The Life of Faith in an Evolving World: A Sketch

In the beginning God created everything necessary for natural life. In time, the stars, planets, minerals, trees and all earthly beings would spring from what was there at creation’s beginning. Among the more than 100 billion galaxies, there would be a Milky Way. One of the approximately 300 billion stars in the Milky Way would be called the Sun. On one of the planets orbiting the sun, life would develop.

Some 3 billion or so years into this earthly process, it was time for the emergence of a creature that could bear God’s image on earth—a creature that could reflect and, if it wished, nurture a sense of eternity within something it alone among earthly beings would possess: an eternal soul. This was a new creation. The plan for such a creature—matter plus miracle—a living thing that could think complicated thoughts, speak complicated languages, sacrifice for the sake of the disabled, and sense (and then either embrace or reject) the divine—had been there from the beginning. And so God bestowed on this creature, the human, his own image, and he gave the human the capacity to rule and cultivate and to decide what to do with its soul—to heed or not to heed the directives of a God-given moral law.

This creature was the dual offspring of nature and God. In basic ways, the human was hardly different from other creatures. Like them, it was made of the stuff of stars and soil. And humans and other creatures shared many behavioral traits. So it was possible for people to learn about diligence from ants, about subtlety from serpents, and about gentleness from doves. The earthly creature with which humans had most in common was the chimpanzee.

In other ways, the human being was strikingly different. Where the chimpanzee could brutalize or kill in the morning and carry on peacefully in the afternoon, the human could feel remorse or was compelled to relate self-justifying stories. Where the chimpanzee would avoid death but had no thoughts as to why, the human saw death as a psychological and spiritual challenge—a problem for both body and soul. Where wild creatures would be annoyed by thorns but not see them as an occasion to reflect on the hardness of the world, humans would do so. The human had the capacity to hear a voice, both internal and external, that urged it to look out for the good of others and the rest of God’s creation. In doing so, it would be looking out for itself.

This was a deeply divided, split creature. Some of the old animal tendencies warred against God’s image. The first humans, we call them Adam and Eve, had hardly started on their unique path before they chose selfish animal impulses over the beauty of God’s image. They did good things but, being selfish, self-deceiving and perhaps a little too clever, they also failed. For the first time in the history of this planet, creatures knew that to do something would be wrong but did it anyway. As we say, they fell. And when they had children, the misused abilities that led to the fall were passed on. So has it been for humans ever since.

The human’s capacity for moral blindness and frivolity was sometimes infuriating to God. (There’s a story about God almost giving up on the human project altogether.) At the same time, God felt compassion for this being who, after all, had not requested to exist. It was true that humans spared little time before acting against the call of God’s image. It was also true that much of what drove them to do so was the legacy of their pre-human past. They had two sets of laws at war within them—an animal, sinful one and a God-given, eternity-acknowledging one. In addition to this struggle, they were subject to the difficulties of the natural world—storms, parasites, illness & disease, freezing and drought. It was a difficult life for all creatures, but most especially for thinking and feeling humans. Once they learned to write, humans set down stories, poems and songs about the hardness of life. The most ancient stories we know of ask why?

So, as frustrating as people were, God had compassion on them. They were his creation. He decided to spend time among them. As one of them, he would bear their sorrows and feel their grief. He would need sleep and would be subject to unnecessary conflict. He would cry. He would suffer an agonizing, unfair death. Along the way, he would also experience life’s joys—beautiful days, the innocence of children, reflection on lilies and other nice, natural things—and he would remind people about their often suppressed inheritance as beings who bear God’s image. He told people that God had a kingdom of his own and that, if people linked their hopes to him, then he could lead them there. He said that God would gladly forgive them if they would turn from their self-centered, animal ways. And in his conquest of death, he showed that the grave’s word needn’t be the last one.

One day when God was on earth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, a man with leprosy approached him. The leprosy—whatever form of skin disease it was—was just one of the myriad difficulties humans had to face in a world in which all creatures are subject to natural hardships. Jesus, himself inhabiting an animal body and experiencing everything that goes with it, felt compassion for this man, and he touched him and healed him. Then he told the man to go and bear witness to what had happened—to play a small part in drawing people’s attention to the kingdom of God and to the image of God that is in them.

We human beings are interesting creatures. We are made of the same material as the natural world. About ninety-eight percent of our DNA is shared with chimpanzees. Indeed, chimpanzees and humans are closer genetically than chimpanzees and gorillas. When we study chimp society, we can see ourselves. Unfortunately, the same is true when we study chimpanzee brutality.

But chimps have never been recorded praying, and there’s no reason to believe that chimpanzees in Liberia would have the slightest interest in the affairs of chimpanzees in Congo. Only humans have the capacity to care about the plight of people and other creatures living hundreds or thousands of miles away.

People are endlessly in conflict within and among themselves. Like other creatures, they preen and compete and fight and strut and claim alpha status and take their place in the pecking order. Jesus’ own advent was met with an act of appalling cruelty ordered by an anxious alpha male named Herod. But unlike other creatures, humans regularly care for others not their own; they sacrifice for the sake of people they’ll never meet. They’ll even sacrifice for the sake of birds, whales and lizards—even for the protection of swamps, deserts and glaciers. And, sometimes, they try to keep the peace. Through human time, people have said that they do these things, at least in part, because there is a Creator who expects them to remember who they are—earthly creatures, dust—yes; but also bearers of God’s image on earth and invited citizens in God’s kingdom.

Given the reality of things, even the hardest-working people can’t completely fulfill their highest purpose. But they can remember that God knows what it’s like to bear a human body—to have the backaches that come with walking on two legs, the crooked teeth that come from having jaws that are too small, and strange goose bumps that don’t work very well in the absence of a coat of fur. Perhaps he even bumped his tail bone once or twice. But he never surrendered to the kinds of negative animal impulses that make life harder than it naturally is. He showed us what it’s like to be God’s best image on this earth. And he says that if we want to live forever in a world free of parasites and predation and stupid pride, then we should hitch our life wagons to him.

Just how all of this works is a mystery. Using their God-given mental powers of discovery, 21st century humans living in industrialized societies inhabit a world that is much less mysterious than it has been before. It seems unlikely that mystery will ever be completely wiped out. But to the extent that it is, it’s thanks to the gifts God gave to the unique creation that is humanity.

Copyright © 2015 Preston Jones


1. Some Christians, such as the writer of the above essay, are comfortable with the theory of evolution. Others are completely opposed to it. Others aren’t sure. What is your disposition toward the topic—and why? What new questions, if any, does the essay raise in your mind?

2. So short an essay on so large a topic is bound to raise many questions and leave them unanswered, while not touching on other themes that some consider important. In your view, what important matters does the essay not address? Of the themes that are addressed, which in your view are handled inadequately?

3. In the Genesis story, daylight is created on the second day and the sun on the fourth day. Obviously, the human writer of Genesis understood that daylight on this planet is impossible without the sun. We also know that in the dominant cultures of the world the ancient Hebrews lived in, the sun was considered a great god. Does it seem plausible to you that, rather than making a literal scientific statement about the sun, the writer of Genesis is making a point about the irrelevance of the pagans’ sun god in comparison to the greatness of the Hebrew God?

4. We sometimes hear that a strict literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story is the traditional approach to that passage. The excerpts from Aquinas and Calvin suggest that this may not really be the case. What is your reaction to this? Why do you have the reaction you do?

5. Unlike some Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians have had relatively little trouble with the theory of evolution. Some people think that this stems from a stronger knowledge of the Christian intellectual tradition—that is, of the works and thought of Christians who, over the millennia, confronted numerous challenges and worked through them. How does that claim strike you? What do you think might account for the difference?

6. Theological questions aside, the theory of evolution sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Why do you think this is?


1. Fourth century theologian St. Augustine notes that knowledge about the natural world is available to people outside the family of faith and that if Christians speak from a disposition of ignorance about scientific matters, then they risk placing the Gospel in a negative light.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
—Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis

2. The theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that while the belief in God as creator is essential to Christian belief, it is possible to differ on questions about how God created. It is also worth noting that Aquinas was open to the idea of creation as a process—something that is ongoing.

With respect to the beginning of the world something pertains to the substance of faith, namely that the world began to be by creation, and all the saints agree in this. But how and in what order this was done pertains to faith only incidentally insofar as it is treated in scripture…. For Augustine holds that at the very beginning of creation there were some things specifically distinct in their proper nature, such as the elements, celestial bodies and spiritual substances, but others existed in seminal notions alone, such as animals, plants and men, all of which were produced in their proper nature in the work of the six days [given in the creation story]. Of this work we read in John 5:17, ‘My Father works even until now, and I work’.
—Thomas Aquinas, 13th century

3. In his commentary on Romans 1:6, John Calvin notes that the interests of the human writer of Genesis and the interests of formal astronomers are different.

Moses makes two great luminaries [the sun and moon]; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.