Christians far from monolithic in their beliefs on how human life came to be
About a third of American adults believe God created humans without evolution
It has been well over a century and a half since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, yet Darwin’s recognition that advanced life as we know it today took millions of years to evolve is doubted by a substantial portion of Americans, many if not most of them evangelical or fundamentalist Christians.
Skeptics of large-scale evolution can even be found at the highest levels of government. While he has apparently not publicly stated his personal views on creation and evolution, evangelical Christian and House Speaker Mike Johnson as an attorney once advocated for the Ark Encounter, a Kentucky theme park dedicated in part to promoting creationism, the theory that Genesis 1 is literally true and thus that the Earth and everything it in was created in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago.
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“Kentucky officials are smart to enthusiastically embrace the Ark Encounter,” Johnson once wrote in a newspaper op-ed,1 saying that the sponsoring organization “aims to encourage critical thought and respectful public debate.”
According to polls, about a third of American adults believe in the creationist position that human beings were created by God in their present form (a position that doesn’t necessarily require a young Earth). Of those who have an opinion, the rest accept that humans evolved, presumably from apelike creatures, to their present form, and they are approximately evenly divided over whether God directed the evolution process or whether there was no divine intervention.2
Christian advocates of creationism have been so outspoken that it is easy to assume that a literal reading of Genesis 1 is the only Christian view. But it isn’t — and hasn’t been since long before Darwin. Some of the earliest Christian thinkers, who had no way to know about the geological and cosmological evidence that points to an ancient universe and Earth, had views far different than modern creationism. For example, Origen, writing in the third century, saw Genesis 1 as allegorical. And Augustine, writing in the fifth century, thought that the creation account was written in a vastly simplified way so that the creation process could be understood by its readers.
Christian views today are based primarily on two factors: beliefs about what the Bible is, such as, to give two extremes, whether is was dictated by God to its ancient authors or whether it is primarily a human product; and the hermeneutic approach to the Bible that is used, which is a fancy way of referring to methods for the Bible’s interpretation. In general, those who call for a literal interpretation tend to believe that the Bible in some way reflects the actual words of God, while those who look at the Bible more as inspirational literature tend be much less rigid in their interpretation. A variety of perspectives on evolution can be found in the broad middle ground that sees the Bible as a mixture of the divine and the human.
There are several ways of categorizing the Christian beliefs about evolution; for the purposes of this article I’ll describe four, which can overlap and which have numerous variations. In the order of most literal to the least, they are:
1. Creation in six 24-hour days
The view that the Earth was created in six actual days is the most straightforward reading of the text and is the view advocated by many fundamentalist Protestants as well as the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This view presupposes that the Bible conveys accurate science and history as well as spiritual truth.
Believers in this view have developed their own network of what they consider to be scientific research and have promoted said research through museums, lectures, podcasts, textbooks and websites. The most prominent such organization is the Institute for Creation Research, based in Dallas, Texas. ICR acknowledges that its research is based on the premise that the creation account of Genesis “is factual, historical, and clearly understandable and, therefore, that all things were created and made in six literal days.” In other words, it looks for scientific evidence to support its conclusions rather than taking the traditional scientific method of testing hypotheses.
The problem with the literalist view is obvious: The scientific evidence for a universe that is billions of years old, and that life has also evolved on Earth for billions of years, is so overwhelming as to be indisputable. The “research” of groups such as ICR simply is not taken seriously within modern science. One result is that science and faith end up opposed to each other.
2. The gap theory of a six-day creation
Although it is no longer commonly advocated, the gap theory was once a popular variation of the six-day theory. According to this theory, Genesis 1:1 — “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” — describes a creation that could have taken millions or even billions of years. After some period of time, God destroyed what was on the Earth, leaving it “formless and empty,” as it is described in Genesis 1:2. Then God re-created life over six literal days; the ancient fossils we find today really are ancient, as they came from the Earth that existed before its destruction. But modern life, according to this theory, descended from a re-creation that occurred some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.
The gap theory was most notably advocated in the Scofield Reference Bible, a widely influential work, published in 1909. Theologians developed the theory as a way of synthesizing a belief in literal Genesis 1 with the existence of dinosaur fossils and other artifacts that obviously were more than a few thousand years old.
The scientific problem with this theory is that there are no signs of a global destruction, and life as it is today is clearly descended from ancient creatures. And although some well-known Christian leaders — among them Oral Roberts, founder of Oral Roberts University — were supporting this theory into the late 20th century, literalist Christian thinkers today tend to find it inconsistent with a plain reading of Genesis.
3. The day-age view
Christians who see Genesis 1 as being historical but who also recognize that the Earth and life have existed for billions of years often see the Hebrew word yom, translated as “day,” to refer refer in Genesis 1 to an age or other indefinite long period of time rather than a 24-hour day. This isn’t much different than English speakers using “day” flexibly, such as in the phrase “the day of the dinosaurs,” where it is obvious that a period of far more than 24 hours is meant.
Scholars and theologians have long debated the possible meanings of yom. On the one hand, mention of the days being marked by a morning and evening suggest that literal days were meant, and fundamentalist critics of the day-age view point out that there are other Hebrew words that might have been used here if referring to longer periods of time. On the other hand, yom is used in a few places in the Hebrew Bible where it clearly doesn’t refer to 24 hours. Among them is Genesis 2:4, which speaks of “the day [singular] that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.”
Advocates of the day-age view point to similarities been the Genesis account and modern, scientific views, particularly the progression of simple life forms more complex, with humankind as the pinnacle of God’s creation. In this way, they argue that Genesis 1 is the way that God chose to describe a process that would not have been comprehensible to people with limited scientific knowledge.
The day-age view is widely although not universally accepted in evangelicalism, and evolution is taught in science classes at mainstream evangelical colleges and universities. There is often debate, however, among evangelical theologians about how to reconcile evolution with the doctrine of original sin, which, in its traditional form, traces the presence of sin to the Fall of Adam and Eve.
4. The literary view
Finally, many Christians believe that Genesis 1 wasn’t intended to be historical nor a scientific explanation of how the Earth and life came to be. Instead, they see it as a way that the ancient writer (or writers) of Genesis used the cosmological understanding of the times to convey theological ideas such as the sovereignty of God, the nature of human beings as being created in the image of God, and the goodness of creation.
In terms of science, there is much agreement between this view and the day-age view. The differences have mostly to do with the understanding of how the Bible functions.
A final thought
Regardless of what they think of the mechanics of creation, nearly all Christians today believe the theological ideas listed above in the explanation of the literary view.
So the most important question for many believers becomes not how God created, but why. Therefore most of the country’s largest denominations — among them the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — take no formal position on God’s method of creation.
As the United Methodist Church put it in a formal statement, “Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible.” With that belief, the church said, scientists and theological communities should work together to “enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together.”
This commentary on Genesis 1 is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.