Evolution and Theodicy


I recently cited the case of a conservative Baptist pastor who offered an objection to evolution first and foremost because he feared that belief in it would cause his own theological edifice to come crashing down.

Someone like that seems like an easy target for criticism, since this attitude clearly comes across as a prescription for ignorance--it represents a simple "don't confuse me with the facts" sort of attitude. Still, in one sense, this pastor had a point. Evolution does have theological implications if you allow yourself to think them through; and maybe the old way of viewing things does need to be changed. But rather than run away from these implications, as he would have Christians do, I think it is better to face them square on. But do most Christians really do that?

Amy Frykholm has written an article in Christian Century that addresses this very subject. She points out that

knowledge of evolutionary history raises questions of theodicy in an especially disconcerting way. Evolution reveals a vast history of unfathomable waste, loss, extinction, suffering and death in the natural world. What has God been up to all these millennia? And what is God up to now? If we believe that God oversees creation, then God's way of doing it through evolution seems strange and even appalling.

Over the 4.5 billion years of our planet's existence, 98 percent of species have become extinct. Extinction is written into the pattern of life. What does it mean, then, to talk about a God who cares for "each sparrow that falls"? How can we think of God's care for the world in light of the millions of years of suffering and death that have been a feature of evolution in the natural world?
I think that a lot of more theologically orthodox or conservative Christians who nevertheless accept the fact of evolution have danced around these sorts of questions. But Ms. Frykholm is absolutely correct that 14 billion years of cosmic and biological evolution has been slow, messy, painful, and fraught with dead ends. How do you reconcile this with an omnipotent God?

The points that she raises, however, become conundrums only if you accept that very premise of divine omnipotence. Take omnipotence out of the equation, and these problems evaporate. The question that remains, though, is what kind of positive theology can one formulate in its stead? Interestingly enough, in her article, she never mentions process theology by name, although she does at one point cite the theologian Philip Clayton, who talks about God's actions as a "divine lure", which sounds an awful lot like process theology to me:
Nature can be "biologically constrained without being biologically determined," he says. He calls the divine-creature interaction "the divine lure." As evolution occurs, more complex structures emerge. And the more complex forms that emerge are not reducible to a mere compilation of the kinds that come before them. In the space between what is and what is becoming, God might be said to act.

Theologies that emphasize God as deeply involved in natural, open-ended processes seem better able to make sense of evolution than do the classical accounts of an omnipotent God. On the other hand, if Jenson is right, perhaps what is needed is a richer notion of the God in whom these processes occur.
Traditional theistic conceptions of God had him/her acting on the universe omnipotently from the outside. Process theology, and other theologies like it, consider God from a panentheistic perspective--which is to say that God acts through the universe, which is in turn contained within God. Ms. Frykholm cites a Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, who suggests this very thing.

In this kind of theology, we have a God who patiently acts to evoke the universe forward, present in every moment as a creative presence. Creation is a continual series of acts, an improvisatory process in which God plays a persuasive but not controlling role. In such a universe, the free will that is built into that process necessarily takes place over a slow, difficult trajectory. The suggestion here is that God considered it preferable to undergo the painstaking creative process of evoking the universe into its present state, despite all the biological extinctions and suffering and death, than for there to have been no life-sustaining universe at all.


Chris said...

These are good points, Seeker. A universe that operates on the principles of competition and survival-at-any-cost doesn't exactly reek of providential design.

OneSmallStep said...

The thing behind taking GEnesis so literally is that it seems to place a lot more emphasis on the origin of sin, compared to the Bible. I can't find anywhere in the Tanakh that blames any sort of sin nature on Adam/Eve. Jesus didn't, either. His focus was always on the removal of sin, redemption, helping the 'least of these.' He wasn't stapled to the idea of no literal Adam/Eve sends the whole paradigm crashing down.

Paul does mention Adam, but out of all his letters, real or otherwise, he gives what -- four lines? Five? It almost serves as background information, more than anything else. If a literal Genesis were as pivotal as it is today, it seems there'd be more focus on it in the Bible.

Mystical Seeker said...

Chris, I agree with you. The question is, how do we discover God's role in a world that seems to have a survival-at-any-cost principle in operation? How do we reconcile God and evolutionary competition?

One Small Step, maybe this importance being placed on a literal reading of Genesis is all Augustine's fault. :)

OneSmallStep said...


We could start a new approach: "When in doubt, blame Augustine." :)

Rob said...

It was in Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 202), Bishop of Lyons and author, in response to Gnosticism, of the Church's first systematic theology, that there comes clearly to light the point of view that was to characterize the Greek as distinct from the Latin Fathers. Irenaeus distinguishes between the image (åßêþí) of God and the likeness (üìïßùóéò) of God in man. The 'imagio', which resides in man's bodily form, apparently represents his nature as an intelligent creature capable of fellowship with his Maker, whilst the 'likeness' represents man's final perfecting by the Holy Spirit. For 'the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was made in the image and likeness of God. But if the Spirit be wanting to the soul, he who is such is indeed of an animal nature, and being left carnal, shall be an imperfect being, possessing indeed the image [of God] in his formation, but not receiving the likeness through the Spirit.’ This distinction can, I think, not unfairly be presented in more contemporary terms by saying that man’s basic nature, in distinction from other animals, is that of a personal being endowed with moral freedom and responsibility. This is the divine åßêþí in him; he is made as person in the image of God. But man, the finite personal creature capable of personal relationship with his Maker, is as yet only potentially the perfected being whom God is seeking to produce. He is only at the beginning of a process of growth and development in God’s continuing providence, which is to culminate in the finite ‘likeness’ of God. Thus whilst the image of God is man’s nature as personal, the divine likeness will be a quality of personal existence which reflects finitely the life of the Creator Himself. (Hick 1977: 211-212)

Irenaeus accordingly thinks of man as originally an immature being upon whom God could not yet profitably bestow His highest gifts: ‘God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had received it could he have contained it, or containing it, could he have retained it.’ (Hick 1977: 212)

(….) Irenaeus pictures Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as children; and their sin as calling forth God’s compassion on account of their weakness and vulnerability. There is even a hint of the ‘O felix culpa’ theme in such passages as this:

"This, therefore, was the [object of the ] long-suffering God, that man, passing through all things, and acquiring the knowledge of moral discipline, then attaining to the resurrection from the dead, and learning by experience what is the source of his deliverance, may always live in a state of gratitude to the Lord, having obtained form him the gift of incorruptibility, that he might love Him the more; for ‘he to whom more is forgiven, loveth more’ (Luke vii. 43)." (Hick 1977: 212-213)

There is also to be found in Irenaeus the thought, correlative to that of man’s finitude and weakness, of his cognitive freedom in relation to God, which is safeguarded by the ambiguities of God’s self-revealing activity in history and by the corresponding need for an uncompelled [persuasive] response of faith [which is itself a gift] on man’s own part. 'Not merely in works', Irenaeus says, 'but also in faith, has God preserved the will of man free and under his own control.' And in the next chapter: 'It was for this reason that the Son of God, although He was perfect, passed through the state of infancy in common with the rest of mankind, partaking of it thus not for His own benefit, but for that of the infantile stage of man's existence, in order that man might be able to receive Him.' (Hick 1977: 213)

Our present life is accordingly pictured as a scence of gradual spiritual growth:

By this arrangement, therefore, and these harmonies, and a sequence of this nature, man, a created and organized being, is rendered after the image and likeness of the uncreated God -- the Father planning everything well and giving His commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing [what is made], but man making progress day by day, and ascending towards the perfect, that is, approximating to the uncreated One.... Now it was necessary that man should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord. (Hick 1977: 213)

Within God's providence man is being taught by his contrasting experience of good and evil to value the one for himself and to shun the other. Hence the mixture of good and evil in our world. (Hick 1977: 214)

(....) There is thus to be found in Irenaeus the outline of an approach to the problem of evil which stands in important respects in contrast to the Augustinian type of theodicy. Instead of the doctrine that man was created finitely perfect and then incomprehensibly destroyed his own perfection and plunged into sin and misery, Irenaeus suggests that man was created as an imperfect, immature creature who was to undergo moral development and growth and finally be brought to the perfection intended for him by his Maker. Instead of the fall of Adam being presented, as in the Augustinian tradition, as an utterly malignant and catastrophic event, completely disrupting God's plan, Irenaeus pictures it as something that occurred in the childhood of the race, an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity rather than an adult crime full of malice and pregnant with perpetual guilt. And instead of the Augustinian view of life's trials as a divine punishment for Adam's sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a divinely appointed environment for man's development towards the perfection that represents the fulfilment of God's good purpose for him. (Hick 1977: 214-215)

Irenaues was the first great Christian theologian to think at all systematically along these lines. (Hick 1977: 215)

(Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. Revised ed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers; 1977; c1966 pp. 212-215.)

Rob said...


The Biblical Basis of the Fall Doctrine

Within the Augustinian tradition, which has dominated the thought of Western Christendom since the fifth century, the doctrine of a fearful and calamitous fall of man long ago in the 'dark backward and abysm of time', and of a subsequent participation by all men in the deadly entail of sin, is, as we have seen, deeply entrenched. According to this conception in its developed form, man was created finitely perfect, but in his freedom he rebelled against God and has existed ever since under the righteous wrath and just condemnation of his Maker. For the descendents of Adam and Eve stand in a corporate unity and continuity of life with the primal pair and have inherited both their guilt and a corrupted and sin-prone nature. We are accordingly born as sinners, and endowed with a nature that is bound to lead us daily into further sin; and it is only by God's free, and to us incomprehensible, grace that some (but not all) are eventually to be saved. (Hick 1977: 201)

It is helpful to distinguish two separable elements with this tradition; namely, the assertion of an inherited sinfulness or tendency to sin, and the assertion of a universal human guilt in respect of Adam’s crime, falling upon us on account of a physical or mystical presence of the whole race in its first forefather. As we shall see, the former idea is common to all Christian traditions -- whether in the form of a physiological or of a socially transmitted moral distortion -- whilst the latter idea is peculiar to Augustinian and Calvinist theology. (Hick 1977: 201)

The Augustinian picture is so familiar that it is commonly thought as the Christian view of man and his sinful plight. Nevertheless it is only a Christian view. As F. R. Tennant pointed out at the outset of his valuable study of The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin, S. Paul's teaching as to the connexion of human sin and death with Adam's transgression is but one of the various possible interpretations of this narrative [Genesis iii], slowly and tentatively reached after some centuries of Jewish exegesis and reflection. S. Augustine's fuller and more definite doctrine is but a developed form of one of the possible interpretations of the statements of S. Paul, arrived at after the preparation of further centuries of Jewish speculation. That this is so has been established not only in Tennant's book but in a number of others, including Julius Müller's classic work, The Christian Doctrine of Sin, and N. P. William's The Ideas of the Fall and of Original Sin. The historical picture which has come to be widely accepted can be summarized as follows: (Hick 1977: 201-202)

1. Probably the first of the ancient Hebraic stories to be used to account for the sinful state of the world was that of the angel marriages in Genesis vi. 1-8. This is used by the Jahwist redactor of Genesis to explain why God found it necessary to destroy mankind by means of a great flood. The story is that the sons of God mated (by implication, unlawfully) with the daughters of earth, thus mixing the divine and human essences; the children of these marriages (again, by implication) being the giants (nephilim), whom the writer also confusingly identifies with the ‘might men of old’. Surveying this situation, God ‘saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth…’ During the last two centuries before Christ, when these older legends came into their own and were put to theological use, this brief passage was elaborated into the story of the Watchers in the Book of Enoch (‘I Enoch’), a composite work whose writing probably covered much of the last two centuries. (Hick 1977: 202-203)

2. However, towards the end of the pre-Christian era the Watcher legend, based on Genesis vi, lost ground and was gradually replaced by the story of the fall of Adam, based on Genesis iii. In Jubilees (written somewhere between 135 and 105 B.C.) the Adamic story alone reveals the origin of sin; and in Slavonic Enoch (‘II Enoch’, written around the time of the birth of Jesus) the paradise-fall story plays a more prominent role, with only an echo of the Watchers theme remaining in Satan’s seduction of Eve. In II Esdras (c. A.D. 100) the Watcher legend has disappeared altogether, leaving the Adamic myth in sole possession of the field. This was the status of the story within Judaism at the time when St. Paul was writing his epistles. (Hick 1977: 203)

3. But the Adamic myth itself, as we find it in its primitive simplicity in the early pages of the Book of Genesis, must be carefully distinguished from the later interpretation of it adopted by St. Paul, and the further development of this by St. Augustine, and of course from its literary presentation in the greatest epic poem in our language, telling

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the world, and all our woe …

In the Augustinian elaboration of the Genesis story Adam’s pre-fallen state is an exalted condition of ‘original righteousness’, the snake is Satan in disguise, and the fall results in our mortality and the inheritance by the whole subsequent human species of both an imputed guilt for the first crime and an inherited moral taint or disease. But none of this is to be found in the text of Genesis iii. There man’s first condition is one of primitive simplicity; he is not set in a heavenly or paradisal state but in an earthly garden which he must tend; the snake is a snake and not a fallen angel; and there is no suggestion either of an inherited guilt or of a congenital tendency to sin. (Hick 1977: 203-204)

4. The dramatic fall stories -- Genesis iii and Genesis vi -- lived most vividly within the popular and apocalyptic religion of the more ordinary Jewish people (the ‘people of the land’) outside the priestly and rabbinical circles of Jerusalem during the two closing centuries of the pre-Christian era and the first century or so of the Christian era, the Genesis iii story largely displacing that in Genesis vi, as has already been mentioned, but about the turn of the eras. But in official rabbinical theology yet another view of the nature and origin of evil was current. This is the doctrine of the ‘evil imagination’ or the evil inclination or impulse (yecer ha-ra) referred to in Genesis vi. 5: ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination (yecer) of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.’ What the rabbinical schools derived from this passage was not perhaps so much a doctrine, in the sense of a systematic body of teaching, as a key idea which was applied in a variety of ways. The yecer ha-ra is sometimes thought of as ruling a man and determining his action (as apparently in Genesis vi. 5 itself), but more usually as one of two mutually contrary influences, the ‘evil imagination’ and the Torah, between which man stands as a free being exercising responsible choice. Sometimes the origin of the evil imagination is located in man himself, as though it represented a culpably acquired habit of the will. More usually it is taught that God Himself has implanted the yecer ha-ra in each human heart -- yet not so as to take away the individual’s personal responsibility in face of its promptings; for although the yecer ha-ra is an evil imagination, its energy can always be sublimated to good ends in the life of piety. (N.P. Williams sees this aspect of the doctrine as akin to the notion of the morally neutral libido in Jungian psychology.) (Hick 1977: 204)

By the time of Christ, however, the ‘evil imagination’ doctrine was coalescing with the Adamic myth, and it had become established rabbinical teaching (which St. Paul took with him from Judaism to Christianity) that Adam’s transgression has affected his descendants as well as himself by generating an evil imagination with them. It was also held that Adam would not have been mortal but for his sin, which has thus brought death into the world. (Hick 1977: 204-205)

5. Our Lord himself, whilst he clearly implied the universality of sin among men (e.g. in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses …’ and in such sayings as, ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children …’), gave no endorsement in his recorded teachings either to the Adamic or the Watcher legend or to the rabbinical conception of the evil imagination. Neither do any of the New Testament writers other than St. Paul, enter into the question of the origin of sin. (Hick 1977: 205)

If, then, we distinguish between, on the one hand, God’s self-revelation in and through the Heilsgeschichte recorded in the Bible, centering upon the person and life of Jesus the Christ, and, on the other hand, the successive attempts to interpret the significance of these events in the theology of the Church, we must say that the Christian revelation itself emphatically points to the reality of sin as a universal human condition, but that it does not offer any specific theory as to its origin -- not even that sponsored by the Church’s first theologian, St. Paul. (Hick 1977: 205)

From Paul to Augustine

When we seek the New Testament basis of the doctrine of the fall of mankind in Adam and Eve it is thus to Paul that we turn, especially to Romans v. 12-21 and I Corinthians xv. 21-22. N. P. Williams suggests, as a probable reconstruction of the transmission of the fall theme from Judaism to Christianity, that the Adamic story was current in the Galilean religious culture, which was nourished by the inter-testamental apocalyptic literature, and that Paul, meeting this idea among the Galilean followers of Jesus and being struck by the Adam-Christ parallel, proceeded to employ it with such force as to impress it (after the formation of the New Testament cannon) upon the mind of the developing Church. (Hick 1977: 205-206)

(Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. Revised ed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers; 1977; c1966 pp. 201-206. )