For most of my life, I have been a carefree young-earth creationist. Because I had no reason to believe otherwise, I assumed the creation of the world played out precisely as described in Genesis 1 and 2. That’s what my teachers seemed to believe, that’s what my parents seemed to believe, and that was, apparently, the only real Christian way to approach the matter. The theory of evolution was reserved for poor heathen atheists who because they refused to acknowledge God were reduced to believing that life came from primordial soup. After all, they had to find some way to explain the existence of life on earth.
I was content with my understanding and never thought studying biology would require me to engage with evolutionary science on a regular basis. As it turns out, though, the theory of evolution is foundational to the modern paradigm of biology – something I realized while studying zoology. Early in the course, it became clear that zoology is deeply intertwined with the theory of evolution, which was alarming. I had not learned about evolution in school, and I hadn’t expected to study it at the Christian college I attend. My professor was aware that many of his students had no previous experience with evolution, so he carefully presented different perspectives on creation, including young-earth creationism and theistic evolutionism.
It felt almost sinful to learn about evolution.
At first, it felt almost sinful to learn about evolution. Then, as we learned about anatomy and taxonomy, I gradually realized that evolution makes sense. There was evidence to substantiate evolutionary theory; it wasn’t merely a shoddy attempt to explain away the need for a creator. Moreover, I discovered that there are ways of articulating evolutionary theory that are compatible with faith in a creator. This realization was startling; it conflicted with everything I’d assumed up until that point. Yet using the theory of evolution to study the created world opened so many doors.
GOD RELISHES LIFE AND DIVERSITY
After I got over the initial shock, I tentatively adopted a theistic evolutionary approach to biology. As we learned more about zoology, I became more and more comfortable with my position. My belief was solidified by a graphic that used a calendar to represent the evolutionary time scale. According to this calendar, modern humans appeared at 11:54 p.m. on the last day of the year, and Christ was born about six seconds before the end of the year. I came to the realization that humankind is a very recent development. According to an evolutionary time scale, God spent a significant amount of time creating things before he created humanity. When confronted with billions of years of creative activity, I realized that God is much bigger than I’d acknowledged. Belief in the theory of evolution helped me realize that God loves so much more than humanity: God loves all of creation. God relishes life and diversity, and the record of evolutionary history is a testament to that. This understanding was invigorating; I wanted to share the news with my friends and family. Then it dawned on me: My friends and family might not be interested in this discussion.
Many of my friends learned the same creationist approach to Genesis that I did, and most of them are not studying the natural sciences, which means they might not have been confronted with theory of evolution in the same way I had been. I thought they might be alarmed if I began discussing my newfound views on evolution with them. I was also hesitant to discuss evolutionary theory with my family. I didn’t want them to think I’d been recklessly liberalized or that I was abandoning my faith. I had assumed accepting evolution was reserved for atheists. Now I believe evolutionary theory and a Christian worldview are quite compatible, but I wasn’t sure that my family would feel the same way. So, instead of risking social discomfort, I kept my new ideas to myself.
A DISTRESSING ANGLE
I was eager to learn more, though, so I went to the library and picked out a book on evolutionary psychology, The Social Conquest of the Earth, by E. O. Wilson. The book caused me much distress. Wilson is a revered naturalist, but he is also an agnostic who suggests that all organized religion should be abandoned for the sake of human progress. In zoology, I had come to believe that the theory of evolution and a Christian worldview are compatible. But here was a highly respected evolutionary biologist confidently declaring that religion is for the under-evolved. Not only was I reading an alarmingly eloquent description of human nature and morality as products of evolution, I was being exposed to attacks on my most foundational beliefs. This was new to me, and I needed advice on how to reconcile a Christian worldview with an evolutionary science that seemed to eliminate any need for God in the development of humanity. I desperately wanted to find a Christian response to evolutionary psychology, but it seemed there were none to be found. I felt lost.
As I struggled with Wilson that summer, I felt alone. I was hesitant to share my doubts with anyone because I was afraid of harming relationships. I did tell my parents that I was struggling, and I was grateful for the encouragement they provided, but I still craved answers.
Finally, I asked my professor for advice. During the semester, he arranged meetings with faculty members to discuss a Christian approach to evolutionary psychology. I learned that I was not alone. The professors didn’t provide the answers to all my questions about human evolution, but they did teach me that it is good to wrestle with these difficult issues.
I still don’t know how God might have used evolution to create the universe, I don’t know how he created humankind in his image, I don’t know how the theory of evolution relates to a Christian understanding of original sin, and I don’t know if God gave us an understanding of morality through our biology. But I am in good company; I have a safe place to not know. I have a safe place to wrestle with ideas. I have a safe place to be frank about doubts. Doubts are painful, and they can seem insurmountable. But God is bigger than our doubts, and our hope is not found in our capacity for understanding.
Lydia Marcus is a second-year biology student at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.
Image: Galileo before the Holy Office, Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 19th century. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.