Reasons to disbelieve

A skeptic on one of the recent BioLogos threads about the origin of sin made a valid observation. One of the common motivations for re-formulating the theology of sin and evil is not so much that genetics suggests there was no single original couple, but that evolutionary theory places evil in the world, in the form of “natural evil”, before there were any people to corrupt creation through sin.

Now this is evident from the re-emergence, amongst Evangelicals of our time, of evolutionary interpretations that were common a century or more ago amongst liberals. These depend on the idea that, either with God’s oversight or under an evolutionary process partly or wholly independent of him, sinful (aka “selfish”) behaviours evolved, so that mankind was sinful from his evolutionary mother’s womb, and the salvation of Christ is intended to overcome human nature, rather than to redeem it to its original innocence.

You may be familiar with the recruitment of a pseudo-Irenaean theodicy to this end in many modern writers – that instead of sin being a radical disorder of God-given human nature, it is an inevitable stage in the maturing of the soul being made by God. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Irenaeus, of course, as I’ve pointed out before . It results in a fall upwards, and inevitably also to charging God with the commission of evil in creation.

But it implicitly relies on a view of evolution “red in tooth and claw”, and on the correspondence, argued more or less coherently and usually less, of “human selfishness” with a quasi-Dawkinsian idea that evolution itself is selfish. And so sin becomes a kind of sub-set of natural evil, and the discovery of evolution becomes the inevitable catalyst for re-writing the Christian theology of evil.

Now, as I’ve pointed out on frequent occasions, there appears to be in this a kind of urban myth that evolution switched the spotlight on the cruelty of nature, which was unsuspected before by those living in a fool’s paradise, or at least believing in one through the Genesis Eden story. But the truth is that evolution shows nothing about nature that wasn’t known –  and far more at first-hand – by every generation of Jews and Christians since Genesis was written, and before.

The real situation was that Christians had come to believe, over the last few centuries only, that Genesis teaches a fall of nature into corruption. It was this cultural assumption that we live in a fundamentally broken creation that was threatened by, not so much evolution itself, as by the acceptance of deep time. For if Adam’s sin could no longer be isolated as the cause of natural evil then theological gymnastics, ranging from an autonomous creation to the consequences of sin travelling backward in time, had to be performed to explain it. In any case, the evil in nature had to be placed temporally before sin, and so became, logically, the cause rather than the result of human sin.

The trouble is that the idea that the Bible teaches a fallen creation is simply false, as I’ve repeatedly documented (for example in a 2011 series starting here). Not only that, but the claim that this is the “traditional teaching” of the Church is false too, since it only began to be developed after the sixteenth century. I’ve written on this matter too on the blog and elsewhere, showing that there is almost universal witness up to John Calvin’s time that creation – carnivores, volcanoes and all – was and is good in God’s eyes. Even the exceptional writers who speak of evil in creation nearly all speak of it in different terms from the sin-corrupted modern version, for example making nature’s adversity towards man a manifestation of God’s righteous judgement, not an intrinsic evil.

So, to summarize, Genesis is completely silent on any global effects of sin on the operations of the natural world, and so are the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s glory and wisdom being lauded in the activities of eagles, lions, crocodiles, storms and so on. And the Church of Christ, following the lead of Jewish faith, also bucked the trend of pagan thought by hailing creation as God’s good work. Later theologians argued in depth about how this was seen in predation, animal death and so on.

Now the main point of this post is to observe that, on several occasions when I’ve argued the case I’ve outlined here, on BioLogos or on ID sites, Christians have found it incredible, on the basis that the evil in nature is self-evident. Evolution, they say, only confirms this to be the entire pattern of the living world, especially when catastrophic random events like asteroid strikes and vulcanism are factored in. The existence of evil in nature cannot be denied, so the theological task of explaining it and justifying God simply must be undertaken. And by the way, it’s so obviously basic human experience that it must be taught in the Bible, even if it doesn’t seem to be, or else the Bible would be out of touch not only with evolution, but with common experience.

Another way to put that would be to say “No reasonable person can deny that the natural creation contains much evil.”

But hold on a minute: The inspired Scripture denies that the natural creation is other than a reflection of God’s good purposes. The Jews of the OT era believed that. The greatest Christian theologians for 1500 years taught the same (and were presumably believed by the people, which is how they came to be called great theologians). Early enthusiasts for evolution like Charles Kingsley believed in the goodness of creation, as did Alfred Wallace, though not a Christian, who saw evolution as being guided for the benefit, particularly, of mankind. So unless this panoply of great men and women were all unreasonable persons, it clearly is possible for reasonable people to believe that creation is good, as God understands goodness.

So perhaps we have to re-cast the objection, given that most Western commentators nowadays do see natural evil as self-evident: “No reasonable person in our culture can deny that creation contains much evil.”

That begins to look rather more parochial, doesn’t it? We either have to say that, for reasons yet to be ascertained, this essential truth was hidden to previous generations of Christian mankind but is now revealed to us. It is hard to see any factor in our background that should make us so enlightened, especially since we’re more out of touch with nature than any previous generation. The discovery of evolution, as I have said already, certainly tells us nothing we haven’t always known about the struggles going on within nature.

Or else we have to conclude that the reason it seems so obviously true now is nothing more or less than cultural conditioning, just as the bloody circus games seemed such a normal part of life to a young Augustine. I was going to say “arbitrary” cultural conditioning, but that would be to suggest it is unintelligible, whereas there are reasons, albeit reasons that are historically contingent. I have already mentioned one such reason, which is the previous development of the belief in Christian circles of a fallen creation, which by Darwin’s time had come to be seen as having the mark of the serpent on it.

Another key reason would be the loss of the kind of concept of God we had in so-called “classical theism”, and its replacement with the idea of God as a superior moral being: in the first, God’s truth and goodness are axiomatic, whereas in the second it becomes conceivable to judge his actions by our moral standards, even when those moral standards are also throughly culturally conditioned. If God’s morality is found wanting in relation to western liberal values, traditional theology must be reconfigured, and even the inspired Scripture must be at fault.

A third reason is loss of faith in the Faith. It apparently takes only a culturally-conditioned (and agenda-driven) New Atheist to show a film of some lemmings apparently committing suicide in order to get Christians scrabbling to try to get God off the hook at all costs, instead of remembering the snake’s tactics in the garden and replying: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God?”

Remember, guys, the gospel is always counter-cultural. That shouldn’t be so hard to see when a belief – in this case the belief in evil in creation – is so easily demonstrated to be a direct product of the spirit of the age, rather than of the apostolic teaching.

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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