We pronounce, judge, and declare, that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the center of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world.
Galileo Galilei, the great astronomer, mathematician, physicist, and telescope whiz was convicted by the Church Inquisition in 1633, threatened with torture, given penance, and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
The Galileo story is a useful analogy in contemporary science-versus-faith discussions: in the face of unequivocal scientific evidence, Christians eventually changed long-held interpretations of scripture.
Actually, seventeenth century Christians were not really all that upset about the science that put the sun (instead of the earth) in the center of the solar system.
Galileo didn’t hurt the Church’s science feelings as much as he hurt their theological feelings.
- If the earth is not the center of everything, then man is no longer the central focus of creation.
- If the earth is just one of innumerable planets in the universe, the earth is not special to God, and therefore man holds no special place in creation.
- Adam has no meaning! Noah has no meaning! All of the Christian story is lost!
(Karl Giberson discusses the theological implications of Galileo’s evidence on 17th century belief here).
The Great Sticking Point – the Evolution of Humans
Many Christians, faced with the scientific evidence and unwilling to believe in a vast conspiracy of deceitful scientists, are often willing to accept a very ancient earth and even the evolution of plants and animals.
But humans. That’s a problem.
The arguments against humans as part of the great evolutionary story of life on earth sound very much like the theological arguments of the seventeenth century:
- If humans are just another branch in the evolutionary tree, we aren’t special to God.
- What about Adam?
- If we don’t have a real Adam, there can be no “fall of man”… and without the fall, there’s no need for Jesus.
- All is lost!
How Can We Reconcile Human Significance and Evolution?
Because evolution is driven to a large degree by random mutations, are human beings just a blind, meaningless accident? In the biological history of the earth, there have been creatures that were vaguely similar to us, some were very similar to us, and some were not even remotely like us (p. 198).
Consider these three ways of looking at human significance in the context of evolution…
A God outside of time: to a Being unbounded by time and existing outside of time, is anything truly random? We have no idea how God and his purposes relate to time. An event that seems absolutely random (such as carbon production inside a distant star billions of years ago) becomes essential to building life on earth.
A God acting in time: if God sustains life through natural laws and processes, could not God create life using natural laws and processes? Genetic mutations are by their very nature unpredictable because they are initiated at the quantum level of the atom. At the quantum level, things are unpredictable, actually unknowable. It is conceivable that God could work undetected within natural laws, within the natural unpredictability of the quantum level and influence the evolution of life.
A God who allows freedom: all of creation, both animate and inanimate, has free will. A third way of understanding is that God has integrated freedom into the evolutionary process. God may have chosen not to specifically direct the winding pathways of evolution (Language of Science and Faith, p. 200), but to let the process unfold.
Please note that scientific evidence supports this very important fact: evolution did not require any outside tinkering or intervention.
Francis Collins sums it up beautifully:
If God chose to create you and me as natural and spiritual beings, and decided to use the mechanism of evolution to accomplish that goal, I think that’s incredibly elegant. And because God is outside of space and time, He knew what the outcome was going to be right at the beginning.
Were Humans an Accident?
The late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould believed that human evolution was completely a happenstance occurrence. For instance, Gould argued that consciousness would have never evolved if a meteor had not wiped out the dinosaurs, allowing for the rise of mammals.
Interestingly, Simon Conway Morris, a Cambridge academic and highly respected evolution scientist (and a Christian) highlighted by Gould in his work, opposes Gould’s “happenstance” view.
Conway Morris supports the idea of convergence in evolutionary history. Convergence means that there are a limited number of ways to solve a biological problem. The best example of convergence is the eye.
Humans and octopuses do not share a close common ancestor, yet the eyes of humans and octopuses are nearly identical. On two very separate evolutionary paths, the process of evolution solved a problem (the need for vision) in the same way. Throughout evolutionary history, the eye has developed independently at least seven times (Language of Science and Faith, p. 203).
According to Conway Morris, the playing field of natural history is tilted toward big brains, remarkable eyes, consciousness, language, and complex thought. Conway Morris’ research supports that these traits would inevitably emerge from the evolutionary process:
Contrary to popular belief, evolution does not belittle us. As I argue, something like ourselves is an evolutionary inevitability, and our existence also reaffirms our one-ness with the rest of Creation (p. 204).
So what do we do with Genesis?
Genesis is an ancient story, passed down, and finally written down in its current form during the time of post-exile Israel. The purpose of Genesis is not to give a biological description of how humans came to be. The purpose of Genesis is to say Who did the creating – God – and that humans are part of God’s plan and purpose.
How does the story of Adam and Eve fit into a billions-of-years-old earth and humans originating in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago? It might surprise you to know that over the years, there have been many interpretations of the Adam and Eve story among Christians – some literal, some theological.
A literalist reading of the creation story says that Adam and Eve were specially created and that all humans are descendants of this first couple. There are many problems with a literalist reading of the creation story. Narrative problems include the two conflicting creation stories in Genesis, Cain’s wife and where she came from, and the origin of the people who were out to kill Cain, and the origin of the people populating the city built by Cain. Scientific evidence makes a literal reading even more problematic: recent DNA studies demonstrate that modern humans came from a population of thousands, not just two. In addition, both DNA and fossil evidence demonstrates the interrelatedness of humans and all other animals.
One non-literal interpretation of Genesis is the “everyman” interpretation. This view holds that the Adam and Eve story is really the story of us all. The “fall” wasn’t just about Adam and Eve, it was about all humans’ eventual rejection of God and succumbing to our flawed and sinful natures. A non-literal interpretation posed by Old Testament scholar Peter Enns suggests that Adam is the beginning of Israel, not humanity. Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam explores this idea in depth.
Some Christians (including C.S. Lewis) integrate science with a historical view – humans evolved as the science evidence indicates, and at some point God entered in to a special relationship with humans and made them his image-bearers. It is of course all speculative, but this view fits with either an Adam-and-Eve-are-real-people scenario or an Adam-and-Eve-are symbolic-of humanity scenario.
Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him (The Language of God, Francis Collins).
Christianity survived the fall of a geo-centric solar system, and Christianity can survive human evolution.
This is probably my favorite video clip of all time. How can you beat a musical combo of the preeminent modern New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, world-renown geneticist Francis Collins, and the Beatles?
It’s a funny, beautiful, and truthful ending to this discussion:
This series is a chapter by chapter discussion of The Language of Science and Faith by Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins, with my commentary and my observations.
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.