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Theological Arguments Against Evolution: Sin and Death

Yesterday I wrote about the senses in which the phrase “bad theology” is used in the creation-evolution debate and in particular on the question of ID. To call something “bad theology” generally requires either a challenge to the internal logic of the statement, or a reference to a particular faith community, because there is no single “good theology” against which theological statements can be tested.

I’d like to follow up by looking at a theological argument against evolution, and how it relates to the some faith groups. While there has been considerable argument against intelligent design on theological grounds, the theological objections to evolution have been addressed less frequently.

In fact, I am frequently told that a belief in evolution really doesn’t have any theological consequences. The Bible tells us that God created the world, science tells us how. The only folks who have a problem with this are a few who incomprehensibly treat the Bible as a science textbook. There are two problems with that. First, there are quite a considerable number of folks who believe that the Bible is true in a sufficiently literal sense that they expect to connect the factual dots of Genesis to scientific data. They are frequently addressed with the rather inadequate statement “You shouldn’t take the Bible so literally!” Second, an excessively literal reading of scripture is not the sole theological problem with the theory of evolution.

Regarding the first point, the issue is a bit more complex than simply “not taking the Bible literally.” One has to ask just how one is to take it. I’m not going to address this in detail in this post (I talk about it a great deal more in my book When People Speak for God), but at a minimum one needs to specify how someone ought to take the Bible. For example, assuming Genesis 1 is not narrative history (one of the things loosely grouped as literal) what is it? I would suggest that it is liturgy, and that in turn suggests some things about how to understand it.

But today I want to look at a theological argument in a different form. Instead of arguing that evolution must be incorrect because the Bible makes certain historical claims, one can argue that evolution must be incorrect based on certain theological claims. These theological claims may be derived from the Bible, but the important issue is that they seem to contradict certain things derived from evolution.

Those who are not religious, or specifically not Christian will find this a strange form of argument, but it is valuable to see how certain people think about these issues in any case, and to realize that there are many for whom evolution poses substantial theological problems, quite apart from the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as narrative history.

Sin and death is such an issue, and in my experience, it is the key issue. The theological proposition involved states that physical death is the result of human sin, and that had human beings remained loyal to God, there would be no death. Now I’ve discussed this position from the point of view of theodicy in Theodicy: Taking a Stab at Natural Evil. Since some may have a hard time comprehending this argument, it states that evolution cannot be true simply because it involves creatures dying before there were human beings to have committed sin. As I discuss in the referenced post, this is a problem for old earth creationism as much as it is for evolution, and Dembski has proposed an alternate suggestion, that God created physical death as a sort of pre-emptive response to sin, which God’s foreknowledge told him would occur.

But I’m dealing here solely with those who hold a chronological relationship. In this view human beings are created perfect in a world without death, they rebel against God, and death results. Obviously, for someone who holds that position, evolution cannot possibly be true. I grew up with that view as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church. It took me some time to step away from it, as it can get pretty much ingrained.

I can now argue against the theology involved, pointing out that Genesis doesn’t actually say that, but in fact suggests that barring the way to the tree of life is a way to prevent human beings from becoming immortal. One can understand spiritual death in many other passages that relate to death. None of that really matters for my purposes here; this particular position demonstrates that there are theological consequences to belief in evolution, and the presence of physical death as a fundamental fact of the universe is one of those.

Indeed, one key mental exercise I propose to such people is to propose a universe in which there is no death and yet there are things such as “fruit” to eat. How exactly does such a thing work? In particular, choice seems to be a fundamental of the universe and of the Bible, and what exactly is choice without a chance of failure?

I heard this very recently presented in quite different terms, dealing with God’s care, grace, and gentleness. How could a God who teaches the law of love create by means of such violence? Then there are those promises of a future, peaceful world where “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith Jehovah.” Isaiah 65:25 (ASV). Surely if it’s promised for the future world, it must also have been true of the past!

Now I personally would compare this approach to a belief in verbal dictation of scripture, for example. People accept this position while ignoring the abundant evidence of different writers, backgrounds, perspectives and so forth throughout. Don’t come to a conclusion of how something ought to be, and then assume that it is that way. The physical evidence for evolution is extremely strong, and for an old earth it is overwhelming, either of which would require substantial modification of this particular doctrine.

The key thing to remember, however, is that for someone who holds the specific form of this doctrine I cited, there is a serious theological impediment to accepting the theory of evolution, and this is based not necessarily on reading the Bible literally, although the sequence is. You can argue the evidence for evolution as much as you want, but they won’t be moved, because they have a key theological proposition that directly contradicts it.

I have been interested to note as well that my own view of God is perceived as more distant, because I believe that God honors choice and allows the consequences to take place. In fact, I believe those who suggest I see God as more distant are quite correct. I believe God is distant enough to allow human responsibility to be meaningful.

This separates me just a bit from the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) approach, since I hold that the discoveries of science can have a substantial impact on one’s theology. They certainly have had such an impact on my own theology. In general, I believe NOMA to be the correct approach, and theology and science must clearly be separated to prevent theology from attempting to predetermine the results of scientific research. (I’m reminded of the notice at my graduate school offering grant money to those who would do research “to support a 6,000 year model of the earth’s history.) But physical reality should have an impact on theology.

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  1. Thank you for this explanation. It is helpful.

    I have a question that is not generated by your main argument.

    How does one read Genesis as liturgy? Perhaps my understanding of the term ‘liturgy’ is too narrow, but I am confused by that suggestion.

  2. How does one read Genesis as liturgy? Perhaps my understanding of the term ‘liturgy’ is too narrow, but I am confused by that suggestion.

    Perhaps I could be clearer by saying, “written for use in liturgy” or told in a form suitable for liturgical use.

    But also, I’m not talking about all of Genesis–just Genesis 1:1-2:4a. Genesis 2:4bff fulfills many more of the literary characteristics of myth, and should be read differently. Their combination in a single text obscures this change in genre unless the reader is attentive.

  3. In my opinion, what keeps Old Earth Creationists from accepting a literal translation of Genesis is their acceptance of Young Earth Creationists’ definition for certain key words.

    For example, the word for “let” has another acceptable definition, which is to remove a hindrance to something. “Let their be light” would actually mean “Remove the hindrance to light”, and so on.

    The word “yom” is accepted by OECs as meaning 24 hours, when in fact its usage by Moses means only the duration between sundowns. With our God hovering over the oceans, His freedom to experience sundowns allows creation “yoms” to be any duration He chooses.

    Then there are examples where YECs do not actually take Genesis 1 literally at all. For example, the sun was not really set in the firmament (which was created on Day 2), but in space.

    My point is that I do not believe God ever intended us to choose between a literal scripture OR acceptance of scientific discoveries, but to discover that they agree.

  4. My point is that I do not believe God ever intended us to choose between a literal scripture OR acceptance of scientific discoveries, but to discover that they agree.

    I have a good friend who is old earth creationist who would agree completely with that statement. He and I interpret Genesis 1-11 in many similar ways. He would certainly see more history in some of the later narratives than I do, but we both see about the same spiritual intention.

    I think the question should be rephrased from “literal vs. figurative” to looking for the literary genre and interpreting accordingly. It’s more complex, but I think more accurate.

    “Taking it literally” is too often heard as “taking it seriously” and “taking it figuratively” as “blowing it off.” Gleason Archer (old earth) once pointed out that it is just as wrong to take something that was intended figuratively as literal as it is to take something intended literally as figurative. (I can’t recall the reference, though I have a xerox in my files somewhere.)

    Figurative speech also has meaning, sometimes very precise meaning, even though that meaning may not be concrete or expressed in the same way as historical narrative, for example.

  5. I completely agree with your response as stated, but perhaps apply it differently than you when it comes to Genesis 1.

    As confirmation that Genesis 1 is intended to be literal, I have found scientific discoveries in the secular world that map quite nicely to the creation narrative… even more accurately than Progressive Creaitonists can claim.

  6. There is of course no separate word for “let” in the Hebrew text of Genesis, “let there be” is a single word which is a form of the verb “to be”. So there is no question of the Hebrew meaning anything like “Remove the hindrance to light”. These people need to be reminded that neither KJV nor any other English Bible translation is the original Word of God.

  7. You are correct. As it turns out, my interpretation of “let” was based on the Hebrew definition of the word “be”. Here is my source: http://www.gotothebible.com/Barnes/Genesis/1p3.html. Here is the key passage: “The word ‘be’ simply denotes the ‘existence’ of the light, by whatever means or from whatever quarter it comes into the given locality. It might have been by an absolute act of pure creation or making out of nothing. But it may equally well be effected by any supernatural operation which removes an otherwise insurmountable hinderance, and opens the way for the already existing light to penetrate into the hitherto darkened region.”

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