For generations, the commonly taught view that all life evolved from a common source has been debated and discussed in academic and religious circles alike. Our schools and our popular culture promote evolution as a scientific fact, relegating Biblical creation to the annals of mythology.
Bible-believing Christians push back, but are they ignoring science? Is it possible to be a Christian and still believe that evolution happened?
The theory of evolution of all living things from a common ancestor is irreconcilable with Christian teaching. Smaller-scale changes within creatures are observable and do not contradict scripture. And as Bible-believing Christians, it is essential that we know the difference.
Scope and Purpose
To start, let’s take a moment to set forth the parameters of this article. Our purpose here is not to debate or discuss the scientific merits and challenges of evolutionary theory. Entire books, websites, and periodicals are available for those who are interested in such an in-depth review of the particulars.
Rather, our purpose in this space is to review the essential teachings of the theory of evolution, while comparing and contrasting those teachings to core tenets of Christian doctrine.
As stated in the introduction, the fundamental arguments of evolutionary theory are not reconcilable with Christian beliefs.
A Word About Science
Although this does not purport to be a science article, it is necessary to address one scientific. Proponents of evolution commonly deride Christian creationists as ‘science deniers’, but this label is fallacious. The scientific process requires the testing of hypotheses through experimentation and observation, neither of which is possible when interpreting the past.
The fossils, geologic strata, and other remnants of past ages were formed before anyone was able to observe or record their origins.
So in the present, we can only infer conclusions, which we do according to the assumptions inherent in our worldviews. Some inferences may be better supported by the physical evidence than others. But all inferences are ultimately born out of an interpretation of the available facts.
But again, our purpose today is not to critique the interpretations of specific pieces of evidence. But it is essential to establish the distinction between facts (fossils, strata, DNA, etc.) and interpretations (relationship between organisms, age of rock layers, etc.).
It is also essential that we define some key terms before we proceed, as the word ‘evolution’ encompasses a broad spectrum of ideas across various scientific disciplines. For purposes of this article, any mention of ‘evolution’ will refer to macroevolution or common ancestry.
In its simplest terms, macro-evolution is the hypothesis that all living things, from microbes to plants to animals, originated from a common source in the distant past, and through mutations over time, diverged into the array of species that we know today.
Though related, macro-evolution is distinct form microevolution, which for our purposes we define as variation and change within a confined set of related organisms. When micro-evolution produces new species, this process is referred to as speciation. Because it happens on a smaller scale, micro-evolution can be observed either in nature or through controlled experiments involving rapidly reproducing organisms.
The difference, then, between common ancestry and speciation is scale. We will come back to speciation later, but for now, let’s turn our attention to the macro-evolution of common ancestry.
Can one believe the commonly taught evolutionary idea of common ancestry while still believing in the God of the Bible?
Christians who promote ‘theistic evolution’ would assert that this is possible. The fundamental argument of theistic evolution is that God used the mechanism of evolution to create our entire biosphere. Adherence to theistic evolution requires its proponents to apply a symbolic interpretation to the Genesis creation account.
Is Theistic Evolution a Viable Compromise?
Theistic evolution teaches that the days of creation represent ages that first describe the creation of the cosmos (which is outside of the scope of this article), followed by a progressive creation of living things across multiple ages.
Proponents of this interpretation note that the Genesis account approximately mirrors the layering of fossils across geologic strata, with plants preceding small creatures, land mammals appearing after sea creatures, and man being the final creature mentioned.
Theistic evolution also requires interpreting the story of Noah as a localized event rather than a global flood. Further, other key passages that reference creation in detail (such as Job 38 and Psalm 90) are read symbolically or poetically by proponents of theistic evolution.
But does the idea of theistic evolution sufficiently marry the ideas of evolution and creation without compromising the fundamental integrity of either interpretation? A closer examination demonstrates that theistic evolution requires the Christian to abandon several essential tenets of faith in order to achieve such a reconciliation of ideas.
Essential Christian Doctrines
When weighing evolution, even theistic evolution, against the teachings of the Christian faith, we encounter a number of tenets of faith that simply never cross paths with evolution. But there are two beliefs, both central to Christianity, that are squarely at odds with evolution: man’s nature and the consequences of sin.
The Uniqueness of Humans
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” – Genesis 1:26
Whether one believes in a creator God or the common ancestry of all living things, people of all worldviews recognize that humans are distinct from other animals in multiple ways. Humans are imbued with the capacity for reason, judgment, and morality.
Even as we learn more, through experimentation and observation, about the intellectual capabilities of complex animals, we have yet to encounter behavior based on moral judgment or conscience.
For example, dogs and other pack animals will choose to protect their own pack mates in a confrontation. And monkeys are capable of expressing their preference for grapes over cucumbers. But these choices are still a product of memory and instinct, and not of discernment or judgment.
But the human psyche does much more. Our capacity for good and evil, ethical discernment, and moral decision-making points to a life that is more than just corporeal, but also spiritual. The psalmist testifies that, unlike other animals, man is unique among God’s created beings, having been made a ‘little lower than the angels‘ (Psalm 8:4-5).
Created in God’s Image
Having a spiritual component to our beings is central to being created in God’s image. We note in Genesis 1:26 that God uses plural pronouns, declaring ‘let us make man in our image’. God is triune and made humans to reflect His triune nature by creating each of us with a body, soul (personality, intellect, emotions, and will), and spirit (the eternal and immaterial component).
The creation process for humans is also distinct from the animals. Where Genesis describes God calling forth animals from the water and the land, He created humans a little differently. Genesis 2:7 notes that the first man, like the animals, was formed from the dust of the ground.
But in addition, God breathed life into man.
The breath of life is unique to man, and the linguistics of the Old Testament reveal that the Hebrew ‘breath’ (transliterated neshamah), is the same word that is translated as ‘spirit’. The correlation between ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’ carries through to the New Testament as well with the Greek pneuma.
Did We Evolve Spirits?
Even a strictly allegorical reading of Genesis, which theistic evolution requires, leads the reader to conclude that man is unique. But evolutionary theory has trouble explaining that uniqueness. If we embrace evolution, we are forced to ask which of our early hominids ancestors first evolved a spirit, and therefore first took on the image of God.
Theistic evolution leaves room for the breath of God to add spirit at some point when man was sufficiently evolved to take on God’s image. But this line of thinking leads to a new obstacle.
God’s Unchanging Nature
I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. – Malachi 3:6
By definition, evolution is a process of change. As we read in the above verse from Malachi and elsewhere in scripture (Psalm 102:27, Hebrews 13:8), God is unchanging. So it is contrary to His nature to suggest, as theistic evolution does, that creatures somehow changed into something bearing His image.
Similarly, evolutionary teaching requires the assumption that humans (and all creatures) will continue to evolve. If that were the case, then we would at some point evolve beyond the point of reflecting God’s image. And there is simply no Biblical argument that can support man temporarily being imbued with an eternal and unchanging image.
Evolution and the Fall
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:23
Humanity’s uniqueness as God’s image-bearers isn’t the only problem that evolution has when trying to reconcile its teachings with the word of scripture. It is also necessary to consider what happened when humanity corrupted our reflection of God’s image by bringing sin into the world.
Sin and Death
Before the fall, God warned Adam that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would result in death (Genesis 2:17). In the following chapter, we read that Adam and Eve ate the fruit, and in response, God cursed the whole created order, including the animals and the ground. And He further declared that Adam would return to the dust of the earth.
Paul affirms this relationship between sin and death throughout his letter to the Romans, saying in verse 5:12 that sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people.
Evolution and Death
Death is a necessary mechanism in the process of evolution. It is through reproduction, the passing on of new mutations, and the survival of subsequent generations that evolution results in new organisms. But if humanity is a recent development on the evolutionary spectrum, how did all of the death leading up to man come about?
In order to believe that God used the process of evolution to bring forth man, one must also believe that death is not a consequence of sin. And if we follow Paul’s theological thread in Romans 5 from Adam to Jesus, then what is our basis for believing that through the one act of Jesus, all men may receive life (Romans 5:18)?
As Christians, we affirm that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. Trying to fit the teachings of evolution into this framework doesn’t merely alter secondary or peripheral teachings. Rather, it pushes against the singular core message of Christianity on which our entire faith is built.
But Isn’t Evolution Proven?
Without observation, we can only interpret the available facts based on our worldview and our understanding of the things that we can observe. So the question is, have we observed evolution?
As the world learned in 2020, among viruses and bacteria, rapid mutation is common and well documented, and in some cases, produces viable variants with characteristics that may be distinct from their progenitors.
Similar changes have been tracked among fruit flies in laboratories. And Charles Darwin famously observed adaptations among finches in the Galapagos Islands distinct enough to classify the resulting creatures as different species.
All of these are examples of micro-evolution or variation within a finite set of organisms. But only micro-evolution has been observed. At no point have experiments or observations shown the macro-evolution of one kind of organism becoming a different kind of organism.
Species vs Kind
Our word choices are critical in understanding this distinction. A new species of finch is still a finch, and not an osprey or a pelican. Though the finches have different characteristics, they are still the same kind of animal.
This is the word that Genesis uses.
Throughout the creation account in Genesis 1, we read that God created different plants and animals each according to its kind. Each kind of animal is its own closed system, with genetic coding to produce variation within its kind, but not across different kinds.
But kind does not equal species, which is a relatively modern term used to classify creatures. And while we cannot be exact, since taxonomic structures and classifications are themselves malleable and subject to interpretation, we can reasonably liken the Biblical kind to the taxonomic classification of family.
Our modern understanding of genetics bears this out, as does an honest reading of Genesis 6. Proponents of evolution have long pointed to the impossibility of placing every species on the ark. But Noah didn’t take species on the ark, he took kinds, which allowed him a much smaller population of animals.
Upon disembarking, as the animals repopulated the earth, the various kinds, diverged into the different species we see today. For example, the cats that were on board the ark eventually diverged into the lions, tigers, and ocelots of today. But they have always been, and always will be cats, according to their kind.
The teachings of evolution take the observable phenomenon of micro-evolution, or speciation, and from that extrapolate a process backward through time that is not supported by scripture.
As Christians, we are wise to acknowledge the facts that we observe in nature, and understand them according to the truth recorded in scripture. In doing so, we can interpret facts with integrity and credibility, and remain secure in our faith when alternate interpretations (not alternate facts) challenge our beliefs.