A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#6 of 6)


A third major plank of modern theistic evolution is theodicy. We saw above how Charles Kingsley rejected the prevalent theology of a fallen creation, and saw both the goodness and the harshness of nature as commensurate with the revealed character of God. I would assert that even so he, and more so Darwin, retained a view of nature that was skewed by three centuries of pessimism. Kingsley’s gloomy co-religionists got their “red in tooth and claw” view ultimately from pagan culture, via the Renaissance humanist project. Before that, Christianity had virtually no concept of “natural evil”, but only of God’s wise, if often mysterious, governance. Our own pessimism about nature, like our unchristian glorification of autonomous free will, comes from the same stable.

Kingsley, who held that even science required nature to be approached with a “cheerful and reverent spirit, as a noble, healthy, and trustworthy thing,” would be profoundly shocked, I do not doubt, by what has become the prevalent belief today. For theistic evolution now not only says that God would be both domineering and uninventive to design nature in detail; it says that natural evil proves he hasn’t.

Did God orchestrate the amazingly intricate details of how a virus successfully invades a cell, captivates its machinery, and then utilizes that equipment to make hundreds of more viruses just like it?[xviii]

I could go on about human features that betray a design that certainly is not intelligent. I will add only one more consideration. More than twenty percent of all human pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion during the first two months of pregnancy. That is because the human genome, the human reproductive system, is so poorly designed. Do I want to attribute this egregiously defective design to God, to the omnipotent and benevolent God of the Christian faith? No, I don’t.[xix]

Francisco Ayala’s comment on poor human design (one of many – he also criticises the human back, the birth canal, and the jaw) is troubling, not only because like the much-reviled ID it claims that design can be detected scientifically, but because many ordinary theistic evolutionists would actually wish to make room for God’s specific role in the evolution of mankind. They usually mean by “man” a specific form intended by God, rather than merely a conveniently emergent rational species.

But how can one realistically apportion responsibility between divine wisdom and evolution’s errors (this applies to any version of TE in which some active role is allowed for God)? If I praise God for the beauty of my true love’s chin, am I sacrilegious in attributing her defective jaw to him? If I don’t credit the reproductive system to God, how can I thank him for the child it produces? A kind of polytheism is implicit here, or at least a distant Creator working through a gnostic kind of demiurge. All thanksgiving for nature becomes the idolatry of a “free” evolution. In marked contrast, Asa Gray wrote:

Organic Nature abounds with unmistakable and irresistible indications of design, and, being a connected and consistent system, this evidence carries the implication of design throughout the whole.

I’m reminded of the husband who complains that he makes all the big decisions, and his wife only the small ones – but that so far, there have only been small decisions. Mankind, like every other species, and indeed the ecological systems which they comprise, are of a piece. To attribute part to God, and part to nature, is once more unintelligible. It’s also an explicit denial of credal Christianity.

As theodicy, of course, it fails. As is truly pointed out when the CEO denies responsibility for the failure of the bank he set up, he either did the evil, or incompetently hired the people who did. Yet God, as Kingsley pointed out, makes no apology and claims credit for all we see in nature. It is therefore overweeningly arrogant of us to deny his role in any one part of it.

Theistic evolution has been driven to such pessimism not so much by observation of nature as by its own kenotic theology. Careful observation would actually give a far more optimistic view – Malthus belongs back in Victorian industrial England, not modern biology. But God, we are told, must leave nature autonomous, and this partly to allow the possibility of freedom (and perhaps the inevitability of sin – another, though less central theme) to mankind. This is more than risky, but the demands of self-giving love and creaturely self-determination necessitate the suffering that inevitably follows. R J Russell writes:

…the problem of “cosmic theodicy” appears to be far more serious than it may have sounded initially… if God intended to create life through the process of Darwinian evolution, then not only is biological natural evil an unavoidable consequence… but so is physical natural evil – and it occurs throughout the universe even where there is no possibility of life.

Now the attribution of evil where there are no free agents either to propagate it, or suffer it, is yet another cul-de-sac into which we are driven by this whole, novel, theological enterprise. Once, we might repine at the hardness of life on earth, and yet yearn for the sublimity of the stars. Now even they are a problem for theodicy. But I ought not to have to say that, for the Evangelical believer, this flies in the face of the foundation text for creation, in which God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. Should it not begin to concern us that God is no longer sole Creator, that he is no longer Lord over what he has made, that he is now accountable for what humans call evil in the very matrix of the universe? Is all this really a necessary correlate to accepting evolutionary science?

Well, of course it isn’t. As I pointed out in discussing Warfield, the problems that evolutionary science posed to his theology were precisely nil. Zilch. Nada. That was because he didn’t choose to follow Darwin’s metaphysical path by denying God’s sovereign providence. Theodicy, to Warfield as to other classical Christians, is resolved not by our reasoning about God, but by encountering him in person. I like a remark by Ben Yachov, A Catholic Thomist who used to post on BioLogos: “Classical theism needs theodicy like a fish needs a bicycle.” Russell calls such a faith “Theodicy-lite”. But to me, it is God’s own account in Scripture. The costs to joyful Christian faith produced by the heavy variety are too great to be borne.


I hope I have demonstrated that there are features widespread within modern theistic evolution that differ in fundamental ways from the theistic evolution of the nineteenth century, which began at the very dawn of Darwin’s theory and continued until the decline of the theory and the rise of Fundamentalism at the start of the twentieth century. I hope I have shown also that those differences are not a consequence of the science, but of a major shift in theological foundations. I also suggest that they inevitably require a cascade of other theological adjustments inimical to historic Christianity, or else to an incoherent hybrid set of beliefs trying to hold orthodoxy and novelty together. What I cannot do is prove which viewpoint is superior, though I have made my own position clear. The choice between them is a question for the freedom and accountability which is the very special, and unique, gift from God to man, created in his image and for his glory.

[xviii]Darrel Falk, blog reply on BioLogos 2012.
[xix]Francisco Ayala writing for BioLogos 2010. In “Debating Design” Ayala cites, with approval, this passage by atheist David Hull: “The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, pain, death and horror… Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory and the data of natural selection may be like, he is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not the loving God who cares about his productions. He is not even the awful God pictured in the Book of Job. The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#6 of 6)

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, you asked for my response. I will say, as I’m sure one sees in the theological journals, “You da man!”

    Some more or less random thoughts in response:

    I have tentatively thought, without doing any background to justify it, that the novelty of “red in tooth and claw” in the 19th century, might be due to the fact that the inhabitants of urban civilization had gotten sufficiently removed from direct experience of nature (although less than many of us) to forget this elementary fact and be duped by the “best of all possible worlds” nonsense until shaken out of it by Darwin, Malthus, the Romantic return to nature and the rise of serious biology. Having “forgotten” and then being reminded and shocked by it, maybe they needed to account for it theologically, and hence the human sin to fallen creation rationalization. (What are going to do with your book on the subject?)

    We can’t really escape the reality of the apparent suffering in nature, although I’m not too disturbed about the insects that get their guts eaten since I have serious doubts about how much insects experience anyway. I had a philosophy professor (visiting at a Christian college) who seriously maintained that all animals were automatons with no subjective experience at all. Needless to say, I thought he was more than a little crazy. I had to take Phil of Religion from the guy and somehow survived.

    The possibility that the divinely granted freedom of a powerful fallen agent accounts for suffering in nature, without any reference to human sin, has occasionally nagged at me, but aside from the lack of any Biblical justification, I can’t in the end believe that God would give that kind of pervasive influence over creation to someone else. Lucky that my intuition matches with Scripture, right?

    Not too surprisingly, the TE “bad design” and “freedom” theodicy has made it into the primary literature in PNAS in an article by John Avise a few years ago. Note also that one chapter of Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth is called Arms Races and ‘Evolutionary Theodicy.’ I’ll have to reread it to remember what the arch-atheist said, though.

    In regard to your last quote, “He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.” I think that there is a sort of truth to that. If you take what can reasonably be deduced about God from nature, that He is very powerful and very intelligent, that leaves the most fundamental question of all, not “is there a God?” but “is He good? Might he have good intentions toward me?” The decision to pray is at first a decision to hope, to have that tiny bit of faith that maybe, despite ambiguous appearances, it is worth baiting the hook and casting the line. Isn’t that the deepest question in human experience? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel (that isn’t a train.) That is why I think the urge to have a theodicy is not a bad one. It is inescapable and existential. But I agree that the Biblical (and experiential) answer is that it is only in knowing God that you can get a satisfying answer, and it will only be fully satisfying when we know face to face. The depths of personal suffering will raise the question in anyone whether God is really, in the end, to be trusted. Philosophical/theological schemes will never do.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Thanks for all this. The urbanisation of civilisation may indeed have had some effect of distancing us from nature – though Darwin himself and other naturalists got their scruples on suffering first hand – yet as you suggest, filtered by their society, as were views of other races, westerm superiority etc. We never quite escape our culture.

    On suffering in general, I don’t want to dilute my point about theodicy as knowledge of God too much, but you’re right to at least question the actual degree of suffering of suffering in nature (just as I question its all-pervasiveness). I foun this link quite a useful piece for thought: http://christianthinktank.com/predator.html.

    It’s a funny thing, but though actual suffering can stumble people’s faith in God, suffering in nature doesn’t seem to stop people praying, in my experience. In any case it seems, for whatever reason, to be a problem for modern westerners more than others – seems to become a problem when we make it one, mainly. My daughter was struck by how naturally prayer came to the poor folks she met in Guatemala, who met suffering first hand far more often than most of us.

    Regarding my stuff on evil in nature, I’ll e-mail you if that’s not too presumptuous!

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