Is Evolution Compatible with Scripture?

Ronald Aylmer Fisher
Ronald A. FisherPhotograph by Walter Stoneman, 1931. Image source: National Portrait Gallery, NPG x24050.
(1890 - 1962)

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Some Christians see no conflict between the Bible and evolutionary science. In fact, several prominent pioneers of modern evolutionary biology were Christians. Ronald A. Fisher was a devout Anglican who occasionally preached in a chapel and wrote articles for Christian magazines. For founding population genetics and quantitative genetics, as well as developing the statistical methods that undergird these sciences, Fisher has been acclaimed as the greatest evolutionary theorist after Darwin.The significance of Fisher’s work and the integration of his Christian faith in his scientific thinking are acknowledged even by secular historians and philosophers of science. Atheist philosopher of science Michael Ruse writes: “The greatest theoretician after Darwin was Ronald A. Fisher. He was a lifelong Anglican who used to preach in a chapel, and his religious beliefs influenced his thinking about science.” - Ruse, “Removing God from Biology,” in Peter Harrison and Jon H. Roberts (eds.), Science Without God? Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 144. Other examples include Charles Doolittle Walcott, one of the most accomplished paleontologists of the early 20th century,Stephen Jay Gould, a similarly accomplished paleontologist of the late 20th century, wrote of him: “Walcott … was a convinced Darwinian and an equally firm Christian, who believed that God had ordained natural selection to construct a history of life according to His plans and purposes.” (Gould, “Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge,” Scientific American, 267(1), July 1992.) and biologist David Lack, whose 1947 book Darwin’s Finches helped to clarify the modern scientific understanding of natural selection. (Although Lack had been an agnostic for much of his career, he converted to Christianity in 1948 and became an influential promotor of evolutionary creationism, publishing the book Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief in 1957.) Another notable example is geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose groundbreaking work harmonized the theory of natural selection with modern genetics, laying the foundation for the so-called “modern synthesis” of evolutionary biology. A sincere Christian in the Russian Orthodox tradition, Dobzhansky wrote in 1973:

It is wrong to hold creation and evolution as mutually exclusive alternatives. I am a creationist and an evolutionist. … Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts.Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution,” American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125-129.

Likewise, many influential Christian theologians and apologists have endorsed some form of evolutionary creationism. These include Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield (1851 - 1921), an ardent defender of scriptural inerrancy, as well as the extraordinary Christian apologist C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963).As an illustration of Lewis’s thinking of the topic of evolution, consider this passage from his 1940 book The Problem of Pain: “What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know; but if it is legitimate to guess, I offer the following picture—a ‘myth’ in the Socratic sense, a not unlikely tale. For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me’, which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgements of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past. … We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as ‘accidents’ (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God. … They wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own’. But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 68-71. Even the prominent evangelist Billy Graham believed that the biblical creation story could be interpreted in a way compatible with evolution.In his book Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1997), journalist David Frost quotes Graham as saying: “I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think that we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things they weren’t meant to say. I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” (pp. 72-74)

In matters of spiritual importance, however, we should not blithely defer to the views of celebrated Christian thinkers, nor blindly follow the prevailing winds of scientific consensus, without turning to the scriptures for insight and asking the Holy Spirit for discernment. Let us proceed with care, then, thoughtfully and prayerfully considering what the Bible reveals about the creation of life. Though I won’t undertake a comprehensive survey of the many scriptural debates surrounding the topic of evolution, a quick summary of a few key points will serve to illuminate the subtlety and complexity of biblical evidence about God’s creative work.

Points of Contention

One crucial point of contention, as we have seen already, concerns the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1. If young-earth creationists are correct in their understanding of this passage, then there simply hasn’t been enough time for dramatic evolutionary change to occur since the creation of the world. Other interpretations are consistent with the possibility of a long evolutionary history, but some old-earth creationists nonetheless reject certain aspects of evolutionary theory, for reasons discussed below.

A second point of disagreement involves the implication of the phrase repeated in Genesis 1:12, 1:21, and 1:24-25, where organisms reproduce “after their kind.” Some Christians interpret the phrase to mean that one kind of organism cannot evolve into another. For this reason, many young-earth creationists and some progressive creationists regard these verses as explicit denials of evolution, or at least denials of macroevolution. (The taxonomic level indicated by “kind” in this context is unclear: many creationists think it’s more general than the modern species concept, thus allowing for microevolutionary changes between closely-related species.)

On the other hand, there are good reasons to doubt that the intended significance of these verses is to rule out macroevolution. As Old Testament scholar C. John Collins observes, “the biblical text simply says that these first plants bore seed according to their kinds, and that the first animals were created according to their kinds. It does not say that these are the only ‘kinds’ there ever were or ever could be.” According to Collins, interpreting this passage as a taxonomic statement misrepresents its theological point, which is that God intended for living creatures to reproduce as they do:

This story is in terms of the everyday experience of an ancient Israelite: wheat grains produce more wheat plants, barley produces more barley, and so on. … Things work the way they do because God intended them to do so. This doesn’t mean that under some circumstances you can’t get varieties of wheat so different that they’re different species—in fact it doesn’t comment on the topic at all.C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 267. Collins rejects the idea of universal common descent, however, for reasons discussed on the next page.

Even evolutionary creationists agree that all plant and animal species produce offspring of the same kinds.Here’s an interpretive possibility that evolutionary creationists might consider, though I don’t know of anyone who actually endorses this view: perhaps “kind” means something akin to a clade, a phylogenetic category consisting of a single ancestor species and all its descendants. Contemporary taxonomic classification systems are based on inferred phylogenetic relations, and each ancestral category is defined to include all the subcategories descended from it. For example, birds are classified as a subcategory of dinosaurs (the “avian dinosaurs”) because birds are thought to have descended from theropod dinosaurs. If the “kinds” mentioned in Genesis are understood in a similar way, then it’s true by definition that organisms reproduce after their own kinds. Because of the gradual nature of evolutionary change, organisms consistently belong to the same species as their immediate ancestors (though not necessarily the same species as very distant ancestors). The lines are blurred when tracing the history of life over long time scales, but the distinctions between species living at any particular time are relatively sharp.

A third point of controversy has deeper theological significance than the previous two. It concerns the biblical doctrine of the fall of man—specifically, what the Bible teaches about the consequences Adam and Eve’s sin described in Genesis 3. Many young-earth creationists believe that there had been no suffering or death in the world prior to the first human sin: no animals died before the fall of man. This is clearly incompatible with any prehistoric evolutionary history, so if the Bible really does teach that no animals died before the fall, it cannot be harmonized with evolution.

Several passages of scripture have been cited to support this view of the fall. Two such passages occur in the New Testament, where the apostle Paul draws a contrast between Adam and Christ. In Romans 5:12-17, Paul writes: “just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men,” so likewise “much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” Similarly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

“For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1st Corinthians 15:21-22, NASB)

Some young-earth creationists interpret these passages to mean there was no death of any kind—not even animal death—before the fall. That interpretation is dubious, in my opinion, since both of these passages clearly concern human death specifically, not animal death. Moreover, both arguably refer to spiritual rather than biological death.

Another verse cited in support of the claim that no animals died before the fall is Genesis 1:30, where God says “to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.” (NASB) Some Christians take this verse to mean that no animals were carnivorous at that time, supporting the suggestion that no animals died before the fall. However, this verse can also be understood to mean that God has provided plants (and similar photosynthesizing organisms like phytoplankton, etc.) as the ultimate source of food for all animals—including carnivores and scavengers, which receive the energy from plants indirectly. Even carnivorous animals ultimately derive their energy from plants and plant-like organisms at the foundation of the food chain. So, there is a clear sense in which God has provided plants as a source of food for all animals. Importantly, this verse doesn’t say that plants are the only food sources for animals; rather, the implication is that all plants are edible by at least some animals, which is true.

Yet another verse alleged to support the view that there was no animal death before the fall is Genesis 1:31, where God appraises His finished work: “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” How could God see the world as “very good,” we might ask, if animals regularly suffered and died? Old-earth creationists have replied in several ways. First, the Hebrew word towb, translated “good” in this context, does not usually refer to moral goodness, much less moral perfection. It indicates that God was pleased with His own finished work, but it does not imply that the created things themselves possessed the virtue of moral goodness. Second, the verse does not say that all events or happenings, including animal behaviors and experiences, were very good. It says “all that He had made” was very good. God made the animals, but he did not directly make their experiences or their behaviors, so the assessment of goodness doesn’t necessarily concern those aspects of the created order. Finally, and most importantly, there is no indication here—or anywhere else in scripture—that suffering and evil were entirely absent from the world until the first human beings sinned. To the contrary, scripture teaches that the serpent (identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9) was present in the worldOld Testament scholar John Walton points out that although the serpent was present in the world, it wasn’t necessarily in the Garden of Eden. For a fascinating discussion of the significance of the serpent in the Genesis story, see chapter 14 of Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015). before Adam and Eve sinned, implying that Satan’s fall (Luke 10:18) occurred prior to the fall of man.

A fourth point of controversy arises from the opposite end of the creationist spectrum. Evolutionary creationists have pointed out that in Genesis 1:11 and 1:24, God commands the earth to bring forth living creatures. It sounds as though God is directing and ordaining nature, or natural processes, to produce life. If so, then biological evolution is one possible way in which the earth may have carried out God’s command. Understood in this way, the theory of evolution might fit neatly with the biblical account, at least for the creation of plants and animals. (Even the biblical chronology might be reconcilable with evolutionary chronology, as we saw when considering the intermittent days interpretation.) But what about the idea that human beings evolved from non-human ancestors? Is that consistent with what the Bible teaches?

When the biblical narrative comes to the creation of human beings, God does not command the earth to bring forth man. The description of the creation of humankind is quite different: God creates both male and female human beings “in His own image” (Genesis 1:27). He forms Adam from the dust of the earth and breathes into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7), and He fashions Eve from Adam’s “rib” or “side” (Genesis 2:22). Many Christians—including some who believe that God ordained natural, evolutionary processes to create non-human life—regard these verses as decisive reasons to reject the idea that God used evolutionary processes to create humankind. We’ll consider some of the main arguments, and evolutionary creationists’ rebuttals, on the following pages.