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The Untenability of Theistic Evolution (2009)

Bart Klink


No Scientific Conflicts?
Philosophical Problems
Theological Problems
     The Fall
     Adam was Not a Metaphor
     The Days of Creation are Literal Days
     And God Saw that It was Good?
     Ad Imaginem Dei
     The Soul
     The Flood
     The Literality of the Bible and Other Myths
Some Other Alleged Arguments in Favor of TE



Theistic evolution (TE) is the theological view that God creates new species through evolution.[1] I conceive of God here in the terms of traditional theism, the belief in the existence of a God that is omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good, and the creator of all contingent things.[2] Unlike traditional creationism or intelligent design, TE is not opposed to evolutionary biology, and unlike traditional creationism, it is consistent with the findings of modern cosmology and geology. Accordingly, the gross attack on the scientific consensus in biology, geology, and astronomy so characteristic of creationism is absent in TE.

This is of course a great advantage if one desires a reconciliation between science and religion. In the United States, where the creationist attack on science has been a problem for quite some time, the offensive has reached its climax in the battle over intelligent design, a disguised form of creationism. Thus TE is probably beneficial for scientific development since it avoids a conflict with science. The more people endorse TE, the fewer political obstacles to scientific progress.

TE has been more or less endorsed by several major Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church for a while. The position of the Catholic Church has changed substantially over time and is still somewhat ambivalent. The 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia[3] claims that there is no convincing evidence for common descent and appeals to divine intervention to account for the creation of the first organisms and human beings.[4] In the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis[5] Pope Pius XII expressed skepticism about evolution (§ 36) and stated explicitly that humanity originated with just one individual (§ 37), contrary to the scientific understanding that human beings originated within population of organisms. In the same paragraph, the Pope refers to the historical reality of the original sin. The historicity of original sin is also stated in section 390 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church[6], which was first published in French in 1992 by the authority of Pope John Paul II. In 1996 the same pope wrote in his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences[7] that evolution is "more than a hypothesis," but also that the human spirit could not have originated by natural means. When he was still a cardinal, the current Pope (Benedict XVI) subscribed to a statement, in §63 of Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God[8], which maintains the current scientific consensus that humans had their origin in a "humanoid population." The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on evolution are not entirely clear, have changed over time, and as I will show later, still conflict with scientific consensus to a certain extent.

Several nonbelievers have also propagated TE to reconcile science and religion. Two eminent scholars who endorse TE are the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould[9] and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse.[10] Religious and secular proponents of TE see no conflict between evolution and the creation story (or stories[11]) in the book of Genesis. This is a theological contention, and a problematic one at that, as have often been pointed out by conservative Christians. The main focus of this article will be a number of theological and philosophical problems for TE.

Mere compatibility with science does not make TE true or even plausible. Nevertheless, I start with a brief examination of the idea that TE does not conflict with science. I conclude that evolution and theism—particularly Judeo-Christian theism—are irreconcilable, but on philosophical and theological grounds rather than scientific ones.

I should make clear at the outset that while young earth creationism is clearly scientifically untenable, it may be theologically defensible. Some of the following arguments have been put forth by such creationists in discussions with liberal believers.

No Scientific Conflicts?

For many people the origin of human beings is a sensitive issue. For conservative believers, a connection with the animal kingdom is out of the question. But even some proponents of TE, who ostensibly have no problem with evolution, like to reserve a special place for humans, separate from the animals. But this is not a scientifically justifiable stance given the many evolutionary predecessors of human beings.[12] At most, there is only an apparent gap between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom due to the absence of current fossil evidence of our most immediate (now extinct) evolutionary ancestors. The more fossil ancestors found, the more evident it becomes that the difference between humans and other animals (extant or extinct) is gradual, not fundamental. The boundary between modern Homo sapiens and its evolutionary forebears is vague, arbitrary, and scientifically untenable, but necessary for conventional classification. Perhaps the most characteristic aspect of human beings, civilization, is the result of cultural evolution, for there are still people "living in the Stone Age," albeit genetically fully Homo sapiens.

The separation between humans and other animals often coincides with an exaggerated and unjustified anthropocentrism: Humanity becomes the standard by which the incompleteness of other animals is measured. Animals are brutalized and humans humanized to make the alleged gap as big as possible: humans are characterized as the only creatures with reason, empathy, a (rich) emotional life, altruism, culture, identity, and language. Yet all these characteristics have been observed to a greater or lesser extent in nonhuman animals, especially in other primates.[13] The only possible exception to this is language, and even here it is unclear whether linguistic limitations are due to mental impediments or anatomical restrictions of the larynx.

Another possible area of conflict between TE and evolutionary biology is evolutionary explanations of religion.[14] Adjacent to this is currently thriving research into the neurological basis of religious experiences (so-called "neurotheology"). Consistency demands that TE proponents concede the possibility that both fields of research, though currently undeveloped, might yield successful explanations of their respective subject matters in the future.

Henceforth I will assume that there is no conflict between TE and either scientific methodology generally or particular scientific findings. Apparent conflict with science provides grounds to reject TE, but the biggest problems for TE are theological and philosophical.

Philosophical Problems

To avoid conflict with the methodological naturalism of science, TE would have to exclude consideration of any supernatural intervention during creation. What, then, is the theistic aspect of TE? Why not simply speak of purely naturalistic evolution, or even deistic evolution, where God set the universe in motion but since let it (and biological evolution) run entirely on its own?

As far as we can ascertain, the history of the universe has been an unfolding of purely naturalistic processes. Only the very beginning remains a mystery, and even here the 'God hypothesis' provides no additional explanatory value. Even a deistic God is an unnecessary hypothesis for the origin of the universe: a God of the gaps whose postulation signals an asylum ignorantiae (refuge of ignorance). One who feels the need to postulate a divine cause is left with the question of what caused God to exist. Perhaps God does not need a cause; but then why think that the universe needs one?

Undoubtedly, it is logically possible that God somehow directs a seemingly naturalistic process like evolution. But it is equally possible that Poseidon causes plate tectonics, or that Ra initiates nuclear fusion in the sun, and yet no one today appeals to these gods to explain earthquakes or solar fusion. Ockham's razor, the idea that explanatory entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, recommends that we avoid appeals to any such divine explanations.

Because evolution is not goal-oriented, TE necessarily discards the biological teleological argument for the existence of God, which claims that postulating God is necessary to account for purposiveness in nature. Modifying theologian William Paley's renowned analogy, evolution is a blind watchmaker.[15] Nevertheless, some TE proponents try to retain God's creative hand by suggesting that God directs some apparently random mutations. Not only is there no shred of evidence for this, but it doesn't even make sense: directed variation would make natural selection unnecessary for the diversification of life—but that certainly is not the case. Moreover, it raises thorny questions about whether God is responsible for pernicious mutations and the possible (often horrible) disorders that result from them. Kenneth Miller, for example, rejects creationism but leaves the door open for God to intervene through quantum mechanics.[16] Such divine action may be scientifically untestable even in principle, and there is no reason to favor it over natural quantum probability. Such vague speculations don't even touch questions about the purpose of natural selection or whether God is responsible for malicious mutations.

Is nature goal-oriented, with humans as the jewel of creation? Evolution is an immensely slow, wasteful, pitiless, and cruel process—hardly the most elegant process of creation open to a goal-oriented, omnipotent, and benevolent God. If humanity is the final goal of creation, whence the 3.5 billion (3,500,000,000!) years since the origin of life, or the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang? What is the point of this immense amount of time if human beings and their world are the pinnacle of the Almighty's creation?

Although evolution does not work with a purpose in mind, it is often called a tinkerer for continuously "testing" whether new mutants can survive their local circumstances in the struggle for existence (natural selection). The vast majority of mutants are selectively neutral or negative with regard to the evolution and survival of Homo sapiens, and thus their evolution is "wasteful" if measured against the goal of producing human beings. Such a wasteful process is hardly consonant with a goal-oriented, omnipotent, and omniscient God.

Furthermore, there is no progressive trend in evolution toward the development of human beings. Evolution can be seen as a huge tree with many branching points, not a direct line to humans. We are just a not-yet-extinct part of one of the very many branches of the enormous tree of life. The development of life has been interrupted by innumerable extinctions, some with so many different plant and animal species dying out in the same time period that they have been dubbed mass extinctions. The (hitherto) biggest mass extinction was the Permian-Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago[17]. So many animal species lived long before the first humans appeared largely because of this repetitive cycle of speciation and extinction. But what was the point of all these extinct animals, if the goal of creation is man and his surrounding nature? To what purpose were the dinosaurs? What was the point of the trilobites? These groups of animals did not even contribute to the origin of humans. Why did God create complete ecosystems only to have them virtually annihilated, so that entirely different ecosystems would temporarily emerge in their place, only to meet the same fate, over and over again?

Had the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago missed the earth, it's likely that our little branch on the tree of life would never have developed, since the end of dinosaur dominance made it possible for our small mammal ancestors to flourish. How are such chance contingencies in the history of life compatible with the alleged providence of a Creator?

Worse still, consider the vast amount of suffering needed to secure our existence through natural selection. The environment "selects" those organisms best adapted to it, not the most even-tempered ones. Consequently, numerous predatory creatures have evolved which regularly inflict suffering on prey and host animals. The screw-worm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax), for instance, lays its eggs in the wounds or eyes of mammals (including humans), causing any wounds to widen when the eggs hatch and the larva eat the surrounding tissue. This attracts more congeners, further widening wounds. Untreated, such parasitism often leads to a gruesome death. Or consider the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes autoimmune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). It is a great evolutionary success which creates immense suffering among human beings. Immense suffering, like wasteful "trial and error," is not incidental, but inherent to the process of evolution. And it does not sit well with the notion that evolution has been set up or directed by a loving God. The theistic retort that "God moves in mysterious ways" goes well beyond the evidence from evolutionary biology. There is a far simpler and elegant explanation for that evidence: there is no divine will to grope at in the dark, just the indifferent, pitiless, and naturalistic forces of evolution. Since evolution is a slow, wasteful, and brutal process, prima facie it is not the way in which a goal-oriented, omnipotent, omniscient, and loving God would choose to create the world. Thus a naturalistic explanation for the origin of all species, including Homo sapiens, is more plausible than a theistic one.

Paradoxically, TE proponents need science and religion to thrive together, yet require a radical separation between the two along the lines of something like Stephen Jay Gould's nonoverlapping magisteria (NOMA) thesis.[18] In Gould's view, science and religion are two different, nonoverlapping domains of teaching authority. Science deals with empirical facts and theories, while religion deals with questions of meaning and morality.[19]

Historically, scientific and religious developments have influenced one another[20] and continue to do so in everyday life. Questions about abortion, euthanasia, sexual orientation, humanity's place in the cosmos, and so on were once thought to fall within the domain of religion. And historically, religious doctrine has often implicitly dictated scientific theses, such as traditional views about our place in the universe or the age of the earth. (And religion continues to do this, but to a lesser degree as religious doctrine continues to lose ground to advancing scientific understanding. We'll return to this point later.) So radical a separation between science and religion is largely just an artificial construct.

In order to avoid conflict between science and religion, Gould naïvely expects theists to concede that God refrains from intervening in the natural order by means of miracles: "Thou shalt not mix the magisteria by claiming that God directly ordains important events in the history of nature by special interference knowable only through revelation and not accessible to science."[21] Is Gould oblivious that exactly this is an essential component of religion? What would Christianity be if Jesus did not miraculously rise from the dead, for example? Though Gould contends that the Roman Catholic Church embraces NOMA, he apparently overlooks their innumerable references to miracles. Their declaration that the Fall of Man was a real historical event is a gross violation of NOMA to which Gould only devotes one footnote! An appeal to nonoverlapping magisteria appears to be nothing more than a politically correct answer to the question of how science and religion relate to one another.

Theological Problems

By my lights the greatest problems for TE are theological ones, both doctrinal and exegetical. I will explore the most challenging of these problems below.

The Fall

A central Christian doctrine, described in Genesis 3, is that of the Fall of Man. As mentioned earlier, the Roman Catholic Church considers it a historical event. This is also the case for other Christian denominations, as is evident from their official statements. Articles IX and X of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion[22], the defining statements of Anglican doctrine, treat Adam and the Fall as historical. Article II of the Augsburg Confession[23], normative for all Lutheran churches, do the same. Though the term "Fall" is derived from Hellenistic tradition, particularly Platonism, the idea that humanity is fallen is certainly a biblical one. Genesis 3 deals with disobedience to God and its consequences for human beings.[24] Simon J. De Vries writes: "Although some scholars have denied it, the fall story also answers the question of the origin of sin and the origin of death."[25]

The Fall is probably one of the most famous stories of the Old Testament. According to the story, God forbade Adam and Eve, the first two humans, to eat from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Tempted to disobey by the serpent, they ate from the tree and realized that they were naked. Enraged, God damned serpents to henceforth travel on their bellies, put enmity between men and women and their offspring, made childbearing painful for women, caused working the land to be hard, and damned human beings to return to the dust from which they came. Apparently, none of this was the case before the Fall, which according to Christians brought sin into the world. To redeem humanity from its sins, Jesus Christ died on the cross.

What does TE make of this? Taken literally, this myth[26] flatly contradicts modern scientific findings. There have never been just two human beings, a Garden of Eden with "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil," or immortal human beings. The creation was not 'broken' at a certain moment in time, and there never was a paradise on earth. The entire Fall of Man, then, could never have happened: it is a myth. Can interpreting it allegorically save the story? What significance could the story have if every aspect of the Fall appears to be purely mythical? The apostle Paul, who played a major role in the origin of Christianity, clearly did not view the story as allegory:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. (Romans 5:12)[27]

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)

Paul clearly states that sin came into the world through one man (Adam), not through humankind or hominins as required by an allegorical interpretation. He also makes clear that the Fall brought death, particularly human mortality, into the world. Paul relates the Fall to the Christian doctrine of Christ's reconciliation. So an allegorical interpretation of Genesis 3 not only strips the story of the Fall of its significance, but contradicts the interpretation and meaning Paul attributes to the story.

Strikingly enough, Miller[28] does not even mention the problem of the Fall. Ruse[29], however, acknowledges the problem and attempts to reconcile the story with the natural history of the earth. First, he states that we must view the story through the lens of a metaphorical interpretation, which is problematic in itself (as shown above). He continues by stating that the evolutionary understanding of human beings as selfish but altruistic basically accords with the Christian portrayal of us as sinful but moral. But this move appears to hinge upon a misunderstanding of the point of the story of the Fall: that Man was good (God created him "very good" per Genesis 1:31), but became sinful because of a choice. On the evolutionary understanding, selfishness and altruism are "hardwired" biological characteristics, not the result of a choice at a particular moment in time. Indeed, it is only the falsified Lamarckian theory of evolution, that acquired characteristics can be inherited, that is compatible with Christian theology. The modern Darwinian theory is irreconcilable with the Christian portrayal of humankind.

Adam was Not a Metaphor

Although a metaphorical interpretation of the Genesis story is convenient for TE proponents, textual evidence contradicts it. In the rest of the Bible, Adam is consistently treated as a single historical person, not a metaphor for humanity in general. This is why various biblical genealogies trace back to Adam. Genesis 4-5 lists Adam's descendants and their ages. The first chapter of 1 Chronicles mentions Adam and his pedigree as historical persons, too. Jesus is considered a descendant of Adam by the author of the Gospel according to Luke:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, ... son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Luke 3:23-38)

According to the Gospel of Matthew, even Jesus himself seems to speak about Adam and Eve as historical persons:

He answered, 'Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning "made them male and female."' (Matthew 19:4)

As mentioned above, Paul speaks of Adam as a historical person. He does this most explicitly in Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, where he directly links Adam to the Fall and, by that very fact, to Christ's redemption. Paul also speaks about Adam in Acts 17:26, 1 Corinthians 15:45, and 1 Timothy 2:13-14.[30]

The Days of Creation are Literal Days

Some TE proponents have tried to reconcile the Genesis creation myths with science by conceiving of the days of creation not as literal, 24-hour days, but as long periods of time. This, or some other nonliteral exegesis, is the only way to avoid conflict with modern science. However, such an interpretation does not stand up to scrutiny.

First, the Hebrew word yom (transliterated), standardly translated as "day," has a wide meaning. It can mean something as specific as a 24-hour day, or something as general as a long period of time.[31] Consequently, some interpret yom in the creation stories as a reference to a long period of time, usually millions or billions of years since that is what is required to make the story fit with modern scientific findings. However, an accurate exegesis largely depends upon the context in which the word is used. In the creation accounts, the fact that the writer uses ordinal adjectives (first day, second day, etc) suggests that literal days were intended. Ordinal adjectives are not used in any other instance when yom means a long period of time.

Furthermore, to my knowledge no Bible commentary suggests that yom means a long period of time in this case. In fact, some commentaries explicitly reject this exegesis. For example:

Gordon Wenham: "There can be little doubt that here 'day' has it basic sense of a 24-hour period."[32]

John Skinner: "The interpretation of [yom] as aeon, a favorite resource of harmonists of science and revelation, is opposed to the plain sense of the passage, and has no warrant in [Hebrew] usages."[33]

Robert Davidson: "Attempts to make [the day] still more flexible, to mean different aeons or stages in the known evolution of the world, and thus reconcile Genesis 1 with modern scientific theory, are misguided."[34]

In addition, every day of creation is closed with the words: "And there was evening and there was morning, the [x] day." References to evening and morning demonstrate a reference to normal days. Some have argued that because the sun is not created until the third day in the story, a normal day cannot be what was intended, as the sun is what causes the day-night cycle. However, the author and his contemporaries believed that light and darkness existed independently of the sun and moon, which were only seen as rulers of day and night.[35]

Elsewhere in the Torah, the days of creation are treated as literal 24-hour days filling out a 7-day week:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:15-17)

Setting aside the gruesome and disproportional punishment for working on the Sabbath, both passages link the seven days of a normal week to the seven days of the creation week. This conflicts with the notion that the creation days are long periods of time. A week is a period of seven normal days, both in Exodus 20 and 31 and in Genesis 1.

In closing, nothing in Genesis 1 itself suggests a nonliteral meaning of yom. Its author referred to normal 24-hour days as clearly as he possibly could. And in any case, artificially stretching the days of creation to match an astronomical time scale would not make Genesis compatible with modern scientific knowledge, as the order of creation in Genesis is wrong.

And God Saw that It was Good?

In Genesis 1 the days of creation are repeatedly characterized by the phrase "And God saw that is was good." While this is a fitting way to describe the creation of perfect creatures, it is ill-suited for the description an evolutionary process that is inherently imperfect and constantly in flux. Retrospectively saying that the origin of a particular species "was good" on TE implies that it was somehow the goal of an evolutionary process, contrary to the nonteleological character of evolution by natural selection.

Creationists can consistently maintain that the vast amount of suffering we find in the world today is a result of the Fall of Man, but proponents of TE cannot, as The Fall is not a real historical event on TE. Without the Fall, though, there is a deeper problem (which invoking the Fall does not escape either, on closer examination). If all creatures are part of the original creation which God himself said "was good," then God is responsible for all of those creatures (and there are a lot of them!) which inflict suffering on others. Could a loving God create the screw-worm fly and the HIV virus and still say that "it was good"?

Ad Imaginem Dei

The Bible teaches a clear distinction between humans and other animals, which is already apparent in the creation myth from Genesis 1:26-29. Man is created separately from the animals, and unlike them is created ad imaginem Dei—in God's image. Human beings alone have a privileged relationship with the Creator. God created Man (in both male and female form) to rule over the earth and the rest of its creatures.

How does this image of God fit in with TE? Human beings arose gradually from other animals, most immediately from other hominin primates. Were our closest fossil relatives, the Neanderthals, created in God's image too? How about the common ancestor to both humans and Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis? Homo ergaster or erectus? Homo habilis? The australopithecines? Is any part of the chimpanzee, perhaps, created in God's image too?

The second creation myth, from Genesis 2, tells the story of our origin differently. According to this story, God formed a single male from the dust of the ground, even before the plants and animals. To help this male, God then created the animals, but they did not satisfy him. So God took a rib from this man and made a woman from it. Here, too, there is a clear distinction between human and animal. God formed the male from the dust, and the female from the male, but neither from hominins, let alone from animals.

The Soul

A related problem arises with the introduction of a soul or human spirit. A majority of Christians today believe that the soul leaves the body at death to spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. If that theology is correct, then the personality and consciousness of a human being must reside in an immaterial soul which can survive bodily death. Most conservative Christians believe that humans have a soul from the moment of conception. But what is the evolutionary analog for what allegedly happens in individual human development? At which point in evolution is the soul introduced? Since the evolution from nonhumans to humans was a gradual process, how can that question be answered without arbitrarily assigning a moment when the soul enters the hominin line? On top of this, modern neuroscience has shown that all of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to a soul (e.g., thinking, willing, and feeling) are products of the brain.[36] The human brain is a product of evolution for which the divine addition of a soul is both unnecessary and nonsensical.

Although the biblical conception of the soul is inconsistent and unclear[37], it is certainly an important Christian concept. The author of The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd ed.) entry on "Immortality" writes: "The doctrine that the human soul is immortal and will continue to exist after man's death and the dissolution of the body is one of the cornerstones of Christian philosophy and theology." On the Christian conception of the soul, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica we find: "The idea of future rewards and punishments dominated many Christians in the European Middle Ages and is held today by many Christians of all denominations."[38]

Pope John Paul II addressed this problem briefly in the Message mentioned earlier.[39] He denied explicitly that "the mind"[40] could have an evolutionary origin. He speaks of "an ontological difference, an ontological leap." This brings him in conflict with evolutionary biology, which shows that our "mind" does have an evolutionary origin.

Proposing that hominins are not the only beings with a soul does not adequately resolve the problem. For all evolutionary boundaries are vague and arbitrary, so the same question is only pushed back one step further. Did the ancestors of the apes have a soul? What about the ancestors of mammals, reptiles, fishes, or bacteria—or even simpler evolutionary predecessors? While few would grant a soul to bacteria or their predecessors, the moment at which one introduces the soul into the phylogenetic tree is completely arbitrary and unjustifiable.

The Flood

Problems for TE are not restricted to irreconcilable differences between evolutionary theory and the first two chapters of Genesis. Genesis 6-9 describes the well-known story of the Flood. Since human beings have never lived during a time when the earth was entirely covered by water, to avoid conflict with scientific consensus TE proponents will have to treat this story as a myth as well.

Some have proposed that Genesis refers to a local flood, not a global one. But the text itself says otherwise, repeatedly stressing that the Flood causes total destruction (save that of Noah and companions). Consider the following passages (emphasis mine):

And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.' (Genesis 6:13)

For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. (Genesis 6:17)

For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground. (Genesis 7:4)

The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. (Genesis 7:19-23)

Although the Hebrew word erez can mean either the whole earth or a (local) piece of land, here the intended meaning is clear from its context: the Flood covered the entire earth. This is stressed by expressions like "under heaven all flesh" and "every living thing that I have made." Victor Hamilton writes that the Genesis "description has all the appearances of a universal condition rather than a local flood."[41] A local flood interpretation would also destroy the moral of the story. Why merely flood a limited region? Why would Noah have to build an ark for a local flood, when living creatures (especially birds) could simply flee to higher ground?

A local flood interpretation, then, is untenable; the writer(s) of the story undoubtedly envisioned a global flood, and could not have been any clearer about the issue. Because a worldwide flood never happened, however, the story is just another flood myth, one of many others.[42]

In light of this, one might simply resort to an allegorical interpretation of the Flood story. But the chief objection to this route is the same one that applies to an allegorical interpretation of either of the creation stories in Genesis: the story itself does not justify an allegorical interpretation. Moreover, various biblical passages portray Jesus, Paul, and Peter affirming the historical reality of the Flood:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39)

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. (Luke 17:16-27)

By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith. (Hebrews 11:7)

He [Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

He did not spare the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly. (2 Peter 2:5)

The Literality of the Bible and Other Myths

Finally, giving parts or all of Genesis an allegorical interpretation, as required by TE, generates deeper problems. Is there any nonarbitrary, independent standard through which we can distinguish between allegorical and literal truths in the Bible? The Bible itself usually gives us no hint of how to decide between these two options. For example, did Jesus literally rise from the dead, or is the Resurrection story merely a metaphor for the political ascent of the poor? Since the text itself gives no indication that either the Resurrection story, the Flood narrative, or the Creation narrative are intended only allegorically, by letting in such sweeping allegorical interpretations, the believer removes the ground under his own feet. When an "sacred" history appears to be no history at all, only myth remains.

Why, though, should we give preference to any one myth over all others? Especially in the case of creation myths, there is an embarras du choix (embarrassing variety of choice).[43] Judeo-Christian myths are no more historical than those found in other cultures. Personal preferences shaped by upbringing and individual psychological proclivities hardly serve as a criterion of truth.

Some Other Alleged Arguments in Favor of TE

Some TE proponents contend that Genesis was written to make sense only to its authors' contemporaries. God, we are assured, revealed the creation story in the language of that culture. This superficial response is unsound, however, because the story could have be made both understandable and free of scientific errors. It could have described the emergence of different kinds of animals in the correct sequence. It could have noted that humans descended from the animals instead of being created separately from them. It could have clearly indicated that long periods of time, not a period of days, passed between the emergence of different species. Adam could have been explicitly treated as a metaphor, rather than as a historical person. The list could go on and on with examples which would be both understandable to the people of the time and scientifically correct.

Occasionally TE proponents will offer an odd "argument by default": Taking the Creation and Flood stories literally would lead to conclusions which are scientifically absurd, therefore, short of dreaded atheism, TE must be the right explanation. This, of course, unjustifiably dismisses the most plausible explanation: that biblical authors had no more special access to divinely inspired knowledge than anyone else at the time, and so, like everyone else in the ancient world, codified their own speculations about how the cosmos originated without the slightest inkling that decisive evidence would falsify their accounts thousands of years later. Genesis provides us with an all-too-human creation myth presupposing an ancient conception of the world which has since been falsified.

A more sophisticated theological defense of TE contends that a literal reading of Genesis is a relatively modern and aberrant view, while a symbolic reading is the traditional one. And it is true that a few centuries after the emergence of Christianity, theological sources like St. Augustine developed allegorical interpretations of parts of the Bible. But the Bible itself gives no indication that the Creation and Flood stories in Genesis are meant to be taken as anything other than literal (prescientific) accounts of the origin of the world. Terence E. Fretheim concludes:

These chapters are prescientific in the sense that they predate modern science, but not in the sense of having no interest in those types of questions.... Despite claims to the contrary (often in the interest of combating fundamentalism), such text indicate that Israel's thinkers were very interested in questions of the "how" of creation, and not just questions of the "who" and "why."[44]

Interpretations thereafter vary. Though major Christians like St. Augustine read the stories symbolically, many others did not. Theophilus, patriarch of Antioch, reads Genesis so literally that he writes in his Ad Autolychum (at the end of the 2nd century AD) that 5,698 years have passed since the Creation. The Church Father Basil the Great (c. 330-379) gives a literal reading in his Hexaemeron, as does the influential Ambrose (c. 339-397 AD) in his own version of Hexaemeron. Even the great Thomas Aquinas seems to give a literal interpretation in his Summa Theologica (Prima pars, Q. 74). Finally, the father of the Reformation, Martin Luther, and another great reformer, John Calvin, give literal readings in their commentaries on Genesis. Given such mainstream Christian support for a literal interpretation, it is little wonder that the rise and development of geology and evolutionary biology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries encountered such strong opposition from the religious establishment.[45]

Finally, some proponents offer a fallacious argumentum ad populum in defense of TE: If most Christians do not find evolution problematic for their faith, there is no problem. Without dwelling on the point, clearly the likelihood of a proposition does not depend upon the number of people that subscribe to it, but upon the strength of the arguments favoring it.


I think that from all the arguments mentioned above, the believer, and especially the Christian, is on the horns of a dilemma. The one horn is that he takes his religion, including its holy book, seriously, which leads to scientific conflicts. The other horn is that he avoids all conflict with science, which reduces his creation story to myth and leads to deism or atheism. Conservative Christians often choose the first horn, with scientific untenability as consequence. Proponents of theistic evolution are forced to choose the latter horn, with philosophical and theological untenability as consequence. Besides this, the theistic conception of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good God is hardly compatible with the process of evolution.

In my view, the most plausible option is naturalistic evolution, evolution without theistic interference—a-theistic evolution. Creation stories like those found in Genesis are nothing but myths, written by and for prescientific peoples to explain their own origin and the functioning of the world. This does not, of course, diminish their great literary value. But I think that to be honest with ourselves, we should try to read these stories as they were intended, rather than molding them to conform to a modern scientific worldview entirely alien to their authors.


[1] Eugenie C. Scott, "The Creation/Evolution Continuum." National Center for Science Education website. < 9213_the_creationevolution_continu_12_7_2000.asp>.

[2] "Theism" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd edition (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2006), edited by D. M. Borchert.

[3] Charles George Herbermann and Edward A Pace, The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church (New York, NY: Appleton, 1909).

[4] Erich Wasmann, "Evolution, Catholics and" in The Catholic Encyclopedia.

[5] Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis: Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XII (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1950).

[6] "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Internet Office of the Holy See. <>.

[7] John Paul II, "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences." Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 72, No. 4 (December 1997): 381-383.

[8] Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God." Internet Office of the Holy See (Vatican City, The Vatican: International Theological Commission, 2002). < rc_con_cfaith_doc_20040723_communion-stewardship_en.html>.

[9] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999).

[10] Michael Ruse, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[11] Most scholars recognize that the book of Genesis contains two different creation stories (Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-3 and Genesis 2:4-25).

[12] For a recent overview of human evolution, see Roger Lewin and Robert Foley, Principles of Human Evolution: A Core Textbook, 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).

[13] See, for example, Frans B. M. de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006) and Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: An Introduction (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2003), chapter 12.

[14] For example: David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2003); Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (Chicago, IL: Basic Books, 2002); and Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York, NY: Viking Adult, 2006).

[15] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company).

[16] Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God & Evolution (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1999), chapter 7 and pp. 232-238.

[17] Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller, "Cycles in Fossil Diversity." Nature Vol. 434 (March 10, 2005): 208-210.

[18] Gould, op. cit.

[19] I will leave aside the question of whether religion has anything to say about this at all.

[20] For the influence of geology and biology, see Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[21] Gould, op. cit., pp. 84-85.

[22] "Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion" (1571). Modern History Sourcebook website. <>.

[23] Augsburg Confession (1530). Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. <>.

[24] John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 72.

[25] Simon J. De Vries, "Fall, the" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1962), edited by George Arthur Buttrick.

[26] By "myths" I only mean "sacred narratives that relate how the world and man came into their present form" (as defined in "Genesis, Book of" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary), not anything derogatory.

[27] All biblical quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[28] Miller, op. cit.

[29] Ruse, op. cit., pp. 209-210.

[30] Except for 1 Timothy, most scholars consider these letters authentic. See Bart D. Eherman, The New Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[31] Other meanings of the word are irrelevant here.

[32] Gordon J. Wenham, "Genesis 1-15" in Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 1 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1987), p. 19.

[33] John Skinner, "Genesis" in The International Critical Commentary (New York, NY: T. & T. Clark, 1912), p. 21.

[34] Robert Davidson, "Genesis 1-11" in The Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 18.

[35] Skinner, op. cit., p. 20.

[36] Blackmore, op. cit.

[37] For an extensive discussion, see the entries "Body," "Dead, Abode of the," and "Dead" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, and the entry "Soul" in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.

[38] "Immortality" in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Ultimate Reference Suite, 2008).

[39] John Paul II, op. cit.

[40] According to most English dictionaries, the indefinite word "mind" means something like the ability to think or reason. For example, The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000) defines "mind" as: "1) ability to think, the part of a person that makes them able to be aware of things, to think and to feel; 2) your ability to think and reason."

[41] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), edited by Robert L. Hubbard Jr., p. 273

[42] For an overview, see Mark Isaak, "Flood Stories from Around the World." The TalkOrigins Archive website. <>.

[43] This is demonstrated in, among other places, Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of World Mythology (London, UK: Lorenz Books, 2005).

[44] Terence E. Fretheim, "The Book of Genesis" in The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 337.

[45] Bowler, op. cit.

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