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.

Brian Collins

Brian Collins

Brian Collins (PhD, Bob Jones University) serves as an elder at Mount Calvary Baptist Church and on the Bible integration team at BJU Press.

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