Evolution and the Role of Theodicy


(Wayne Dawson) #1

I’m sure this may be proposed somewhere. Nevertheless, I’ve been toying with this recently.

It seems that one of the main objections raised about evolution is death before the fall. Evolution, whether we take the pitiless, undirected tack of Dawkins or our more Christian angle of God working indirectly on the course of things through secondary processes & co, there is that aspect of death before a fall. Of course, if there was no death, the garden would fill up with bacteria in a short time, and so it could be argued that at least bacterial death is good. So one argument I have heard before is that the creation is good and if God required a plan B when Adam sinned, then this would mean that the creation was not good. Moreover, death (before the fall) to soon join the creator seems maybe good in a strange way. I am sure there are issues with such arguments, but that is what I have encountered on addressing the issue of death before the fall.

I was thinking about another angle on this recently. We come to accept (usually begrudgingly) that the bad things that happen in our lives are for our own good. Certainly, the events themselves can be personally quite devastating and can really rattle our faith. We are quite fortunate that most of us never really have to go through bitter tragedy and most of the bad things that happen to us are maybe seriously damaging to career, advancement, expectations, or relationships, but we walk away with our health and a chance to start over at the very least.

We marvel when someone keeps their faith, even though they endured suffering terrible tragedy. In the long run, such people will sometimes say that God was with them and they (in the long run) can see God working in their lives despite such events. We are moved to see people of faith resist power in favor of following Jesus (and pay a bitter price). Rarely does that come with a happy ending. Still, we trust that God knows, God hears, and somehow we will understand in the end, even though we cannot see it clearly.

Yet it seems we expect that God cannot do the same when we watch a pack of wolves bring down a deer. So, this makes me wonder; if we really trust that God is in all things, that our steps really are ordered, why can we not assume that God had a plan behind all this craziness of evolution; even though we cannot see it clearly and there are many things that don’t make sense.

I know some on the list are not so persuaded that our steps are ordered, and (as a physicist) I understand some of the problems with such assertions. However, whether Arminian or Calvinist leaning, somehow the Christians on this list usually believe something of God influencing all things in some obscure and unexplainable way. Somehow, suffering is not merely gratuitous and an arbirary lottery.

So I thought maybe this is something that is worth discussing, though I have no idea where it will go.


(George Brooks) #2

@wkdawson,

I think there are enough Theodicy issues in the Bible, regardless of one’s preferred interpretation of Creation and the nature of God.

Evangelical Creationists are prone to think that Theodicy issues are resolved by employing Original Sin. I think that is a convenient deflection, but not an accurate one.

One example should be sufficient, partly because it is so on-point, but also because it is referenced in both the Old and New Testaments!:

  1. Pharaoh says NO to Moses.
  2. Moses asks again.
  3. After 9 plagues, Pharaoh is about to agree to Moses, but…
  4. God hardens the Pharaoh’s heart. He rejects Moses one last time.
  5. God wipes out thousands of First Born, both animal and human, because Pharaoh said No one last time.
  6. … BECAUSE God hardened his heart.
  7. … with the finishing touch of using the First Born criterion used by Molech/Molek himself in Canaan and Transjordan!

This is not a scenario that eliminates the theodicy issue… This scenario firmly entrenches it in the hands of God. There is no obvious way to explain it other than to say what God has in mind doesn’t mesh particularly well with Human expectations. Ultimately, this should surprise no one.


(Wayne Dawson) #3

So, much like we find this aspect of events leading up to the Exodus troubling (particularly from our Western civilization notions of rule of law and rights of the individual) not meeting our expectations about what we expect of God, so also this applies to evolution.

I am of the mind that we should accept what actually happened and figure out how to understand God in light of that (with consideration about how it fits with scripture of course). If God allowed so many extinctions to happen so we could get to the resurrection of Christ, that is God, not us. It may not fit what we might like to see, but God’s ways are not our ways. The exodus is just another knotty way in which God seems enigmatic – so I maybe that is right, we can apply that same perspective to evolution as well.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #4

I consider myself to be a follower of Irenaeus, in that I believe God lets bad things happen in order to stimulate moral, spiritual and evolutionary growth. I also consider myself to be an open theist, since I can name a few parts of the Bible were God seems surprised, to say the least. This I believe explains the evidential problem of evil.


(Laura) #5

Thanks for sharing – there is lots of food for thought here, and this brings up many questions that are far from being settled but still important to talk about.

One reason that I think some Christians resist the idea of evolution so strongly is that they believe it requires evil, in the sense of only the fittest surviving, animals preying on each other throughout all of earth’s history, etc. I often get the impression that, especially when viewed through the young-earth lens, “the problem of evil” is seen as a minor hiccup in the span of the earth. I.e., things started out perfect, they were ruined for a while, but soon Jesus will come back and everything will be made right again. As if the physical is some kind of experiment and the spiritual is all that matters. But it does seem that if God truly used evolution for so long, then it must have been purposeful, rather than just some negative effect of a physical world.

As to how much purpose is involved, and what is “random” (within God’s sovereignty) and what is planned down to the details by God – I’m not sure I’ll ever have an answer to that one. :smiley:


(George Brooks) #6

@Reggie_O_Donoghue,

Irenaeus represents some of the best thinking of the Eastern Orthodox communion. I think it’s a good choice.

I’m not convinced that “Open Theism” answers questions particularly well. I don’t think it explains God’s motivation for hardening the Pharaoh’s heart. He certainly wasn’t surprised by the outcome in Egypt.


(Randy) #7

I don’t think that there is any clearly good or bad way to see this, but I can’t personally accept God being the source of Numbers 31, for example (where everyone was slaughtered except the virgin females, who were shared out among the male Israelites), or various portions of Joshua. It’s different to command things than to “allow” things to happen…I think. That’s my struggle.

At any rate, I understand how YEC’s struggle; and how we do. When we see hurt and suffering in the world, like children do who have been abandoned, we blame ourselves (through Adam) or try to justify it in some way. Perhaps, like the children, we feel we can control “evil” and suffering by assigning a reason to it…

Perhaps it’s in understanding how each of us struggles, and that God is happy for us to ask these questions–and thus in showing grace in discourse to our brothers and sisters–that we make the most sense of it.


(RiderOnTheClouds) #8

Are you aware of the difference between the logical (why evil exists to begin with) and evidential (why evil exists to the extent that it does) problems of evil? I only claim OT answers the latter


(Wayne Dawson) #9

Thanks for commenting. I have considered that perhaps God essentially had to slam Pharaoh’s face into a wall to wake him up – kind of like an aikido move where God uses our arrogance and hubris against us. On an individual level, we sometimes can point to times in our lives when we were taught some hard lessons. There I would say it was merciful.

On that other hand, as @gbrooks9 points out, this was at the expense of the firstborn of many innocent Egyptians and even some of their animals – who have no part of the sin of the people (who could think their own things about the Hebrews). On top of that, Pharoah had to destroy an army in a humiliating defeat to get there. Still, I recall sometimes in our youthful arrogance, we burned many bridges that will never be recovered. I don’t have an answer. It seems like sometimes we just have to accept that God is Sovereign over all the universe, and we can say nothing.

by Grace we proceed


(Wayne Dawson) #10

It does seem we have a number of bed bugs like Pharaoh and @Randy brings up Numbers 31 (and I can think of parts of Joshua and Judges that are just shocking). The only way I can get through those parts is by considering that God is sovereign. Since God hardened Pharaoh’s heart 5 times and Pharaoh hardened his own heart 5 times, the last point you raise where many Egyptians perished along with their animals because of Pharoah’s hardened heart (that God did), this is maybe not really a matter of open theism?

I wonder what exactly hardening the heart in God’s action is. This is largely a battle between Pharaoh and God about who really rules. People were not stupid at that time, they had to recognize con men from the genuine just as we do. Those skills certainly helped Pharaoh survive. So, though wrong, Pharaoh probably saw Moses and his sidekick Aaron as a bunch of loonies who spent too much time in the desert.

Imagine Moses coming into Pharaoh’s court saying “let my people go”. Well, who are you, clown? His court probably laughed at them and their “magic tricks”, and soon he and his buddies were drinking beer and mocking Moses. … … “On no! Here he comes again. What sort of nonsense is he going to say this time?” … … God does give us up to our sin. It is a scary thought – would we really recognize Jesus if he was in our presence physically? (Note, I use the cynical tone to express Pharaoh’s thoughts, not my own.)

Add onto this the normal mistakes that we can make even as ones who should know better, Pharaoh has an arrogance that he is a god. Maybe “God hardened his heart” simply means that the very thought of God being sovereign over him (The Pharaoh of Egypt) was too much for him. We have problems with private resentments toward our brothers and sisters sometimes. That is having a hard heart at them and not being thankful and accepting that they have gifts that we do not.

Just a thought.


(Phil) #11

The hardening of Pharoah’s heart is something I Have had problems with. If God hardens hearts, could he not have softened it also and accomplished his purpose.? I think that perhaps we are reading it wrong.
Perhaps if we look at why we get hard hearts we can shed a bit of meaning on that verse. I know my heart can be hard when someone repeatedly hurts me or someone I love. Or, selfishly, something I love (threats economically or of security). Pharaoh was definitely in a position where loss of slaves might be an economic threat, and the uprising of one group might lead to widespread revolts of other slaves, The plagues then challenged his religious beliefs as well as caused widespread economic chaos, probably starvation in the lower classes. These things acting on our hearts when we are not in the right place will make us hard, and Pharoah was not in the right place.
So, God may have hardened Pharoahs heart not through a direct inner change, but by circumstances directed by God acting on the selfish corrupt heart we all start out with outside of relationship with God. Therefore, the phrase “God hardened his heart” refers not to God’s direct action, but the indirect results of God’s leading the Israelites out of slavery.
In practical application, do we not see political leaders today (and their supporters) whose hearts are hardened when their power and security is theatenened? Also, in the clash of world views, we see positions hardened and hearts hardened when those views are attacked.


(Wayne Dawson) #12

This is another angle on this. One of the struggles I commonly encounter is where idols of the heart can get in the way. He had a kingdom to run and may have thought this “Why do I have to put up with this clown Moses who keeps pestering me!?!”. … “and who is this ridiculous God he talks about”. (speaking in Pharaoh’s words but using a modern tone for power of effect).


(Matthew Pevarnik) #13

Here is another possibility that I’ve seen pop up from time to time on these forums. The author of this short essay also hops in occasionally:


(Wayne Dawson) #14

I looked up what seems to be a good summary of open theism. … In particular, Section 4 describes the philosophical aspects. Certainly, it solves a very difficult point I have about accepting Jesus and the role of prayer, but it also adds contingencies that the more providential views don’t suffer from.

One thing that always deeply concerns me about purely providential views is that one can get kind of smug about who goes to hell. One might say that the Egyptian first-born who perished as a result of Pharoah having a hard heart where reprobates anyway. … but I guess that is more our human tendency and not the direct fault of any providential view.

In the open theism view, I can see where it is true that some human culpability is actually ascribable when people perish as a result of earthquakes and tsunamis (natural disasters). The economics of third world countries and how anyone can expect to pay for more defensive measures against earthquakes aside, the fact is that there are places where they are clearly known to happen and nothing was done about it. However, I suspect that it is difficult to put all bad things that happen in a category of human culpability.

Actually, my initial point in “Evolution and the Role of Theodicy” viewed evolution as a process. A process doesn’t really deal so much with human freedom. Throughout most of history (until recently), evolution was dependent on matters for which we had no say whatsoever. We didn’t control the Cambrian explosion, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, etc. In the present time, breeding and human activity, in general, is forcing the natural selection process in specific directions in some cases. For example, antibiotic resistance, and even in a way wildlife management (we kill bears and wolves who attack humans). Perhaps even ourselves because more of us survive than would have been the case 100 years ago.

So we have those kinds of warnings that appear in C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man” that involve decisions (which include “evolution”); for example, it will not be long before we can “design” our children, possibly even making decisions about the sex or the purported intelligence of the offspring. Could this have serious implications where we even abolish our humanity in the process? Open Theism might apply to such an example. Nevertheless, before the industrial revolution, nature was on its own course. This is the sense in which I was thinking that evolution might be another aspect of God’s providential control over the course of most of the earth’s history.

Somehow, I feel that the aspects of open theism and providential theologies seem a bit like the wave-particle duality. It is like there is an overall determinism, yet there is also an uncertainty in it all. As a physicist, I can accept a lot of the deterministic (providential) aspects of God, but I wrestle with the “salt” – the spice of uncertainty. I feel there must be a genuine choice to follow Jesus that is not programmed into the “wet”-ware of our brain like a robot. Yet it is true that anything that undermines God’s absolute sovereignty even a little bit diminishes the certainty we can declare about being saved. So it is very paradoxical no matter which side of the fence we chose – and even if we chose to straddle the fence.

At any rate, throughout most of the history of the earth, it seems like we would have to ascribe a providential view of how evolution has progressed – with the overwhelming perplexity of wondering how any of it might reflect God’s involvement.

by Grace we proceed,


(Christy Hemphill) #15

Nice. These are the kind of bonus thoughts you get discussing theology with scientists.


(Paul Allen) #16

Death before the Fall requires us to dump much of Paul’s writings, some statements by Jesus and some OT prophets statements, the Sabbath from the Book of Hebrews…the list goes on…and by dumping I mean applying non-meaning to critical verses or to be more polite to reinterpret these verses according to concepts of common descent.

We look for evidence that support ‘common decent’ but we look no further for an alternative.


(Christy Hemphill) #17

I’m pretty sure the ICR and the DI have been looking for an alternative for quite some time. They just haven’t found one. At least not one that is all that compelling.


(Wayne Dawson) #18

I have heard it that one argument that we can get from Romans 1:20 is that Grace was the plan from the creation of the “world” (i.e., the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth) not just at the time Adam sinned. [This is also supported in 2 Timothy 1:9.] Since God is sovereign, And the creation is very good, … under Grace, that should not change when Adam sinned. That would imply a plan B. It would be ok under open theism, but not under providential views.

and by Grace we surely proceed.


(George Brooks) #19

You don’t find that convincing do You? And should we think the animal first born are also reprobates?


(Wayne Dawson) #20

Err, the animals came along for the ride? :grin:

I was talking about one of my concerns about becoming too glib with predestination theologies; i.e., a weakness I see in providential views, or at least the tendency of our own hearts to become a bit numb to what we are saying.