Theology and Evolution

Gijsbert van den Brink

Ever since their emergence in nineteenth-century natural philosophy, theories of biological evolution have prompted religious believers to revisit traditional theological views of the world, humanity, and even God. This entry will first clarify the various strands of meaning to be discerned in ‘evolution’ and briefly delineate today’s most dominant evolutionary theory, the neo-Darwinian synthesis (section 1). Next, it will summarize the varied responses to Darwinian evolution in each of the main Christian denominations (section 2). Since many Christians have been (and still are) unwilling to accept biological evolution, they have elaborated a couple of alternatives: young earth creationism, old earth creationism, intelligent design, and (very popular but underexplored in the literature) origins agnosticism. After having introduced these alternatives (section 3), the most important theological challenges raised by evolutionary theory will be discussed (section 4). How does evolutionary theory impinge on biblical interpretation (especially with regard to the first chapters of Genesis, but also beyond)? How does evolution affect our view of classical divine attributes like goodness and wisdom, given the enormous amounts of animal suffering it assumes? What implications does evolution have for the traditional view of humankind as uniquely created in the image of God, for the doctrines of the Fall and original sin, for divine providence, and even for the nature of morality and religion? Finally, theologians have not only engaged in apologetical and revisionary approaches with regard to evolution, but also proposed constructive interpretations from the perspective of faith that try to make sense of the evolutionary narrative. This ‘evolutionary theology’ project is briefly discussed and assessed in the last section (section 5).

1 Evolution: terminological clarifications

The term ‘evolution’ (literally meaning ‘development’) can refer to many different ideas and theories that have been propounded throughout history. Though it can also be used in relation to for example the development of the cosmos (as in ‘cosmological evolution’), the earth’s lithosphere (‘geological evolution’), or the emergence of organic life from inorganic material (‘chemical evolution’), it is usually restricted to the development of life on earth (‘biological evolution’). The present entry focuses on this most common use of the term (although it cannot be fully isolated from the other layers of meaning). History has shown a variety of theories of biological evolution, and it was only in the course of time that one of these – replicating as it were its own core idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ – became dominant: the so-called neo-Darwinian synthesis, also called the Modern Synthesis (a term that does more justice to the fact that current evolutionary biology has moved by and large as far beyond Darwin as current cosmology has moved beyond Copernicus). This is not to say that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory no longer has its competitors. In fact, Darwinian evolution has never been ‘the only game in town’. It has been accompanied over time by alternative accounts such as Lamarckism (according to which acquired character traits can be inherited; Okasha 2019: 16–18) and developmentalism or structuralism (according to which evolutionary change is propelled by internal molecular or genetic forces instead of adaptation to a changing environment; Rupke 2015). Today it is not only contested by religiously motivated critics from orthodox parts of the Abrahamic religions, but also questioned and adapted by scientists who have difficulties with important aspects of it, for example the incremental nature of evolutionary adaptations over time or the monopoly of natural selection as the sole driver of evolutionary change. Adherents of the so-called Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES; cf. Pigliucci and Finkelman 2014) explore alternative or (mostly) complementary natural mechanisms that play a role in the diversification of forms of life, apart from natural and sexual selection as assumed by Darwin (cf. Garte 2016; Fowler and Kuebler 2007: 277–324; Shapiro et al. 2014). Since these newer developments have, thus far, hardly been theologically appropriated (but cf. e.g. Mühling 2014; Deane-Drummond 2014: 194–237), in what follows we will mainly focus on neo-Darwinian evolution.

For brevity’s sake, the neo-Darwinian synthesis is also often referred to as ‘neo-Darwinism’, just as Darwinian evolution is often identified with Darwinism. We should be careful with these equations, however, since strictly speaking ‘Darwinism’ and ‘neo-Darwinism’ do not denote the scientific (neo-)Darwinian theory of evolution but the encompassing view of life or ideology that was extrapolated from that theory early on. Such thinking featured prominently in contemporaries of Darwin such as Thomas Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and John Tyndall, who became famous for applying evolutionary theory to society, politics, and economics (in what came to be called ‘social Darwinism’) and turned it into a materialist worldview. In fact, it was this ideological transformation of Darwinian evolution that prompted its fierce rejection by groups of Christian theologians and lay people (Livingstone 2014; Kuyper 1996; cf. van den Brink and Cook 2021: 270–277). Indeed, like most other words ending on -ism (including ‘evolutionism’), ‘Darwinism’ can better be reserved for this ideological add-on. It is important to be aware of the distinction between the two, since they are easily conflated – in particular by those who suggest that the neo-Darwinian synthesis necessarily leads to atheism and naturalism. This is a conflation, since it does not follow from Darwin’s biological thesis that the God who according to the monotheistic traditions creates and sustains the universe does not exist or is unable to act in the world. Interestingly, both ‘ultra-Darwinians’ and ‘creationists’, strongly opposed to each other as they are, tend to conflate Darwinian evolution and Darwinism in this way (cf. Cunningham 2010), thus performing what has been called ‘the metaphysical inflation of evolutionary thought’ (McGrath 2011: 36–40; cf. Ruse 2018 on the use of evolutionary theory as the basis for a secular religion).

There are various ways to describe the main ideas of the Modern Synthesis, but a particular fit for reviewing its theological reception is rendering it in the form of a three-stage rocket. Its most basic layer is usually described as gradualism (or ‘historical evolution’), which captures the idea that over large periods of time (‘deep time’ or ‘geological time’) ever more complex forms of life have emerged on earth. Note that this is just an observation based on the geological (and more recently genomic) record. Second, neo-Darwinian evolution includes the theory of common ancestry, or common descent, as an explanation of the way in which these forms of life are related to each other. The key insight here is that the various species did not come into existence by subsequent acts of a divine Creator, but have somehow naturally developed out of each other. Thus, the many and variegated life forms that we know can be traced to a single source from which they all emerged in step-by-step processes. Note that at this stage no hypothesis is involved as to how the various groups and species originated from each other. It was Darwin’s specific contribution to add a third layer to existing theories of evolution which aimed at explaining precisely this: the theory of natural selection. According to this theory, biological adaptation and speciation take place through the single mechanism of natural selection operating on random mutations (occurring in procreation) within specific geographical niches. Darwin could only speculate about the nature of these ‘transmutations’ that were responsible for variation within populations, but once the crossbreeding findings of the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) and the discovery of the gene (1926) were merged with his theory, it became clear that they have to be located in the genes – a discovery that served as an important corroboration of Darwin’s theory. It was in particular this (neo-)Darwinian version of evolutionary theory – elaborated in even more detail when the crucial role of DNA in the transmission of genetic information was detected – that became heavily debated for its manifold theological ramifications.

2 Theological reception of evolutionary theory

From the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) onwards, protracted debates on the theological acceptability of Darwinian evolution have waged across the board of Christian churches and movements, as well as in other religious communities (for Islam, see e.g. Malik 2021). Today such debates continue unabatedly in many religious communities around the world. Detailed historical research has made clear that past responses to Darwinian evolution were highly dependent on the contingent local circumstances in which the theory was received and disseminated (e.g. Livingstone 2014; Numbers and Stenhouse 1997). It would therefore be misleading to suggest that some Christian traditions and denominations rejected (neo-)Darwinian evolution whereas others were open to accept it. Mixed patterns of rejection and acceptance – and anything in between or beyond – can be identified in almost all Christian traditions. Yet, due to varying background beliefs, power structures, and ecclesial ways of solving contested issues, there are clear differences in the trajectories of Darwinian evolution within each of the main Christian denominations. We will briefly sketch some of these trajectories in what follows.

2.1 Roman Catholicism

It is often assumed that Roman Catholicism more easily came to terms with Darwinian evolution than most branches of Protestantism. Not having a sola scriptura principle, Catholics, so it is thought, had more flexibility in their exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis. Things are more complex, however (Blancke 2013). To be sure, individual Catholic scholars like George Mivart, Henri de Dorlodot, and later, most famously, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin not only accepted evolutionary theory (though Mivart rejected its Darwinian variant), but also attempted to integrate it with theological doctrine. Yet, from 1859 until 1950 official Catholic responses to Darwinian evolution were by and large dismissive. Usually, studies by Catholic authors propagating evolution were either placed on the ‘Index’ of prohibited books or withdrawn by their authors, due to pressure by the Vatican or other Catholic bodies (Artigas et al. 2006). In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission had defined the boundaries of legitimate exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis in such a way that these chapters should for the most part be taken literally, which was hard to reconcile with Darwinian evolution. Given the fact that at the time Darwinian evolution had become associated with modernism, materialistic atheism, and even eugenics, its rejection by the Catholic Church was actually quite understandable (O’Leary 2006: 73–128).

The encyclical Humani generis (1950) was a tipping point, however, since in this document it was acknowledged for the first time that a restricted form of evolutionary theory (i.e. one that allows for the special creation of the human soul) is compatible with the Catholic faith. Its author, Pope Pius XII, paired a conservative attitude with an honest interest in scientific development, rightly justifying the latter with an appeal to the traditional Catholic view that faith and reason are harmoniously connected. Polygenism (the idea that the human race has more ancestral sources than just Adam and Eve), however, was to be rejected, as was the idea that the human soul might have evolved naturally. Thus, the tensions remained, as was highlighted for example by official warnings against the thinking of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin up until 1962. Even the cautious statement of pope John Paul II in 1996 that evolution is ‘more than a hypothesis’ did not end all intra-Catholic debate. Characterizing neo-Darwinian evolution as a blind and meaningless process, a number of Catholics (including Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) continued to sympathize with the American Intelligent Design movement (see below section 3.3). Yet, the central role of the magisterium has probably been decisive in helping many Catholics to come to terms with evolution without compromising their faith.

2.2 Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a central governing body, but its various Patriarchates a connected by a common spiritual outlook and tradition. This tradition is characterized by a deep respect not just for the scriptures but also (and perhaps even in particular) for the Greek church fathers of the first centuries, up to Gregory Palamas in the fourteenth century. Rather than an inclination towards biblical literalism (as in Protestant circles), it is this orientation towards patristic thinking that often engenders the rejection of evolutionary theory in Eastern Orthodoxy. Clearly, as children of their time the fathers did not think in terms of deep time and the gradual development of life. Even though they cherished allegorical interpretations of scripture, in their Hexaemera (exegetical commentaries on the six days of creation) and other writings, they assumed the special creation of the main species during a relatively short period of time and considered these species to remain static over time. Thus, in recent popular literature directed against theistic accounts of evolution, Athanasius can be quoted as ‘teaching’ that ‘each created thing in its kind, in its entity, remains as it was created’ (Bufeev [n.d.]; cf. for a similar approach Rose 2000).

Yet, other writers have realized that wisdom and discernment are required when it comes to extrapolating the views of patristic authors in bringing them to bear on contemporary issues such as evolutionary theory (Theokritoff and Knight 2020: 177). Thus, already in the 1930s leading theologian Sergei Bulgakov argued that evolutionary theory should be taken seriously, even though it should not be suggested that it tells the whole story. Especially when it comes to the evolution of humankind, its biological emergence should be distinguished from the bestowal of the divine image by the inbreathing of God’s spirit. In this way, Bulgakov addressed the concern (also experienced in other denominations) that evolutionary theory might fuel a materialist understanding of human nature that was at odds with theological anthropology (Bulgakov 2002: 164–180). More recently, Andrew Louth has suggested that the theological thought of Maximus the Confessor (one of the most authoritative fathers in contemporary Orthodoxy) is sufficiently open and dynamic as to incorporate ‘the idea of evolution […] as a way of expressing God’s providence’ (Louth 2004: 189). In this connection, it is interesting to note that one of the most influential contemporary evolutionary biologists, Theodosius Dobzhansky (famous for his quote that ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’) had an Orthodox pedigree and self-identified as an Orthodox believer, considering evolution as the way in which God had created and continued to create the natural world (van der Meer 2007).

2.3 Mainline Protestantism

Responses to Darwinian evolution in mainline Protestantism have been variegated from the outset (for a ‘modern classic’ on the reception of evolution in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, see Moore 1979). Whereas the popular narrative suggests that immediately after the publication of the Origin of Species a bitter conflict between the worlds of science and faith started, sober historical inquiry has all but discredited this ‘conflict thesis’ (see The History of Science and Theology). Obviously, Darwinian evolution immediately had its critics in clerical circles; but so it had in scientific quarters (e.g. the great naturalist Sir Richard Owen) – in fact, during the first period of its trajectory empirical evidence in its favour was scarce (Bowler 1983; 2003).

On the other hand, important Anglican churchmen welcomed Darwin’s theory as a helpful improvement to existing forms of natural theology (rather than implying its total demise). For example, Charles Kingsley, a canon of Westminster Abbey, famously stated that a God who ‘can make all things make themselves’ is obviously ‘much wiser’ than a God who directly created all things (Kingsley 1881: xxv). Thus, he envisaged a theistic interpretation of Darwin’s theory, embedding it firmly in the Christian doctrines of creation and providence. Likewise, Frederick Temple, who was to become Archbishop of Canterbury, had welcomed Darwin’s insights as early as in 1860 and later (1884) considered them an antidote against deistic accounts that relegated God’s involvement in nature to its past creation. Standing in the Presbyterian tradition, American botanist Asa Gray corresponded with his friend Darwin about the possibility of a teleological interpretation of his views – an interpretation which Darwin rejected but Gray confidently propagated (cf. McGrath 2011: 163–165). And immediately after his inauguration as President of the College of New Jersey at Princeton in 1868, Presbyterian philosopher James McCosh became the first American Christian leader who publicly espoused Darwinian evolution, arguing that it is fully compatible with notions of divine design and providence (Gundlach 2013: 98–129). Similarly, even though there is some debate about the details of his take on evolution in various stages of his career (cf. Noll and Livingstone 2000; Moreland 2017: 953–972), Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield was convinced of the theological acceptability (and at times of the truth) of Darwinian evolution.

Yet, other Protestant voices, perhaps especially from the Reformed tradition, were more critical. Given the fact that Darwin himself had repudiated a teleological interpretation of his theory, Charles Hodge concluded that ‘Darwinism’ could only be seen as a form of atheism (Hodge 1874). Influential Dutch Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck were equally dismissive for similar reasons: the avowed rejection of teleology and divine providence by leading Darwinians (although Kuyper accepted the possibility of evolution as a means of divine creation; van den Brink and Cook 2021). Indeed, it is remarkable that initially issues of biblical interpretation hardly played a role in theological resistance to Darwinian evolution. Instead, it was all about teleology: if evolution is a blind and purposeless process – as ultra-Darwinians like Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel had been proclaiming (going beyond Darwin, who continued to be reticent on this issue) – then the very foundation not just of Christianity but of all religion was at stake: the belief that we humans and our world are not subject to fate and fortune but are somehow on the way to our God-given destination. Only gradually the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis (and in particular their portrayal of the special creation of humankind) became more dominant in Protestant anti-evolutionary accounts. At that stage, however, Protestantism’s more conservative parts to be discussed in the next section had started to take the lead in the evolution debates.

2.4 Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism

Whereas in mainline Protestantism anti-evolutionist attitudes formed a ‘significant minority’ (Roberts 2010: 94), in the evangelical, holiness, and Pentecostal world the rejection of biological evolution was often seen as belonging to the very identity of these movements. Especially in the USA this rejection became quite militant in the wake of the so-called fundamentalist controversy. When, around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century, many traditional theological institutions had started to take higher biblical criticism on board and to move away from biblical literalism in order to stay in line with the growing scientific and social consensus, conservative Protestants joined forces in a common attempt to articulate and defend the ‘fundamentals’ of the Christian faith. Coming from different backgrounds, their publication of The Fundamentals (1910–1915) ushered in a new era in American and global religious history. Initially, the treatment of evolutionary theory in these writings was remarkably nuanced. Very soon, however, its emphasis on biblical ‘inerrantism’ (meaning that the Bible does not only show us the way towards God and salvation but also cannot err in scientific issues) led the movement to adopt anti-evolutionism as one of its hallmarks. The infamous Scopes Trial (1925) and its negative cultural responses only bolstered this attitude (Numbers 2006: ch. 3–5).

Pentecostals trace their roots to the period in which fundamentalism emerged; although initially largely ignoring evolution because of their strong concern with salvation, sanctification, and evangelism, they instinctively shared the fundamentalist opposition to evolution. New converts often came from a fundamentalist background and thus strengthened this anti-evolutionist stance; at around 1920 the movement’s rejection of evolution had become more strident, merging with that of the fundamentalists (Badger and Tenneson 2010: 102). Evangelicals as well played an important part in the rise of this very vocal opposition towards evolution in the name of scripture. When the Seventh Day Adventist and self-educated geologist George McCready Price (1870–1963) brought to bear Noah’s flood on the many fossil findings that were seen as evidence for deep time and gradualism, an alternative to Darwinian evolution was born: young earth creationism (section 3.1; for its history, see Numbers 2006). This view was later elaborated by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in their influential The Genesis Flood (1961) and continues to charm many evangelicals today.

Yet, evangelicalism should not be identified with either fundamentalism or young earth creationism. Indeed, it gained traction in part because of its criticism of isolationist and separatist tendencies within the fundamentalist movement (MacGregor 2019: 157–166). Vis à vis evolutionary theory, many evangelicals sought a position in between that of fundamentalism and theological liberalism. This issued among other things in a renewed attempt (after Gray etc.) to combine the endorsement of (neo-)Darwinian evolution with historical Christian faith (cf. Livingstone 1987). An important watershed in this connection was the publication of The Language of God by leading geneticist and evangelical Christian Francis Collins (2006); the impact of this book led to the establishment of BioLogos, a web-based organization that promotes an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation among evangelicals (2007). Influential evangelical leaders and inspirers such as C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham, James Packer, and Tim Keller have lent support to this way of thinking. Yet, Darwinian evolution continues to be a bone of contention among evangelicals (cf. Moreland 2017), also in parts of the world beyond North America. In short, the theological emphasis on biblical inerrancy – a topic of continuing internal debates – ‘has colored the fraught evangelical relationship with science and particularly with evolutionary theory’ (Ritchie 2020: 194).

3 Theology-driven alternatives to evolution

As is clear from the previous section, Christians have by no means offered a unanimous theological response to neo-Darwinian evolution. In general, postures with regard to evolutionary thought have differed and still differ from vehement rejection via resistance, disregard, tolerance, and acceptance to serious theological processing. More specifically, four alternatives to standard accounts of evolutionary theory can be distinguished among Christians (see Rau 2012 for a slightly more nuanced typology), most of which can also be found in orthodox Jewish and Muslim circles these days.

3.1 Young earth creationism

Young earth creationists typically reject not only universal natural selection (or ‘macro-evolution’, as they tend to call it) and common ancestry, but also the geological timescale and the gradual development of life that forms the first layer of Darwinian evolution. They can trace their origins to premodern times, up to bishop James Ussher’s famous calculation – published in 1650 and based on a literal reading of biblical genealogies paired with some of the best scholarly practices of his time – of 4004 BC as the year of creation. They rightly point out that the church fathers, even though they were often open to more allegorical readings of Genesis 1, usually assumed a young earth. Yet, in its current form, young earth creationism took root as a reactionary movement during the early twentieth-century fundamentalism controversy (see above section 2.4). Young earth creationists typically hold that the universe came into existence some 6,000–10,000 years ago during six consecutive days of around twenty-four hours. Each of the main biological groups (not necessarily every species) was created by a separate act of God. The many fossils suggesting a much older history of terrestrial life are explained as remnants of Noah’s flood. Two institutes are seeking to stimulate the development of ‘creation science’ in order to give young earth creationism more scientific credibility: the Institute for Creation Research (, founded in 1970 by Henry M. Morris (co-author of The Genesis Flood), and Answers in Genesis (, established in 1993 by Australian educator Ken Ham. In actual practice, these organizations spend more resources in spreading their views among the general public and debating other Christian groups than in fostering empirical research. A specimen of recent work in young earth creationism is Mortenson and Ury 2008.

3.2 Old earth creationism

Whereas young earth creationists typically reject all three layers of evolutionary theory distinguished above (section 1), their old earth counterparts accept deep time and gradualism but reject the theories of common ancestry and universal natural selection. Old earth creationism obtains in two varieties. One is called the ‘day-age view’ and has as its key insight that the Hebrew word yom that figures in Genesis 1 should not be taken as designating a day of twenty-four hours but rather as an age, i.e. an indefinite period of time. By thus stretching out the days of creation, the gradual emergence of ever more complex forms of life observed by contemporary science can be connected to the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis 1. It is assumed that each of the main biological groups started with a special act of divine creation. A contemporary elaboration of the day-age view is called ‘progressive creationism’, which no longer emphasizes a direct link between the days of Genesis and the various acts of creation but more generally argues that the geological column reflects the order in which God progressively created ever more complex groups of organisms. The second variety of old earth creationism, popularized by the widely used Scofield Reference Bible (1909), is the so-called ‘gap theory’. Here it is supposed that Gen 1:1 points to an original act of divine creation, the products of which (including e.g. the dinosaurs) were subsequently destroyed by evil forces, giving rise to the fossils in the older layers of the earth. Thus, the earth was reduced to a ‘formless void’ (Gen 1:2). From Gen 1:3 onwards God engages in a second act of creation, now producing the current biosphere. The postulating of an immense period of time between the opening verses of Genesis 1 serves to incorporate the old age of the earth, as well as the many bewildering fossil remnants of earlier forms of life, into biblical exegesis. The main organization of old earth creationists is Reasons to Believe (, established in 1986 by Canadian astrophysicist Hugh Ross. Classical statements of old earth creationism (in its progressive variety) include Bernard Ramm (1954) and Hugh Ross (1989).

3.3 Intelligent Design movement

The most recent alternative to accepting neo-Darwinian evolution is called Intelligent Design theory (or ID). Typically, adherents of ID accept deep time and gradualism as well as (at least in principle – not always in practice) common ancestry, but reject the view that life has evolved solely through natural selection or other natural mechanisms. Instead, they argue that some biological phenomena are ‘irreducibly complex’, meaning that these cannot have emerged in a gradual way but have to be deliberately designed. No further claim is made about the identity of the designer, since ID intends to be a scientific theory, not a religious one. Yet, it is evident that God as confessed in the Judeo-Christian traditions is supposed to fit the bill. In this way, ID can be seen as the retrieval of natural theology as practiced in the tradition that culminated in the work of William Paley (who famously compared the complexity of biological organisms with that of a watch – an object of which we know for sure that it has been designed when we find it on a beach). Leading ID theorists like Michael J. Behe, William B. Dembski, and Stephen C. Meyer are affiliated with the Discovery Institute (, which was established in 1991 and aims both at elaborating ID theory and fostering ID as a cultural movement. Recently, Erkki Kojonen (2021) has forcefully argued for the compatibility of Darwinian evolution and design explanations.

3.4 Origins agnosticism

Finally, an often ignored but widespread stance among Christians is to remain agnostic with regard to the questions of origin. Seeing problems in each of the existing positions (including theistic evolution), not only lay people but also theologians acknowledge their ignorance in these matters and then argue that there is no need for Christians to take a firm position. Sometimes they apply Nicholas of Cusa’s doctrine of docta ignorantia or ‘learned ignorance’ to the matter: given our limited cognitive capacities we are unable to trace the ways of the infinite God in creating the universe and terrestrial life. Although those who support such agnosticism often criticize theistic evolutionists, strictly speaking they can only do so in a very limited way, since if we don’t know how God created life there is a chance that God did do so through evolution – either as construed along neo-Darwinian lines or otherwise. Wise as the motto in dubio abstine (‘when in doubt, abstain’) may be, just like adherents of the other positions discussed here, origins agnostics continue to wrestle with the overwhelming and still growing empirical evidence pointing to our planet’s evolutionary history.

4 Theological challenges elicited by evolution

Those who remain unconvinced by each of the positions distinguished in the previous section may decide to accept the neo-Darwinian synthesis, if not as proven truth then in any case as the best scientific explanation of the earth’s biodiversity currently on offer, in order to then attempt to interpret the evolutionary process from a Christian perspective. Such ‘theistic evolutionists’ as they are traditionally called hold different views with regard to whether the universe has a divine purpose (‘guided evolution’) or is rather non-teleological (‘deistic evolution’) and whether divine special action is possible (‘evolutionary creation’; BioLogos 2022; cf. Rau 2012: 31–56). In general, however, there are a number of theological challenges that have to be faced by all Christians who accept Darwinian evolution. One way to map these challenges is by linking them to each of the three layers of neo-Darwinian evolution distinguished above (section 1). When doing so, it turns out that each of these layers gives rise to two major theological issues (van den Brink 2020).

First, if we accept the coming and going of ever more complex organisms in the course of geological time, the question of biblical interpretation immediately comes up, as does the problem of evolutionary evil. For clearly, a prima facie reading of the Bible is hard to square with the currently accepted view that terrestrial life is at least 3.4 billion years old (Benton 2008: 29) and consisted of prokaryotic forms of life only during most of this time. Similarly, when we realize that all these manifold forms of life not only somehow emerged on earth but also died due to all sorts of causes (some more gruesome than others), it is impossible to avoid the question how such a picture can be reconciled with the biblical confession that all that God created was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). Second, the theory of common ancestry gives rise to the issue of human uniqueness and dignity (if we stem from other animals, what exactly makes us special?) as well as to the question whether it is possible to still uphold an historical Adam, an historical Fall, and a robust account of the universal transmission of sin. Third, accepting natural selection operating on random mutations as the main mechanism of adaptation and speciation calls into question notions of divine guidance and providence that are deeply ingrained in the Christian (and other theistic) traditions. Also, if applied to cultural phenomena next to biological ones, natural selection jeopardizes Christian accounts of morality and religion as, in the end, being based on divine revelation rather than on natural selection. In the next couple of subsections, each of these issues will be briefly explored.

4.1 Evolution and biblical interpretation

It is often argued that accepting evolutionary theory cannot be squared with the respectful obedience to the authority of scripture that is required of Christians. Indeed, on a ‘common sense’ reading of, for example, the first chapters of Genesis this makes sense. The key question, however, is whether such a common sense reading is the correct one; often, such a reading is equated with the so-called literal reading, but presumably a literal reading should do justice to the literary genre of the text to be interpreted. It is here that the debate starts: to what extent do the first chapters of Genesis intend to convey historical facts and to what extent do they exhibit a different genre – either exalted prose, or poetry, or myth, or saga?

There is a wide consensus that at least some elements in the first chapters of Genesis should be taken symbolically, in line with the symbolic motives that figure in other creation stories in the ancient Near East. In fact, in recent times a lot of valuable work has been done to properly relate the Genesis stories to their contemporary counterparts, situating them in the shared ‘cognitive environment’ of the ancient Near East (cf. e.g. Walton 2009; 2015). This has led to some novel insights that certainly reduce the tensions; for example, the prominence of mythical elements – in the technical sense of the word – in the chapters cannot be denied (cf. Craig 2021: 35–203). Yet, as stories of origin the two creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2–3 do not intend to convey (like myths) timeless truths about the nature of the created world and of the human person, but aim at telling the story of how the (human) world started at some stage in the past. Therefore, the question as to how such claims relate to evolutionary assumptions remains appropriate.

One way to move forward here is to distinguish between two hermeneutical approaches, that may be called concordism and perspectivism (cf. Lamoureux 2008; 2016; van den Brink 2020: 74–98). Concordism is the view that every single factual statement in scripture should be taken as conveying a scientifically valid truth claim. Perspectivism, on the other hand, holds that the theological message or perspective of scripture is couched in terms of the cultural perspective and the world picture of its intended first readers. These two perspectives have to be carefully distinguished. Whereas the theological scope of a biblical passage is authoritative for Christians, the elements that are gleaned from the science-of-the-day are not. For example, no Christian has to believe on the basis of Matt 13:31–32 that mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (which it is not), since that statement does not belong to the theological scope of Jesus’s parable but reflects the conventional wisdom of the day. When approaching for example Genesis 1 in this way, we can see that the author adopts widely shared cultural assumptions in order to correct these from the perspective of his radically monotheistic faith in the God of Israel (for more hermeneutical reflection on how to read Genesis, see Barton and Wilkinson 2009; Collins 2018).

Perspectivism is by no means a new hermeneutic approach, invented to harmonize the Bible and contemporary science. On the contrary, it is in line with age-old views (to be found e.g. in the work of John Calvin, but also in some of the Fathers) of God as accommodating himself to limited human perspectives in his revelation. Nor does perspectivism safeguard an anything-goes mentality, allowing us to read into scripture everything we might wish. Rather, as in historical Protestantism, scripture continues to function as the final arbiter in all matters of faith and life. It is only to be conceded that scripture is to be interpreted with a keen eye for the cultural imaginations of the world in which it came into existence.

Although the paradigm switch from concordism to perspectivism may be very illuminating, like all new paradigms the perspectivist approach will not solve all our problems – in this case our hermeneutical problems vis-à-vis evolution. For example, the biblical storyline has a thoroughly historical character, as it revolves around the acts of God performed in the world’s history, including its natural history. It is not just the story of God and disembodied human individuals, but of God and humanity as profoundly embedded in its natural environment. Since history also belongs to the domain of science, including evolutionary science, tensions between biblical theology and evolutionary theory will remain. The most prominent of these tensions will be briefly explored in section 4.4.

4.2 Evolution and animal suffering

One of the most hotly debated issues in recent scholarship on theology and evolution is the problem of evolutionary evil. How on earth can the enormous amount of suffering of animals throughout the ages be reconciled with the goodness and wisdom of the Creator? To many observers, this is actually the biggest theological challenge posed by Darwinian evolution. Obviously, an increased sensitivity to the fate of animals as our ‘relatives’ contributes to the unease many of us experience here. To be sure, animal suffering is present in the world anyhow, irrespective of evolution; but given an evolutionary history of millions of years, its scope and magnitude is much wider than we used to think. Moreover, evolutionary theory has largely discredited the view that animal suffering and death entered creation only after the first humans had fallen into sin – a view that cannot be traced back to the Bible but has become widespread in Christian thought since early modernity (Slootweg 2021).

Theologians have come up with various proposals to address (rather than ‘solve’) this issue (for an overview, see Sollereder 2019). First, it has been suggested that most animals have only limited capacities for experiencing pain, and none have self-consciousness, which is necessary for realizing that one actually is in pain (see e.g. Blocher 2009). Yet, although there is indeed the risk of anthropomorphizing – wrongly projecting human feelings upon animals – recent research in ethology, neuro-anatomy, and physiology has made plausible that the capacity for subjectively experiencing pain is not limited to the human species; even invertebrates may suffer from such experiences. Second, some have proposed a ‘retro-active Fall’, suggesting that the Creator structured the natural world in such a way that from the outset it provided a fitting environment for fallen human beings (thus Brunner 1952: 131). This is less convincing, however, when we assume a period of millions of years during which animals suffered before humans arrived on the scene. Third, some theologians have invoked Satan and his cohorts, or some unspecified evil force which it is impossible to define, to account for the most gruesome instantiations of evolutionary evil (e.g. Creegan 2013). Fourth, and most plausibly perhaps, it has been proposed that, given God’s intention to create a world in which meaningful lives and relationships were possible, there may have been no other way to achieve this end than through the evolutionary paths we observe (e.g. thus Murray 2008; Southgate 2008). Maybe we cannot have our cake and eat it: a world that displays wonderful phenomena like love, freedom, joy, sympathy, fulfilment, and happiness may also have to display the opposite of such virtues (or at least their possibility). Since as humans we are cognitively limited beings, we are not in a position to judge God’s decision to create such a world – like Job we may simply have to trust God.

4.3 Evolution and theological anthropology

One of the most sensitive issues engendered by evolutionary theory concerns the status of the human being. From Darwin’s days onwards, the idea that we humans might share common ancestry with the apes has elicited visceral dismissive responses. Indeed, it has often been suggested both by Christians and by atheist evolutionists (e.g. Rachels 1990) that neo-Darwinian evolution downgrades the status of humanity, profoundly affecting our supposed uniqueness and dignity. If human beings are not radically different from (other!) animals, why should we treat them differently?

One way to counter this objection is to suggest that evolutionary theory should not prompt us to treat humans with less but to treat animals with more respect (cf. Clough 2012). True as this may be, the biblical narrative of humans (and humans alone) as being created in the image of God conveys the theological view that in God’s eyes human uniqueness goes beyond the species specificity that all species have – somehow we ‘are of more value than many sparrows’ (Matt 10:31). Perhaps, however, this uniqueness and the peculiar dignity that comes with it should not be grounded in some property that we have and other species lack, but in the personal relationship that God wants to establish with humans and in the specific vocation with which God calls us to represent God on earth. Such relational and functional accounts of the imago Dei seem to fit the meaning of this phrase in the Genesis texts (1:26–28; 5:1; 9:6) better than the traditional assumption that the divine image is located in human rationality or the human soul (see Middleton 2005, who prefers a functional-representational interpretation). In this way, evolutionary theory may even come to our aid in prompting us to correct unjustified interpretations of biblical texts. Our dignity is not grounded in some intrinsic part of our nature but in God’s gracious bestowal of his image, which includes our destination for future fellowship with God (Kärkkäinen 2015: 278). It is theology, not biology that declares us to be unique and worthy beings.

The evolutionary account of humans as stemming from the animals helpfully reminds us of our many commonalities with the animals, and thus to be critical of any form of anthropocentrism or human exceptionalism. Even so, the consequences of humanity’s shared ancestry with the animals should not be exaggerated. Although there may not be a single biological or psychological property that uniquely belongs to humankind, in many respects the differences in degree between humans and even our closest relatives are so huge, that ‘Homo sapiens is not simply an improved version of its ancestors – it’s a new concept’ (Tattersall 1998: 188; for a wide-ranging elaboration, see van Huyssteen 2006). This observation should not once again be seen as grounding our special dignity, but it should not be denied either. For example, it can be defended that the exponentially wider scope of human consciousness lends support to continued talk of a human soul, as the non-material aspect of human life that constitutes our identity (for some thoroughgoing reflections on the intersection of human personhood, the image of God and evolution, see Rosenberg 2018: 27–106).

4.4 Evolution, Adam, and the fall into sin

The theory of common ancestry not only raises questions with regard to human uniqueness, but also casts doubt on the traditional view that the human species started with a first couple, Adam and Eve, who lived in a paradisical world and then fell into sin (for the historical trajectories of this view, see VanDoodewaard 2015). From an evolutionary point of view, new species emerge population-wise; this means that, unless one wants to assume a series of miracles through which the human species came into existence ‘out of the blue’, an historical Adam and Eve can only have been part of a wider group. Even so, given their high level of communication, the biblical Adam and Eve cannot be regarded as the first members of Homo sapiens (who were anatomically like us, but cognitively much less developed).

A couple of solutions have been proposed (for an overview see e.g. Alexander 2014: 288–294). It has often been pointed out that ‘Adam’ in Genesis 2–3 is not just a proper name, but also a generic term, meaning ‘the human being’. Thus, Adam and Eve represent humanity (this representative function is taken up by Paul when he considers the whole of humanity to be ‘in Adam’; cf. Rom 5:12–21, 1 Cor 15:22). Many conclude from this that there is no need to assume an historical Adam: Genesis 2–3 tells the story of Everyman, providing a screening of the depths of human existence. Others object that Genesis 2–3 is also a story about the beginning of God’s dealings with humanity and in that sense requires concrete human beings who were at the fountainhead. They tend to consider Adam and Eve as the chiefs of the first group of Homo sapiens that at some stage was addressed by God (John Stott coined the phrase Homo divinus – the godly human – to indicate the special status of this group as being called to live in a relationship with God and take care of the earth). Genesis 2–3 is painted in the colours of the agricultural society that emerged in the Neolithic period (some 12,000 years ago), but that implies no attempt on the part of its authors to situate this group in that specific time. In a sense, Adam and Eve can be seen as a couple elected by God for a special role, just like Abram and Sarah (Moritz 2011).

Recently, the debate on the historical Adam has seen some new twists in the wake of contemporary developments in evolutionary genetics and palaeoanthropology. Joshua Swamidass has argued that, contrary to what had been assumed until recently (most poignantly by Venema and McKnight 2017), it is scientifically warranted to consider Adam and Eve as our universal ancestors in a not-too-far-away past; according to his genealogical calculations, such universal ancestors must have lived c. 5,000–10,000 years ago. To be sure, they were not the only humans around at that time, but they may have been created de novo by God and placed in the garden of Eden (as Genesis 2 suggests), whereas their offspring may have interbred with people living outside the garden (Swamidass 2019; cf. William Lane Craig as well holds on to a historical Adam for theological reasons, but he interprets Genesis 2–3 more symbolically and situates Adam and Eve much further back in history. He argues on scientific and theological grounds that they must have lived more than 750,000 years ago as the progenitors of all human beings, including the Neanderthals. In his view, they were not created de novo but selected by God out of the species Homo heidelbergensis and at that stage endowed with the rational capacities needed to make them truly and fully human (Craig 2021: 378–379).

Is it possible at all to assume that at some early stage in their history these humans fell into sin and thus determined the fate of their posterity? Indeed, proposals have been made to recontextualize the fall and original sin within an evolutionary paradigm (Rosenberg 2018: 117–207). This need not be a contrived attempt to harmonize things, since even when we leave Genesis 3 out of the picture there must have been a time when humans, having reached the level of consciousness required for intentional action, started to wilfully transgress set moral rules, as a result of which the community became spiritually poisoned and fell apart from God’s purposes. It is hard to conceive of such an event as a fall from a blissful state of absolute peace and harmony (since the humans addressed by God must have been driven all along by the aggressive and lustful dispositions they had inherited from their hominin ancestors). Yet, it is still possible to conceive of the Fall as something historical and ‘evental’ (Smith 2017: 63). For at some stage, these humans must have lost their innocence as a result of their conscious choice to refuse God’s calling towards a life characterized by altruism and love, preferring instead ‘a path of autonomy, of rational self-will, which placed the descendants of those first humans in bondage to self and its consequent conflict and suffering’ (Ward 1998: 133). Along such lines, the doctrine of original sin can be retrieved within an evolutionary framework. It can even be imagined that, as Genesis 3 suggests, from that time onwards physical death became unescapable for these humans, just as it always had been for all other beings (van den Brink 2022).

In any case, it is clear that the ancient creationist battle cry ‘no Adam, no Fall; no Fall, no Atonement; no Atonement, no Savior’ (Price 1920: 124, and echoed in many later sources) is misleading. The Christian acknowledgement that we humans are sinners in need of redemption does not depend on a detailed account of how we came to be so. Therefore, Christian soteriology need not be diluted if we assume that humanity came into existence through evolutionary processes.

4.5 Evolution and divine providence

The old debate on whether the theory of natural selection prohibits a teleological interpretation of evolutionary history is still continuing unabated. Today it is propelled by ‘new atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins, who claim that Darwinian evolution is a process without any predetermined goal or purpose. Commenting on William Paley’s famous metaphor of the watchmaker, Dawkins avers that ‘the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics’. Natural selection is a ‘blind unconscious, automatic process’ which ‘has no purpose in mind’ (Dawkins 1986: 9). Since the entire evolutionary process can be perfectly understood without the traditional appeal to divine action, God has become superfluous. In this way, it is suggested that Darwinian evolution requires an atheistic, naturalistic view of life.

Over against such intimations, it has been pointed out that all depends on the precise nature of the randomness by which genetic mutations occur. What biologists mean by this concept, is that there is ‘no physical mechanism (either inside organisms or outside of them) that detects which mutations would be beneficial and causes these mutations to occur’ (Sober 2011: 193; Plantinga 2011: 11). Instead, genetic mutations are randomly beneficial, or neutral, or disadvantageous to the survival chances of the organism. This implies that in a stronger, metaphysical sense such mutations need not be random, so that, as philosopher of biology Elliott Sober recognizes, ‘theistic evolution is a logically consistent position’ (Sober 2011: 193). Even if the idea that God may ‘cause’ specific mutations to occur raises intractable questions as to where the ‘causal joint’ is to be found, it is definitely conceivable that the entire scheme of natural selection, as consisting of statistical processes, has been created by God with a particular purpose (e.g. Ruse 2000: 114–115). After all, the system as a whole tends towards the production of ever more complex and well-adapted forms of life. And the claim that life on earth does not have a particular purpose of meaning is not a testable scientific claim but a metaphysical one.

Thus, it seems that the new atheist case is overstated and that Darwinian evolution does not rule out divine providence (obviously, this once more raises the problem of evolutionary evil – for which see section 4.2). Recently, evolutionary biologists have even pointed out that we can observe convergence in the way in which nature time and again arrives at the same solutions to evolutionary challenges that different species and populations have to face. In this way, it seems that the emergence of intelligent life was not a sheer accident but something towards which nature has gradually been pushing (Conway Morris 2003). Though this ‘internal teleology’ is not to be equated with divine providence, it is clear that the two fit together quite well.

4.6 Evolution, morality, and religion

Finally, if we concede that the mechanism of natural selection not only steers the course of natural phenomena but also of cultural ones – in which case we speak of universal natural selection – a new series of theological challenges pops up. These become most palpable in the realms of morality and religion. In the wake of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution many attempts have been made to show how natural selection might also explain our social patterns of behaviour. Such attempts (in fields like socio-biology and, later, evolutionary psychology) remain contested since humans have the capacity to set their own courses in often unpredictable ways – we don’t live ‘by our genes alone’. Yet, evolutionary explanations of human behaviour, however partial they may be, have continued to gain traction.

For example, it has been argued that adopting moral behaviours contributes to the ‘inclusive fitness’ of a group (i.e. the all-in-all chance of survival of its genes). In the course of time groups of hominins that upheld moral standards may have outlived groups that maintained lower standards or did not have them at all. However, if in this way humans became moral beings, how trustworthy are these moral standards? Does natural selection, as it were, trick us into believing that some patterns of action are morally good and others evil? Indeed, Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson have famously claimed that ‘in an important sense, ethics […] is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate’ (Ruse and Wilson 1985: 52). If so, morality can no longer be said to have a theistic foundation: it is not based on what is objectively good as expressed in God’s will – it does not even have an objective reference at all. From a theological point of view, such conclusions are deeply problematic.

Now, it is difficult to empirically test claims about the provenance of moral behaviour, and therefore evolutionary explanations of morality remain contested. Yet, even if at some stage they might be vindicated, the conclusion that morality does not have an ‘external grounding’ (outside of the evolutionary process) does not follow. It can just as well be conceived that evolution may have been one of the ways – presumably the oldest one – in which God has acted to install a moral sense in humans. This moral sense need not be misguided, since our deepest moral intuitions may have been adjusted to what is objectively good. Indeed, theologians have started to explore the potential of this option for a new understanding of traditional concepts like holiness, love of others (altruism), and perfection (Hill 2016).

Similarly, in a fairly recent branch of academic research called the cognitive science of religion, a panoply of theories is being developed to explain why transculturally human populations tend to be religious (cf. e.g. van Eyghen et al. 2018). Various ways are being proposed in which religiosity may have been, and perhaps still is, advantageous to the reproductive fitness of human populations. For example, according to the ‘supernatural punishment theory’ groups that believed in a god who punishes deceitful and egoistic behaviour may have been driven more strongly towards mutual cooperation than others and thus have enhanced their reproductive fitness (Johnson 2015). Alternatively, religion is seen as an unintended by-product (or ‘spandrel’) of some fitness-enhancing trait. Even if religion, or at least the tendency towards religiosity, has come to us through such natural processes, however, this would not ‘explain away’ religious belief, since it would be a category mistake to reduce religion to such processes. In fact, throughout the centuries religious thinkers (e.g. John Calvin) have argued that a ‘sense of divinity’ has been installed by God in humans as part of their natural make-up. If CSR-explanations hold water, they may just as well be seen as fleshing out such theological notions of divine revelation instead of debunking them (Jones 2016; van Eyghen 2020).

5 Beyond apologetics: theologies of evolution

The reflections put forward in the previous section can be considered as belonging to the project of ‘post-evolutionary apologetics’, i.e. the attempt to defend the historic Christian faith in response to the rise and gaining prominence of evolutionary thought over the past few centuries. It can be asked, however, whether such a defensive project is sufficient or whether it should be complemented by a more constructive attempt to make sense of evolutionary history from a theological perspective. Even when it can be shown that evolutionary theory is compatible with Christian thought, if other views of life provide a better fit evolutionary theory may still count against its credibility. Therefore, various theologians have set out to construe a ‘theology of nature’ or even a ‘theology of evolution’, i.e. a more constructive account of how the evolutionary process may be seen as fitting in with God’s purposes, thus integrating it in the encompassing theological scheme. In doing so they may draw on Augustine, who held that God brought forth the various species through rationes seminales – ‘rational seeds’ that were instantiated at the moment of creation but only developed into their mature forms over large periods of time (The Literal Reading of Genesis 5.23; on the retrieval of Augustine for the contemporary evolution-debate, see Ortlund 2020).

Others, however, have voiced reluctance to go this way, because of two reasons. First, well-established as evolutionary theory definitely is in our era, history has shown that our theories – whether cosmological or biological or otherwise – ‘have their day and cease to be’ (Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., 1850). The same applies to our world pictures. Although theories about the origin and evolution of life will, presumably, never become more simple than they are now, most probably things will turn out to be even more complex, and perhaps in many respects quite different from what we now think. Therefore, theology should be careful not to baptize contemporary evolutionary theory, thus running the risk of marrying ‘the spirit of the age’ (as W. R. Inge famously wrote, whoever marries the spirit of his age will soon find himself a widower). Second, and related to this, attempts to incorporate evolutionary thought into Christian theology can easily lose continuity with historic Christianity in its orthodox expressions. When we look back at the way in which previous Christian thinkers (like, let us say, Origen or Aquinas) incorporated contemporary thought patterns into their theologies, these parts of their writings often strike us as the least compelling, since they reflect a metaphysics that has become largely obsolete. Thus, it is understandable that some contemporary theologians steer clear of attempts to integrate evolutionary theory – or any other scientific theory for that matter – in their theological thinking; especially those who are working in the Barthian tradition are well-known for their wish to exclusively orient their thinking to the Christian scriptures, striving at what has been called a ‘theological theology’ (John Webster) rather than one that is ‘contaminated’ by the sciences.

Yet, ever since Darwin’s theory gained traction we have seen attempts to situate evolutionary history within an encompassing theological narrative. An impressive early twentieth-century example is to be found in the work of F. R. Tennant, culminating in the second volume of his Philosophical Theology (1930). One of the most influential attempts at constructing an evolutionary theology came from the French Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1888–1955), whose main writings on this theme appeared shortly after his death (see esp. Teilhard de Chardin 1999 [first published 1955]). Teilhard considered evolution as an all-encompassing cosmic process with a clear directionality. It passed critical thresholds in the development of corpuscular elements, the biosphere, and humankind, and has now reached the stage of the ‘noosphere’, in which mind and consciousness (which in rudimentary form had been inherent in matter all along) became dominant. This noosphere – a layer of thinking encircling the earth in the form of human interaction – is developing towards ever more personalization and unification and will finally culminate in the Omega point. Teilhard identified this Omega point with God, or more precisely with the cosmic Christ of the Pauline letters, in whom ‘all things will be gathered up’ (Eph 1:10). It is this ultimate goal of the process – its union with Christ – from which it receives its hidden pull. Teilhard’s fascinating blend of scientific and mystical insights has been criticized for its speculative nature by both atheists and orthodox Christians, but continues to inspire many others in the field of science and religion.

Teilhard’s view of the evolutionary process resembles that of process theologians such as John Cobb and David Griffin. In the wake of process philosophy’s pioneer Alfred Whitehead, and, indeed, influenced by Teilhard, Cobb and Griffin interpret the evolutionary process in terms of growing complexification, holding that every stage of it ‘represents an increase in the divinely given possibilities for value’ (Cobb and Griffin 1976: 67–68). They build their case, however, on a panentheistic metaphysics that is critical of classical theism with its omnipotent God, arguing that instead of unilaterally directing the course of evolution God can only influence it, luring free agents from the future into ever greater dimensions of beauty and value. Whereas in Teilhard’s view the evolutionary development of our world shows clear signs of directionality or goal-orientedness, process theists usually affirm that the future is radically open. Even though Whitehead, at the end of the day, acknowledged that the universe as a whole must be purposeful and meaningful (Haught 2018: 239), Whiteheadians typically frown at the notion of an Omega point, arguing that even if new levels beyond that of humankind were to be reached ‘there would be no End at which the process would come to rest’ (Cobb and Griffin 1976: 117–118).

More recent attempts at construing a theology of evolution are often influenced by either the panentheism of process thought (e.g. Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke) or Teilhard’s vision (e.g. Ilia Delio). In the work of John F. Haught (e.g. 2000; 2010; 2018) both influences have merged. In his lifelong concern to include the whole cosmos within the biblical account of creation and redemption, Haught views the cosmos as a drama of awakening. The entire universe is still in the process of becoming; despite the evolutionary suffering and moral evil which it includes, it carries a hidden meaning which will become more manifest in the future. In fact, we should think of God not so much as 'up above' but as 'up ahead', drawing the world into this future not by coercive force but by his persuasive love. Thus, in this evolutionary context Christian theology offers a message of redemption and hope. ‘Within the embrace of a self-humbling God, the whole universe and its entire history can be transformed into everlasting beauty’ (Haught 2018: 240). Other Roman Catholic theologians who have been thinking through the theological consequences of evolution – some of them being more critical of traditional Thomistic metaphysics than others – include Celia Deane-Drummond (drawing inspiration from the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergei Bulgakov in particular; e.g. Deane-Drummond 2009; 2014), Denis Edwards (1999), Elisabeth Johnson (2014) and Jack Mahoney (2011).

Protestant theology thus far has been more reticent to connect theology and evolution, which is no doubt due to its traditionally less harmonious construal of the relation between nature and grace. When Protestant theologians do seriously engage evolution, however, on average they seem a bit less optimistic than their Roman Catholic colleagues, impressed as they are by the troubling aspects of evolution such as massive death and starvation, predation, and waste. An imposing example here is Christopher Southgate (2008), who criticizes the view that such disvalues are due to the human Fall into sin, even though he recently acknowledged that some horrific forms of natural evil may be due to ‘angelic fallenness’ (Southgate 2022). In general, however, there must have been no other way for God to create a world that displays so much diversity, beauty, and sophistication. Since these do not cancel out the very real and deeply disturbing sufferings of so many creatures, however, Southgate goes on to elaborate a profoundly incarnational view of God as the one who ‘suffers in the suffering of every creature’ (2008: 56), redeeming in this way not only humans but also non-human creation through the cross and resurrection of Christ, and leading all organisms of a certain complexity to the eschatological life in which they will attain their fulfilment. Only in such an encompassing way justice can be done to each and every creature.

Attempts at integrating evolution in theology can of course also be found beyond the Anglophone world (apart from Teilhard, see e.g. Theissen 1984; Berkhof 1986). Most probably, in the future we will see more such proposals, no doubt taking different stances on sensitive issues such as the nature of divine action and the role of humans in the new era of the Anthropocene. A quite recent development is the attempt to convey the story of Christian theology in evolutionary terms by means of narrative imagination, in the wake of other ‘big histories’, the overarching biblical story from Genesis onwards is then retold in a scientifically informed way (e.g. Dekker et al. 2022). It is hoped that in this way the impact of complex academic debates on evolution and theology will also be accessible to those who lack academic training.


Copyright Gijsbert van den Brink (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Alexander, Denis. 2014. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Oxford: Monarch Books. 2nd edition.
    • Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Deane-Drummond, Celia. 2014. The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Kojonen, E. V. R. 2021. The Compatibility of Evolution and Design. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
    • Lamoureux, Denis O. 2008. Evolutionary Creation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Northcott, Michael S., and R. J. Berry (eds). 2009. Theology After Darwin. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.
    • Rosenberg, Stanley P. (ed.). 2018. Finding Ourselves After Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Southgate, Christopher. 2008. The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
    • Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. 2002. Christianity and Evolution. New York, NY: Mariner Books.
    • van den Brink, Gijsbert. 2020. Reformed Theology and Evolutionary Theory. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Works Cited

    • Alexander, Denis. 2014. Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Oxford: Monarch Books. 2nd edition.
    • Artigas, Mariano, Thomas F. Glick, and Rafael A. Martínez. 2006. Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877–1902. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Badger, Steve, and Mike Tenneson. 2010. ‘Does the Spirit Create Through Evolutionary Processes? Pentecostals and Biological Evolution’, in Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences. Edited by James K. A. Smith and Amos Young. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 92–116.
    • Barton, Stephen C., and David Wilkinson (eds). 2009. Reading Genesis After Darwin. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Benton, Michael J. 2008. The History of Life: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Berkhof, Hendrikus. 1986. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • BioLogos. 2022. ‘What Is Evolutionary Creation?’,
    • Blancke, Stefaan. 2013. ‘Catholic Responses to Evolution, 1859–2009: Local Influences and Mid-Scale Patterns’, Journal of Religious History 37: 353–368.
    • Blocher, Henri. 2009. ‘The Theology of the Fall and the Origins of Evil’, in Darwin, Creation, and the Fall: Theological Challenges. Edited by Robert J. Berry and Thomas A. Noble. Nottingham: Apollos, 149–172.
    • Bowler, Peter J. 1983. The Eclipse of Darwinism. Anti-Darwinian Theories in the Decades Around 1900. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Bowler, Peter J. 2003. Evolution: The History of an Idea. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
    • Brunner, Emil. 1952. The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption. Philadelphia: Westminster.
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    • Bulgakov, Sergei. 2002. The Bride of the Lamb. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Clough, David. 2012. On Animals: Systematic Theology. Volume 1. London: T&T Clark.
    • Cobb, John B. Jr, and David Ray Griffin. 1976. Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition. Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press.
    • Collins, C. John. 2018. Reading Genesis Well. Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1–11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
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    • Conway Morris, Simon. 2003. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Craig, William Lane. 2021. In Quest of the Historical Adam: A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Creegan, Nicola Hoggard. 2013. Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Cunningham, Connor. 2010. Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
    • Deane-Drummond, Celia. 2009. Christ and Evolution: Wisdom and Wonder. London: SCM Press.
    • Deane-Drummond, Celia. 2014. The Wisdom of the Liminal: Evolution and Other Animals in Human Becoming. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Dekker, Cees, Corien Oranje, and Gijsbert van den Brink. 2022. Dawn: A Proton’s Tale of All That Came to Be. Downers Grove: IVP.
    • Edwards, Denis. 1999. The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology. New York: Paulist Press.
    • Fowler, Thomas B., and Daniel Kuebler. 2007. The Evolution Controversy: A Survey of Competing Theories. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
    • Garte, Sy. 2016. ‘New Ideas in Evolutionary Biology: From NDMS to EES’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 68, no. 1: 3–11.
    • Gundlach, Bradley J. 2013. Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845–1929. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Haught, John F. 2000. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder, CO: Westview.
    • Haught, John F. 2010. Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life. Louisville, KT: WJK Press.
    • Haught, John F. 2018. A John Haught Reader: Essential Writings on Science and Faith. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
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    • Hodge, Charles. 1874. What Is Darwinism? New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Co.
    • Johnson, Dominic P. 2015. God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Johnson, Elisabeth A. 2014. Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London: Bloomsbury.
    • Jones, James W. 2016. Can Science Explain Religion? The Cognitive Science Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. 2015. Creation and Humanity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
    • Kingsley, Charles. 1881. Westminster Sermons. London: Macmillan.
    • Kojonen, E. V. R. 2021. The Compatibility of Evolution and Design. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
    • Kuyper, Abraham. 1996. ‘Evolution’, Calvin Theological Journal 31, no. 1: 11–50.
    • Lamoureux, Denis O. 2009. I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
    • Lamoureux, Denis O. 2016. Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
    • Livingstone, David N. 1987. Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
    • Livingstone, David N. 2014. Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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