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01 May 2005

Can a Christian believe in evolution?

by Denis R Alexander

Perhaps we should start by defining the term ‘evolution’. Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859 as a theory to explain the origins of biological diversity. And at the time, that’s all it was - a biological theory that Christians were in fact quick to declare as a biblical doctrine of creation.

Asa Gray, professor of natural history at Harvard and a committed Christian, had long been Darwin’s confidante and organised the publication of The Origin of Species in North America. Christians such as Gray maintained that God had providentially arranged the biological processes of evolution to bring about God’s purposes in creation. B B Warfield, the Princeton theologian and prominent defender of the inspiration of Scripture, spoke of himself as a ‘Darwinian of the purest water’. The British historian James Moore writes that ‘with but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution’, and the American sociologist George Marsden reports that ‘with the exception of Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s’.

So given this initially warm reception, why did hostility towards evolution by Christians gain such prominence in the USA a century later, even giving rise to ‘text-book battles’ in which legal attempts have been made in some states to ban the teaching of evolution in schools?

Unfortunately, as often happens with the big scientific theories, evolution has become encrusted with all kinds of ideological baggage down the years.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a great populariser of evolution in North America in the latter part of the 19th century, selling 370,000 books, but unfortunately he tried to make evolution into a ‘theory-of-everything’, in which the entire universe was ascending towards ultimate perfection. It was Spencer (not Darwin) who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’, a notion that was to be misapplied with such terrible consequences by the Kaiser during the First World War and then by Hitler in the Third Reich.

"It's up to scientists to find out how God carries out His creative handiwork"

Today when Richard Dawkins recounts how Darwinian evolution enables him to be an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’, this only reinforces the idea that there must be something deeply anti-Christian about evolution. But the fact that evolutionary theory has been called upon to justify such a wide range of ideologies as communism, capitalism, racism and militarism, some of them mutually exclusive, should alert us to the dangers of extrapolating scientific theories into arenas in which they actually have little or nothing to say.

So is it possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution? Certainly, as long as ‘evolution’ refers not to some secular philosophy, but to the biological theory describing how God has created all living things. This explains why the vast majority of Christians who are active in biological research today have no problem with incorporating evolutionary theory within their belief in God as Creator. Our task as scientists is to describe the actions of God in the created order as accurately as we can. We are called by God to be truthtellers. If an evolutionary process provides the best explanation for the origins of biological diversity, then that’s fine - it is not our job to second-guess God as to how He should have made things, but to describe what He has actually done.

Evolution combines together two mechanisms. First, variation is introduced into genes (stretches of DNA) by various mechanisms; and second, the consequences of these mutations are tested out by the criterion of reproductive success, the extent to which mutations impact on the ability of individual organisms to generate offspring. Taken overall, this is a tightly regulated process, as far from the idea of random chance as can be imagined. As the Cambridge evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris points out in his recent book Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, if you replay the tape of life again, then what you’ll get is something remarkably similar to what we have now.

If you imagine the world as a matrix of millions of little boxes representing ‘design space’, then some of those boxes will get filled up, but not others. Eyes have evolved independently many times during evolution. Such findings are entirely consistent with the actions of a creator God who has intentions and purposes for His creation.

But of course evolutionary processes are not there to teach us morality; Christians are called to behave like children of God, according to God’s moral law, as revealed in the Bible. Conversely Christians should not abuse the Bible by trying to treat it as a scientific textbook, when scientific writing as we understand it now did not even get going until thousands of years after the early chapters of Genesis were written. It is anachronistic to treat biblical texts as if they were articles out of a contemporary scientific journal. The biblical creation accounts tell us timeless truths about God’s purposes for His creation in general, and for humankind in particular. It is up to scientists to find out how exactly God carries out His creative handiwork.

Some Christians think belief in evolution undermines the uniqueness of humankind and the reality of evil and the fall. Not so. The Genesis account portrays Adam and Eve as Neolithic farmers. It is perfectly feasible that God bestowed His image on representative Homo sapiens already living in the Near East to generate what John Stott has called Homo divinus, those who first enjoyed personal fellowship with God but who then fell most terribly from their close walk with God (Genesis 3.8). All those who disobey God and trust in their own wisdom in place of God’s law reiterate the historical fall in their own being (Ezekiel 28.11-19).

Those many Christians today who are active in the biological sciences are amazed as we uncover God’s creative actions in our daily research. We do not look for God in the gaps in our scientific knowledge, but instead worship God for the whole of His created order, including those remarkable evolutionary processes that God has used for His creative purposes.

Denis R Alexander argued that Christians can accept evolution with integrity,
Professor Andy McIntosh disagrees...

Christians in ScienceDenis R Alexander

  • Christians in Science provides resources, links and support for those interested in the relation between science and Christian faith.
  • For more information, visit www.cis.org.uk
  • Denis R Alexander is a fellow of St Edmund's College and editor of Science & Christian Belief

Part of the Big Question series first published in idea magazine between May 2004 & July 2007