Monday, November 23, 2009

Evolution and the Beginning

Today I'm going to be talking about the first three chapters of Genesis. I'll be talking about what it means and why I don't think it contradicts the theory of evolution.

The first three chapters of Genesis are about God and his relationship with nature and his relationship with humanity. The core message of these chapters is that there is only one God who created everything. He created everything that we perceive with our senses. He made people to rule the earth and they lived with God in paradise. But a deceiver tricked humanity into rebelling against God. As punishment, humanity was banished from paradise, but God promised that humanity would one day have victory over the deceiver.

The rest of the scripture follows from here. It is the story of God working through humanity to give us victory over evil and brings us back into paradise and back into relationship with Him. I know I'm only talking about Genesis 1-3, but I want to emphasize that this scripture is a vital part of God's message for humanity.

People who read this scripture often get hung up on the many details that seem implausible to us. Some people use them as an excuse to disregard the message of the bible altogether. Others insist that we must believe that creation unfolded exactly as Genesis describes, no matter how unlikely it seems. I believe that so long as we understand the core message of scripture, whether we believe that creation took seven days or several billion years isn't terribly important.

A lot of Christians will insist that it's important that we read these early chapters of Genesis literally. What most people don't realize is that ever since the beginning Christians have been interpreting these passages figuratively. For example, most Christians agree that the serpent in Genesis 3 is actually Satan in disguise (hence the reference in Revelation to "That ancient serpent".) A merely literal reading of Genesis 1-3 provides no evidence for that conclusion, yet it is a pivotal element of Christian theology. To give another example, the opening verses in the Gospel of John are a figurative reinterpretation of Genesis 1. John equates the "light" in Genesis 1 with the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Having said that, I'd like to address the question I posed at the beginning. Can Genesis 1-3 be reconciled with the theory of evolution? The main issue, as I see it, is the claim that people, plants and animals were made by God. However, this claim is not a problem if we believe that God worked through natural means, like evolution, to form each of these things. This idea isn't contrary to scripture in any way. Indeed God tells Jeshurun that He made him and formed him in his mothers womb. Here we see that God can work through completely natural means to bring about His desired end and I personally believe that that is what he did when he made Adam and Eve.

Why do I interpret the Bible this way? There are two reasons. The first reason is because I believe that God is not a deceiver. When we try to understand the natural world we should go where the evidence takes us. If it appears as though all life has a common ancestor, then either all life has a common ancestor or God is playing a practical joke on us. I chose to believe the former.

The second reason has to do with my view on the nature of scripture. I believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, but I also believe that that divinely inspired message was written for people of a particular time and place. As such it was written in terms that they would understand and accept. All of the strange details of early Genesis that confuse us are things that made perfect sense to the people that the book was originally written for. God was gracious to give them the message in terms that they could understand, and I believe that we have the right to interpret the scriptures and apply its message in terms that we can understand.

I hope you found my explanation satisfying or at least interesting. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think. I welcome any criticism or compliments you may have.


  1. I like your interpretation of Gen. 1-3. It seems like a reasonable start to reconcile the text and evolution, as I understand it.

    Your post seems to leave a few things hanging... Let me play the devil's advocate...

    1. You imply that there was an actual Adam and Eve. Are these characters literal or symbolic. If they were literal, then it seems that there would not be enough genetic diversity to sustain the population. Were Adam and Eve the first and only humans or was there a larger population that co-evolved with them? If the latter, how does this change our understanding of original sin?

    2. If we accept evolutionary time scales for the development of the earth and that Adam was the first man, how should we interpret the genealogies in the Old Testament? It seems that we are missing a few million years.

    3. If God operates through mechanisms of the physical world to accomplish his purposes, how do we empirically show that he exists? If there was no divine intervention in the process of creation, how do we know that God was orchestrating it? Would it not be simpler for life to evolve by strictly natural means?

  2. Thanks for the comment. You bring up some interesting questions.

    You're right that I've left a few things hanging. There's a lot to be said on this subject, but I felt it was better to be concise.

    To answer your questions:

    1. I'm not sure whether or not Adam and Eve were two actual people. I'm not a scientist, but my understanding of evolution is that sometimes a new species starts from only a single breeding pair. So I don't think it's scientifically impossible.

    In any case, the key to this account is that humanity sinned and turned away from God, and that all of humanity shared in that sin. In the story it was just two people, but it could have been more.

    2. I think the genealogy skipped generations, especially between Adam and Abraham. Keep in mind that, according to tradition, the whole book of Genesis was written by Moses. Moses knew something about the past because of oral tradition and divine inspiration, but I don't believe that God gave Moses the whole picture.

    As such, most of the material in Genesis (from chapter 12 onwards) focuses on Abraham and his relatives/descendants. I believe that this information is much more historically accurate than the first eleven chapters of Genesis.

    3. In order to answer this question I'll need to talk about the phrase 'divine intervention'. The implication is that nature has a certain order and could carry on just fine without God. The philosophical claim here is that the whole universe and the laws that govern it, both known and unknown, exist and are self sustaining.

    If simplicity means not multiplying assumptions needlessly, then the belief that God is the only self sustaining entity is much simpler by far. Simpler than believing that each of the 10^72 particles in the universe is it's own self sustaining entity. Simpler than believing in complete, non-contradictory set of natural laws exists to govern their interaction and believing that each of those natural laws is self sustaining.

    If we want to say that life evolved by "just natural" means, it means having faith in something we haven't seen (the set of natural laws that would explain our universe) and believing that the whole universe, and everything in it, is self sustaining. So no, it would not be simpler to say that life evolved by strictly natural means.