Evolution and the Genesis Creation Story

If anyone adopts a literal interpretation of the Genesis Creation Story* and supposes that God brought the universe into existence in just six days, they will clearly have difficulty in reconciling this with the theory of Evolution, as the latter assumes that there has been a process of development lasting millions of years.

However, it is worth noting that belief in a literal six day Creation is a comparatively recent development in the history of the Church. The third century thinker, Origen, was scornful of the idea:

“What man of intelligence,” he wrote, “will consider that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be morning and evening, existed without sun, moon and stars …? These are figurative expressions …”

Many of the great leaders of the Early Church, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Ambrose and St. Augustine, followed the example of early Jewish rabbinic commentators interpreting the Genesis story along far more symbolic lines.

Modern scholars tend to view the points that the story makes in the context of contemporary near-eastern cultures, the Babylonian one in particular. In the Babylonians myth, for example, there are many gods vying for power and the world is the accidental by-product of a battle between two of them, Marduk and Tiamat. Genesis on the other hand describes a uni-verse and a single Creator who brings everything into being in a positive and purposive manner. In the Babylonian story, human beings are the play-things of the gods and their lives are strongly influenced by celestial powers (astrology played an important part in Babylonian culture). The Genesis creation story by contrast speaks of humans made in the ‘image of God’, called in other words to represent his good and gracious rule on earth. They have a real dignity and purpose whereas the stars are placed in the heavens with no particular power or authority.

Evolution is often assumed to be incompatible with belief in a purposive God such as the one described in Genesis, because it is deemed to involve a process of pure chance. But although random genetic mutation clearly plays a major role in the process, natural selection provides such an effective filter that the overall result is similar to that of playing with loaded dice. It seems to encourage over a period of time certain lines of development. We see this in the well-known phenomenon of ‘convergence’, for example, where the same organ (such as an eye or limb) repeatedly emerges (albeit in a slightly different form) from quite separate evolutionary pathways of development.

Science is concerned with a limited but clearly defined aspect of reality, and scientists therefore exclude quite rightly from their investigations metaphysical concerns about value and purpose. But when we move beyond Science and begin to ask such questions, the way the evolutionary process as a whole favours the production of increasingly complex organisms, which in turn give rise to consciousness and other attendant ‘goods’ such as awareness of truth, goodness, beauty and love, does suggest to many of us the existence of an underlying Purpose.

It may seem absurd to some people, in the context of a vast universe, to consider life in general, and human life in particular, as being of any real significance. But size is not necessarily that important. The smallness of a diamond found beneath a huge mountain, for example, does not seem to affect unduly people’s appreciation of its value. So if the universe needs to be of the size and nature that it is, to enable beings like us to emerge, then if we want the latter we must accept the former. It is not always possible to tinker with the way it has been structured; it comes, so to speak, as ‘a package deal’.

The in-built freedom we observe within the creative process is a problem to many, but not to Christians. God’s providential control over people and events is looser than people often suppose. As a God of love he cannot treat his creatures like robots. A loving parent does not wish to determine his or her child’s every thought or action and no more does God. In Jesus’ famous story about the prodigal son (Luke Ch.15, verses 11-end), the father (who clearly represents God) allows the son to make his own mistakes – to leave home and squander the family inheritance. The son is eventually drawn to make amends and return home, but the power which brings this about is the power of love, not brute force and manipulation. The cross is for Christians the supreme revelation of divine power but again it is not as the world would see it (1 Corinthians Ch.1, verses 22-25). Some Christian theologians have likened God in his lordship over Creation to a Grand Master in chess. We cannot speak of the Grand Master being in control of his opponent’s moves, but we can nevertheless describe him as being ‘in control of the game’ and as being able to bring it to a successful conclusion.

The modern anti-evolution Creationist movement began in the United States at the start of the 20th century. It was in its origins a moral reaction to the growing influence of social Darwinism and to the belief that the oppression of the weak by the rich and powerful was simply an outworking of a natural evolutionary struggle for survival. A Democrat candidate for the presidency called Bryan, for example, campaigned against the teaching of evolution on these grounds. His campaign led to it being outlawed in Tennessee, and this in turn resulted to the notorious Scopes Trial of 1925 when the law was challenged. It is unfortunate that rejection of social Darwinism began to spill over into a rejection of the scientific theory.

When Darwin first published his theory of natural selection in his book, The Origin of Species, there was no neat division of opinion between Church and scientific community and he himself veered between belief and agnosticism. Many clergy, like Charles Kingsley (author of ‘The Water Babies’) for example, accepted it quite happily whilst a number of respectable scientists had serious doubts and questions. There were a significant number of clergy in those days working at the forefront of scientific enquiry. The famous Oxford debate in 1860 between Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, is often caricatured as a debate between rational Science and irrational Religion. But in fact it was held as part of the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Bishop Wilberforce, being a former vice-president, was an obvious person to invite to participate in the debate.

Today there are many scientists who are committed Christians or theists (some of them quite eminent), and many more who, whilst not necessarily subscribing to belief in a Christian God, are nevertheless inclined towards the idea that there is ‘something akin to a Mind’ behind it all.

Hugh P C Broadbent

11th November 2013

*We refer here to the one recorded in the first chapter of Genesis as there are in fact two Creation stories.

 For further reading:

‘Darwin and God’ by Nick Spencer (SPCK)

‘Dawkins’ God – Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life’, by Alister McGrath (Blackwell)

‘Genes, Genesis and God’, by Holmes Rolston III (Cambridge)

Eight new science and faith projects launched in churches.