Theistic Evolution: Drifting toward Darwin

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Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/01/2013

It seems like every time I turn around I hear of another prominent Christian thinker or theologian who has embraced Darwinism.

It’s deeply disconcerting. In light of the stature of these Evangelical leaders, some people are going to ask, “What do they know that I don’t know? I thought this was a done deal. It’s either Darwin or God.”1

Indeed, a host of committed evolutionists see the equation that way, incorporating the notion of randomness into the very definition of Darwinism.2 Others are convinced of just the opposite: Evolution and God are not at odds, and they’re making an issue of it.

A full court press led by Francis Collins3—the driving force of the Human Genome Project—and his colleagues at BioLogos—an advocacy group attempting to broker peace between science and religion—pressures Christian stragglers to wake up and join the 21st century, all for the sake of the Gospel. On their view, a spiritual message out of step with scientific facts holds no appeal for the scientific establishment.

Evangelicals like Os Guinness, founder of the Trinity Forum, Tremper Longman of Westmont College, and Peter Enns, formerly of Westminster, have endorsed some form of theistic evolution.

And the discussion is heating up. Indeed, the situation has gotten so tense that Dr. Craig Hazen of Biola University has asked whether it’s still safe in Evangelical circles to doubt Darwin at all.

Commitment to theistic evolution is driven by two impulses. The first is fidelity to Scripture and Christian orthodoxy. The second is a growing conviction that evidence for Darwinism is so overwhelming, Christians must accommodate it for the Gospel to be credible. The goal: make peace with the reigning paradigm and still maintain a meaningful hold on orthodox Christian religion.

Can that be done? The answer depends entirely upon the meaning of two words: “theistic” and “evolution.”

What’s in a Name?—“Evolution”

Before Darwin, conventional wisdom held that God was responsible for designing the biological world. Darwin argued for an alternative: Nature was capable of accomplishing this on its own. Changes in organisms happened “naturally” through an unguided process, and an equally unguided process (natural selection) safeguarded whatever novel traits aided survival and reproduction.

Refinements of Darwin’s ideas followed, notably the addition of genetic mutation as the agent of change that, coupled with natural selection, is called Neo-Darwinism. Thus, life descended with modification from simple beginnings, branching out with increasing complexity and diversity to form Darwin’s evolutionary tree of life.

Though the word “evolution” has itself evolved over time into a variety of permutations (limited common descent, punctuated equilibrium, etc.), what I’ve described above is bare-bones Darwinism, at least according to current assessment.4

Two details are central. One, the neo-Darwinian synthesis necessarily entails a particular mechanism—natural selection—that determines (an important word) what biological novelty gets passed on to future generations. Without it there is no evolution in the Darwinian sense. Two, the creative capabilities of the mutation/natural selection duo make God superfluous to the process.

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Natural selection is the “blind watchmaker”—a term Richard Dawkins coined in his now-famous book of that title. This was “Darwin’s dangerous idea.” It seized the day not because of scientific data. The fossil record was virtually untouched in 1859 when Darwin published The Origin of Species. Living cells were just “black boxes” of protoplasm and nothing was known about genetics. Darwin shook the world because he offered a plausible, non-theistic explanation for the existence and development of life.

Darwinism is a Designer substitute. Note evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala:

It was Darwin’s greatest accomplishment to show that the directive organization of living beings can be explained as the result of a natural process, natural selection, without any need to resort to a Creator.5

Lest the significance of these two points escape you—that the evolution we’re enjoined to embrace 1) entails the blind watchmaker thesis, and 2) makes God superfluous—listen carefully to these pillars of Darwinism:

  • Ernst Mayr: “Natural so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of natural means instead of by divine intervention.”6
  • Douglas Futuyma: “Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere mechanical mechanisms—but this seems to be the message of evolution.”7
  • Harvard’s Stephen Jay Gould: “No ’vital forces’ propel evolutionary change, and whatever we think of God, His existence is not manifest in the products of nature.”8
  • George Gaylord Simpson: “All the objective phenomena of the history of life can be explained by purely naturalistic or materialistic factors...Therefore, mankind is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”9

Clearly, if these notables are taken seriously (and quotes like these are legion—even Darwin understood his theory this way), then Darwinism cannot easily be baptized. Indeed, the world’s foremost popular apologist for evolution, Richard Dawkins, famously remarked, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” “Evolution,” William Provine cheers, “is the greatest engine of atheism ever invented.”10

These are no idle words. If evolution in the sense that is meaningful to the scientific establishment can coherently co-exist with Christian theism, why are Darwinists so buoyed by atheism’s prospects because of it?

This is the Darwinism Christians are being asked to make peace with. And make no mistake, this is the only kind of “evolution” that will purchase the respect of the scientific nobility. Never forget the candid admission of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin: “We cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”11

And this is precisely how some theistic evolutionists understand it. Anglican John Polkinghorne writes, “An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as a creation allowed to make itself.” Biologist Kenneth Miller insists that “mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained...We are an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history.”12 [emphasis added]

John West points out, “According to many new theistic evolutionists, God chose to ’create’ the world by setting up an undirected process over which he had no specific control and about which he did not even have foreknowledge of its particular outcomes.”13

In what sense can an undirected process be considered “theistic”? Again, the answer depends on definitions.

What’s in a Name?—“Theistic”

The Christian account starts this way: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). What follows in the next three chapters is a characterization, of some sort, of the details.

Genesis is the book of beginnings: the beginning of the world, the beginning of mankind, and the beginning of a problem. Adam and Eve acted in a way that caused a problem for all mankind descending from them. The rest of the story records what God has done to repair the breech.

However one understands the beginning chapters of the narrative—as a straightforward chronological description of events or something else14 (Genesis 1), with an historical chronology following (Genesis 2-3)—some details seem theologically inescapable.

First, God made everything. Second, God deliberately organized everything in a very particular way. He made the raw materials, then He (somehow) made particular things from the raw materials—Adam, for instance. Third, though humans are biologically diverse, certain non-biological things remained the same for all.

Humans are distinct from every other kind of creature in that they bear the image of their Creator passed on from that first pair. They also share equally in the guilt resulting from the couple’s freely-chosen rebellion against their Sovereign (“ nature, children of wrath” Eph. 2:3), an act of sedition that corrupted their original moral purity.

Standard Christian theology dictates that all human beings are both transcendently valuable and morally culpable before God as a group in virtue of their common descent from their first parents.

This summary strikes me as absolute, bare minimum, initial Christian theology. If these claims are not to be understood as facts of history, it’s hard to imagine how anything in the narrative that follows from Genesis to Revelation makes any sense.

So, in what way are both theism and evolution true? My question at this point is not whether the Darwinian model as commonly characterized is true (I don’t think so, but that is a separate matter). Rather, is the model Christians are being asked to embrace as scientifically certain consistent with classical Christianity? Can that kind of evolution be squared with this kind of theism?

An Idle God?

Darwinism offers a description of how biological diversity came about. If “theistic evolution” is a meaningful phrase, it’s appropriate to ask the question, “What did God do?” It’s clear what Darwinists think evolution did (pretty much everything). But for theistic evolutionists, what was God’s role?

Imagine I was untutored in culinary basics and asked for directions on boiling water. You tell me to heat water to 212º, add a leprechaun, and water will boil. I ask if water will boil at 212º without the leprechaun. Yes, you say, it will. Heat can do the job all on its own. I decide to leave the leprechaun out; he’s superfluous.

When theists affirm the standard Darwinian model, then try to insert God, it sounds like invoking a leprechaun to boil water—maybe out of religious habit or theological necessity, but not to make a difference in the outcome. God, like the leprechaun, seems superfluous.

How do theistic evolutionists escape this problem? If Darwinism is true, in what specific way did God use it? “If you tell an attentive child that evolution is just God’s way of creating,” Jay Richards observes, “she’s going to ask you what you mean.”15 That’s my question. I’ve been offered three possible answers.

Stacking the Deck—1

First, if biological development is a result of genetic mutations sifted out by natural selection, God might have directly manipulated those mutations in just the right way at just the right time to accomplish His goal.

This is certainly a plausible option. The problem is, when DNA no longer randomly mutates and natural selection no longer blindly selects, then the process is no longer Darwinian. It’s intelligent design, hardly the kind of “evolution” to satisfy the critics.

Suppose I wanted a straight flush for a hand of poker. I could either use sleight of hand to stack the deck while I deal, or I could shuffle the cards randomly and see if the flush is dealt me. It wouldn’t make any sense, though, to “design” the hand by shuffling the deck and dealing. There’s no way to ensure the results. There’s no telos; no ultimate goal I’m shooting for.

In the same way, either God designs the details, or nature shuffles the deck and natural selection chooses the winning hand. The mechanism is either conscious and intentional (design), or unconscious and unintentional (natural selection). Creation is teleological; it has a purpose, a goal, an end. Evolution is accidental, like a straight flush dealt to a poker rookie.

Stacking the Deck—2

There’s a second option. Maybe the deck was “stacked” from the beginning with God either front-loading all the information in the initial conditions or endowing nature with a self-organizing principle that could manufacture information along the way.16

One version, called “fully gifted creation,” was formerly advanced by Calvin College’s Howard Van Till (I say “formerly” because Professor Van Till apparently is no longer a Christian). According to Van Till, God “generously gifted the creation with the capabilities for self-organization and transformation” resulting in “an unbroken line of evolutionary development from non-living matter to...existing life-forms.”17

There are two problems with this approach that seem insurmountable. First, there is no empirical reason to believe that colossal amounts of information were “deposited” at the beginning of the universe, then unwrapped at just the right moments by mechanistic means to propel the progress of living organisms.

Second, no such inherent “self-organizing principle” (i.e., “chemical necessity”) is evident in chemistry.18 Stephen Meyer has shown conclusively that no mechanistic process can ever produce information, since a law-like process can only generate rigidly ordered redundancy that is biologically meaningless.19 The results will be more like mantras than intelligible “sentences” of information (compare BABBA BABBA BABBA to “I do not like green eggs and ham”).

If there is no evidence the information necessary for life was bundled up in the initial conditions of the Big Bang, and no self-organizing principle in chemistry that can produce that information “on the fly,” then this option is off the table, too.

God in the Shadows—3

There remains one alternative for God “using” evolution: All appearances to the contrary, God is working behind the scenes in ways we cannot detect. Collins writes:

Evolution could appear to us to be driven by chance, but from God’s perspective the outcome would be entirely specified. Thus, God could be completely and intimately involved in the creation of all species, while from our perspective, limited as it is by the tyranny of linear time this would appear a random and undirected process.20

While a possibility, strictly speaking, Collins’s alternative strikes me as worse than God of the gaps; here God is filling gaps no one even knows about. Like John Wisdom’s “invisible gardener,”21 this is a classic leap-of-faith move that is impossible to verify or falsify. It simply saves the paradigm. Plus, even Dawkins admits biology doesn’t “appear driven by chance” at all, but just the opposite: It gives “the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”22

One might invoke God as the primary cause of all things, using secondary causes to accomplish His aims—a completely legitimate option in principle. However, secondary physical causes leave trails leading back to their initial causes. Today’s rainfall can, theoretically, be traced back through a multitude of secondary causes to a primary cause at the big beginning.

Yet that is precisely the trail missing here. Do not forget what problem needs solving: the infusion of enormous amounts of information at various stages of biological history. As we’ve seen, no naturalistic secondary cause is capable of explaining that. It seems ad hoc to appeal to God as primary cause of a physical process when there is no trail of secondary causes that lead to the final result.

I guess theistic evolutionists could just shrug and say, as an article of faith, though materialistic processes are completely adequate for evolution, God somehow did it all since “the Bible tells me so.” But that same Bible has a lot to say about details that are not at all friendly to Darwinism.


For many, the largest obstacle to theistic evolution is theological. Certain features of Christian orthodoxy seem impossible to reconcile with the Darwinian model. Is it true, for example, that Adam and Eve might not have been our first parents, as some suggest?23 If so, it’s hard to see how the redemptive story in the Bible holds together.

If the human race has multiple evolutionary origins, then mankind is not related physically in one fallen family. In what sense is Jesus “made like His brethren in all things” (Heb. 2:17) if we’re not all brethren? If Adam or the Fall are figures of some sort, when did the moral wound occur in history that would actually be healed in history at Golgotha? If the first Adam is a fiction, why need a second Adam to repair the breech? Read Rom. 5:12-19 carefully and ask if anything Paul says there about salvation makes sense if Adam wasn’t our first father.24

For Peter Enns, Paul was a first-century man employing the limited (and ultimately inaccurate) conventions of his day (like a literal Adam).25

Luke declares Jesus “...the son of David...the son of Abraham...the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:23-38). At what juncture does this record cease to be actual history and fade into myth? And how far does this go? How is Genesis an account of any historical beginnings? Was there no Satan? No original temptation? No primeval lie? No original sin? No proto-evangel promising the seed of woman would crush the serpent’s head?

If the Darwinian model advanced by theistic evolutionists like those at BioLogos is sound, it becomes very difficult to imagine how core elements of redemptive history have any meaning at all. Genesis 2-3, Francis Schaeffer observes, ceases then to explain either man’s wonder or his flaw.26

Catching the Gingerbread Man

Problems like these are precisely why Daniel Dennett declared Darwinism a “universal acid” cutting right through traditional religion—why, as Casey Luskin laments, “Many atheists believe Neo-Darwinian science guts theism to its core.”27 Ironically, rather than making Christianity more credible, Darwinism undermines the Gospel, negating everything that makes the Good News good.

Adopting Darwinism “for the sake of the Gospel” is counterproductive. The only evolution acceptable to the scientific establishment is not the kind that makes the Gospel more attractive. Rather, it undermines it. Therefore, it is unlikely theistic evolution will have any persuasive effect on those we’re trying to reach.

The fabled Gingerbread Man thought himself safe crossing the river first on the fox’s tail, then on his back, and finally on his snout. In an instant, though, he was eaten with one big gulp. That was the end of the Gingerbread Man.

In the final analysis, Christian theism contains necessary elements that Darwinism renders meaningless. If one is convinced the second is true, the first will be overhauled. Adjusting our theology to accommodate Darwinism, however, adjusts Christian theism right out of existence.

Every concession brings us closer to the fox’s mouth.