During the first few classes of this semester’s Dogmatics course, Dr. Van Vliet lectured on the doctrines of creation and providence. Naturally, this led to an examination of theistic evolution. One of the critiques that the good professor made of evolution is that it strikes at the very character of God, and thus leads to an understanding of God that is not scriptural. He demonstrated that God’s holiness and sovereignty suffer when we embrace evolution, but I was especially struck by his emphasis that God’s mercy suffers as well. If the theory of evolution is correct, then what do the long ages of creaturely suffering say about God’s concern for the weak and the vulnerable?
In reflecting on this, I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite books. Dick Turner was a trapper living with his wife and children in the Northwest Territories a century ago, and he wrote a book, Nahanni, about their life in that wild and mysterious land. At one point he recounts a friend’s experience watching a pack of timber wolves hunt a moose:
“One evening he stepped from his cabin to see a moose plunge into the river on the opposite side below the cabin and swim to the near shore. Six wolves were right behind the animal and all the way across the moose was giving the most heart-rending moans and cries he had ever heard. When it emerged from the water he saw that it was trailing twenty feet of its intestines. The wolves had attacked it from the rear and the guts were coming from the rectum. The chase vanished into the bush, darkness was closing in fast, the moaning continued for some time then ceased.”
If evolution is correct, then the violence, suffering, and gore of the animal world has raged since time immemorial. And if the theistic evolutionists are correct, then this violence, suffering, and gore are part of God’s very good creation. Conceivably, Adam leaves his cabin in Eden one pleasant summer evening as the sun casts a golden swath across the meadow, the fragrance of perfection in the air enhanced by the river’s peaceful rush. He takes out his pipe and stuffs it with “the tender herb,” plucked from “where the morning sun first warmly smote the open field.” Eve joins him with a cup of tea, and together they delight in the scene before them, “breathing the smell of field and grove.” Across the water a moose screams as it’s rectally disemboweled by a pack of wolves. Adam takes a long, slow draw from his pipe, savours the cool smoke, turns to Eve with a contented smile and together they chat about the many pleasures of Paradise.
I offer that scene as a picture, and I’ll come back to it. But I use the word “picture” because nature is full of pictures, so much so that the universe really is a most sublime art gallery. Psalm 19 famously begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Nature gives us an inexhaustible gallery of God’s glory. Day is one exhibit and night another, day speaking of God and night revealing knowledge about him. God reveals his character through the things he creates: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).This revelation of God through his creation is called general revelation, and it is distinct from special revelation, which is God’s revelation of himself in his Word. The point of general revelation is to affirm what we read of God in his Word, and also to leave all men without an excuse.
Yet Scripture reveals that there are also signs in the natural world that point not to God, but to something else. To be proverbial, there are three things that trouble man, four that are a blight upon his soul: thorns in the field, sweat on the brow, pain during childbirth, and hand muscle cramps while writing an exam. These pictures exist because at the fall into sin creation “was subjected to futility,” and stuck in “bondage to corruption.” Creation has become a showcase not only of goodness, but also of evil. So when timber wolves slowly torture a moose to death, this is not a picture of any attribute of God. It is not at all how things were intended to be. Rather, it is a picture of futility and corruption, of darkness and distortion. It is a picture of us.
And that is what strikes us as wrong in the Adam and Eve scene. We know intuitively that that picture is inconsistent. If animals suffered like that before the fall, it means that creation was already in bondage to corruption then. And if so, this bondage was God’s doing. It was God who decreed that life and growth and development should come from the destruction of the weak and vulnerable. There would have to be something of God’s character in the endless cycle of brutality that currently characterizes animal life. But the character of God as revealed in Scripture is opposed to the God depicted by evolution.
Here is an accusation God brings against his people in Scripture: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). Why, then, would this God create a world in which life depends upon the weak, the sick, the injured, the strayed, and the lost being destroyed through force and harshness? Why would he demand certain virtues of us, but display the very opposite of those virtues in his own work?
Rather, Scripture gives us a wonderful picture of an animal world that does display the tender mercies of our God: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9).
In this picture, we see God’s character, clearly. We see his gentleness and concern, not only for the whole animal world, but especially for the weak and vulnerable. It is the very opposite of the picture that evolution gives us, but it is exactly what we would expect of the God whose “mercy is over all that he has made.” We would feel no revulsion that he should pronounce this scene “very good,” for its very goodness is what we are meant to see. This is the restoration that Christ brings, a restoration made necessary not because God created a vicious and barbaric world, but because our sin wrapped the world in those cruel chains. Isaiah’s picture is nature freed from those chains, freed from our sin, freed once again to be a perfect showcase of God’s character.
The brokenness we see around us today is our fault, not God’s. Therefore, we make a grave error if we reason from the current enslaved condition of nature to assume what life was like before the fall. This is to project the current display of man’s corruption onto God’s very good creation, and thus to paint a picture of a merciless God who calls the destruction of the weak and vulnerable “very good.” It is, essentially, to ascribe to God the filth that man has wrought.