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God May Create Through Any Means—Including Evolution

In this article I want to dissolve the apparent conflict between the theory of evolution, the existence of God, and the creation accounts in Genesis.

Many people mistakenly believe that the theory of evolution undermines either the existence of God or the inerrancy of Scripture, which teaches that the world was created in six days.

As Christians, it’s important that we understand what the theory of evolution maintains (and does not maintain) and the consistent teaching of the Church.

Are God and evolution contradictory?

Evolution proposes an explanation for how life in general—and mankind in particular—arose. It holds that that there was a long period in which natural processes gave rise to life and to the different life forms on Earth.

As the omnipotent creator, God is free to create—either quickly or slowly and either directly or through processes that he sets up. He can even do a mixture of these things, such as creating the universe in an instant (as suggested by evidence of the Big Bang) and then having it experience a long, slow process of development giving rise to stars and planets and eventually life forms, including human beings.

He can intervene periodically in these processes going on in the universe, such as when he creates a soul for each human being or when he performs a miracle.

Science can discover certain things about the laws governing the universe and the processes occurring in it. But these laws and processes do nothing to eliminate the possibility of God, for the question remains: Why is there a universe with these laws and these processes in the first place?

Consider an analogy. Suppose that after a thorough and lengthy scientific investigation of the “Mona Lisa,” I conclude that it was the result of innumerable collisions of paint and canvas that moved gradually from indecipherable shapes and colors to a beautiful and intriguing picture of a woman.

My analysis of the painting may be correct. That is, in fact, what the “Mona Lisa” is and how it was developed. But it by no means disproves or makes unnecessary Leonardo Da Vinci as the painter.

“There is no real conflict” writes philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “between [belief in God] and the scientific theory of evolution. What there is, instead, is conflict between [belief in God] and a philosophical gloss or add-on to the scientific doctrine of evolution: the claim that evolution is undirected, unguided, unorchestrated by God (or anyone else)” (Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, p. xx).

Can we trust our cognitive faculties?

If we were the product of purely random processes—that is, unguided by God—then we have good reason to doubt our mental faculties when it comes to knowing the truth. Why? Plantinga explains:

There is deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science. Taking naturalism to include materialism with respect to human beings, I argue that it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive faculties are reliable. It is improbable that they provide us with a suitable preponderance of true belief over false. But then a naturalist who accepts current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable.

Furthermore, if she has a defeater for the proposition that her cognitive faculties are reliable, she has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by her faculties. But of course all of her beliefs have been produced by her faculties—including, naturally enough, her belief in naturalism and evolution. That belief, therefore—the conjunction of naturalism and evolution—is one that she can’t rationally accept. Hence naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: One can’t rationally accept them both. And hence, as I said above, there is a science/religion conflict (maybe a science/quasi-religion conflict) to be sure, but it is between science and naturalism, not science and theistic belief” (Where the Conflict Really Lies, p. xx).

Charles Darwin, who essentially fathered the theory of evolution with his book Origin of the Species (1859), recognized this problem when he wrote:

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind? (Letter 13230, to William Graham, July 3, 1881).

This worry disappears if God is guiding whatever process led to us and if he shapes the development of the human mind so that it is aimed at knowing him and thus knowing the truth.

What about Genesis?

Okay, so if evolutionary theory doesn’t debunk an omnipotent creator, how are Christians to reconcile it with the creation account in Genesis?

First of all, it’s important to understand that the Bible contains many different styles of writing. History, poetry, prophecy, parables, and a variety of other literary genres are found in its pages. This is not surprising, since it is not so much a book as it is a library—a collection of seventy-three books written over tens of centuries by many different people. 

We must therefore distinguish between types of literature within the Bible and what they are trying to tell us. It would be a mistake, for example, to take a work as rich as the Bible in symbolism and literary figures as if it were always relating history in the manner that we are accustomed to.

Much less should we expect it to offer a scientific account of things. If one is hoping to find a scientific account creation, he will not find it in these texts. The Bible was never intended to be a scientific textbook on cosmology.

St. Augustine put it this way: “We do not read in the Gospel that the Lord said, ‘I am sending you the Holy Spirit, that he may teach you about the course of the sun and the moon.’ He wished to make people Christians, not astronomers” (Answers to Felix, a Manichean 1:10)

The Catholic Church is open to the ideas of an old universe and that God used evolution as part of his plan. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life forms, and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers (CCC 283).

When it comes to relating scientific findings to biblical accounts, the Catechism says, “God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337). Explaining further, it says:

Among all the scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation—its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and, finally, the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation (CCC 289).

In other words, the early chapters of Genesis “relate in simple and figurative language, adapted to the understanding of mankind at a lower stage of development, fundamental truths underlying the divine scheme of salvation” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, January 16, 1948).

Or, as then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) explained,

The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God . . . does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the “project” of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities (In the Beginning, p. xx).

The recognition that the creation accounts must be understood with some nuance is not new. Catholic writers from the early centuries of the Church, as much as 1,500 years or more before Darwin, saw the six days of creation as something other than literal, twenty-four-hour periods.

In the A.D. 200s, Origen of Alexandria noted that in the six days of creation, day and night are made on the first day but the sun is not created until the fourth. The ancients knew as well as we do that the presence or absence of the sun is what makes it day or night, and so he took this as an indicators that the text was using a literary device and not presenting a literal chronology:

Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky? . . . I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally (De Principiis 4:16).

What Origen was onto was a structure embedded in the six days of creation whereby in the first three days God prepares several regions to be populated by separating the day from the night, the sky from the sea, and finally the seas from each other so that the dry land appears. On the following three days he populates these, filling the day and night with the sun, the moon, and the stars, filling the sky and sea with birds and fish, and filling the dry land with animals and man.

The first three days are historically referred to as the days of distinction because God separates and thus distinguishes one region from another. The second three days are referred to as the days of adornment, in which God populates or adorns the regions he distinguished.

This literary structure was obvious to people before the development of modern science, and the fact that the sun is not created until day was recognized by some as a sign that the text is presenting the work of God, as the Catechism says, “symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work’” (CCC 337).

Origen was not the only one to recognize the literary nature of the six days. St. Augustine, writing in the A.D. 400s, noted, “What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!” (The City of God 11:6).

We see then that, far from being mutually exclusive, the belief in an evolutionary process and a belief in God and in the Genesis account of creation all can be held as true.

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