I occasionally get emails about evolution or intelligent design, so I thought I'd do a post about what I think the Christian response to these issues should be.
Even today, over 150 years after the first publication of On the Origin of Species, many people are concerned about the implications of evolution. I hope this post will help to show that evolution is not nearly as threatening as many Christians assume. On the contrary, I think that it reveals to us something about how God went about His work of creation.
There are some atheists who believe that there is a conflict between science and religion. Richard Dawkins is most famous for this. Unfortunately, there are also Christians who think evolution and Christianity are incompatible. These Christians, who are usually called “creationists”, claim that Darwinism contradicts the book of Genesis in the Bible. Worse, they agree with Richard Dawkins that evolution actually implies atheism because it shows how life on earth could have arisen without being designed by God. Some Christians have become more hostile to science because they believe it contradicts religious faith.
So Christians with experience of science need to explain why Darwinism is not an argument for atheism. Instead, we need to show that evolution is the way that God has chosen to bring about the infinite variety of life on earth. And we need to understand that He has chosen this method for very good reasons.
One of the difficult issues that Christians must grapple with is the question of why God gives us so much freedom. He lets us do the most appalling things to each other because He knows that only if we can do evil will we appreciate and understand good. Many people would rather live in a universe where God kept a tighter reign on us and where we simply could not abuse our freedom. If that was the case, we would never have to grow up because we would never have to face the consequences of our decisions.
Evolution is the extension of that freedom to the whole of nature. God did not individually create each species. Instead, He provided a mechanism under which organisms could develop in a vast number of different directions. Thus the beauty of the natural world is not a product of divine dictate but the result of a process that God initiated when He ordained the laws of science. The universe as a whole is undetermined and free. It has to be that way if our own free will is to mean anything at all. Again, people look at the consequences of this freedom and wish things were more restricted. But God has decided true liberty is something that He should extend to all His creation, not just to us.
You will often hear it said that evolution is random. This is false and not a single biologist believes it. The process of natural selection is anything but random, but it is still undetermined in its outcome. That is why evolution can be so incredibly fruitful as a creative process and why, I believe, God has used it to generate all the variety around us.
Evolution supplies science with a theory that explains, given some form of primordial life form, how there came to be all the wide diversity of life we see around us today. Although many questions remain unanswered, experimental evidence has accumulated to the extent that very few scientists question this conclusion.
The only alternative is the controversial theory “Intelligent Design,” first suggested by the biochemist Michael Behe in his book Darwin's Black Box. He said that the internal structure of a living cell is so complicated that it could not possibly have evolved on its own. In fact, he goes further and says that many cellular structures are ‘irreducibly complex’. This means that there is no way that they could have evolved in the small steps required by Darwin’s theory. “Intelligent Design” theory claims that the irreducible complexity of cells points firmly to them having been designed. And since Behe is a Christian, it is clear that the designer that he has in mind is God.
Michael Behe's book certainly hit a raw nerve among biologists, largely because he is absolutely right in pointing out the limits to current knowledge. There is no evolutionary pathway that we know of that could have led to the complex machinery of the living cell. However, this does not mean that no such mechanism exists. There were four billion years of evolution before any multi-cellular organisms appeared. As bacteria can reproduce in as little as ten minutes and given the number of single-celled creatures that the Earth could have supported, I'm convinced that the evolution of these structures happened by naturalistic means. Besides, as science has advanced, we have begun to explain how some of the cell’s machinery could have evolved and we can be confident that the rest will eventually yield to a Darwinian explanation.
An even bigger puzzle is the origin of life itself. Not only is their no current scientific explanation for this, but we hardly have an idea of what such a theory could look like. Some Christians have seized on this scientific vacuum to assert that in the absence of an explanation, God must have done it.
So how did God do it?
I disagree that the origin of life or the complex internal structure of cells are evidence for direct divine intervention. Effectively, such an argument would claim God must have stepped in to fit together the right molecules to create cells or life itself. This is both a tactical and a theological mistake. Tactically, such 'God of the Gaps' arguments are a bad idea. They give atheists a chance to parade a victory for all-conquering science if a naturalistic explanation is later forthcoming. Theologically, as I shall now explain, they belittle the creative power of God.
Many scientists think that the chances of life naturally arising are very small. But I expect that under the right conditions the naturalistic appearance of life is going to be a certainty. Why? Because we know God created this universe precisely so that it should have sentient life in it. Life is built into the very fabric of the cosmos - it is the thing that the laws of physics were designed to produce. Thus if life were impossible and God was required to intervene to invent it, that would mean His original creation was flawed. If He has to jury-rig the universe to achieve his aims, He is not the designer we had always thought He was.
The same applies to the complexity of cells. We can be sure that they could have evolved because God ordained the laws of nature to make this possible. That our puny minds cannot conceive of how He managed to do this is no reason to assume that He could not.
Philosophically, I think that Christians should value science because it tells us so many wonderful things about God's great creative work. So, when scientists find out how life started (which I fully expect them to do), far from being a victory for naturalism, it will be the final nail in the coffin of the preposterous idea of atheists that this universe is just a random fluke.
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