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Sunday, 27 July 2008

Evolution: Necessary for the Continuation of Life

One of the common objections to evolution put forward by Christians is that:

A) The evolutionary process is dependent on death and
B) God would never use a process dependent on evil to accomplish his purposes

Now B) is a theological statement that can be disputed on many levels (eg. equating death with evil, or implying that God can not utilize bad situations for his purposes – one of the major themes of the bible clearly contradicts this implication eg. enslavement of Joseph, death of Christ). However, it is statement A) that I’d like to address here.

The Problem is Limited Resources
Paradigms on Pilgrimage is a book written by paleontologist Stephen Godfrey and Baptist minister Christopher Smith. Both are former YEC advocates who now advocate an evolutionary creationist position. In his chapter on dealing with the theological implications of evolution, Smith directly addresses claim A) above. It is not primarily evolutionary mechanisms like genetic mutations, or even natural selection, which is the problem. It is in fact, the limited amount of resources available to God’s creatures.

It is true that new characteristics take root in a population, under circumstances where they confer some survival advantage, as organisms with those characteristics displace those without them. But the effective cause of the demise of the organisms without the new characteristics is not the emergence of these characteristics themselves, through genetic variation, but rather the availability of only limited resources for the population as a whole. When resources are abundant, a greater range of organisms will survive, even those with less of a survival advantage. And finite resources pose just as great a theological problem for the [old or young earth] creationist. (page 167)
Evolutionary Mechanisms: A Creative Tool
With respect to the Fall and death in God’s good creation, I am not going to deal with the many (theological & scientific) arguments against young earth creationism (A very interesting paper somewhat related is Randy Isaac’s The Chronology of the Fall). What should be noted is that an OEC position has the exact same theological challenges as an EC position with regards to physical death before the fall, and the fact that pain, death, and extinction have been going on for a very, very long time. In many ways an EC position is much easier to defend; the evolutionary mechanism of genetic variation is an excellent strategy for the continuation of life in a changing environment.

Far from being dependent on death, the evolutionary process as seen in the fossil record is actually the antidote to death. If new species were not formed by the process of genetic variation, there would be no survivors when environmental conditions did change and existing species proved so poorly adapted to the new conditions that they became extinct. So death is not necessary for evolution, but evolution has been necessary for the continuation of life. (pages 167 and 168 – emphasis mine)
Evolution is not dependent on death and extinction; rather, given the world we have, it is the antidote to death and extinction. In the world God has created, evolutionary mechanisms enable the continuation of life. They are one of the tools God uses to accomplish his purposes.


Anonymous said...


I like your argument about evolution being the antidote to death.

But I still have a question, and this is one of those things that I've been struggling a bit as an ECer. What about the related matter of suffering? It seems that if we accept a non-YEC view of reality (i.e. the only scientifically acceptable one), then we believe that some intelligent animals suffered before sin was introduced. In fact, suffering is often necessary in evolution to prevent further harm, but still there is often suffering without alleviating harm or death. Did God ordain animal suffering?


Anonymous said...

Comparing macroevolution to YEC as the only two alternatives is at best weak scholarship and at worst intellectually dishonest. If you want to be fair, you will include the OEC position. In your zeal to promote macroevolution you should not abandon elemental fairness.

Walt Carpenter

Jimpithecus said...

John Polkinghorne addressed the notion of suffering in his lecture on quarks and creation a bit back. In it, if I remember correctly, he described an evolving creation that is not only created by God but self-creating. In this self-creating universe, errors creep in. Also, evolution is the means by which the created order changes over time.

Jimpithecus said...

Walt, do you promote progressive creation?

Steve Martin said...

Hi Walt,
I did not mean to imply that YEC & EC are the only alternatives. Basically I was dismissing YEC as a non-viable scientific alternative (I also believe it is not a good theological alternative). I did include the OEC position in my post - what I did say is that OEC & EC share many of the same theological challenges. And I believe, on balance, an EC view is theologically more viable than OEC (as well as scientifically more viable).

Jim: Good point on Polkinghorne’s views here. I believe Polkinghorne quotes Charles Kingsley in the following: “We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than that, that He can make all things make themselves.”

Dan: Did God ordain animal suffering? Ultimately the theodicy question. To me, the best answer is Polkinghorne’s Free Process Defense (extension of Free Will Defence). From Science and Christian Belief (page 83) “In his great act of creation, God allows the whole universe to be itself. Each created entity is allowed to behave in accordance with its nature, including the due regularities which may be part of that nature. God no more expressly wills the growth of cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not the puppet master of either men or matter”. That is only a snippet of course. You really need to read the whole “Creation” chapter in this book – or the whole chapter on “Evil” in Science and Providence. Not an answer the many reformed thinkers are going to appreciate since they will probably view this as selling out God's soveriegnty. I strongly disagree with this assessment.

Anonymous said...

It's good to see a robust evolutionary theodicy now in development. Having just finished reading Denis Lamoureux's new book, Evolutionary Creation, I can say he has a lot more to offer in this respect. I just posted my review at Amazon, for those who want to give it a read.

Anonymous said...

Jordan, I just read your review. Now I can't wait to read it. Sounds like just the book I've been asking for; from what you said, it sounds like his treatment of Paul's view of the origin of sin is a lot like my own. Thanks!

Tom said...

There are several worms spilling out on this one that I'd like to see on future posts. They all surround theodicy, but here are some questions I'd like to discuss.

1) Why would God have made an environment with limited resources?

2) Did competition introduce evil?

3) Heaven is supposed to have no death, sickness, or pain. It sounds like evolution stops, then, upon the second coming. Why would God use it for some billions of years and then stop? If evolution is the antidote to death, what is life without evolution?

Steve Martin said...

Jordan: Excellent review at amazon. Thanks.

Stephen: From what I know of Lamoureux’s work & your own ideas, I definitely think you will appreciate Lamoureux’s position.

Tom: There are certainly some thorny challenges here. And I may address them in future posts … although I suspect never to your complete satisfaction .. or even mine for that matter. But since they all surround theodicy, I’ll repeat what I said in a past post. From my “Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation Part 2: 5 common Faith Stoppers”

Theodicy is a very difficult problem for Christians. How can an all powerful, all loving God allow so much evil to exist? Why did he even allow the possibility of evil in his creation? Couldn’t an omniscient designer have done a better job? These are excellent questions but ones that, I believe, are unrelated to the process of evolution. Whether one explains the fossil record by many progressive creative acts, or the gradual creative process of evolution, the fact remains that much pain and death have occurred. Theodicy is a challenge for Christianity and theism in general, not just for evolutionary creationists.

The summary is this: On philosophical arguments alone, I’m afraid we as Christians can not win the debate if the argument is confined to theodicy. All of us, no matter what our view on origins, are in the same boat. (But fortunately, the Christian message is so much more than an intellectual argument & about so much more than theodicy). However, there are aspects (I believe) about the evolutionary creationist view that make the Christian worldview, and even the topic of theodicy, more palatable. The evidence for evolution, in my opinion, is not a good reason to ditch the gospel.

Cliff Martin said...


You are correct: the theodicy problem will never go away so long as we presume that the reality we experience was planned out by God; that evolution was simply his tool of choice; and that it was his intention to have life rise up in a limited-resource environment which could not, by design, support the life he was developing. Tom’s questions are excellent. I agree with you, Steve, that Polkinghorne provides a reasonable approach. God, Polkinghorne assures us, did not actually plan all this to transpire as it has.

My view is similar, but perhaps goes further. At OutsideTheBox, I continue to develop the idea that all creation was a response to evil, and that it contains many concessions made necessary by God’s overriding purpose of annihilating evil. It is the only way that I can make sense of an entropic cosmos, dominated by death, decay and devastating destruction, all of which traces back to the very dawn of creation. The cosmos I thus envision would be one in which all suffering is potentially purposeful, and plays a role in the Creator’s overall plan.

As Jesus so plainly shows us both by his own actions, and by his Sermon on the Mount teaching, evil is overcome not by the exercise of greater force, but by allowing evil to run its course and meet up against righteous non-resistance (ergo, suffering). If this is true in my relationship to my neighbor, if it is true in Jesus defeat of Satan at the Cross, why should it not also be true in the Cosmic Battle of the Ages?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve: mine shipped today! :)

Anonymous said...

I'm not that active on the blogs these days, but I'm very glad to see you still going!

You mention it briefly in your original post, but Christ's death answers both objections quite clearly. Animal death cannot be seen as inherently evil, lest God's prescription to Moses for animal sacrifice (foreshadowing Christ's) be a prescription to sin, and one sin cannot cover another. To clarify, sin can in fact (and does!) result in death, but death itself is not a sin, lest the Torah be a law of sin, God be a murderer (the Flood), and Christ's own sacrifice be in vein.

Lame and Blind said...

Hi, all. I am enjoying encountering this blog for the first time, reading some of the older posts, etc.

On the theodicy question, I have found Boyd's 'warfare' theodicy to be helpful - the idea that God's will faces real challenges by free agents determined to thwart it and that much of history reflects this ongoing battle. On this view, evil is in no way sanctioned by God, but through God's humility space is made for free agents (humans, angels, demons, etc.) to choose to oppose Him.

With this in mind, the history of life on earth and the process of evolution itself is another battleground for this struggle to take place on. As is becoming increasingly recognized, cooperation and a drive toward coexistence plays perhaps as strong a role in evolution as fierce competition. There is thus no reason to think that evolution will ever stop, but will rather, like all creation, be perfected at the second coming. That is, it may become entirely a process of changing toward increased cooperation and coexistence - lions laying down with lambs, that sort of thing.

I've bookmarked the page. See you around. :)