How theistic evolution fails to align with the plain reading of Genesis and the rest of Scripture.
Evolution and Genesis have been at odds for a while. Since the advent of modern evolutionary theory in the 19th century, Christian theologians have attempted to reconcile the supposed long ages of earth’s history and biological evolution with the book of Genesis. These readings have fallen into several categories, however the two positions that garner the most broad support are theistic evolution and biblical creation.
Gallup has been polling Americans on evolution and creation since 1983. In 2019, 40% chose biblical creation (within the last 10,000 years), 33% chose evolution with God guiding the process (theistic evolution), and 22% chose evolution without God (atheistic evolution). Only 5% had no opinion.
Since the majority of Americans consider themselves Christians (Protestant and Catholic), many would say they believe the book of Genesis. At the same time, the majority of people believe in some form of evolution (33% for theistic evolution + 22% for atheistic evolution = 55%). But how is that possible? How could those who claim to believe in the truthfulness of Genesis also affirm evolution? The reason relates to how theistic evolutionists understand the book of Genesis.
In this post, our aim is to define evolution, describe how biblical creationists read Genesis, and ultimately how theistic evolutionists fail to understand Genesis in light of the rest of the Bible.
Before delving into the topic, it’s important to note we won’t cover major scientific or philosophical problems with evolution. There are many reasons to doubt evolution for scientific reasons, but that is not the focus of this post.
Defining Biological Evolution
To begin, it’s important to review what evolution is. Evolution can have different definitions. It can mean variations between species, sometimes called microevolution. It can also mean universal common descent, sometimes called macroevolution. Few scientists who affirm both biblical creation and theistic evolution disagree that the first definition is happening. Biological lifeforms do change over time, to an extent. The debate is usually over the second definition.
Understanding Evolution, describes the second definition of evolution in this way: “The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, just as you and your cousins share a common grandmother.”
In other words, biological evolution is the theory that every living being is related to each other. Biological evolution does not teach differences between poodles and golden retrievers in the dog kind. Instead, evolution teaches that single celled organisms eventually morphed into poodles and people.
“The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor”Understanding Evolution
Theistic evolution is a particular breed of evolution. Theistic evolutionists believe almost everything about naturalistic (athesistic) evolution except they add one more component: God. To them, God played some role in evolution by getting the process started, guiding it along the way, or some other intervention. Ted Davis, writing at BioLogos defines ‘theistic evolution’ as “the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans.”
Some may make a larger distinction between naturalistic evolution and theistic evolution – especially theistic evolutionists. But for our purposes, they are very similar when it comes to most aspects of evolutionary theory. Each group, whether or not they believe in God, believes in evolution in the sense of universal common descent.
Genesis: Chapter 1
In Genesis, we find a different narrative than evolution. Genesis makes no mention of biological evolution or anything like it. Instead, it lays out a unique perspective on the special creation of the world by God, especially in the first chapter. For the sake of context, we’ve including the entire chapter of Genesis 1 (ESV):
“1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
6 And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7 And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. 8 And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
9 And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds[g] fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.“
The Historical Narrative Reading of Genesis
Considering the two major views about evolution, we need to review how each side understands Genesis, especially in the first chapter. Biblical creationists teach the traditional understanding of the book of Genesis. We interpret the book of Genesis in the historical narrative genre: reporting events that actually happened. As a book, Genesis provides an historical account of creation, the early history of mankind, and the early Israelites. Though there are some poetic elements, they are sparse and usually delineated by contextual markers. Genesis is written in a similar historical style as the rest of the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses.
Taken as history, biblical creationists affirm that God created the world in six regular (~24-hour) days about six thousand years ago. This is the plain understanding of Genesis and is reaffirmed throughout the rest of the Bible. Gleaned from Old Earth Creationism on Trial, we understand this for several reasons:
- Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world in 6 days (Hebrew: יוֹם or yom).
- Whenever ‘yom’ is used in conjunction with ‘evening and morning’ in the Hebrew Bible, the context is a regular day. This occurs for all 6 days in Genesis 1.
- Wherever a cardinal number (one, two, etc) or ordinal number (first, second, etc.) is used in Hebrew, the context suggests a regular day. The cardinal number for day occurs on the first day and the ordinal numbers occur on days 2-6 in Genesis 1.
- In commenting about the Sabbath day and work week, Exodus 20:11 delimits the duration of the creation days to regular days. This is another reason to understand Genesis 1 teaches us creation in 6 regular days.
- The genealogy in Genesis 5 suggests Adam lived about 2,000 years before Abraham. Abraham lived about 2,000 before Jesus. And Jesus lived about 2,000 years ago. Since Adam was created on day 6 of creation, this gives us an approximate age of the universe of about 6,000 years. (p. 26, 27)
- Adam and Eve were the first human beings created on Day 6 of creation as Jesus reaffirmed (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6).
- Human death and suffering began when sin entered the world in Genesis 3, after Genesis 1-2. This is consistent with the rest of Scripture (Romans 5:12).
Taken as history, biblical creationists affirm that God created the world in six regular (~24-hour) days about six thousand years ago.
Though it may seem clear in the English Bible, it is also clear to many Hebrew scholars. Creation Ministries International records James Barr, former Oriel Professor at Oxford University, who wrote about the historical narrative reading of Genesis.
‘… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience…the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.’
Getting back to evolution, there is a strong implication to the plain, historical reading of Genesis. If the world was created about 6,000 years ago, that’s nowhere near the time needed for evolution to happen. Even if there are gaps in the genealogies in Genesis 5, that would only account for another few hundred or thousand years – not millions of years. That is why theistic evolutionists must reject the historical reading of Genesis. Evolution has no place in a 6,000 year old creation account.
The Theistic Evolution Readings of Genesis
On the other hand, theistic evolutionists do not understand Genesis in the same way as biblical creationists. They must reject Genesis 1-5 (at least) as teaching creation in 6 regular days about 6,000 years ago. How do they do that?
Theistic evolutionists get around the historical narrative reading of Genesis in two major ways. Some theistic evolutionists assign Genesis to mythology. They say that Genesis does not teach history but rather stories to explain the past without grounding in actual events. Others allegorize the text so that Genesis is not a straight-forward account of creation, but rather poetry. There are multiple ways to understand Genesis as both mythology and allegory, but for simplicity’s sake we want to focus on these categories.
Theistic evolutionists get around the historical narrative reading of Genesis in two major ways.
Genesis as Mythology
The first type of theistic evolutionist reading of Genesis is mythology. They would assign Genesis to the myth genre as not teaching events that actually happened. Robin Ngo explains how people understand Genesis as mythology:
“Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelites had creation stories that were told and retold; these stories eventually reached the Biblical authors, who wrote them down in Genesis and other books of the Bible. Creation stories in Genesis were etiological, Shawna Dolansky and other Biblical scholars argue. That is, the creation stories in Genesis served to provide answers to why the world was the way it was, such as why people wear clothes and why women experience pain during childbirth.”
In general, scholars and popular writers who view Genesis as a myth don’t bother looking into what Genesis might teach us concerning the past. To them, Genesis was written by “bronze age goat herders” without iPhones. They don’t believe “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). To them, Genesis often isn’t considered inerrant Scripture. Instead, Genesis is a mythological account of creation believed by ancient Israelites and modern Christian “fundamentalists.” Because they reject the historical aspects of Genesis, it’s easy to see how they could also believe in evolution at the same time.
Genesis as Allegory
The second type of evolutionist reading of Genesis is allegory. These scholars often have a higher view of the Bible and want to understand Genesis as teaching some kind of truth. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines “allegory” as…
“A popular form of literature in which a story points to a hidden or symbolic parallel meaning. Certain elements, such as people, things, and happenings in the story, point to corresponding elements in another realm or level of meaning.”
Those who assign Genesis to the allegory genre try to find the root meaning that God gave to each element in the story. There are several allegories that scholars have introduced to explain the first two chapters of Genesis. Some have suggested the six days of creation do not mean six regular days, but each day may be allegorized to describe 100,000 million years (or more) as in the day-age theory. Some also propose the six days aren’t actual days, but the author’s poetic way to describe the forming and filling of the new universe as in the framework hypothesis. These positions do not view (at least) the first two chapters of Genesis as history, but as figurative language.
It’s easy to see how theistic evolutionists could claim to believe the book of Genesis and in evolution at the same time. They don’t understand Genesis as teaching historical, straightforward events that actually happened. Instead, these evolutionists understand Genesis 1-2 as an allegory for something like it.
They (theistic evolutionists) don’t understand Genesis as teaching historical, straightforward events that actually happened.
Application: Genesis Does Not Teach Evolution
Circling back to the original question, can Genesis teach evolution? It really depends of what kind of genre of literature Genesis is. If the first chapters of Genesis are mythology or allegory, then sure: Genesis might allow for evolution. However, if Genesis is an actual, historical narrative, then no: Genesis doesn’t give enough time for universal common descent to work. Evolution requires hundreds of millions of years – six thousand years just isn’t enough time for evolution. To believe Genesis as history is to reject the evolution.
Evolution is not a dispassionate project. It is a full-fledged naturalistic explanation of the world that explains the origin of every living being apart from God. Those theistic evolutionists who try to shoehorn evolution into Genesis introduce mythological or allegorical elements into the text that do not belong.
Some may object it doesn’t really matter whether God used evolution. If he wanted to use it, he certainly could have. To this objection, we agree: God could have used evolution to create the variety of species we find. God is a big God and he could have used whatever means possible to distribute biological diversity across the planet.
However, that contradicts what God already said. We’re not left to speculative inconsistency to what God could have done. He’s already clearly spoken about how he created the world. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Part of that revelation is how the world came to be. God has graciously provided an historical account of the origins of our universe in Genesis. We do well to believe what he has revealed.
Old Earth Creationism on Trial (Book) – Tim Chaffey & Jason Lisle
Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1 – Vern Poythress
The Problem with Theistic Evolution (Video: 9:04)
Five Fatal Flaws with Biological Evolution – Brandon Clay
Gap Theory – Answers in Genesis