Theistic evolutionists take God out of the driver’s seat
Published: 2 June 2015 (GMT+10)
Christians, especially those facing difficult circumstances, take comfort in the fact that God knows everything that will happen in advance and that He sovereignly directs all things. But theistic evolutionists are compelled by the logic of their own arguments to deny these biblical teachings and embrace something akin to open theism.
Open theism is the unbiblical idea that God does not completely know or control the future, because He endowed human beings with free will and cannot predict for certain what choices they will make.1 Theistic evolution takes this to a cosmic level. Although theistic evolution is sometimes described as “God used evolution” or “God directed the evolutionary process”, many theistic evolutionists deny that God guided the evolutionary process in such a way as to guarantee its specific outcomes. Rather, they believe nature was given a measure of ‘freedom’ to set its own course. As Brown University professor, textbook author, and vociferous anti-creationist Kenneth Miller puts it:
Evolution is not rigged, and religious belief does not require one to postulate a God who fixes the game, bribes the referees, or tricks natural selection. The reality of natural history, like the reality of human history, is more interesting and more exciting.
The freedom to act and choose enjoyed by each individual in the Western religious tradition requires that God allow the future of His creation to be left open. … If events in the material world were strictly determined, then evolution would indeed move towards the predictable outcomes that so many people seem to want; but if this is the case, how could the future truly be open?2,3
Likewise, Anglican theologian/physicist John Polkinghorne argues: “an evolutionary universe is theologically understood as a creation allowed to make itself.”4 And Roman Catholic theologian John Haught maintains that the world must “participate in the adventure of its own creation”, while God takes a back seat.5
Karl Giberson, who was the Executive Vice President of BioLogos until 2011, even helped to direct a 2007 seminar about “interconnections between open theism and the natural sciences”.6 He claims, “the gift of creativity that God bestowed on the creation is theologically analogous to the gift of freedom God bestowed on us.”7
And Francis Collins, founder of BioLogos and Director of the National Institutes of Health, has also been associated with open theism, giving a keynote presentation at The Open Theology and Science Conference in 2008.8
There are significant problems with this view for biblical Christian theology. For instance, if all God did was ‘light the fuse’ and then allowed nature to write its own script, how could He have guaranteed that the world in general, and human beings in particular (made in His image), would turn out like He wanted? According to Miller, He couldn’t.
“Surely this means that mankind’s appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here … as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out.”9
However, the Bible is clear that God not only knows the future exhaustively but also directs it as He “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). God knows the words we will speak before we say them (Psalm 139:4) and the days of our lives before we live them (Psalm 139:16). He distinguishes Himself from false gods by declaring (Isaiah 46:9–10):
“I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’”
Also, it’s obvious that God’s specific plan of salvation existed prior to creation since the Bible says that God predestined and foreknew Jesus’ death on the cross (Acts 2:23), including details given in Messianic prophecies.10 Even more explicitly, the Bible says that God chose His elect people “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:1–2; Revelation 13:8). So even the nails in Jesus’ hands and the thorns on his brow were no fluke of history—these events all played out according to God’s sovereign agenda.
Who gets credit for creation?
It makes little sense to call God the Creator of living things if they came about, not by God’s direct involvement or even by a deterministic process, but through a series of utterly random events beyond His influence. Sure, on this view, God may have set up the conditions for evolution, but the process itself would proceed in directions that He did not specify.
Yet the Bible frequently identifies God as the Creator of all things (Psalm 104:24; John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). It says His existence is obvious from the things He made (Romans 1:20). God was intimately involved in the process of forming man (Genesis 2:7), and He claims responsibility even for nature’s minutiae, like the design of our individual body parts: ears, eyes, and mouths (Proverbs 20:12; Exodus 4:11).
Furthermore, His involvement in nature is both ongoing and detailed. He claims credit for providing animals with their food (Job 38:41; Matthew 6:26), and control over what happens to even the smallest animals (Matthew 10:29).
Fate and fortune combined
Miller has tried to blunt the force of the above problems by claiming that certain law-like physical parameters constrain the scope of what blind chance can accomplish, leading to predictable outcomes. For example, he claims that, for large organisms which evolved to live in the water, natural selection will tend to favor streamlined shapes since this is most conducive to survival.11,12 Perhaps streamlined (roughly fish-shaped) water-dwellers would be virtually inevitable after enough rolls of the evolutionary dice.
Similarly, he maintains, God could have ensured that something like intelligent human beings would come along eventually. But regardless of the merits of this proposal, it misses the point that Miller still thinks randomness plays enough of a role that, instead of human beings, God might have ended up with “a big-brained dinosaur” or perhaps “a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities”.13 Again, however, the Bible’s claim is not that God merely foreordained the existence of some undefined intelligent creature—it says He explicitly intended to make humans (c.f., Genesis 1:26; 2:18; Jeremiah 1:5), and to become incarnate as a human.
Must evolution be undirected?
Now, if these theistic evolutionists were to change course and argue that God actually did steer evolution in such a way that He intentionally produced human beings, they would run into a big problem—they’d have to abandon many of their favorite arguments for evolution! That is because so many pro-evolution arguments claim God is not responsible for various features of nature.
Take their argument from poor design. Evolutionists often point to a perceived clumsiness in the engineering of living things, which they say is better explained by evolution than a wise and powerful Engineer with foresight. The list of allegedly crummy designs in human beings has included eyes, knees, the spine, the pharynx, the recurrent laryngeal nerve, the jaw, the prostate, the human birth canal, and huge portions of our genome which were once dismissed as ‘junk DNA’.14
These claims have all proved spurious, yet theistic evolutionists keep trotting them out again and again. And every time they do, they demonstrate their commitment to the idea that God delegated the work of creation to nature, despite the Bible’s claims that “without [the Word] was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3) and that God exercised wisdom as He created (Proverbs 3:19; Jeremiah 10:12).
Furthermore, there is the issue of natural evil. Darwin himself, in a letter to one of the leading theistic evolutionist scientists of his day, complained about “too much misery in the world”. He continued, wondering why “a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”15
Of course, creationists do not attribute the barbarity and cruelty in nature to God’s original design, but to the aftermath of the Fall, when God pronounced a curse on creation (Genesis 3:17–19, Romans 8:19–23a). However, this option is not open to theistic evolutionists since, for them, such harsh realities were present for millions of years before human beings—before the Fall could take place. So they are left with the explanation that natural evil is a byproduct of God bestowing ‘freedom’ on nature. God handed the keys to nature and then, whoops, nature drove into a ditch. But don’t blame God—nature did the steering!
If you don’t find this a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil, congratulations, you’re thinking clearly. But note, again, what theistic evolutionists are claiming. Wherever the balance lies in the evolutionary process between contingency and necessity, between pure chance and predictable law, theistic evolutionists maintain that God is not fully responsible for the finished product. To a large extent, He got stuck with whatever nature churned out, including you, me, and all of nature’s horrors.
Senseless death and suffering for hundreds of millions of years
The idea that God let nature do the steering not only contradicts the explicit teaching of Scripture, but is inconsistent with God’s wisdom and goodness. In the theistic evolutionary scenario, God would have set up a world in which life would only have progressed via the death and suffering of billions of animals. Every living creature, no matter how beautiful or innovative, would ultimately be only temporary, as it would be snuffed out in the ever-accelerating arms race of evolution. The survival of the fittest means the death of the unfit.
But why would God choose a method of creation which resulted in such casualties? God would not avoid responsibility for all the death and suffering simply because He granted autonomy to nature. If He foresaw the consequences, then He would lack goodness, since the value of nature’s freedom hardly outweighs all the carnage unleashed by that freedom. But if God did not foresee the consequences and was blindsided by natural evil, then He would be guilty of poor judgment.
Theistic evolution, then, has enormous implications for one’s spiritual walk. If it were true that God kick-started evolution but relinquished control over the outcomes, then we should not trust the Bible since it speaks of God’s pre-creation intention to bring about mankind, to carry out the plan of salvation, and to call out the Church. Nor should we worship God as Creator, since living things were largely ‘designed’ by causes independent of Him. We would also have to wonder whether humans were really created in God’s image since we were not specifically intended by God, but just the unplanned result of God’s cosmic experiment. And we would doubt God’s perfect wisdom and goodness, because the independence He granted to nature resulted in eons of unnecessary pain and bloodshed.
Our prayer lives would be impacted, since it would be hard to trust a god who doesn’t fully control the future. And how could we be confident, going forward, that all things will work out in the end? Revelation teaches that the end of the world is already pre-determined. But if history unfolds in a manner beyond God’s control, how can He work all things together for good? An evolutionary eschatology leads to a lack of trust in God and ends in despair.
Fortunately, the true God did not step aside and trust the universe to create itself. He was, is, and will always be the Sovereign Lord of all creation.