Apologetics, Journal Topics

Thinking Clearly About God and Evolution

Christianity Today recently had a cover story reporting on Christians who claim that human beings could not all have descended from a single human couple. That story was a symptom of a current trend: more and more Christians, even self-identified evangelicals, claim that Christians must make their peace with evolutionary theory. In recent years, scientists such as Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, Ken Miller, Darrell Falk, and others have written books defending theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism.
            The historical reality of Adam and Eve is obviously central to historic Christianity; but it is just one of many issues that, as Christians, we must consider when exploring the broader debate over God and evolution. Unfortunately, the debate is often marred by confusion and ambiguity. Though we can’t discuss every related issue here, let’s see what we can do to think more clearly about the subject.


I am often asked questions such as, “Can you believe in God and evolution?” and “Isn’t evolution just God’s way of creating?” I always respond: “That depends. What do you mean by ‘God’ and what do you mean by ‘evolution’?” That might seem like a dodge, but everything hinges on the definitions.
            Presumably, a theistic evolutionist claims that both theism in some sense and evolution in some sense are true, that both God and evolution somehow work together in explaining the world. But of course, all the real interest is hidden behind the phrase “in some sense.” So we have to get more specific.


A theist believes that a transcendent God created the world and continues to conserve and interact in and with it. God can act directly in nature or indirectly through so-called secondary causes, such as physical laws or the actions of human beings. At all times, however, God oversees and providentially superintends His entire creation, even as He allows His creatures the freedom appropriate to their station. Nothing happens as the result of a purposeless process.
            This is a minimal definition of theism. If someone believes a transcendent God created the world but denies that God can and does act within nature, then at best, he’s a deist.


It’s a lot easier to define theism than to define evolution. It’s been called the ultimate weasel word. In an illuminating article called “The Meanings of Evolution,” Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas attempt to catch the weasel by distinguishing six different ways in which “evolution” is commonly used:

  1. Change over time; history of nature; any sequence of events in nature.
  2. Changes in the frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population.
  3. Limited common descent: the idea that particular groups of organisms have descended from a common ancestor.
  4. The mechanisms responsible for the change required to produce limited descent with modification, chiefly natural selection acting on random variations or mutations.
  5. Universal common descent: the idea that all organisms have descended from a single common ancestor.
  6. “Blind watchmaker” thesis: the idea that all organisms have descended from common ancestors solely through unguided, unintelligent, purposeless, material processes such as natural selection acting on random variations or mutations; that the mechanisms of natural selection, random variation and mutation, and perhaps other similarly naturalistic mechanisms, are completely sufficient to account for the appearance of design in living organisms.1

The first meaning is uncontroversial-even trivial. The most convinced young earth creationist agrees that things change over time-that the universe has a history.2 Populations of animals wax and wane depending on changes in climate and the environment. At one time, certain flora and fauna prospered on the earth, but they later disappeared, leaving mere impressions in the rocks to mark their existence for future generations.
            There’s also cosmic “evolution,” the idea that the early universe started in a hot, dense state, and over billions of years, cooled off and spread out, formed stars, galaxies, planets, and so forth. This includes the idea of cosmic nucleosynthesis, which describes the production of heavy elements (everything heavier than helium) in the universe through a process of star birth, growth, and death. These events involve change over time, but they refer to the history of the inanimate physical universe rather than the history of life. Parts of this picture of cosmic evolution contradict young earth creationism, but the generic idea that one form of matter gives rise, under the influence of various natural laws and processes, to other forms of matter, does not contradict theism. Surely God could directly guide such a process in innumerable ways, could set up a series of secondary natural processes that could do the job, or could do some combination of both.
            In fact, to make a long story short, virtually no one denies the truth of “evolution” in senses 1, 2, or 3. And, pretty much everyone agrees that natural selection and mutations explain some things in biology (number 4).
            What about the fifth sense of evolution, universal common ancestry? This is the claim that all organisms on earth are descended from a single common ancestor that lived sometime in the distant past. Note that this is not the same as the mechanism of change. Universal common ancestry is compatible with all sorts of different mechanisms or sources for change, though the most popular mechanism is the broadly Darwinian one.
            It’s hard to square universal common descent with the biblical texts; nevertheless, it is logically compatible with theism. If God could turn dirt into a man, or a man’s rib into a woman, then presumably He could, if He so chose, turn a bacterium into a bonobo or a dinosaur into a deer. An unbroken evolutionary tree of life guided and intended by God, in which every organism descends from some original organism, sounds like a logical possibility.3
            Besides the six senses mentioned by Meyer and Keas, there is also the metaphorical sense of evolution, in which Darwinian theory is used as a template to explain things other than nature, like the rise and fall of civilizations or sports careers.
            Finally, there’s evolution in the sense of progress or growth. Natural evolution has often been understood in this way, so that cosmic history is interpreted as a purposeful movement toward greater perfection, complexity, mind, or spirit. A pre-Darwinian understanding of evolution was the idea of a slow unfolding of something that existed in nascent form from the beginning, like an acorn slowly becoming a great oak tree. If anything, this sense of evolution tends toward theism rather than away from it, since it suggests a purposive plan. That’s why Darwin didn’t even use the word in early editions of his Origin of Species. It’s also why many contemporary evolutionists (such as the late Stephen Jay Gould) go out of their way to deny that evolution is progressive, and argue instead that cosmic history is not going anywhere in particular.
            It should now be clear that theism is compatible with many senses of evolution. In fact, for most of the senses of evolution we’ve considered, there’s little hint of contradiction. Of course, this is a logical point. It doesn’t tell us what is true-only what could be true.


But there’s one clear exception-the blind watchmaker thesis. Of all the senses of evolution, this one seems to fit with theism like oil with water. According to the blind watchmaker thesis, all the apparent design in life is just that-apparent. It’s really the result of natural selection working on random genetic mutations. (Darwin proposed “variation.” Neo-Darwinism attributes new variations to genetic mutations.)
            The word “random” in the blind watchmaker thesis carries a lot of metaphysical baggage. In Neo-Darwinian theory, random doesn’t mean uncaused; it means that the changes aren’t directed-they don’t happen for any purpose. Moreover, they aren’t predictable, like gravity, and don’t occur for the benefit of individual organisms, species, or eco-systems, even if, under the guidance of natural selection, an occasional mutation might enhance a species’ odds of survival.
            The blind watchmaker thesis is more or less the same as Neo-Darwinism as its leading advocates understand it. It is usually wedded to some materialistic origin of life scenario, which isn’t about biological evolution per se. This so-called chemical evolution is often combined with biological evolution as two parts of a single narrative.
            Unfortunately, the blind watchmaker thesis isn’t an eccentric definition of the word evolution. It’s textbook orthodoxy.4 For instance, Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson explained evolution by saying, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”5 Darwin himself understood his theory this way: “There seems to be no more design,” he wrote, “in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the winds blow.”6
            And here’s how the late Darwinist Ernst Mayr put it: “The real core of Darwinism, however, is the theory of natural selection. This theory is so important for the Darwinian because it permits the explanation of adaptation, the ‘design’ of the natural theologian, by natural means, instead of by divine intervention.”7
            Notice that Mayr says, “instead of.”
            These are representative quotes from the literature. From the time of Darwin to the present, Darwinists have always contrasted their idea with the claim that biological forms are designed or created. That’s the whole point of the theory.
            Theists claim that the world, including the biological world, exists for a purpose; that it is, in some sense, designed. The blind watchmaker thesis denies this. So anyone wanting to reconcile strict Darwinian evolution with theism has a Grade A dilemma on his hands.


One way out is to redefine the theistic part. For instance, one could defend deism, with God getting things started at the beginning but not knowing or superintending nature after that. Dissolving a dilemma, however, is not the same as resolving it. If the adjective theistic in theistic evolution is not to be a misnomer, it should include a theistic view of God.
            What about redefining it in the other direction? A theistic evolutionist could maintain that God sets up and guides nature so that it gives rise to everything from stars to starfish through a slowly developing process. Organisms perhaps share a common ancestor but reach their goal as intended by God. God works in nature, perhaps through cosmic initial conditions, physical laws, secondary processes, discrete acts, or some combination, to bring about His intended results, rather than creating everything from scratch. Whatever the details, on this view, the process of change and adaptation wouldn’t be random or purposeless. It would implement a plan, and would reflect God’s purposes. This would be a teleological version of evolution, and so would flatly reject the Darwinian blind watchmaker thesis.
            This was the view of some early theistic evolutionists such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of the concept of natural selection. Here the word evolution is being used in the pre-Darwinian, even anti-Darwinian sense. History is the unfolding of a purposeful plan. This is a logically possible view; it is not, however, the view of many of today’s theistic evolutionists, such as Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller. They seek to reconcile Christian theism with Darwinian evolution. They may affirm design in some broad sense at the cosmic level, but not in biology.
            How should we respond? There’s not much use in looking for evidence for this brand of theistic evolution, for the simple reason that it can’t be true. It’s not logically possible. It makes no sense to talk about a purposeful process that is nevertheless purposeless, or to talk about God directing an undirected process. To the degree that a view is Darwinian (as Darwinists understand it), it will not be theistic. And to the degree that it is theistic, it will not be Darwinian.
            If you understand that basic point, you’ll be much better equipped to navigate the current debate over theistic evolution.

—Jay Richards

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne, 2009). His article “Think Clearly about God and Evolution” appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special origins issue of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL. This special issue also includes a sneak peek at Hank Hanegraaff’s forthcoming The Creation Answer Book where he answers questions like: Did Adam and Eve really exist? Is animal suffering a consequence of Adam’s sin? Can the Big Bang be harmonized with Genesis? When was the universe created? This special origins issue available by donation only.


  1. In Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, ed. John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2004).
  2. See the explanation for the meaning of “evolution” from the BioLogos Foundation, which seeks to give a Christian defense of evolution. The explanation begins with “change over time,” then goes on to fill out the definition with common descent and the Darwinian mechanism. But it quickly slips from defining the term to presenting the details as if they were uncontested facts. At: http://biologos.org/questions/what-is-evolution/.
  3. I’m not saying this is true. I’m merely dealing with the logic of the ideas here. Since design is logically compatible with universal common descent, one could, strictly speaking, endorse both intelligent design and theistic evolution. Nevertheless, these days, ID and theistic evolution often describe people with different positions. See discussion of this point in the comments of Thomas Cudworth, “Olive Branch from Karl Giberson,” Uncommon Descent (April 15, 2010), at: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/olive-branch-from-karl-giberson/#more-13010.
  4. For discussion, see Casey Luskin, “Smelling Blood in the Water: Why Theistic Evolution Won’t Appease the Atheists,” in God and Evolution, ed. Jay W. Richards (Seattle: Discovery Institute, 2010).
  5. G. G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: A Study of the History of Life and of Its Significance for Man, rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 345.
  6. Francis Darwin, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol. 1 (New York: Appleton, 1887), 280, 283-84, 278-79.
  7. Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversy, with a foreword by Ernst Mayr (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982), xi-xii. Quoted in ibid.

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This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 1 (2012).  For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Apologetics, In the News

The Dalai Lama, Martin Sheen, and Beyond Religion

In a recent Reuters “Book Talk,” Bernard Vaughan interviewed actor Martin Sheen on his recent project as narrator for the audio book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is the spiritual leader of Tibet and the purported fourteenth reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet, within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is also the author of The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus. The Dalai Lama undoubtedly has also a great influence upon many outside Buddhism.

Sheen, a professing Roman Catholic, shared that it took three days to record Beyond Religion, and “each day that I went back I was more nourished by what I was learning.” With respect to the general philosophy of the book, Sheen says, “It doesn’t say drop your religion; you can’t go this path and remain a Catholic or a Protestant or a Muslim or a Jew. On the contrary, it’s about your humanity. That’s where we’re all united. I think what he is trying to do is enlarge the circle. He’s trying to ensure people that they don’t have to give up anything that they believe in order to enlarge their possibilities.” In Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama argues that “religion is not a necessity for pursuing a spiritual life. Rather he proposes a system of secular ethics grounded in a deep appreciation of our common humanity.”

The Dalai Lama, in a Huffington Post blog, explains, “In today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all.” The solution, in his opinion, is “secular ethics,” or “an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without.”

The idea of secular ethics is certainly consistent with Buddhism for its philosophy for the most part is agnostic. As for the Dalai Lama, he dismisses the existence of a divine creator. When LifePositive inquired about why Buddha said nothing about God, the Dalai Lama replied, “Because he talked about the law of causality. Once you accept the law of cause and effect, the implication is that there is no ‘creator,’ ” and “Talking of God, who created God? There is no point arguing. Dharmakeerti and Shantideva [Buddhist scholars] debate the existence of God and reach the conclusion that if we believe in a benevolent creator, how do we explain suffering?”

A Christian can agree that in a world filled with diverse people with disparate beliefs there still exist common ground ethics for dialog in resolving conflicts. There are indeed moral absolutes that are true for all. Paul writes, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or defending them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:14–16). There is then a natural law written upon the heart’s of people, which allows for dialogue on ethics.

Christians can also agree to stand up against injustice, and rightly condemn evil done in the name of Christ. Moreover, Christianity, alone among the possible worldviews, has a satisfying explanation for why suffering and evil exist in the world (see, for example, “Addressing the Problem of Evil” by Douglas Groothuis,” and “How Should Christians Approach the Problem of Evil?” by E. Calvin Beisner and Chad Meister).

The idea of segregating faith from the public forum still poses a problem for the Christian. It is true that we possesses moral sensibilities; yet, we are much like blind men inside a room with an elephant, groping around, and trying to describe the creature, but only sensing bits and pieces of the whole. We are in need of someone who can see, and say, “You there, you are feeling only its leg, if you keep moving to your left, you will feel the belly, another leg, an ear, and its head, then you will have a better idea of what this animal is like.” Christianity holds that God revealed Himself to mankind through Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament then through Jesus Christ, the very incarnation of God, and the apostles in the New Testament. It is then through divine revelation that people get a better understanding of moral truths.

Is living in a diverse world of people with disparate beliefs reason for leaving faith out of conversations on ethics? No! Christ’s followers emerged out of Judaism but they also took their message to the ends of the earth. They went out to share Christ with a world influenced by Caesar cults, Greek philosophies, mystery religions, and magic. The reason is that Christians had a message that could transform people. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Moreover, as the apostles also taught, “Salvation is found in no one else [than Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

It can also be pointed out that Christianity provides the world with spiritual resources for social transformation. People through deep reflection upon God’s Word came to understand their own dignity as persons created in the image of God both male and female (Gen. 1:26–27), and this was underscored in the reality of the gospel message of how God loved humanity such that He sent the Son to be incarnated—Jesus Christ—to die upon the cross on behalf of sinners so that those whosoever believes can have everlasting life (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). The Scriptures would also form the basis for values such as the sanctity of life, charity, women’s equality, and slave emancipation. They would also influence development and innovations in art, science, jurisprudence, and economics (for further study, please see The Book that Made Your World by Vishal Mangalwadi and How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt).

— Warren Nozaki

Apologetics, Journal Topics

Extraterrestrials and Christianity

NASA’s highly successful planet-hunting Kepler mission is bringing back to the fore questions about life beyond Earth. Thanks to Kepler, we now know that Earth-size planets orbit other stars like the Sun. Does this mean that life beyond Earth is common? Are there other intelligent beings?

Even before Kepler was launched in 2009, it was already clear that our Solar System is not typical. Our familiar neighbors tend to have circular orbits, with the big planets located safely distant from the small ones. The Solar System is not the template for all planetary systems as astronomers once believed. Does this mean the Solar System unique in its habitability?

In 1996 NASA scientists claimed to have discovered evidence of ancient life in a Martian meteorite. While that evidence has not held up, scientists are still searching. Would discovery of life on Mars have implications for the way we view ourselves? How would it affect the Intelligent Design argument? What about the discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization? Would it render ridiculous the claims of Christianity? Some have claimed it would.

What do our prior Christian beliefs imply about the existence of extraterrestrials? Should Christians be more optimistic or less than atheists?

Guillermo Gonzalez, Ph.D., is an associate professor of astronomy and physics at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania. He is author of nearly eighty scientific papers and co-author with Jay W. Richards of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004). His feature article, “Would Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Spell Doom for Christianity?” on which this post is based appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special origins issue of the Christian Research Journal available by donation.

For future issues of the Christian Research Journal subscribe or renew your subscription or give a gift subscription.

Guillermo Gonzalez will join Hank Hanegraaff on the Bible Answer Man broadcast in February to discuss the pivotal apologetic topic of origins! Tune in daily at 6PM ET at our website, www.equip.org! The Bible Answer Man can also be heard daily on Sirius-XM satellite radio on Family Talk channel 131.The Bible Answer Man can also be heard on local radio stations. Click here for stations and times.

Apologetics, Journal Topics

God & Evolution

For Christians, the question of “God and evolution” is becoming more acute. For decades, of course, liberal Christians have found ways of accommodating their theology to Darwin’s theory of evolution. But these days, otherwise conservative evangelicals and orthodox Catholics seem to be doing the same thing. For evangelicals, there seems to be a desire to overcome the “Scopes Monkey Trial” stereotype that has prevented reasonable discussions of the subject for over eighty years. Orthodox Catholics, for their part, seem intent to overcome the “Galileo stereotype” that says the Catholic Church is anti-science. So now we’re seeing all sorts of proposals for reconciling Christianity and Darwinism.

But surely any attempt to reconcile scientific claims with theological claims should determine (1) what those respective claims are, and (2) what is true. When it comes to Darwinian evolution, however, that’s easier said than done. That’s because the word “evolution” means all sorts of different things and it’s not easy to separate the evidence for Darwinian evolution from its marketing.

In God and Evolution, the contributors and I try to provide some much-needed clarity to the debate, so that disputants will not argue past each other. We decided not to weigh in on specific theological controversies such as the historicity of Adam and Eve (though that is a very important question).

Clarity requires asking the right questions. The most common question I am asked when dealing with this issue is something like: “Isn’t evolution just God’s way of creating?” Regrettably, that question begs all the good questions, such as: What is “evolution?” What evidence is there that natural selection and random genetic mutations can create new biological systems? And my personal favorite: Can God guide an unguided process?

— Jay W. Richards

Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (HarperOne, 2009). His feature article, “Think Clearly about God and Evolution” on which this post is based appears in the Volume 35, No. 1 special origins issue of the Christian Research Journal available by donation.

For future issues of the Christian Research Journal subscribe or renew your subscription or give a gift subscription.

Jay Richards will join Hank Hanegraaff on the Bible Answer Man broadcast in February to discuss the pivotal apologetic topic of origins! Tune in daily at 6PM ET at our website, www.equip.org! The Bible Answer Man can also be heard daily on Sirius-XM satellite radio on Family Talk channel 131.The Bible Answer Man can also be heard on local radio stations. Click here for stations and times.