Evolution and Compatibilism: What it Takes to Reconcile

So while literalists cannot be consistent in their literalism without reaching contradictions in their methods, it looks like even science-believing modernists are also running up against inconsistencies. The problem is that, even for non-literalists, there are some things that need to be true in the world, especially with events in the past, that are scientifically dubious. Unless one is willing to say everything in the Bible is story and metaphor, there are going to be places where the Bible and science will potentially collide.

See Also: Star Light, Star Bright: How Astronomy Fails to Explain the Star of Bethlehem

By Aaron Adair
Adjunct Professor of Natural Science
Babson College
Physical Science Teacher
Arlington High School
February 2019

In the 19th century, there were two books one could read that came from God: the book of Nature, and the Good Book. This metaphor of two books used by figures such as Galileo had a long tradition, and such a model helped many accept both scientific ideas and biblical truths.

The year 1859 would be another year of two books. First, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities, a novel taking place in peaceful London and tumultuous Paris at the time of the French Revolution. It utilized many Christian themes, especially redemption and resurrection. But that was not the most famous book published that year, even limited to authors named ‘Charles’. It was a scientific tome that would set the world ablaze. Its author would tear God from man, nature from its Creator, and surrender orderly design to to the machinations of chance and death without hope of renewed life. The book of Nature is now like Paris in a never-ending reign of terror, and its wars were coming for the Book of God. Or so the narrative has been portrayed.

It’s been 160 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species, and the controversy of its ideas have not died away. In some ways, it is seen as more blasphemous today that when it was published, in particular in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians, a movement that came to exist at the turn of the 20th century and has made significant inroads into evangelical churches in the US and from there to the rest of the world. Contrast this with the scientific community, where Darwin’s theories of common descent and natural selection are more widely accepted than they were in 1860. In fact, the scientific community had been slow to accept natural selection as a major force in evolutionary history, though for good reasons at the time. As for the larger society, Darwin’s legacy is seen in polling data, in particular from Gallup. Since asking questions about the public acceptance of evolution in 1982, the American populace has been fairly stable: around 40% reject evolution completely, 10% or so take an atheistic view of the origin of species, and the remainder see God as guiding the process. Recent years have seen an uptick in non-theistic views of evolution and a small decline in those believing humans were created by God without descent from prior lifeforms, but if this indicates a trend cannot be said. Very likely, this split in the country will persist for a long time.

Why the division? The answer also seems to be hinted at by Gallup. When asked if evolution and one's religious beliefs were consistent, almost half said no. It does seem that the biggest sticking point when it comes to the general acceptance of evolution and common descent is the belief that this science runs contrary to deeply-felt religious beliefs. This also comes to a head when considering the story of Adam and Eve, from which the Bible presents as the progenitors of all humanity and God’s involvement in the world, not to mention the message of Christian salvation. 

Numerous writers have addressed how to reconcile their Christian beliefs about the message of salvation and their understanding of the Word of God, including scientists and theologians. Recently we can add in biblical scholars such as Peter Enns and, particular to this article Lester Grabbe.[1] In some ways, a scholar of the Bible is the best person for the job in finding a place where science and scripture can meet because a scholar takes a more-or-less scientific approach to the Bible itself. Old Testament scholars like Grabbe are able to look to the cultural evidence that helps explain the meaning of the texts of the Bible. 

The following is not a review of Grabbe’s book, but rather observations about it and what it might indicate how to move forward with understanding the science of evolution as well as understanding the Bible.

In his book and interviews, Grabbe wants to show that evangelicals such as his younger self can avoid the conflict between science and religion by not denying the science but finding another way to understand the Bible. He is clearest when he says

“What I found was that my view of evolution changed not because of the science but because of the development of my understanding of the ways in which the Bible was composed and transmitted.” (Chapter 7). 

Grabbe’s views on the development of the stories in the Hebrew Bible are very mainstream among university researchers and has its history in 19th century higher critical approaches, especially with the discovery of older but similar stories of creation and the deluge. The 1850s discovery and 1872 English translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh[2] may need to be seen as a more significant blow to the historical literalist approach to scripture than Darwin’s book. One can trace the reaction to the higher criticism as a larger pillar in fundamentalism than anti-evolutionism. The heresy trials of William Robertson Smith in Scotland in 1870s and of Charles Briggs in America in the 1890s are not as well-remembered as the Scopes Monkey Trial, but these episodes are perhaps the more important key to understanding where the issue lies. Unfortunately, Grabbe does not place his efforts into that context and perhaps misses an important avenue for addressing issues in science-religion conflicts.

 On the other hand, Grabbe’s mission isn’t a historical overview of the evolution-creation controversy but ways to resolve the problems. Part of that approach is to show how creationists and other literalists are unable to make sense of the Bible given what we know about both the Hebrew text and the rest of our knowledge of the world. For example, modern creationist views about the animal ‘kinds’ in Genesis (Gen 1:21-25; Gen 7:3) are expertly undermined by Grabbe’s knowledge of both the underlying Hebrew and its rabbinical interpretation (Chapter 4), and this along with how different the notions of ‘kinds’ is from any scientific notion in taxonomy should put to rest the argument that the Bible contradicts the notion of evolution because animals of one ‘kind’ cannot possibly become another ‘kind’ of animal. At no point in the history of human ancestry did some-’one’ evolve into a mammal ‘kind’, just as a Doberman never evolves into being a canine. The only addition to the destruction of the notions of ‘kinds’ that Grabbe could have included is the problem of ring species, where a distribution of animals, such as Larus seagulls which are geographically distributed around the Arctic circle and only some populations can interbreed. Some neighboring gulls can interbreed (“bring after their own kind”), and then the next set of neighbors can do the same, but once the circle is complete the gulls have accumulated enough genetic changes they cannot interbreed. That is, gulls in region A can breed with gulls in neighboring region B, B can breed with C, C with D, but then when D tries to breed with A it fails. Under the so-called biblical view of kinds, A and B are the same kind, B and C are the same kind, as are C and D, but not A and D even though they should be; as a mathematical expression, A = B, B = C, C = D, but D ≠ A, implying A ≠ A. I have yet to see any good explanation for ring species by creationist organizations.[3]

This isn’t the only thing incoherent in the creationist view. The Bible doesn’t just, on a literal interpretation, contradict evolutionary history, it also runs against basic geography. The Bible presents a flat world with a hard dome over it holding up water and the throne of God, and below the ground is a vast sea of water usually just called The Deep (Chapters 2 and 3). And Grabbe notes in Chapter 3 that the word for ‘deep’ (tehom) shares the same root word as the Tiamat,[4] the monster from the Babylonian creation myth that is divided up to make the heavens and the dry land. The world of the Bible is from not just another time, it is from another context that literally translating it to our modern understanding of the world is incoherent. In this way, literalists have to deny that Genesis describes a sky dome (Gen 1:6-8), that the world rests upon pillars (Job 9:6; 26:11; 38:4), that the Sun and Moon are objects inserted into a water-retaining shell (Gen 1:11-14), all ideas borrowed and adapted from other cultures where the world was built from the carcass of a giant.

Again, Grabbe’s presentation about this, and more, is mainstream in biblical studies. But stand back and consider: why is this so? It is certainly related to the discoveries made over the last two centuries, from the various flood stories in the Middle East to paleo-Hebraic scripts to archaeological excavations to the parchment scraps found near the Dead Sea. This is all used to interpret what the Bible says. However, the mission of evangelicals has been to use the Bible to discover facts about the world, not use the world to find facts in the Bible. For example, Charles Hodge famously started his Systematic Theology (1871–1873) with the premise that the Bible is mined for facts, just like how scientists mined nature for facts. The Bible is supposed to be the source of knowledge, as is nature. However, Grabbe and most other professional researchers of the Bible takes facts of the world to understand the Bible. In other words, the Bible isn’t the source for facts, only nature is.

That is apparent in Grabbe’s approach to understanding Genesis. For example, the serpent in the Garden of Eden is clever and can talk (Gen 3:1-5). This obviously strikes us as strange, and Grabbe takes this to believe that the story is not historical but a theological message.[5] Why? Because of what we know about snakes in the world we experience--snakes don’t (and can’t) talk. But wait. This is us imposing our knowledge of the world onto the Bible. Couldn’t a literalist or fundamentalist respond that God is not limited by nature and could have made a talking snake? After all, if both the literalist and the modern interpreter both say that God created the world, how could the interpreter convince the literalist that God couldn’t have made the snake talk, let alone that he must not have?

There is a greater issue of worldviews here. Modernists such as Grabbe (and myself) would take our knowledge of how things actually work as revealed by science and just basic observations, and when something incredible is seen, then that is taken as a signal to not read things literally. On the other hand, literalists do not want us to impose upon the text as they believe the Bible speaks for itself. It’s God’s message, afterall. Adding our limited human points of view to the text would distort the message, or so goes the worry.

To be fair, even literalists have to impose their own views to get to any interpretation. Not even literalists will take everything literally. No one seriously argues that God is a piece of metal because it is said that God is a shield (Ps 84:11). Why? Because our understanding of the world and of God makes this absurd--divine beings are not made of smelted iron. But here we have taken the literal meaning and bypassed it with metaphor in order to avoid a contradiction with our understanding of the world, scientific or otherwise. This undermines the very notion of literalism as an approach to reading the Bible as it would lead to apparently absurd and contradictory conclusions. Rather, the reading of any text requires a background understanding of the world, both naturally and culturally.

This does create a dilemma for modern non-literalist interpreters such as Grabbe, however. Consider some other scientific facts: dead people don’t come back to life. This is very well confirmed by billions of tests done with humans alone. But the central message of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of other humans. Grabbe quotes from Peter Enns about the apostle Paul’s understanding of resurrection,[6] and those quotes indicate the belief in the historical reality of Jesus’ return to life. This is a basic tenet for almost all Christians. But then why aren’t Enns and Grabbe reading this as metaphor as they did the talking snake? Frankly, talking snakes are initially more plausible than people coming back from the dead. Should the theological belief override the scientific belief?

The issues hardly end with how one interprets the death and resurrection of Jesus. Also common for many religious adherents is the end of the world and the coming of heaven to a new Earth. There is the hoped-for Kingdom of God to come from the heavenly realm (where is that?)[7] to ours. The new kingdom will be eternal without decay. But this cannot be, if we follow the science. This runs contrary to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, considered the most unbreakable law in the universe, and it tells us that in the future the entire universe will go dark, cold, and dead. Even the black holes will die and perhaps time itself. And yet, theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne says that the 2nd Law will be broken permanently with the coming eschaton.[8] This is needed or else the hope encased in his theology collapses. In other words, when his beliefs need it, they can contradict the science.

So while literalists cannot be consistent in their literalism without reaching contradictions in their methods, it looks like even science-believing modernists are also running up against inconsistencies. The problem is that, even for non-literalists, there are some things that need to be true in the world, especially with events in the past, that are scientifically dubious. Unless one is willing to say everything in the Bible is story and metaphor, there are going to be places where the Bible and science will potentially collide. And in essence, their must be contradiction because God is supposed to do miracles and undo the natural order. Only deists can avoid issues with a miraculous God, but they are not Christians. And only Jesus mythicists can accept that the entire Bible could be non-historical, including the life and death of Jesus--this is even harder to swallow for Christians than the non-historicity of Adam and Eve. While interpreters often remind their audiences that the Bible is written from a different cultural context, that doesn’t address the elephant in the room: they also believe in the central tenet of the faith that runs contrary to all the laws of the universe. 

Here then a literalist will be able to say that at least they can provide a warrant for their acceptance of the stories of the Bible. They don’t balk at the resuscitation of corpses, so they have no reason to raise their eyebrow to talking animals. Moreover, the literalist hangs their beliefs on what they think is historical, contrary to what other religions believe. If the biblical tales are metaphors, then on what grounds do we accept the religious stories of the Bible versus the tales from other cultures, including the ones that influenced the Bible itself? Grabbe, for example, gives no reason to think that the Bible has better access to theological truths than the Enuma Elish, from which Genesis derives many of its world-creation concepts. In fact, the Bible is more inconsistent on creation than the Babylonian tale, as demonstrated by Grabbe in Chapter 2 (see ‘Other Creation Passages’), as some parts of the Bible still contain the idea of creation by combat (Pss 74:13-14; 89:7-11; Job 26:12-13; Isa 27:1; cf. Marduk defeating Tiamat) and Genesis shows God creating by a “job of work.” In the end, how can someone in Grabbe’s position defend the theological truths of the Bible over any other set of stories? The literalist can at least claim they ground their belief in reality instead of metaphors. In that way, the literalist is more of a scientist than the analogizing scholar.

Now, I am no theologian, so I have no plan to defend any particular religious tradition or dogma. However, I am struck by this strange observation: the modernist accepts more science and critical thinking in their approach to scripture, but they lack a factual grounding for having their religious beliefs; the literalist denies so many sciences, yet they seek to have a religious faith grounded in facts--be that the facts of the Bible or the facts of nature. Moreover, the literalist fails to be a complete literalist because their views about God will not fit literalist readings of many passages from the Bible; conversely, the modernist fails to be a complete follower of science as this would preclude some of the central claims of their religious faith. It seems all are not without sin.

So what is needed to achieve a true reconciliation of science and religion? So long as some religious claims connect to the natural world, there will be conflicts. It might not even be a plausible idea to say that the two can be reconciled, for one more reason to consider: both change. A reconciliation today may not work tomorrow as the science changes or religious notions evolve. For example, Grabbe relies on the goldilocks problem in astronomy and cosmology (Chapter 10),[9] that it is so unlikely that we would have such perfect conditions to exist in the universe that it must have been designed in some way to support life. That is a position some have taken in the scientific community. But what if in, say, 20 years we find that there is nothing that makes life implausible because the multiverse is real[10] or the constants of nature are determined by non-contingent factors, making life inevitable? That change to the scientific consensus would renew the conflict as science should show that Creation and its Creator are unnecessary. Conversely, religions change so much that a conflict today may be resolved merely by reconsidering the underlying metaphysics or uncovering a new revelation. Instead of looking for a solution to save both science and religion from conflict, we might just have to accept that both cultural forces are ever-evolving, not ahistorical entities to be found in a pure, Platonic form.[11] Finding a permanent fix between science and religion might be similar to asking for a fix between science and politics--not only does it seem initially impossible, but perhaps even undesirable, as politics divorced from scientific knowledge altogether is a terrifying prospect. Instead, understanding politics, science, and religion as categorically similar, then that may allow for a more progressive understanding of them all.

But what then to do with the problem of evolution within Christianity today? Ultimately, instead of seeing this as a science vs religion issue, the solution might be found within religion itself. The problem for literalists and non-literalists is their approach to the Bible. Here, Grabbe’s expertise shows the numerous failures of the literalist approach and the coherence of his approach. In that way do I think the problem will be resolved: winning the theological argument. That is what worked for Grabbe, more than learning the science, and I think this might be generally true.[12] But from there, where do modern thinkers go as they still hold to other contra-scientific ideas such as miraculous returns from the dead? I can only watch where that goes and see how again Christianity evolves, “and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”[13]

[1] Lester L. Grabbe, Faith & Fossils: The Bible, Creation & Evolution (Eerdmans, 2018).

[2] George Andrew, The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian (Penguin, 2002), pp. xxii-xxiii.

[3] A search on the website for Answers in Genesis brings up zero hits for “ring species”. Other sites are similarly absent in discussing the issue of ‘kinds’ and ring species.

[4] Grabbe, Faith & Fossils, Kindle loc. 318.

[5] Grabbe, Faith & Fossils, Kindle loc. 2465.

[6] Grabbe, Faith & Fossils, Kindle loc. 2921.

[7] The heavens were also envisioned as being literally above us. Paul even speaks of just such a visit to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4), but this cosmology is also undone by everything learned since the 17th century.

[8] John Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), pp. 102-104. See also John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), esp. pp. 9, 11-12, 94-95, 113-117.

[9] Grabbe, Faith & Fossils, Kindle loc. 2723, citing Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe is Just Right for Life? (London: Allen Lane, 2006).

[10] Evidence of cosmic inflation were thought to have been discovered in 2014, but issues with that data have since undone the excitement. However, future efforts may provide a robust measurement of the same thing.

[11] Similar points are made by Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale, 2013); Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago, 2015).

[12] On the other hand, many who have left the faith did so because of scientific issues. So, there are perhaps two paths out of literalism: the theological path to a non-literal approach, or the science-only path that leads to no religion at all. Having talked to many non-believers at activist conferences, that was a path out of religion for many of them, finding out that the science was against them and their religious leaders could not honestly address it.

[13] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, the last sentence from the first edition.

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Wed, 05/06/2020 - 22:17


"But what then to do with the problem of evolution within Christianity today? Ultimately, instead of seeing this as a science vs religion issue, the solution might be found within religion itself. The problem for literalists and non-literalists is their approach to the Bible. "

Dear Aaron Adair, Your question is the right question, but the answer is so startling that it will be initially difficult for any Christian or Jew to accept. If you start at the beginning you have to be willing to accept that Genesis was not written by Moses who could not possibly know how the world was created. That's the first hurdle, but for an objective scholar such as yourself, who can get over that hurdle, you have to admit that the biblical author(s) were not around when the earth was created, so the creation account must be theological. The most important part of the creation account is the fall of Adam and Eve. Their transition to the knowledge of good and evil is the Darwinian evolution from instinctive behavior to self consciousness. What else does the knowledge of good and evil entail but the ability to consciously choose from among many behavioral alternatives?
You quoted from the last sentence of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Darwin was a lapsed seminarian who abandoned religion when his beloved daughter passed away, but he knew the Bible as well as any religious man, and in chapter 1 of the Origin of Species titled “Variation under Domestication” under the heading “Principles of Selection Anciently Followed and Their Effects,” Darwin makes the following remark: "From passages in Genesis, it is clear that the colour of domestic animals was at that early period attended to." Darwin, ironically, provides the key to understanding the allegories of Genesis. You may recall immediately that it is Jacob who breeds his separated flocks stronger while breeding Laban's flocks weaker and you may also remember Jacob's preference for Rachel over "dull-eyed" Leah. You may want to go to chapter 29, reread Jacob's story and discover the correct exegesis of the allegory of the 'elder serving the younger' yourself and enjoy the thrill of discovery that I enjoyed after seeing Darwin's remark or you can google: 'The Book of Genesis from a Darwinian Perspective' and read it.
After doing that, you can tackle the allegories of NT Christianity, which will be another huge hurdle for people to accept.
Thank you for considering my suggestion,
Richard Faussette

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