Evolution and the Gallery of Glory

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.

15 thoughts on “Evolution and the Gallery of Glory

  1. We could quibble about Adam would have indeed smoked a pipe but I appreciate your beautiful descriptive word picture! It pains me that there are those who profess to be Christians can believe that God’s “general revelation” could say anything different than His “special revelation”.

  2. Great post Jeremy – I think Prof. VanVliet’s lectures on theistic evolution were some of his finest. Thank you for adding the descriptive pictures. They will supplement the material I’ve prepared for my new-members class (teaching on BC Art 12 tonight) very nicely. Calvin.

  3. Reblogged this on One Christian Dad and commented:
    Never in my wildest imagination would I have conceived the thought of refuting evolutionary creationism by putting a screaming moose being rectally disembowelled by wolves in the same phrase as adam smoking a pipe while Eve sips a cup of tea. This is brilliant.

  4. Thanks, Jeremy, for these well-woven words. Doctrines seem to come in beautiful pairs, don’t they? I’m eager to reflect further on providence and creation. In particular: how can providence help us to understand natural history and the problem of pain? “Nothing happens by chance”, we confess: so I take it that God’s means are purposeful. In this light, suffering produces a redemptive evolution of “perseverance, character and hope”. We don’t always get to pick/choose our sufferings. Likewise beyond our choosing are the sufferings of moose, and the (equally violent) contents of ancient fossil beds. Entrails are NOT the worst of it.

    But if the pain of birth pangs help to forge a powerful mother-child bond, what might the “groaning of creation” be leading up to?

    The perspicuity of nature, says Paul, leaves us without excuse. So, are we prepared to really see this “majesty and power”? Or does it make us squeamish? An honest encounter with the heavens’ declaration must reckon with the violence of exploding stars. Nature, like C.S.Lewis’ Aslan, (and like the Lion of Judah) is not safe. And yet somehow Psalm 104 finds the courage to celebrate carnivorous strength. What shall I make of the design of the pitcher plant, nourished by insects for lack of better soil? Am I really prepared to agree that all this is glorious and good? We certainly endure (mental) anguish when we imagine the vastness of space and time. We feel small. We sing “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8) and we mean it. We yearn for significance.

    Imagine therefore what a blessing it is to understand providence. The revelation of the fossil beds will not change. But neither will God’s gentleness and compassion. He sent his own son to have his entrails pierced for our (noetic) transgressions. That is sufficient “concern for the weak” to make me queasy. It brings me to my knees. And in that posture, I wonder: if I’m willing to have my own pain be transformed into glory, why should I deny the privilege to life forms that preceded me?

    Rain and drought. Life and death. It’s all God’s work.

    By the way what was Adam smoking?

    • Harold,

      It’s hard to say for sure what Adam was smoking, but it wouldn’t have been the aromatic stuff. It wasn’t Spilman’s, for obvious reasons, but I’d like to think it was along those lines. A good, strong tobacco, “without a bite of regret.”

      Now, about providence… God works in, with, and for a corrupt and futile world. He provides for animals – timber wolves, too. But the fact that God provides even for a corrupted creation doesn’t change the fact that that creation is corrupt. And the fact that God uses the very corruption of the world for our benefit, in order to sanctify us and give us hope, to transform pain into glory, as you nicely put it, also doesn’t negate the fact of corruption. Rather, it proves the point…

      Indeed, creation is groaning for something better, and it’s the same groaning we experience, a groaning for redemption. But that redemption is only necessary because our rebellion made it necessary. Had we not fallen into sin, we wouldn’t be groaning for redemption – we wouldn’t need it – and neither would creation.

      • Had Spilman’s been (on the menu), its “honest, straight forward flavor” [tobaccoreviews.com] might well have passed Edenic censorship in lieu of the competing brand’s “killer combination”.

        Naturally, there was no death before the fall. How could there be? There was nobody around with sufficient knowledge (of good and evil) to give it such a label. But the knowledge did (providentially) arrive. Not long after we started naming things (and smoking pipes) we also disobeyed. At the tree, we discovered our humanity, our freedom to choose, and – as evidenced by the subsequent abundance of (spiritual and physical) death – our capacity for failure. Thanks to us, the background extinction rate has increased more than 1000 fold. Strangely and suddenly, a predation-free world looms very large. Our corruption is strong enough to manufacture “formless and void”, round two: a chilling scenario in which nobody is left to debate the historicity of the fall or the stewardship mandate.

        I receive here an urgent invitation to take the blame. But the deepest invitation is to understand that our guilt has already been taken away. As surely as Christ aims to “reconcile to himself all things”, His redeeming grace makes manifest in us an ever more straightforward and honest gratitude, and a very real capacity to choose – in this very present moment – for what is good and true and beautiful.

        • “But the deepest invitation is to understand that our guilt has already been taken away. As surely as Christ aims to “reconcile to himself all things”, His redeeming grace makes manifest in us an ever more straightforward and honest gratitude, and a very real capacity to choose – in this very present moment – for what is good and true and beautiful.”

          Yes, sir. And amen.

  5. It’s about as clear that evolution is an affront to God as gravity or weather. There are historical and ongoing biotic and physical processes in the cosmos, for which scientific theories propose descriptions and explanations. And scientists of all stripes diligently attempt to falsify them, relying on the Trinity to rule sovereignly and providentially by his goodness and covenant faithfulness, whether they acknowledge him or not. I am thankful for Harold’s remarks here; his invitational, contemplative, and worshipful stance is a breath of fresh air.

  6. Hmmm.I am but a simple man who who doesn’t claim to be an academic or intellectual in any field. There are brilliant people who tell me that evolution is based on science and is believable and true. There are brilliant people who tell me that theistic evolution is based on the Bible and science and is believable and true. There are brilliant people who tell me young earth creation is based on the Bible and science and is believable and true. All these people are a lot smarter then I am and have many letters behind their name which tells me that they are smarter then I am. So I have but one question about this debate, as a simple God fearing christian. Do I believe that this Almighty, all powerful, all knowing, merciful, Triune God who revealed Himself in the Bible could create a world in 6 days and rest on the 7th? Yes or no. As a starting point a simple question for me, a mere simple man.

    • Henry, perhaps you and I should take up pipe smoking. It seems one of those beautiful simple practices that can help to bring the intellect down to earth. The smoky haze will gently remind us that we see dimly through a glass. And the mellow flavours will remind us that God is very very good.

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