For much of my evangelical Christian life, I held a Theistic Evolutionary view of creation. I’ll confess that I didn’t always adhere firmly to this view. Sometimes I wavered and veered into a fairly conservative Creationist point of view. Nevertheless, I could never entirely shake free of the realization that evolution had lots of empirical support. Moreover, I realized this long before I ever read my first book about evolution.
What, you may wonder (or maybe not), does a theistic view of evolution look like? Let me state up front that I can only describe what my view was; I cannot and do not claim to speak in any way for other theistic evolutionists. My view of theistic evolution was pretty simple and consisted of these points:
- The first section of Genesis (say, the first eleven chapters) should not be read as literal accounts; they were literary constructions intended to recognize and respectfully memorialize through poetic imagery God’s activity in the universe. As for the rest of Genesis, I’ll shamefacedly admit that I took much of it literally.
- Evolution was the process that God designed to create and sustain life on earth.
- The Original Sin of Adam and Eve was pride; maybe Eve sinned first, maybe she didn’t – what mattered was that Adam and Eve ruptured, in some indefinite way, their relationship with God. The consequences of that rupture were death, evil, suffering, etc., that catastrophically affected all of creation, as well as humankind. Before their Fall, the universe was perfect.
As you can see, this view was long on Christian theological concepts and extremely short on evolutionary ones. I will not bore you with the details regarding how and why I came to learn more about evolution. Suffice to say that, as I became more familiar with the basic ideas, I realized that evolution and theology did not mesh very well.
The first point above, understanding Genesis as a literary rather than a literal account, was not and is not particularly problematic. It is, in fact, the right position. My difficulty was my inability to reconcile the second and third points with a realistic, albeit fairly basic, view of evolution.
The first problem I had was accepting that a perfect God deliberately established a very imperfect process to sustain life. One of the reasons evolution is imperfect is because, while it is not random, it is inefficient. Species do not travel a straight path of development, nor do they inevitably progress from less perfect ways of being toward better ways of being. Each mutation that takes hold and becomes a regular feature of a species shuts off many possible developmental pathways and slightly narrows the options for future developments. Many of the paths that are taken eventually lead to extinction. Many more species have withered and died than have survived and thrived throughout the earth’s history. That’s a lot of wasted effort. It’s difficult to call such waste “perfect” in any way. How could such a process have been the plan of a perfect God?
Another imperfection in the evolutionary process is the fact that species have evolved to devour each other. Predator-prey relationships are violent and they were going on long before human beings entered the stage. Many animals are eaten alive by their predators and their deaths are often slow and agonizing. Why would God establish an inefficient, violent, painful system for sustaining life on earth? Neither of those characteristics is consistent with the activities of a loving, perfect God.
All of this leads to the second problem I had with theistic evolution, namely, blaming humankind for all the woes of the world. If suffering, death and extinction are inevitable components of the evolutionary process, then it follows that the doctrine of Original Sin makes no sense. Firstly, as I’ve already noted, there is no way that humankind can be held responsible for bringing suffering and “evil” into the world. The world is not imperfect because people did something really bad and messed up what had been a perfect place and a perfect way of life. Humans evolved into a world that was already filled with suffering and other forms of imperfection, such as hurricanes, floods and Ice Ages. Secondly, death is not a punishment for sin; death has always been part of the cycle of life and evolution on earth. If humans are not responsible for suffering and evil, and death is simply a natural process rather than a punishment, then what need is there for atonement and redemption? Once I reached the right conclusion to that question, that there is no such need, I only needed a short, quick mental step to advance from discarding theistic evolution to discarding theism in its entirety.
– the chaplain