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“What Does This Mean for My Faith?” Three Different Perspectives on Origin

Xandra Carroll

Her lips trembled, and tears filled her eyes. I put my hand on hers. “What’s this all about?” I asked. With a shaking voice she told me that she was beginning to believe evolution might be true, but she loved God. “What does this mean for my faith? How will I tell my parents?!” She explained that her family firmly believed in a different view of creation. They considered Christians of differing views to be only pseudo-saved.

This university student was one of many I’ve met in my time as a public speaker. After I give a talk on science and God, invariably one or two students will come forward to discuss some crisis of faith due to origin theories. I did for this particular student as I’ve done countless times: I sat beside her in the front row of the auditorium and listened to her doubts, I talked her through the three major origin views in modern Christianity, and I assured her that the camp we land in does not determine whether or not we can know Jesus. I didn’t tell her my own view but encouraged her to wrestle through her thinking with the Lord and with Scripture. I’ve had this discussion numerous times with young Christians from many different perspectives on origin. I’ve had countless discussions with others who say the beginning of their journey away from Christianity started with the creationism conflict within the church. Sadly, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that an entire generation of young Christians are caught in the middle of a non-salvific theological conflict, and many walk away from the faith because of it.

This conflict is so vociferous that it has caught the attention of the secular world. Philosophical and psychological research into the epistemology of thought formation often uses this conflict as an example of poor thinking.[1] While I do not agree with the philosophical viewpoints of many of these authors, I do agree that the origin theory conflict has clearly generated many instances of less-than-exemplary rhetoric. Christ told His followers that the world would recognize them as His disciples if they loved each other.[2] Yet in the case of the creation-theory conflict, we so seldom show the grace and temperance befitting the people of God that we have become an example of poor discourse in the secular world.

Biblical scholars from each of the three main origin viewpoints have noted the damage this conflict creates for the Christian message, and the need to change the tone of the debate. With regards to the creation-theory conflict, Vern Poythress reminds us, “Everyone is subject to sinful inclinations. But we have to be careful not to unjustly attribute bad motives to other people as individuals. Rather than speculate about individual motives, let us consider some of the temptations that arise for all of us, so that we may be on guard against them.”[3]

John Lennox, an old-earth creationist, writes:

It is a sad spectacle, and one that brings discredit on the Christian message, when those who profess to believe that message belie their profession by fighting among themselves or caricaturing others, rather than engaging in respectful discussion through which all sides might just learn something.[4]

Instead of letting the conflict be a source of tension, we should view it as an opportunity to learn from other perspectives. Deborah B. Haarsma, a theistic evolutionist, writes, “Such conflicts rightly prompt us to reconsider our views: Are there other faithful ways to interpret the biblical text? Are there other valid ways to understand the scientific evidence? Each discipline can provide an important corrective to the other.”[5]As with many biblical topics proffering a proliferation of viewpoints, this contention envelops many theories, but for the sake of brevity I will summarize the major three:

Young Earth Creationism (YEC)

This theory is also known as “recent creation” or the “literal 24-hour day view.” According to an article published by Terry Mortenson in the Answers Research Journal, “Young earth creationists believe that the creation days of Genesis 1 were six literal (24-hour) days which occurred 6,000–12,000 years ago.”[6] There are many differing views around this origin theory. Some Christians posit that certain cosmological aspects such as the speed of light and gravity operated differently during the creation days. Others of a young earth perspective hold to a “mature creation” theory in which God created a universe that looked ancient in six literal days.[7] This makes sense when one considers the composition of soil, which takes many years to accumulate by natural processes.[8] A baby bird in a nest cannot feed itself; a fawn cannot grow without its mother’s milk. It follows logically that God may have created much of what was made in its mature or adult form, and He could have done this in a span of six 24-hour days. In a medial view that straddles the young earth and old earth theories, still others wonder if God created the world in six literal 24-hour days, but that each day was separated by a long period of time. This is known as the intermittent day theory.[9] All of the perspectives (that I’m aware of) in young earth creationism see Adam and Eve as specially created individuals, as opposed to developing through the natural processes of macroevolution.

Old Earth Creationism (OEC)

This view is sometimes called “progressive creationism” or the “day-age view.” In his work Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox defines the day-age view as seeing the biblical days “in chronological order, each representing a period of time of unspecified length.”[10] Like young earth creationism, an old earth view does not accept macroevolutionary theory and rather posits that Adam and Even were a special creation made in the imago Dei and unique from their animal counterparts. Unlike the young earth view, and more in alignment with evolutionary creationism, the old earth perspective sees the universe as billions of years old. An old earth view rejects macroevolution as the method of creation, rather positing that God fashioned all His creation ex nihilo. Some of the old earth viewpoints emphasize a particular understanding of science; in these cases, young earth or evolutionary creationists are often critiqued as being less scientific due to their interpretations of scientific data.[11] For instance, a young earth creationist might be viewed as having a poor interpretation of carbon dating, and an evolutionary creationist might be critiqued for viewing biology as the product of evolution.

Evolutionary Creationism (EC)

This creation theory is often called “theistic evolution.” In Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, Haarsma defines evolutionary creation as “the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth.”[12] In some forms of evolutionary creationism, Christians believe that evolution is inherently good, though it often looks bad.[13] In other forms, evolution is seen to be inherently bad, but God makes good out of it.[14] In the former view, the argument is that evolution is an apparently evil process, with the strong outcompeting the weak and deleterious mutations resulting in the creative process that gave rise to new species. Yet the process can be considered good, because God called His creation “good,” and that creation includes the processes behind it. In the latter view, evolution is a truly evil process; the process was broken alongside creation because of the fall. Thus, God can still use the process of evolution to create good things, but the process has been maligned because of sin. There are many other particulars of view within this origin theory; for instance, some view Adam and Eve as special creation (like YEC and OEC) while others see them as evolving from an ape-like predecessor.

The Role of Interpretation

One might wonder why there are so many views on what happened “in the beginning.” As with many conflicts, the contention mostly boils down to interpretation, which is essential to building a viewpoint. This was never so clear to me as when I was living in New Zealand. One night, for instance, I was invited to play “Fishbowl” with a group of friends. Fishbowl is a game in which people act out or describe different words and phrases. We were in the “describing” round, and I drew a slip of paper that said “Christmastime.” I described snow falling, opening presents, going sledding, eating lots of food, gathering the family, et cetera. Nobody guessed it. When the person next to me drew the same slip on their turn, they described family barbeques on the beach, suntanning, and swimming in the ocean. The crowd guessed it immediately! In my native cultural context of being raised in the northern hemisphere, my understanding of the activities surrounding Christmastime were quite different than those of my southern hemisphere friends. In the same way, we must be aware of our own contexts when approaching the creation-theory conflict. In this case, there are two major factors for interpretation: Scripture and science.

Theistic evolutionist John Walton insists that while the Bible in its entirety was written for us, we in the twenty-first century western world are not the audience. The audience, rather, were peoples living in the Ancient Near East, Macedonia, or Europe.[15] Similarly, old-earth creationist Lennox writes, “The first question to ask is, how does the author who wrote it wish it to be understood? For instance, the author of a mathematics textbook does not intend it to be understood as poetry; Shakespeare does not intend us to understand his plays as exact history, and so on.”[16] According to Bible translator Bill Mounce, there is no such thing as a “literal translation” of a biblical passage. Mounce argues, “All translations are interpretive…there is not a single verse in the Bible that can be translated word-for-word.”[17] Mark Strauss of the Committee on Bible Translation makes the point that a single word does not have a literal meaning. Rather, it has what he calls a “semantic range.” This can be likened to a word being like a bundle of sticks, with each stick representing individual, if interconnected, meanings.[18] Therefore, we must approach biblical interpretation with humility, integrity, and care.

It is important to recognize that science—including empirical data it gives us—is also interpretative. The cry of every scientist’s heart should be: what does this mean? I still remember one of my professors telling us to “remember the rubbish heap!” in reference to the great accumulation of theories that had once been held by the majority and were now held by no one. For example, Sir Isaac Newton interpreted the corpuscular behavior of light and concluded that light was a particle. Later, Christiaan Huygen’s original theory interpreting light as a wave turned out to be true. Only recently has quantum physics shown us how light can be both a particle and a wave. We have long since thrown out the ideas of geocentricism, steady-state theory, and phrenology, though these were all at one time held to be factual by the majority of the populace in the West.[19] Indeed, we must also approach scientific interpretation with humility, integrity, and care. Haarsma sums it up well when she writes, “Science should not dictate the best biblical interpretation, and biblical studies should not force the conclusions of science.”[20] There are two interpretative extremes to avoid: to blindly ignore science, which might bring the gospel into disrepute, and to twist the Scriptures by blindly submitting them to science, even when scientific interpretation is always changing.

Reevaluating our Dialogue

This leads us to an important question: What happens if we end up with the wrong interpretation? It depends on the issue. In the case of a primary issue, such as the divinity of Christ, His literal resurrection, etc., the difference in a viewpoint means the difference between someone being saved or not. In the case of a secondary or tertiary issue, such as baptism by sprinkling or dunking, women in ministry, and specific creation theories, the difference in a viewpoint is not salvific, meaning it does not determine if we are saved. Ultimately, making a mistake on the finer points of our interpretation of Genesis does not determine our ultimate destiny.

It is deeply detrimental to speak about secondary issues as if they were salvific. Changing the tone of this dialogue is crucial for the church, especially when the dissentions inside it are the reasons so many young people have a faith crisis or walk away from Christ altogether. To expand, I have proposed three reasons why Christians should modify the tone of the creation theory conflict as soon as possible:

Reason #1: Quarrelsome dialogue is unbiblical

While the first three chapters of Genesis are important, we sometimes forget to gaze upon the rich wisdom found in other parts of Scripture. In our attempts to defend our interpretations of one passage, we sometimes run the risk of speaking in ways that directly contradict the instructions in the Bible. For example, 1 Timothy 6:20 reminds us to avoid irreverent speech. Similarly, 2 Timothy 2:16 exhorts us to “avoid irreverent babble” because it only leads to more ungodliness. The passage goes on to say, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone” (ESV). Titus 3:9 tells us to avoid foolish controversies because they are “unprofitable and useless” (ESV).

The creation of God’s world is one of my favorite things to discuss because I’m a biologist and deeply curious about how He did it. Studying these things and talking about them has deepened my faith, and I can say the same for others. By all means, we should continue our theological discussions of creationism! However, where there is irreverent babble, quarrelsome rhetoric, foolish controversies, and disrespectful speech, our response should be avoidance, according to the apostle Paul.

Reason #2: The issue is not salvific

In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ said, “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” (ESV). There are many sons and daughters seeking bread, and many of them have come to Christianity to feast on the Living Bread, Christ Himself. Why do we give them stones? Why do we give them harsh answers, condemnation, and disrespect as they wrestle through their views of creation? Too many young believers in search of nourishment were given a sour red herring by someone in the church. Is our defense of a secondary issue worth pushing them out the door? I have seen the conflict done poorly, having myself been shunned at science-and-faith meetings and almost having an article pulled because of my specific views on Genesis. Yet I have also seen the conversation done brilliantly. Mature Christians discuss differences with grace and respect. I have befriended mature believers like this in all three creationism camps. These are my brothers and sisters; people I have called on in times of need, people I have shared the sweetest moments of life with. They are mine, and I am theirs, in accordance with Romans 12:5. Having deep relationships with people in differing creationist camps has shown me a different perspective on the conflict.

The creationism conflict is often depicted as being a dichotomy between scientific accuracy and biblical authority (Figure A). In this false dichotomy, biblical authority sometimes becomes analogous with proximity to God while scientific accuracy becomes proximity to the world. Another metamorphosis of the false dichotomy results in scientific accuracy becoming synonymous with intelligence while biblical authority becomes synonymous with blind, irrational faith. None of the iterations of this dichotomy are accurate or useful. There is indeed a black and white issue, but not in the way we’ve painted it. If we were to view the myriad creation views within the black-and-white framework of salvation and non-salvation, it would look quite different (Figure B). The goal is to get people over the line of unbelief, to put their faith in Jesus and move from spiritual death to spiritual life—not to get them to adopt a certain theological belief about a secondary issue.


Figure A
Figure B

Reason #3: Our Witness

While I was in Oxford studying for a certificate in theological studies, a colleague of mine invited me to speak to a group of physicists at Exeter college about my faith. Being a biologist and not at all a physicist, I was hesitant at first, but finally decided that any open door for the gospel was a door I should walk through. I had a rudimentary understanding of quantum mechanics and did a very small amount of brushing up before our meeting. The students had many questions about the specifics of their field and how God could exist within those specifics. I didn’t know what they were talking about! I fumbled my way through it and pontificated about details that were far above my comprehension. It didn’t take long for the students to realize I was not qualified to speak to them in this way. The evening did not go well, much to my shame and regret. If I had simply pointed them towards the living Christ instead of worrying about how my intellect measured up to theirs, perhaps one of them would have come to a saving knowledge of God.

St. Augustine remarked,

Usually even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens…and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing …to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, which they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?[21]

There is much power in simply admitting we don’t have all the answers.

Not long ago I was on a hike. I prefer to be alone when I hike, and I seek out the loneliest places I can find. Yet on this particular hike, every other resident of Golden, Colorado had conspired to meet me at the trail! As I ascended the mountain, I found myself increasingly frustrated by the bikers who whipped past me. “Can’t they slow down and enjoy the trail?” I thought. As I continued my ascent, a large group of school children ambling slowly blocked my way. They stopped to look at every bug and flower. I sighed. “Can’t they hurry up?” I wondered. “We’ll never make it to the peak before the afternoon showers come in!” As I passed them, God gently spoke to my heart. He reminded me that we all move through this life in different ways and at different paces. The bikers were enjoying nature, thrilled at the wind whipping past them as they flew down the hill. The school children were enjoying nature, drinking in the beauty of every detail. I was enjoying nature too, at my own pace. We were all there for the same reason: to enjoy God’s creation.

Some people see God creating the world through a process of evolution. Others see Him making a special creation over a long period of time. Still others believe God spoke the cosmos into being over a literal six-day period. Not all three views can be correct, but they all agree on the most powerful point: “In the beginning, God” (ESV). There is no reason to continue cutting each other down when we are called to build up and edify each other. We all believe in a God of love, and we are all seeking Him earnestly. That is something worth celebrating.

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[1] Nieminen, Petteri, Esko Ryökäs, Anne-Mari Mustonen, and James A.R. Marshall. “Experiential Thinking in Creationism—A Textual Analysis”. (PLoS ONE. 2015) 10 (3).

[2] John 13:35

[3] V.S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A guide to faithfully reading and understanding Genesis 1-3. (2019) CCLIX.

[4] J. C. Lennox, Seven days that divide the world: The beginning according to Genesis and science. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan 2021), XXXII.

[5]  Four views on creation, evolution, and intelligent design (2017) CXXVII.

[6] Terry Mortenson, Systematic Theology Texts and the Age of the Earth (Answers Research Journal, 2, 2009) CLXXV– CC. https://answersresearchjournal.org/systematic-theology-texts-age-of-earth

[7] My favorite term for this theory is the omphalos theory, from the Greek word for navel, in reference to the idea that Adam did in fact have a belly button!

[8] Whitcomb and Morris have written about this extensively in their work, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications.

[9] Vern Poythress expounds on this theory well in his work Redeeming Science. See page 109.

[10] Lennox XLIV

[11] See, for instance, works published by Reasons to Believe ministry such as their book “Building Bridges”. See especially chapters 1 and 6

[12] Four views on creation, evolution, and intelligent design 125.

[13] Theologian Christopher Southgate takes this view. He writes in his work, The Groaning of Creation: “The beautiful rhythms of [Genesis] culminate in the assertion that ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’ (Gen 1:31).  However, humans have always known that the nonhuman creation contained violence and pain…God’s creation can be seen as both good and groaning.” I-II

[14] Consider, for instance, Lloyd’s Fall of the Angels theory, “I suggest, therefore, that all we know about the character of God from the person of Christ forbids us to say evolution was God’s chosen way of creating, [evolutions is a consequence], not of creation, but of the Fall. That does not, of course, prevent us from saying that God worked through the messy business of evolution in order to bring about His purposes.” CXXI

[15] J.H. Walton, The lost world of Genesis one: Ancient cosmology and the origins debate (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2009)

[16] Lennox XXI

[17] Bill Mounce, What I have learned about Greek and bible translation since joining the CBT. (Zondervan 2019) XI.

[18] Ibid V

[19] Including, I should add, the greatest theologians of that time. Consider Martin Luther, a vehement opponent of the heliocentric theory. He went so far as to write, “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody were moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and the rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must…invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun stand still and not the earth.” (Table Talk, 1539) and John Calvin: “By what means could [the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Mater fix and establish it?” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms 4:6-7)

[20] Four views on creation, evolution, and intelligent design CXXVII

[21] Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982) XLII.