" September 2014 "

Accommodating Evolution and the Problem of Evil

[This is a guest post by Brian Collins, who received his Ph.D. in Theology from Bob Jones University Seminary and serves as part of the Bible Integration Team at BJU Press. Brian also serves as an elder at Mount Calvary Baptist Church.]

Many Christians believe that it is important to find some way to harmonize the Bible with evolutionary theory. This belief is often linked with concerns for effective evangelism. Since evolutionary science is so widely accepted among scientists today, these Christians are worried that when faced with a choice between trusting the Bible and trusting science, many people will choose science. If conflict between evolution and Scripture can be lessened or removed, a major evangelistic obstacle will have been removed.

If the choice between the Bible and evolutionary science is indeed a false choice, then by all means evangelical scholars should show how the two harmonize. But when the attempt at harmonization is made, the necessity of the choice between the Bible and evolution quickly becomes evident.

First, biblical scholars have not been able to agree on an interpretation to replace a face-value, historical reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. This is clear in books like Reading Genesis 1-2: An Evangelical Conversation. The lack of consensus on a replacement interpretation for these chapters raises questions about the viability of the alternative approaches.

Second, attempts to harmonize Scripture and evolutionary theory have profound theological consequences. Sometimes biblical interpretations are revised as scientific theories change. Phrases such as “the rising of the sun” (Ps. 113:3) are now understood as an idiom (one still used today) rather than a scientific description. Importantly, however, no change in hermeneutical approach to these passages was needed to make sense of these passages, and no doctrines are affected. The same is not the case with the most rigorous attempts to harmonize Genesis with the current prevailing theories of origins. Karl Giberson, in Saving Darwin, admits that a historical Adam and Eve, a historical Fall, original sin, and the distinctiveness of humans as made in the image of God are all casualties of harmonizing Genesis with evolutionary theory. All attempts at harmonization face the problem of death prior to the Fall.

Third, the problem of death and suffering before the Fall is far more serious than most theologians seem to realize. The conflict between evolution and Scripture is often seen as the chief apologetic challenge of the present time. But the chief philosophical challenge to Christianity is the problem of evil, and attempts to harmonize Scripture with evolutionary theory make defending Christianity against this challenge difficult if not impossible. The problem of evil has become more pointed as scientists learn more about certain animals’ sentience, capacity to experience pain, abilities to remember, and so forth. This has led many to conclude that animal suffering and death is a great evil. On this point the Bible is in agreement with modern science and philosophy. The Bible evidences concern for the wellbeing of animals (Prov. 12:10). The suffering of the non-human world is described as a condition of bondage, groaning, and pain as a result of sin (Rom. 8:20; Gen. 3:17-19). The earth awaits redemption (Rom. 8:23), and included in that redemption is the end of animal suffering and pain (Isa. 11:6-9; 65:25).

Traditionally, Christians have defended against the problem of animal suffering and death by pointing to the Bible’s teaching that it is a result of the Fall (Rom. 5:12; 8:20). In seeking to defend Christianity against those who say it is scientifically ill-informed, Christians who seek to harmonize the Bible and evolution have removed the biblical explanation of the problem of evil in the animal world. This problem is so significant that theologian John Feinberg, who has focused much of his research on the problem of evil, believes it is one of three theological reasons for rejecting old-earth interpretations of the creation narratives (No One Like Him, 622-23).

The challenges we face as Christians today are really nothing new. Augustine reinterpreted the opening chapters of Genesis to harmonize Scripture with Platonic cosmology. Medieval Christians struggled to harmonize the Bible’s teaching about creation with Aristotle’s teaching that the world is eternal. Modern Christians face the challenge of Darwinism. Though the cosmologies of Plato and Aristotle can be readily dismissed today, they were seen as significant challenges to the Christian faith in their time. In another 1,000 years, if the Lord tarries, Darwinisim will doubtless hold the same place that the cosmologies of Plato and Aristotle now hold, and Christians will face new challenges. This fact argues for resisting calls for exegetically-forced harmonization and theological dubious reworkings of the Christian faith in the face of shifting scientific theories.

Is Purgatory a Biblical Doctrine?

I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church for 18 years. During those years my spiritual life consisted primarily in my relationship with the Church. I was planning on spending time in purgatory after my death to pay the temporal punishment for my venial sins before eventually making it to Heaven. After realizing from Scripture that salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 1:12-13), my faith was placed in the death of Jesus Christ as the full payment for my sin. No amount of suffering on my part can add to the complete forgiveness I now have in the truth of the Gospel(Romans 5:1).   The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is not only absent from Scripture, but also contradicts Scripture.

The doctrine of Purgatory was first formulated by pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604) and was confirmed as a dogma of faith at the Council of Florence in AD 1439. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church does not teach purgatory, Roman Catholics believe purgatory to be the state or condition after death where sinners receive temporal punishment for venial sins committed after baptism. “Purgatory (Lat., ‘purgare’, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgression” (Catholic Encyclopedia). Mortal sins are serious violations of God’s law (drunkenness, adultery, murder) while venial sins are less serious violations of God’s law (impatience, ordinary anger, slightly drunk). Mortal sins drive sanctifying grace out of the soul and therefore must be confessed to a priest in order to obtain absolution. Venial sins, which do displease God, only injure fellowship with Him.  The Catholic practice of suffrages, offering prayers and sacrifices for the dead, can shorten the time of suffering in purgatory for these venial sins. Also, the Pope can grant indulgences to alleviate, shorten, or terminate time in purgatory. Canon Law 992 says, “An indulgence is the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. A member of Christ’s faithful who fulfills certain specific conditions may gain an indulgence and the help of the Church which, as ministers of redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints.”

The Roman Catholic Church uses I Corinthians 3 which speaks of the judgment of Christians at the Judgment Seat of Christ as a proof text for purgatory. In this passage a Christian’s works are  judged according to motive. The good works, gold, silver, and precious stones, are those performed for the glory of God; and the bad works, wood, hay, and stubble, are those done out of selfish motivation. Christians will be rewarded for a life lived to the glory of God and will suffer loss of reward for living for self-glorification. “The fire will try every man’s work of what sort it is.” Paul in Romans 2:7 teaches that God considers those works done out of a passion for eternity as worthy of reward. So the Judgment Seat of Christ understood in its context in 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 has nothing to do with temporal punishment for venial sins. The future judgment of the Christian’s works is not to pay for sin but to purge impure motives.

Another passage used by Catholics to support Purgatory is found in Colossians 1:24. They claim Paul teaches the temporal suffering in Purgatory is suggested in the phrase, “that which fills up that which is behind (lacking) of the afflictions of Christ.” Did Paul mean the suffering of Christ on the cross does not pay for all our sin? The phrase “afflictions of Christ” is never used in Scripture to express His sufferings on the cross. The suffering of Christ was both unique and complete. Since Christ’s personal suffering for sin was completed on the cross (Hebrews 9:25-26; 1 Peter 3:18), Paul is teaching that the persecution of the Church (body of Christ) today is a continuation of the persecution of Christ. As the hatred of the Head, Christ, is vented upon His body, the Church,His body shares in the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10). The union between Christ and His Church is a strong one. “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:13).

Since no amount of suffering on the part of Christians could add to the completed work of Christ on the cross, how could a priest know when enough had been done to release a sinner from his suffering? Paul teaches that as our sins were placed upon Christ so His righteousness was placed upon the redeemed sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21).   God now looks at the Christian as having never sinned, because he is clothed in the righteousness of His Son. The writer of the Book of Hebrews can say, “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” God’s justice has been fully satisfied by the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrew 10:14,17).

This absence of purgatory should not lead the Christian to assume God overlooks sin.   Transgression of the law is sin and God takes sin seriously. The example of Nathan rebuking a justified man, David, demonstrates this accountability (2 Samuel 12). Repentance is necessary for the guilt to be removed and fellowship restored, but our standing before God remains unchanged because the sacrifice of Christ paid the penalty in full. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

May we rest in the blessed comfort expressed in the beautiful words of Horatio G. Spafford’s hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!