The Very strange Idea of Theistic Evolution

It is no longer a secret that evolutionary theory faces severe evidential problems. As empirical research unfolds, the explanatory deficits of evolution increase.1 Yet equally important—although not as well recognized—is the fact that the very idea of "theistic evolution" is problematic, especially when considered in light of the Christian tradition.2 Indeed, even before an empirical analysis of theistic evolution can be undertaken, one must be clear on the concept itself. And this is where a range of under-appreciated problems immediately emerge, as philosopher of science Stephen Meyer has helpfully pointed out in a recent analysis.3

The main conceptual difficulty arises from trying to join evolution to a meaningful form of Christian theism. As one might expect, various thinkers have made various attempts to do this. Here are eight of the major possibilities on offer:

1. Evolution is random and undirected, and works without plan or purpose. God is behind this process.

2. God started off the universe and let secondary causes take care of the rest.

3. God created and sustains the laws of nature, but leaves the specific outcomes to chance.

4. God created the primary mechanism of evolution, and he foreknew all the outcomes of this process, but he did not intend or plan any outcomes.

5. God may (or may not) have guided the evolutionary process.

6. God guided the evolutionary process in the sense that he set up, intended, and sustains all the outcomes of natural selection and random mutation exactly as they have occurred.

7. God set up and sustains the evolutionary process, but gives it only limited guidance, sometimes intervening miraculously to produce the results he desires.

8. Various combinations of numbers 1-7.

This list is not exhaustive, of course. But it does provide a basic map of most of the variations of theistic evolution. This paper will examine each variation in turn and show how it suffers from one problem or another.

Possibility 1: Guided Yet Unguided

This version holds that, as one theistic evolutionist asserts, "evolution works without either plan or purpose" and "is random and undirected."4 As Stephen Meyer points out, when this version of evolution is coupled with a traditional monotheistic view—which holds that God superintends and guides all natural processes—the result is a position claiming that God planned an unplanned process.5 This view plainly involves a logical contradiction. It doesn't even rise to the level of a coherent thought, much less a theory capable of empirical verification.

Possibility 2: God Only at the Beginning

Another version of theistic evolution asserts that in the initial act of creation of the universe, God endowed nature with all the causal power it needed to produce, on its own, all the flora and fauna that have appeared throughout organic history. In other words, God "front-loaded" the universe with creative power, then checked out and left nature to do the rest.6

For those of traditional orthodox faith, the problem with this view is that it is more-or-less deistic. It holds that God does not sustain the universe "by the word of his power," as the writer of Hebrews says.7 Instead, he is an absent landlord. Nature is ontologically autonomous. For Bible believers, such a deistic view is a conceptual dead end from the start.

Possibility 3: God in General, Chance in the Details

A third possibility countenances greater divine involvement. It holds that God not only designed the laws of nature, but ontologically sustains them as well. Yet the Almighty is not a micromanager. He does not plan or direct particular events or outcomes in the evolutionary process. This view is somewhat similar to the perspective Charles Darwin confided to Harvard botanist Asa Gray in a personal letter dated May 22, 1860: "I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance."8

But from the Judeo-Christian perspective, this possibility unduly limits God's power or knowledge. If God does not plan or direct evolutionary events or outcomes because he lacks the power to do so, then he is no longer omnipotent. If he does not plan or direct evolutionary events or outcomes because he lacks the foresight to know what will happen, then he is not omniscient. Either possibility is plainly at odds with traditional monotheism. For those who hold that God is both all-knowing and all-powerful, Possibility 3 is no possibility at all.

Possibility 4: God Knew but Didn't Plan

 Option 4 posits that God intentionally created the universe so as to bring about the primary mechanism of evolution—natural selection acting on random mutations—and he foreknew the outcomes of this mechanism but did not intend any particular outcomes; he was open to whatever results occurred. This view is compatible with God sustaining not only the laws of nature, but also all the natural processes involved in organic history, including natural selection and random mutation. It is also compatible with God's omniscience, for it holds that God knew all along what the results of these processes would be, although he did not plan them. Kenneth Miller, who is both a biologist and a Catholic, has suggested something along these lines:

If you let the videotape of life run again, I think you'd get large streamlined predators that swam in the ocean. I think you'd get something that used photosynthesis not unlike plants but it might not be plants today. And eventually I think you would also get a large, intelligent, reflective, self-aware organism with a highly developed nervous system. Now it might be a big-brained dinosaur, or it might be a mollusk with exceptional mental capabilities. . . . [M]y point is that I think eventually under the conditions that we have in this universe you would get an intelligent, self-aware and reflective organism, which is to say you'd get something like us. It might not come out of the primates, it might come from somewhere else.9

The problem with this view is that it means that human beings, as an outcome of evolution, were not intended or planned by God. But this perspective runs contrary to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which sees humans as intentionally created in God's own image. Although the language in Genesis is poetic, it leaves little doubt about God's direct, intimate involvement:

Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.10

Along with the rest of creation, human beings are pronounced "very good."11 The Scripture's account of God crafting male and female leaves no doubt that he was intently and happily involved in the project.

Possibility 5: Maybe God?

Another conception of theistic evolution asserts that God may have guided the evolutionary process.12 This version has been articulated by Francis Collins and Karl Giberson.13 Collins and Giberson know that the standard view among biologists is that evolution is not teleological. It is not directed, guided, or planned for any particular outcome. But Collins and Giberson are Christians and so are uncomfortable, it seems, with a view of evolution that excises God's involvement. So their apparent solution is to say that God "may" have guided evolution:

God is certainly able to interact with the creation. The unfolding paths of natural history leading to human beings may be the signature of this interaction. God can influence the evolutionary process to ensure his intended result, in whatever ways he wants. Furthermore, an omniscient Creator can certainly create the universe in such a way that natural laws would result in the evolution of human creatures. The actual patterns of natural history may, in fact, be a combination of the pathways specified by laws laid down "in the beginning" and the steady infusion of divine creativity.14

My guess is that a fair number of thoughtful Christians will see Collins and Giberson's solution as a feeble, if not craven, attempt to marry a secular scientific theory with the biblical view of God and creation. The problem with this view is that it is manifestly true but utterly uninformative. Of course an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Being could have guided the evolutionary processes. After all, such a Being can do anything that is logically possible in accord with his divine nature. That is obvious. What we want to know is what God was actually doing during organic history. It helps no one to point out what he could have been doing. Accordingly, Collins and Giberson's position is not really a position at all; it purports to present a clear idea of theistic evolution but instead only irrelevantly states the obvious.

Possibility 6: Evolution Is God's Creative Hand

Suggestion 6 says that God guided the evolutionary process in the sense that he set up, sustains, and intends the outcomes of natural selection and random mutation (and other natural processes). On this view, God is not just ontologically and providentially active through the evolutionary mechanism in a general way; but in fact, this mechanism is God's creative means of designing all flora and fauna, including human beings. To be clear, advocates of this view accept the sufficiency of natural processes to produce all biological phenomena—they don't regard God as "tinkering" in organic history, such as producing just the "right" mutations at just the "right" time to produce a certain outcome. They maintain that unbroken natural causes are sufficient, as long as these causes are understood to be ontologically sustained and intended by God to bring about his planned designs.

Consider, for example, a recent statement by Deborah Haarsama, the president of BioLogos. (BioLogos is an organization that vigorously promotes the "harmony" between evolutionary theory and Christian faith.) In a radio debate with Stephen Meyer, Haarsama asserted, "we believe at BioLogos that God intended and designed the universe to bring about this life [on Earth]."15 Haarsama believes that God did so via secondary causes, including the mutation-selection mechanism, rather than by direct creative acts.

Problems with this perspective arise at once. First, according to this view, scientific analysis of biological phenomena and history will reveal only natural (or secondary) causes to be at work in creation. While philosophical and theological analysis might affirm God's guiding hand behind these processes, science itself does not affirm the divine. The problem is that, for Christians, such a view seems to run contrary to what St. Paul teaches: "[W]hat may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."16

The text is clear that "God's invisible qualities" are known "from what has been made"—from nature itself. St. Paul does not say that some kind of philosophical analysis is needed for people to understand the testimony of creation. Instead, the natural world makes "plain" that there is a Creator.

Moreover, the broader context of this passage makes clear that Paul's teaching applies to the "Gentiles," his term for those who are outside the covenant. Paul's view, therefore, is not that God's invisible qualities are evident only when nature is viewed through the eyes of faith. Quite the contrary. Creation itself speaks to all people—so strongly, in fact, that everyone is "without excuse."

Second, on this version of theistic evolution, God is a deceiver. He uses what appears to be an entirely unguided process to produce things he has designed and planned for from the beginning. Though our deepest empirical analysis reveals nothing other than natural forces and particles, divine activity is the real creative agent. According to this theory, God actually designed all the flora and fauna, yet hid his agency behind the appearance of an undesigned process.17

Third, this theory implies that God intends and directly inflicts massive amounts of natural pain and suffering. The mechanism of natural selection and random mutation is a process of "Nature red in tooth and claw," to borrow Tennyson's apt phrase. Creativity and adaptation arise from two barbarous sources: (1) random mutations, many of which are deleterious to organisms, and (2) natural selection, which requires creatures to fight and scratch for common resources, and predator and prey to tangle in unrelenting struggle. Recall that, on this view, this bloody process just is God's ordained means of creativity, a process that he created and sustains, and whose outcomes, both gruesome and great, he intends.

In sum, this version of theistic evolution is, to put it mildly, theologically troubling. It not only runs contrary to the teaching of St. Paul, but it also maligns God's moral probity by casting him as a deceiver and as the great sadist of organic history.

Possibility 7: Qualified Guidance

Possibility 7 says that God guided the evolutionary process, but in a limited way. While he set up and sustains natural selection and random mutation (and other natural processes) as the primary means of creativity, he only intends some of the outcomes of evolution, and he acts specially to affect natural selection and/or random mutation during organic history in order to produce these desired outcomes. This version is very much like number 6, with one big exception: it asserts that natural processes on their own are causally insufficient to produce the outcomes God intends. So God must miraculously step in from time to time to cause the right mutation or to nudge selective pressures in just the right way.18

This version of theistic evolution has the advantage of avoiding worries about the problem of evil that plagued possibility 6. Yet it, too, has disadvantages. For example, it seems excessively ad hoc. Just how does a person determine which mutations or selective pressures God caused directly? If the answer is that scientists can detect these events using the standard methods of scientific analysis, then this position actually appears to be a form of intelligent design theory, since ID holds that the designer has acted in a scientifically detectable manner. Insofar as God's activity in organic history is scientifically discernable, then, this version of theistic evolution is simply a version of ID.

However, if the answer is that the methods of science cannot show God's active participation, then there appears to be no scientific way to distinguish between naturally caused mutations or selective pressures and supernaturally caused ones. From a scientific perspective, it's just an ad hoc solution to claim that the "good" mutations or pressures are caused by God, whereas the "bad" ones are not. In this case, theology (and its commitment to God's goodness) intervenes in order to save a scientific theory that cannot stand on its own.

Possibility 8: Jumbled Amalgamation

Sometimes it is difficult to discern precisely what a given theistic evolutionist means by "theistic evolution" or "evolutionary creation." This may be because the theorist himself is ambiguous about what he means, or because his theory is a jumbled amalgamation of some of the versions outlined above. Theistic evolutionists certainly can get tangled up in their own theories, as Stephen Meyer shows:

[Theistic evolution] implies that the appearance or illusion of design in living systems results from the activity of an apparently undirected material process (i.e., classical and neo-Darwinism) except that this apparently undirected process is itself being used by a designing intelligence—or at least it could be, though no one can tell for sure. Or, to put it another way, we have moved from Richard Dawkins's famous statement "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" . . . to the proposition that "biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose, though that appearance of design is an illusion (classical Darwinism), even though there may be an intelligent designer behind it all—in which case that appearance wouldn't be an illusion after all." This tangled—indeed convoluted—view of the origin of living systems adds nothing to our scientific understanding of what caused living organisms to arise.19

Such a position is as opaque as it is undesirable.

Final Thoughts

So just what is theistic evolution? The question admits of no easy answer. The bottom line is that theistic evolution is a hydra-headed beast. Those who accept it ought to be as clear as they can about what version they hold. They should also be prepared to deal squarely with its many problems—not just its evidential ones, but its conceptual ones as well.

is a philosopher of science. He may be contacted at

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #46, Fall 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |