Purpose, Goodness, and Evolution

In its pure form, theistic evolution affirms that God guided the evolutionary process. This is one of the most popular views of origins according to Gallup polls over the last twenty years. A breakdown of the results shows a direct relationship between educational attainment and acceptance of evolution (see Table 1). Many people in this group may feel satisfied that they have sensibly integrated the findings of modern science with a belief in God. Ironically, those findings flow from an academic community that, for the most part, operates under the assumption of metaphysical naturalism, which states that science must seek wholly naturalistic explanations (see review in Major, 1994a). The reality is that most evolutionists want nothing to do with any appeal to a supernatural cause (Major, 1994b).

“God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the past 10,000 years.” 47% 25% 65%
“Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process.” 40% 54% 23%
“Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.” 9% 16.5% 4.6%

Table 1: Results of a Gallup poll taken November 21-24, 1991 (from Sheler, 1991)

Evolution also is associated with positivism, which promotes empirical science as the exclusive fount of knowledge. For positivists, God is not open to rational investigation with the five senses and the usual tools of science. In their opinion, “God guided evolution” is as meaningless and fruitless a statement as “God created everything.” Theistic evolutionists have failed to understand that the “entire outlook of positivistic science is profoundly incompatible with the existence of a supernatural creator who takes an active role in the natural world” (Johnson, 1994, p. 47).

But the conflict goes deeper still. There is more here than a disagreement over two world views, with creationists now scrambling to reclaim recognition in academic circles. Of course, creationists are concerned in particular about the biblical text itself. If evolution is true, then Genesis ceases to be a literal record of creation. Theistic evolutionists respond that Genesis tells us the “why” of creation, but not the “how.” They usually agree that God created the Universe out of nothing, but insist that the subsequent history of creation is a matter for further study, with neo-Darwinian evolution simply being the best answer thus far. As Michael Poole has argued, “Creation is an act—the act of an agent, in this case God. Evolution is a process” (1990, p. 110, emp. in orig.). But does this allow us to believe in evolution and God as Creator? Yes indeed, Poole would say: “Although evolution does not show there is a creating God, it certainly does not show there is not” (p. 111, emp. in orig.).

By attempting to stake out this middle ground, theistic evolutionists have not won any peace on fundamental issues. For their part, creationists have no problem with the idea that God created a Universe that operates in a predictable, understandable fashion. Descriptions of that operation result in the formulation of scientific laws. However, creationists cannot see anything within those laws that would allow nature to produce every living thing on Earth.

Positivists, for their part, cannot see the relevance of adding God to the equation. If natural selection acting on mutations is responsible for producing long-term, large-scale change, then no other cause agent is necessary. Someone with a positivist outlook never can know whether God is involved in such a process. This does not rule out God’s existence; it is just that He is so far behind the scenes as to be irrelevant. Of course, any hint that God worked miraculously would be rejected out-of-hand. A person who truly believes in the adequacy of evolutionary theory leaves no room for divine intervention in nature. Further, the positivist would say that we live in a world that shows all the signs of having developed from completely undesigned, nonpurposive processes. Yet according to the theistic evolutionist, it only looks that way because God used evolution to achieve His ends. So, theistic evolution at once frustrates the pursuit of positivistic science, and puts God in the position of designing a world that allegedly bears no evidence of design.


Darwin: No Place for Design

Charles Darwin’s way of doing science did contribute to the modern positivistic view of origins (see Gillespie, 1979). However, he was immersed in a profoundly religious culture, and could not help but struggle with the question of a Creator. For example, he absorbed William Paley’s Natural Theology while studying at Cambridge (Darwin, 1892, p. 19). In his famous watchmaker argument for design, Paley argued that there must be purpose behind the origin of the natural world. It was inconceivable that the individual components of the eye, for example, or the integrated systems of the human body, could arise by unplanned, mindless processes of nature. Perhaps this is why, when Darwin came to write his Origin of Species, he used so many examples of apparent imperfections in nature, such as eyes on blind cave fish, and wings on flightless birds (1859, pp. 428-432).

Actually, Paley had argued that perfection, as judged by an observer, is not required to recognize design (1802, pp. 6-8). A watch has a watchmaker even if it does not work, or has extra or missing pieces, or occurs in different forms, or is too complicated to understand. So in nature, if we were to find organs with no apparent function, or people who must wear glasses, we need not assume a purely natural cause to explain the origin of those mysterious organs or those faulty eyes. Perhaps Darwin felt that merely cataloging these imperfections would add credibility to his overall thesis, even if they did not blunt Paley’s argument directly.

In any case, the design concept continued to influence natural science well past the publication of the Origin. Many of Darwin’s friends and supporters could not abandon it completely. American botanist Asa Gray, for instance, wanted to see God’s purpose at work in evolution itself. Darwin reacted in a letter to Gray dated May 22, 1860:

…all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.

Darwin never resolved this dilemma, and struggled with the philosophical implications of his work. Although he allowed others to see design in evolution, he could not adopt the view personally. In fact, he promoted a pamphlet by Gray titled “Natural Selection Not Inconsistent With Natural Theology” (Darwin, 1892, p. 262). Apparently, Darwin was happy for anyone to abandon a supernatural creation in favor of theistic evolution but, as far as he was concerned, design in any form made no sense if his theory were true.

In his letter to Gray, Darwin explained that he “had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do.” In the following year he told Gray facetiously, “If I saw an angel come down to teach us good, and I was convinced from others seeing him that I was not mad, I should believe in design.” By 1864, Darwin “had reached an impasse with Gray over design and stopped advertising his pamphlet in the Origin” (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 527).

Although Darwin did not intend to write atheistically, skeptics do not doubt the import of his theory for belief in God. They recognize that Darwinian biology represents a direct challenge to divine design (e.g., Nagel, 1992, p. 213). If evolution represents the workings of a purely natural process, then there is no telos (goal or end) to which it is striving. Without a telos, there is no teleological or design argument for the existence of God.

Hodge: No Place for Darwinism

The religious implications of evolution were a concern for Charles Hodge, the nineteenth-century Princeton theologian. He posed the question, “What is Darwinism?,” and replied, “It is atheism” (1994, p. 156). But that statement was no preacher’s hyperbole. His 1874 book, bearing the title of that question, reached such a conclusion only after making a perceptive critique of Darwin’s Origin. Notice how Hodge cuts to the heart of his theological misgivings in the following paragraph:

The conclusion of the whole matter is that the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God. Mr. Darwin’s theory does deny all design in nature; therefore, his theory is virtually atheistical—his theory, not himself. He believes in a Creator. But when that Creator, millions on millions of years ago, did something—called matter and a living germ into existence—and then abandoned the universe to itself to be controlled by chance and necessity, without any purpose on his part as to the result, or any intervention or guidance, then He is virtually consigned, so far as we are concerned, to nonexistence (1994, p. 155).

He was careful not to accuse Darwin (who rejected Christianity and preferred the term “agnostic”; Darwin, 1892, pp. 59,62) of being an atheist. Hodge’s point was to show that the theory itself, taken to its logical conclusion, rules the theist’s God out of existence. Where does this leave Asa Gray and other theistic evolutionists? According to Hodge, Gray was an evolutionist, but not a Darwinist, because at least he allowed God some part in the process (1994, pp. 155-156).

However, Hodge never legitimized a belief in theistic evolution; he was as committed to the Genesis account of creation as Darwin was to organic evolution. Both men recognized that others were able, somehow, to reconcile Scripture with evolution, but neither could bring themselves to make such a move. Their legacy was not compromise, but a clarity in thinking of where a belief in evolution must lead.

Theistic Evolution: No Place to Go

In summary, Darwinism presents theistic evolution with a dilemma. If this theory, even in its modern form, really can account for the origin of species from a single or few ancestral forms, then what place is left for a Creator? The whole point of Darwin’s theory is that it dispensed, not with design alone, but with any appeal to a cause beyond nature. The idea of a God-directed process runs counter to the goals of naturalism/positivism and the alleged sufficiency of evolutionary explanations. And, if such a theory cannot account for the origin of species, then why believe God used an unworkable process to achieve His ends? Clearly, the theistic evolutionist faces a challenge in reconciling these two questions.


No Good Evolution

For early nineteenth century creationists, design went hand-in-hand with God’s perfect goodness: “[I]n the vast plurality of instances in which contrivance is perceived, the design of the contrivance is beneficial” (Paley, 1802, p. 252, emp. in orig.). A good watchmaker not only would design watches, but would make them for the benefit of others. Likewise, the eye showed purpose and was good for the organism so endowed.

This view of the Creator’s beneficial workings went beyond nature. Many Victorians liked the idea of progress toward a better quality of life (Gregory, 1986, p. 379). Social reformers, for instance, were optimistic about God’s ability to work providentially. In evolution’s struggle for life they saw the divine order by which God would improve the lot of the poor and oppressed (Desmond and Moore, 1991, pp. 217, 294-295).

As with purpose, Darwin could see no sense in such an interpretation, since his theory admittedly offered “no absolute tendency to progression, excepting from favourable circumstances” (Notebook N47, 1838-1839). To British botanist Joseph Hooker, he wrote, “Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a ‘tendency to progression’ ” (January 11, 1844). [It was the Chevalier de Lamarck’s earlier ideas on evolution that impeded the broader acceptance of Darwinism for much of the nineteenth century.] For Darwin, any perception of increasing size, better adaptations, and greater complexity merely were incidental to nature’s acting—without thought or direction—in its preservation of favored characteristics. This was something the social reformers did not understand. An organism may not be able to do anything in the present to change the future survivability of its species. Humans, acting with their technology and ability to plan ahead, could increase their odds but, in the bigger evolutionary view, the fickle workings of nature would dominate in the long run. Universal progress implies a Mind deciding what the goals should be and how they should be reached. Darwin’s theory has no purpose and, therefore, no ultimate good to which it is striving. To see predictable purpose in evolution is, according to evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, a misguided attempt to support the outdated view that God designed the world for the benefit of humankind (1995, p. 68).

God: Not a Good Evolutionist

In Darwin’s revealing May 22, 1860 letter to Gray mentioned previously, the naturalist admitted that he could not see “evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.” Notice what he had to say about nature:

There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic flies—TJM] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed.

To Hooker he wrote: “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature!” (July 13, 1856). Twenty years later, Darwin’s autobiography reflected a sharper, more sober view of the issue.

That there is so much suffering in this world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this with reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and they often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection (see Darwin, 1892, p. 64).

Darwin raised two closely related issues. First, although nature may appear to show a graceful economy on occasion, he had no reason to believe that divine goodness worked on a regular basis. And second, Darwin saw suffering as more consistent with an unthinking, naturalistic process than with an all-loving God. Death, predation, and parasitism are, for evolution, morally neutral; they just happen.

Of course, over the centuries theists have discussed the importance of God’s existence and perfection in light of suffering and death in nature. The classic criticism, as Darwin pointed out, is that a good God would not allow so much suffering. However, it is not altogether obvious that there is something unacceptable or immoral about what one animal or plant does to another. Further, suffering may have been a necessary part of God’s nonhuman creation. For example, the amazing interaction between a parasite and its host seems to bespeak as much divine purpose as the interaction between organisms in a symbiotic relationship. And it would still seem possible that God could look at the delicate balance between predator and prey populations and pronounce it “very good” (Genesis 1:31; Paley, 1802, pp. 259-265; Major, 1990). Perhaps the Creator’s granting of stewardship (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 8) required a sensitivity on the part of man to the plight of the creatures under his care. Yet God’s goodness remains evident in the perfection or completion of His creation at the end of the sixth day.

The problem with theistic evolution is not so much that it appeals to a nature involved in competition and struggle, but that it denies God His proclamation of creation’s goodness. Evolution is a process, as Michael Poole stated, and so God’s creative work never is finished. The result is a God Who is not complete, a God Whose power and goodness will only ever be as great as the current state of nature, and a God Whose perfection will remain limited and hidden by a purposeless Universe. In short, this deity is something less than the God of theism (see: “God: In Process or Prefection?”).


The modern debate between creationists and theistic evolutionists covers a range of issues (see especially Thompson, 1995). Arguments frequently center on matters of biblical interpretation. For example, how can theistic evolutionists come to terms with the statements of Jesus and the apostles regarding creation? And, how can they reconcile the six-day creation of Genesis 1 with the billions of years of organic evolution? Some theistic evolutionists profess a belief in divine inspiration, but their attempt to answer these questions often results in exegetical gymnastics. Others excuse themselves altogether by rejecting anything resembling a literal interpretation of Genesis.

On a broader level, theistic evolution gets into trouble because it attempts to merge a creating God with a naturalistic explanation for life. This conflicts with the biblical view that God worked miraculously to make “heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). At the same time, it conflicts with the evolutionary view that natural mechanisms are sufficient to account for the origin of new species.

Yet, this is more than simply a case of competing theories; it is not merely theistic evolution versus “the rest.” The very idea that God used evolution challenges His divine attributes. As I have tried to show in this article, these problems arise in at least two areas.

First, theistic evolution proposes that an infinitely intelligent and powerful Being superintended a completely purposeless process. Yet Darwin’s crucial conclusions were that: (a) nature contains no evidence of design; (b) supposed examples of design are illusory; and (c) gradual accumulation of changes is sufficient to explain new features. Such a Being that purposes without design and guides without direction is not the God of theism.

Second, theistic evolution proposes that God has yet to complete His creation. Indeed, it is impossible for Him to do so; there is no goal toward which the process of evolution is striving, and there never will be a time when He can proclaim it “very good.” He is never able to receive worship as an all-powerful, all-good Creator because He remains forever imperfect. Once again, this is not the God of theism.

The beauty in looking at the historical roots of this controversy is that it allows us to view the issues with a certain clarity. We can watch as the great minds of the Victorian era wrestled with the new ways of thinking about their world. What does seem clear is that neither Darwin on one side, nor Hodge on the other, saw any space in between for the providential, designed evolution of Asa Gray. For the theists of Darwin’s era,

To accept the theory of natural selection, as proposed in Origin, was to sail between two dangerous rocks, either of which could shipwreck the faith. On the left stood the granite peak of purposelessness in nature, prepared to sink the Victorian belief in design. On the right towered the fearful question of evil and a God of love (Blackmore and Page, 1989, p. 116).

Truly, evolution lies in a land far distant from theism, to be reached only by a faith-imperiling voyage.


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Gregory, Frederick (1986), “The Impact of Darwinian Evolution on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” God & Nature, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 369-390.

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Sheler, Jeffrey L. (1991), “The Creation,” U.S. News & World Report, pp. 56ff., December 23.

Thompson, Bert (1995), Creation Compromises (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).


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