“How can you be an ‘evangelical’ Christian and a biologist? Don’t evangelicals reject science? Don’t scientists believe in evolution?”
I’m often asked these questions by curious friends, including those who share and those who reject my evangelical Christianity. “After all,” they remind me, “evangelicals believe the Bible is ‘God’s word,’ and the Bible says God created humans — not evolution.”
When I try to protest, they often take it up a notch: “Make a decision, Jon: Did God create the universe or are humans the haphazard result of evolution?” Though I appreciate these inquiries, I think the question poses a false dichotomy.
Indeed, I believe in evolution precisely because I think God created the universe.
If God inspired the Bible and created the universe, then the study of both should lead to greater knowledge of God and reality. And since both the universe and the Bible emanate from God, the truths reached by science and biblical study should be complementary, not contradictory, and able to be synthesized into a coherent picture of reality.
Yet as the creation/evolution debate indicates, science often appears to contradict the Bible. Does this mean we must choose between biblical and scientific “truths”?
I think not. The truths revealed by each discipline are not Truths. While biblical study and science do “get at” the absolute truth about reality, neither can claim to fully attain it. This is the result of two factors.
First, each discipline’s “truth” is only as good as the assumptions the discipline is based on. Many scientists assume that every physical event has a natural — versus a supernatural — explanation. And many biblical scholars assume that the best way to get at biblical truth is to read the Bible literally. Neither assumption is easy to justify.
Second, human beings are finite. Thus, they are capable of making mistakes, both in their interpretation of the Bible and of scientific data.
What does this imply? The truths reached by science and biblical study apparently contradict because they are not necessarily Truths. These “truths” are merely our perceptions of reality — seen through a glass darkly. In Christian terms, one might put it like this: God created the same Truth, imbedded differently in the Bible and the universe. When seen by finite humans via assumption-laden disciplines, this Truth becomes “truth.”
Yet, despite our limitations, humans still want to paint a coherent portrait of reality. So, returning to our topic, should we paint a portrait that has God creating humans or that has humans having evolved over time? For the Christian, the answer should be based on both sorts of truth: science and biblical study.
What truths does science reveal about human origins? The evidence for macroevolution is quite strong. From amoebas to humans, proteins just a mutation’s-length away carry out similar molecular processes; structures that function in lower organisms, such as the appendix, have lost their function in higher ones; and speciation is observed when organisms are kept from interbreeding.
How can the scientific truth of macroevolution be reconciled with the biblical story of creation? I think science requires Christians to interpret the creation story differently. Yes, God still created the universe, including all biological life. But God created biological life via the process of evolution.
I think modern biblical study also supports this reinterpretation of Genesis. The picture of the world presented in Genesis is markedly different from the picture modern science paints. In Genesis 1, the universe is filled with “the waters” and God creates a solid “sky dome” to separate them, with waters remaining above the sky dome and below the apparently flat earth. And a literal reading of Genesis 1 contradicts the creation story in Genesis 2, where, for example, God creates each item of the universe in a different order. Perhaps not surprisingly, Genesis’ scientific portrait of the world is remarkably similar to that found in similarly dated Ancient Near Eastern mythology.
Yet the theological portrait of the world is quite different, and this, I believe, is key to interpreting Genesis—and to reconciling evolution with the Bible. In stark contrast to Ancient Near Eastern theology, where humans are created as slaves for lazy, abusive gods, Genesis depicts one God creating the universe and engaging in loving, intimate dialogue with humans.
The final picture of human origins this synthesis and reinterpretation leaves us with is quite striking. Theological Truth, uppercase T, is imbedded in a narrative displaying the scientific truth, lowercase t, of the Ancient Near East — the culture to which the narrative was initially given. Thus, God presents Godself to this ancient culture in a way that the culture could understand, leaving it to time and modern science to more closely approximate the Truth about the physical world.
And thank God it has.
Jonathan Dudley is a student at the Divinity School and a molecular oncology researcher at Yale School of Medicine.