hard to accept that God used evolution as His creative method, which is ultimately and completely dependent on Him? Or that through an ordained natural process we are still fearfully and wonderfully made?”
Combating atheist claims is as simple as sticking with science: “Atheism is a philosophical position not mandated by any scientific theory,” says Venema. “Science deals only with the natural world. The existence of God is supernatural, or above nature. So evolution can’t disprove God in that sense.”
A challenge to faith?
The intensity of the debate, and perhaps a lack of sophistication in understanding the relative roles of faith and science, has many Christian students living in a “cognitive dissonant state,” says Alberta biology professor Denis Lamoureux. If they’re raised with an evangelical faith but are unprepared about these issues, some can indeed lose that faith in a tough university science class, he says.
Lamoureux describes himself as a “born-again Pentecostal” who was intent on disproving evolution during PhD studies. Instead he became convinced by fossil records demonstrating an evolutionary pattern, and then by the explosion in biology that started in the 1980s and culminated in the 2003 human genome project.
His advice for Evangelicals is that today’s students, who have “cut their teeth on Jurassic Park, need leadership,” not avoidance tactics. “The evidence for evolution is there and growing daily.”
But Lamoureux agrees with Venema: that evidence doesn’t have to lead to atheism. “I would be in complete agreement [with well-known atheist Richard Dawkins] on the science, but not on philosophy. I believe in the Bible as a sacred text revealed by the Holy Spirit. When I look at beauty, complexity and functionality of the natural world, I see a creative mind. This aligns perfectly with Psalm 19. What’s more, I believe in a God in communication with us, who gives us life after death. And 40 per cent of scientists agree with me.”
Although there are certainly some scientists known to challenge aspects of evolutionary theory, most of those scientists who agree with Lamoureux about God’s existence also agree with him that the evidence in creation really does point to evolutionary processes.
Ross Hastings of Regent College, an evangelical graduate school in Vancouver, B.C., explains: “To be scientifically recognized, a theory must account for empirical evidence and be able to predict and test the relationships it predicts. The empirical and predictive evidence for evolution is now overwhelming.
“This includes not just transitional fossils – we have complete sets of dinosaur-to-bird transitional fossils and especially reptile-to-mammal intermediates – but also evidence from comparative anatomy and embryology, vestigial organs, homologous structures and molecular evolution which indicates that we are the products of the genes of our ancestors.”
Hastings, who holds a PhD in chemistry and a PhD in theology, warns the Church against ignoring evolution. “No good can come from” avoidance, he says, pointing to the historical example of how the church asked Galileo not to introduce illiterate people to his (then) radical conclusion that the Earth orbits the sun. Hastings sees it also as a missional issue. Many thinking people have been asked to make a choice between faith and science, which is not necessary.
“That God seems to have created, first ex nihilo [out of nothing] to set the big bang going, and then by a slow process of evolution over millions of years, does not in any way contradict Genesis 1 and 2 properly interpreted. That passage is meant to answer questions of a theological and not a chronological nature.”
Hastings’ conclusions may be held by a majority of Christian scientists, but there are others who object to much of evolutionary theory.
Clockwise from left: Hugh Ross, founder of Reasons to Believe Institute; biology professor Denis Lamoureux; and Denyse O’Leary, author of By Design or by Chance: The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe.
David DeWitt, for example, professor of cell biology and biochemistry at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virgina, disputes the claim that the earth is five billion years old. He cites several reasons for his belief in young earth creationism: some biblical, some scientific.
For example he points to the genealogies of Genesis 11, which give specific ages: “So I have to believe that is God’s way of saying, ‘Here’s how you can know, I’m telling you.’ ”
How can Christians who accept evolution “account for millions of years of dying before humans appeared, if God saw it was good at the end of the sixth day?” DeWitt asks. “I have a hard time believing that good includes cancer, and cheetahs running down gazelles.”
DeWitt’s scientific objections start with the reliability of carbon dating, which scientists use to measure the age of fossils and other materials. “Radioactive carbon shouldn’t be detectable after 90,000 years because that is the detection limit of the instrument.
Yet radioactive carbon is found in diamonds and coal that are supposed to be 300 million years old.” If carbon dating might not be accurate after certain lengths of time, DeWitt suggests, isn’t it possible that other techniques that offer measurements across thousands of centuries might also be questionable?
Even the much-touted human genome project doesn’t necessarily support an old Earth in DeWitt’s opinion, because “genes are about the sequence, not a measure of the length of time. Most individuals in Europe have a common ancestor back to one individual about 700 years ago, and most of the lines go extinct.”
Humans and chimps?
Proposed timeframes for mutation and evolution are extremely problematic, argues DeWitt. He points to a study of DNA of 100-year-old mice bodies in a Chicago museum. The study suggests that mutation “happens much faster than what’s inferred by human common ancestry.”
That theory of common ancestry – that life forms mutated and developed from a single organism – is particularly unpleasant for some Christians because it suggests replacing the scriptural Adam and Eve with monkeys and other lower forms of life.
Yet many Evangelicals who accept evolution seem content to trust that God created humanity and provided the Genesis accounts as ways to assure us of His role.
Venema insists that “evolution is the biological theory with the broadest explanatory power. Obviously some details have changed in 150 years – Darwin didn’t have the whole picture – but his thesis of modern species being derived from ancestral species through natural selection remains strongly supported by even the latest genetic evidence.”
Venema points to the human genome project (led by Christian geneticist and physician Francis Collins) and the more recent chimpanzee genome project that allowed a full comparison of the human and chimp genetic codes. “What we see is overwhelming evidence for common ancestry between our species and chimps,” Venema says. “We see many features in common between the two codes that make no sense at all if our species are not related. We see defective genes with identical mutations in both species. We see the same genes arranged in the same order. It would have been simple for God to design these two codes to look very different, but what we see are exactly the features predicted by evolution.” But does similarity in genes necessarily mean common ancestry?
A line in the sand?
Another Canadian dissenting voice that has spoken loudly against this view is that of Hugh Ross, the astronomer who founded California’s Reasons to Believe Institute. He accepts that “Earth and the universe are billions of years old,” but he disagrees with common ancestry theory.
As Ross sees it, there’s adaptation (micro-evolution) which “accounts for today’s humans being taller with better eyesight.”
But when it comes to species’ changing into other species (macroevolution), “we believe that God supernaturally intervened to form different life-forms. Our creation model argues that God is intimately involved in all of life on planet Earth, that He devoted over three billion years of life history to shaping the environment and chemically converting crustal minerals for the benefit of human existence.”
Ross and the institute’s stand is that “there is an actual chronology in Genesis starting with the creation of the universe (matter, energy, space and time), and then focusing in on Earth – appearance of light on Earth’s surface, establishment of a stable water cycle, formation of landmasses, production of plants on the landmasses, visibility of the sun, moon and stars to creatures on Earth’s surface, proliferation of complex creatures (Cambrian explosion), creation of birds and sea mammals, introduction of three kinds of advanced land animals, and creation of humans.”
… the issue is what we mean by “literally.”
Many people feel that’s reading too much science into Genesis and find it easier to understand the text literarily rather than literally, Ross acknowledges. But when they take the time to examine his position with an open mind, many find it makes sense, he says.
Iain Provan, professor of biblical studies at Regent College, does not find Ross’ interpretation of Genesis convincing. It’s inconsistent to understand the “days” of creation as vast ages while rejecting an “evolutionary understanding of the process by which God created.”
“Why is it that God can be ‘intimately involved’ in using natural and long-lasting processes to shape the environment for life, but not in using such processes to shape life itself?” Provan asks.
Understanding the book of Genesis “literally” is important to Christians, says Provan, but the issue is what we mean by “literally.”
He argues Christians should be reading it “as ancient Near Eastern literature – that is, literally! – in accordance with what its author likely meant, in his own time and culture.”
Room for mystery
Lamoureux takes a similar view. “When you came to Christ, did the Lord not come down and meet you where you were at? So too with biblical revelation. The Holy Spirit came to the level of ancient Hebrews.
“Let’s assume the big bang theory is correct. The Holy Spirit could have put an ancient Hebrew writer into a trance and dictated the big bang theory, but would his audience at that time have had a clue what he was talking about? We’re the most scientifically literate culture in history, and we still don’t really understand it.”
Despite what we don’t understand, there is much evidence in creation for its Designer – details that are so exact as to be beyond the realm of chance, asserts Denyse O’Leary of Toronto.
O’Leary is author of By Design or by Chance: The Growing Controversy on the Origins of Life in the Universe (Augsburg, 2004) and is now working on a book with William Dembski about why they believe theistic evolution fails as science and theology. O’Leary’s approach, common in the intelligent design movement, focuses on the intricacy and complexity of creation and concludes that, rather than using the chancy processes of evolution, God must have intervened more directly, miraculously and supernaturally.
She offers an example on the grandest scale: “Earth is situated in precisely the right location in the galaxy to support life. It’s in the darkest part of the galaxy, best for observing the heavens. The solar system holds a special position in the Milky Way. Earth is not exactly at the co-rotation distance, which would give it repeated gravitational kicks exerted by the galactic arm structure, sending it flying out of the habitable zone. Earth’s solar system is located safely just inside the co-rotation distance. Revolving around the galactic centre only slightly faster than the galactic arm structure, our solar system crosses the spiral arms only once about every billion years. The last spiral arm crossing occurred 560 to 600 million years ago (just before the Cambrian explosion, when complex animals first came on the scene), so Earth currently resides in the safest possible location.”
Her unspoken question: Could all this really be the result of “natural” processes? Scripture supports her point. “God reiterates in Genesis and the Psalms that the world is His handiwork,” O’Leary says. “God never tried to conceal His work. He does tweak and never had any problems interfering with His creation – He answered Moses and the people’s call.”
Where did I come from?
For many, what’s really at the heart of the debate is the question our children ask us at an early age: “Where did I come from?”
Lamoureux proposes this answer: “As Billy Graham said, the Bible is not a book of science, but of redemption meant to restore our relationship with the God who created the universe and humanity. Whether it came by evolutionary process, God still took this person and made him a living soul.”
Admittedly, intelligent Christians have doubts and questions about how to read Genesis and the historical evidence found in creation as well as about how to read the science, but certainly our common Christian beliefs are strong enough to encompass some diversity and ongoing discussion on these intriguing issues.
Hastings agrees. “How God created the world is not a creedal issue, whereas the fact that God created is. While this issue of origins is interesting, and all evangelical parties are concerned to preserve important issues of theology within their viewpoint, this issue should not be a cause for division among us as the already too-fractured people of God.”
The conversation among Canadian Christians will, no doubt, continue.
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.
Originally published, along with several other related articles, in Faith Today, July/August 2010. Read more on this issue at cosmos.regent-college.edu and in the book The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories by Thomas Fowler and Daniel Kuebler (Baker, 2007).
Used with permission. Copyright © 2010 Christianity.ca.