Quick reads: christian belief.
The Bible and modern science appear to give christians two different versions of the world’s origins – did God create the world in 6 days, or has it taken almost 14 billion years for the universe to get to where it is today, and about 4 billion years for life to evolve on earth?
Or can we find a way to accept both accounts?
Is Genesis history and science?
If we were to read the first chapters of Genesis in another context, there is little doubt we’d think it was a folk tale. It just reads that way. And the scholars tell us that it is very similar, and possibly developed from, other Middle Eastern creation myths, which no-one doubts are myths. So it is fair to say that it doesn’t look like it is science or history.
The evidence for evolution
The age of the earth
Sedimentation layers in lakes, growth layers in coral reefs, layers in polar ice and radiometric dating of volcanic rock all point to the earth being a lot older than a few thousand years.
The continents of Africa/Europe and America are moving apart, with molten rock rising up to fill the gap at a location known as the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The solidified rock have been radiometrically dated at almost 200 million years old. Working backwards shows that the continents fit together, physically and geologically, indicating those land masses were joined more than 200 million years ago.
Fossils are distributed through the rock strata in a quite orderly manner, with older and simpler forms at the bottom through to newer and more complex forms at the top. A consistent geological column can be constructed, showing the gradual evolution from simple to complex.
Fossils also show evidence of some of the transitions between the major types of creatures, for example, the transition from fish to land animals, from reptiles to mammals, from land animals to whales (a surprising direction for evolution to take!) and from dinosaurs to birds.
DNA may be the best evidence for evolution and common descent. In humans, ancestry and paternity can be determined by comparing DNA and noting where the variations occur – if key sequences are common, the two people being compared are related, with the closeness of the relationship determined by the amount of DNA in common.
The same principles can be used to examine the evolutionary process. Use of DNA in this way gives consistent results in terms of relationships and timespans, and thus reinforces the conclusions from the fossil evidence that humans and other animals today have gradually evolved from earlier organisms and creatures.
Comparing the anatomy of living creatures today shows that there are many similarities in bone structure, suggesting common descent.
The distribution of animals across the globe, especially comparing locations which are isolated from each other, shows consistency with the evolutionary tree.
Creationist objections to evolution
Creationists have claimed that some facts – gaps in the fossil record, the Cambrian explosion, the lack of evidence of transition processes and the lack of evidence for how life first began – throw doubt on evolution. The origin of life is a genuine difficulty for evolution, but the other objections seem to be based on misunderstandings, and the apparent anomalies can be well explained.
Problems for christian belief
If evolution is accepted as true science, it raises difficulties for some commonly accepted christian beliefs:
- There is no clear definition of human and non-human. Human-like species have been around for maybe 2 million years, and humans for maybe 200,000 years.
- Some aspects of Genesis 1-3 must be accepted as mythological rather than historic or scientific. But myth can still express God’s truth, though in a different way to facts.
- Were Adam and Eve real people, and are “the Fall” and “original sin” real? Some christians who accept evolution continue to believe in these doctrines, but others do not.
- Suffering was in the world before there were any humans, so suffering cannot be easily explained by human sin.
I find that changing my beliefs in these areas has required some hard thinking, but it has led to new understandings.
Always look on the brighter side of life!
Accepting evolution as true can lead to some positives:
- It is good to know the truth, from the “book of God’s words” (the Bible) and the “book of God’s works” (nature).
- Many young christians lose their faith because they have been taught that they have to choose between evolution and the Bible. Accepting both can remove this problem.
- There are more important things than evolution to be spending our time on – caring for the poor, sharing the good news, etc.
So, can a christian believe in evolution?
I think it makes most sense to accept God created life on earth via evolution, recognising that:
- The science of evolution is well evidenced, but will always be developing, changing, growing.
- Genesis 1-3 can reasonably be taken as a myth expressing truths God wanted to reveal at that time.
- Holding both these truths creates some tensions, but resolves a lot of problems.
For a more detailed discussion of everything on this page, and for a quick summary of the scientific understanding of the evolutionary process, see Evolution and christians, including the following sections:
- The evidence for evolution.
- Evaluating arguments against evolution.
- Difficulties for christian belief if evolution is true.
- Why christians should accept evolution.
- Who were the first humans?.