Yes, you can be a Christian and accept evolution.
Is that a controversial way to start this article? It got to you click on the link and start reading, so I guess you must have found the title at least a bit intriguing!
It’s certainly a controversial idea in some Christian circles. In my work with the Science Network I often come across students who are really struggling with their faith because the biology they’re being taught in lectures seems to totally contradict what their Christian community has told them they should believe about creation. Too often this leads to a horrible dilemma, feeling like it’s a choice between the authority of God’s word and the weight of scientific evidence. I suspect some of you reading this will know all too well what that feels like.
But what if you don’t have to choose?
I want to encourage you in this article that you don’t. If you’re reasonably convinced from what you’ve seen in your scientific studies so far that evolution does make sense of the data, this doesn’t mean you have to give up on the God who inspired Genesis. And if your non-Christian coursemate thinks the gospel is compelling, but they couldn’t possibly believe that the world was created in the space of one week – that doesn’t have to stop them from following Jesus.
None of this is to say that Christians have to accept evolution – not by any means! Your personal convictions may lead you to conclude otherwise, and it’s right that each of us follow our God-given conscience. But I hope that by the time you’ve reached the bottom of this page we’ll have seen that you can be a Christian and accept evolution – and that embracing our freedom in Christ helps us to be better witnesses to the world.
Evolution: scientific theory vs worldview
So what exactly does it mean to ‘accept evolution’? And how might that be compatible with a Christian view that God created everything?
In reality, we use the word ‘evolution’ in an everyday sense to mean any of a whole spectrum of related ideas. ‘Accepting evolution’ could just mean agreeing with the statement that organisms change and adapt to their surroundings over time, which is easy enough to observe in nature (did everyone else look at peppered moths as a case study in GCSE Biology?) Or we could use ‘evolution’ to mean the idea that all species, humans included, are descended from a single common ancestor, a single-celled organism swimming around in the primordial soup several billion years ago.
But there’s another meaning with which we sometimes associate the word ‘evolution’ that’s quite different. It’s often implied to mean ‘the belief that all of the living world (and indeed the whole universe) came into being by a process of natural selection, genetic drift etc. that was totally random, began purely by chance, and was absolutely unguided by any kind of Creator’.
Do you see how that last definition is very different to the previous two? Evolution as a scientific theory makes no claims about whether or not there’s a God who invented and guides the evolutionary process: it purely posits a mechanism by which one species might change into another. Evolution as a worldview, however – that third definition – superimposes a belief about the non-existence of God onto that scientific theory.
Clearly, Christians have to reject the idea of a totally random, unguided start to life with no Creator! So when you hear it said ‘Christians can’t believe in evolution’, there’s a sense in which that’s true – if by ‘evolution’ you mean evolution without a Creator.
But rejecting evolution as a complete worldview doesn’t mean we have to chuck out evolution as a scientific theory.
We have a God who’s big enough and powerful enough to create any way he wants to, right? If he chose to make species appear one by one, instantaneously, over a period of six days, great. If he chose to gradually unfold one species out of another over billions of years, also great. Either mechanism for creation is totally legitimate for God to use if he wants to. He’s God, after all! There’s nothing in the theory of evolution itself which says it couldn’t be designed and directed by God. Even what are called ‘random’ mutations are only random in the sense that we as humans can’t predict them – they’re certainly not random from God’s point of view.1
So in theory God could certainly use evolution as a means of creation. But what do we do if it feels like scientific evidence is pointing us in the direction of one mechanism for creation, but Scripture points us in another?
Taking science seriously, taking Scripture seriously
My favourite place to go to address this tension is Psalm 19. If you have a Bible (or your phone) to hand, I’d recommend flipping it open and giving it a quick read before you go any further…
Reading the Psalm initially, did anyone else think that maybe two pages of their Bible had got stuck together? Or is that just me? Psalm 19 splits down the middle into two distinct halves that might feel like they’re on totally different themes. After six verses meditating on the sky, opening with that famous line ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, David abruptly switches to talking about Scripture: ‘the law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul…’
What’s with the change of topic halfway through?
Actually, I think if we questioned David about it, he’d tell us he’s not really changing topic at all. See, the big point he wants to make about the heavens is that they communicate something about God.
‘Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.’
Day and night, as we look up at the sky it is telling us something about the God who made it. The created world is like a letter from God to us saying ‘Look! I’m here! See what I’m like!’
It makes sense, then, for David’s mind to wander from one means of God’s self-communication to another. ‘The commands of the Lord are radiant’, he writes, ‘giving light to the eyes’. As nature illuminates for us something of what God is like, so does God’s written word, the Bible. And Scripture goes further than creation can: it gives words to that which the heavens cannot articulate. The Bible spells out in detail God’s salvation plan for creation through Jesus, and gives us all that we need to know that salvation for ourselves.
So God uses both nature and Scripture to communicate with us about who he is. What does that mean for our question about evolution?
Well it means, as the saying goes, that ‘all truth is God’s truth’. The truth that we find in the pages of the Bible is God’s truth. And the truth that we find by the study of the natural world using science is also God’s truth. We’re not free to disregard the Bible because it feels outdated, or to disregard science because its conclusions are inconvenient for our theology. Psalm 19 urges us to take both science and Scripture seriously.2
At the same time, we’ve got to be realistic and humble about how good we are as fallen and limited people at interpreting God’s truth. When it comes to science, we can only ever work with a partial data set, and it’s not like we can do repeatable experiments where we re-run the last 4 billion years to confirm our hypothesis. When it comes to Scripture, we’re all too prone to bringing our own presuppositions and cultural baggage to God’s word and reading into it what we want to read. Though God has genuinely made truth accessible to us via both means, we could be (and probably are) making mistakes in how we read either science, Scripture or both (and we won’t necessarily know which).3
So as we consider the question of the origin of life, Psalm 19 compels us to listen carefully to both science and the Bible on this issue. Study the biblical creation accounts in depth. Really seek to understand the data around evolutionary theory. It’s all God’s truth, and he’s given it to us that we might know ourselves and know him better.
The big question
We come then to the outstanding question: is there a way to take both Scripture and science seriously and accept a mainstream view of evolutionary theory?
The best demonstration of this is the vast array of leading scientists, pastors and theologians who are both firmly committed to evangelical Christian faith, and believe that for the most part at least, evolution was God’s chosen mechanism of creation. To list a few that you might have heard of, examples include Francis Collins, Denis Alexander, Deborah Haarsma, Tim Keller, Derek Kidner, Lydia Jaeger, NT Wright and CS Lewis . These individuals wouldn’t agree with each other on every point: rather they represent a whole spectrum of viewpoints that seek to harmonize biblical creation accounts and evolutionary science in diverse ways. (If you’re interested in discovering more about exactly how they do that, I’ve linked to something each person in the list above has produced on the topic.)
Of course, there are strength and weaknesses to these different views. I’m not saying you have to agree with any of them! Personally, I suspect that after another century or so of good science and good Biblical scholarship we’ll be able to draw some firmer conclusions – and so I’m hesitant to do more than suggest some possibilities (and keep reading widely!).
But the very existence of these men and women – scholars committed to the authority of Scripture who also accept evolution – proves that it is indeed possible to be a faithful Christian and agree with the scientific consensus on this issue.
Freedom in Christ
I imagine some of us come to that conclusion with a sense of relief. You don’t have to choose between two things that you hold dear. It’s possible to go about your degree with integrity, without compromising on your commitment to Christ!
At the same time, I imagine others of us are less enthusiastic. The idea of creation by evolution still feels uncomfortable, and accepting it would be to go against your conscience.
In several of his letters, Paul anticipates and responds to disagreements within churches over various issues of belief and behaviour, where there are genuine Christians seeking to honour God on both sides of the debate. He never seems surprised by it: Paul’s aware of the complexity involved in interpreting God’s truth rightly, and he knows Christians will come to different conclusions on things.
Paul’s emphasis in these matters is that we are free in Christ (Gal 5:1). In Christ you’re free to hold to young earth creation and you’re free to embrace evolution. You’re free to sit somewhere in the middle, and you’re free to be undecided.
When we embrace that freedom as a community of Christians, heeding Paul’s command to ‘accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you’ (Rom 15:7) whatever our beliefs about creation, we’ll better reflect the unity that is ours as parts of Christ’s body. And won’t we be a better witness to the world as those outside the church look in and see that our disagreements are marked by love rather than hostility? Let’s keep praying Paul’s prayer for each other as we figure this out:
‘May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Romans 15:5-6)
1 See Proverbs 16:33
2 It’s worth noting that taking science or Scripture seriously does not mean conforming to one particular interpretation (our favourite celebrity Christian’s view, for example). The church father Augustine of Hippo, writing around 400AD, moved through his Christian life from an exclusively metaphorical understand of Genesis 1-3 to a more literal one (although he still didn’t consider the seven days as seven twenty-four hour periods!). But even as he writes defending the historicity of Adam and Eve, he still affirms that there are faithful Christians who take Genesis seriously and yet interpret it metaphorically – putting them in a very different category to pagans who reject Scripture’s authority entirely.
3 We need to be careful here to avoid slipping into thinking that because our interpretation will always be flawed to some degree, there's no such thing as good science or good theology! Just as we use controls and double-blind trials to minimise bias in an experiment so that we get reliable results, there are tools we can use to help interpret the Bible reliably, so that we get as close as possible to the author's original meaning. More on this here and here.
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