Adam and Evolution

Evolution or Genesis - do we have to make a choice?

Some people are sensitive to any questioning of the literal accuracy of the Bible’s creation story. Others are anxious to crush any thought of God under the hammer of evolutionary theory. If either of those statements describes you,  perhaps you should stop reading now. If, on the other hand, you love the scriptures, but are persuaded by the evidence for evolution, you may find this article helpful. This debate is not for closed minds.

Check on the creation myths of ancient and tribal cultures throughout the world and you will find few that come close to the simple grandeur of Genesis chapter 1. You may find that thought encouraging, or you may be offended by the word “myth”. Don’t worry about it; it’s just a historians’ word for a story that can’t be verified by historical proofs but persists in a culture because of the lessons it teaches. In the case of Genesis, the lesson is that God is the originator of everything. But it doesn’t say how he did it.

Be very careful how you read the story. Genesis 1 repeatedly says “God said...” That confirms his intention, but not the process. The chapter sets out a sequence that is credibly like the stages described by science – light – sea – dry land – plants – animals – humanity. It distinguishes between 2 types of creativity, using different words (usually translated as created or made) to indicate distinct phases. It is a skilful poem about God’s creative power, but it says nothing about God’s method of creation.

The story seems to start with chaos – or maybe not. The 1st verse says that God created the heavens and the earth. The 2nd verse says that the earth was shapeless and chaotic. In an explanation known as the Gap Theory, scholars have pointed out that the statement “the earth was without form, and void” (Genesis 1:2) seems to be contradicted in Isaiah 45:18 where, using the same Hebrew wording that translates as “void” in Genesis with “in vain” in Isaiah, the prophet says:
For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited...  (KJV)
The suggestion is that the chaos that existed in Genesis 1:2 was not the original form of the earth but was the result of processes or events that occurred after Genesis 1:1. Between these 2 verses, says the theory, there’s no limit to the time lapse that may have occurred. You don’t have to accept this explanation, but it’s a helpful contribution to the debate.

All sorts of explanations have been suggested for the ‘days’ of the Genesis account – and not just in modern times. Through the ages, scholars have recognised them simply as stages in the story. Only in recent times have certain fundamentalists insisted on interpreting them as literal 24-hour periods. But the earth itself argues against such a view. Its rocks teach us that our planet is very old.

When Darwin expounded his theory, the basic concept of evolution wasn’t new. Every livestock farmer, each dog breeder, and all pigeon fanciers knew that they could improve their stock by selective breeding. Darwin’s contribution was to recognise that natural forces produce variations in populations, and some of those changes improve their chances of surviving long enough to have descendants. He knew nothing about DNA, and he’d seen only a limited range of fossils, but he observed substantial evidence that species had adapted over generations to fit changing environments. Much more has been learned since his time, and it is disingenuous to deny or ignore the evidence for the involvement of natural selection in the development of plant and animal species.

But, does evolution make God redundant? No! God is not an explanation, but a source. The most famous argument in this context is William Paley’s suggestion that, after seeing a watch or clock, with all its components working together in precision to keep time, we must deduce that it’s too complex a mechanism to have simply come into being by evolution and must have had a creator. That argument has largely been answered by demonstrating how the incredibly complex mechanism of the eye has independently appeared in different forms and stages in a wide variety of species. Fair enough, but today’s most advanced robots are ‘self-learning’, that is, they develop their own programs by responding to experience. Will the successors of those robots one day deny that their species had human creators? However thoroughly the processes of evolution are proven they do not explain the motivation – the intention – the “why?” of creation. God-deniers accept the laws of cause-and-effect right back to the start of the universe, then suggest that the beginning was a meaningless accident.   Why does anything bother to exist?   What will, what cause, what intention could set in motion the incredible processes of generation and evolution? Genesis replies, “In the beginning – God”.

But Genesis moves on to a second story that focuses directly on mankind, and that seems to provoke greater scepticism.  But why?  We can be too literal about this passage.  Does it tell us that mankind was an entirely new creation, unconnected with the animal kingdom? Or is it making the point that (in the words of the King James Bible) “man became a living soul”.  Whatever way you look at it, humanity is different from other animals.  A cat feels no shame about the way it treats a mouse. A cuckoo’s conscience is never troubled about its thefts, or about the step-siblings it murdered.  Morality is a human characteristic.  Spirituality is humanity’s link with God.  But where did it start?

Adam is not a name, but a descriptive nickname. It means “red earth”, reminding us not to be presumptuous about our importance. Fundamentally, we are made of the basic materials of the earth. But, at some stage in human development, one person, one family, or one tribe came to recognise the implications of their moral responsibility and their relationship with the spiritual power that drives all things.  Mankind has a sense of what is right, but a distressing tendency to do what is wrong. As Abbot Jamieson said when asked about the story of the Fall[1], “It’s the truest story that I know.”

[1] Quoted from “Finding Sanctuary” by Abbot Christopher Jamieson

© Derrick Phillips - 2018