By Ralph D. Winter
May 7, 2004
I feel very uneasy about the word evolution since it is so often employed to describe a progression of life that developed without any intelligent guidance at any point. While some Evangelicals may believe in that kind of “unguided evolution,” I would rather just stay away from the word because I certainly do not believe life could have arisen by a purely random process even with the factor of “natural selection of the fittest” thrown in as a guiding mechanism.
By contrast, I think develop is a nicer word than evolve since it does not tend to push us to believe no guiding hand is involved. It clearly allows the involvement of intelligence in the process. Thus, for example I would prefer to speak of the development of the American automobile in the 20th century rather than the evolution of the American automobile in the 20th century. Since thousands of intelligent engineers were involved at every moment.
But this attitude toward evolution as a word is just my personal preference. I know that in the English language a secondary use of the word evolution is fairly common in processes where human beings are involved with guiding hands. People do speak of the evolution of the computer, for example, when it is not at all a case where computers evolved without guidance. And in this sense you could speak of the evolution of the American automobile.
However, one might read somewhere of “The evolution of dogs from wolves and wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes from almost inedible forms of plant life.” Such developments certainly took place all right, but it is irretrievably true that those derivations would not have happened had some very intelligent human beings not been involved in the process—a use of the word evolution, note, in the guided sense. Indeed those developments may actually peg the time human life appeared. But remember, this is not the usual use of the word evolution. Intelligent external involvement is not the most common usage of the word evolution.
Thus, if we recognize that evolution usually means specifically “unguided” development, we cannot then wisely speak of the evolution of either dogs or potatoes because these were developments that were definitely guided by intelligence, high intelligence, clearly not unguided evolution. Intelligence was certainly involved in the process.
Yet the ambiguity will continue to exist. When you hear that “the Pope believes in evolution” you really don’t know whether he is talking about a process that is guided or unguided. For example, an older denomination recently took a poll of its members and found that 1) 99% believe “The universe was created by God,” and 2) 92% believe that “Life is so complex that it has to be the outcome of intelligent design,” and yet 3) 85% believe that “Evolution theory is compatible with the idea of God as Creator.”
In this case I feel sure that the people who believe in unguided evolution, who are many, are not many in this poll. Quite likely most of the 85% are expecting intelligent guidance to be involved in the process.
So, next time someone asks me “Do you believe in evolution?” I am going to answer, “Do you mean unguided evolution?” If they say yes, I will say no. And I will also say that personally I am even uneasy about using the word due to the persistent ambiguity of the term evolution in any case of guided development.
Let’s go back to the dogs! At every point in that development from wolves to dogs you can be sure highly intelligent selective breeding was involved. It could even be called genetic engineering. New forms of life, at least slightly different from the originals, were developed by that intelligent involvement in selective breeding. In this sense virtually all of the foods we eat were genetically engineered long ago in many ways by the involvement of intelligent human design.
But a new factor has recently appeared. Human beings have by now learned quite a bit about DNA, genes, and chromosomes, and are helping people with genetic diseases to be healed. Really scary possibilities come to light. Are we playing “God” by selectively breeding cats of a certain type? Or, when a disease gene is replaced with a healthy one? In a sense, yes. We are doing God’s work. But we are also doing God’s work when we evangelize. We have God-given abilities to do right and to do wrong but no restriction forcing us to do nothing in the area of genetics.
In my theology, Satanic disruption, distortion, and destruction of God’s good creation is so extensive and pervasive that it even extends to what are often called “genetic defects.” I have a strong suspicion that these defects are often actually intelligently evil distortions by Satan not just things that went wrong accidentally. Why? Because, simply, some of these are so cleverly destructive. The same goes for destructive viruses, bacteria and especially parasites. These represent incredibly ingenious evil. They represent, I am thinking, the involvement of intelligence. They are not just unguided evolution or, much less, errors in creation. It would seem that God sometimes makes use of such things as forms of punishment but that the evil distortions themselves are not of His direct initiative.
In fact, something here is very ominous to me. Today, I see many books and articles about the origin of evil, or about “Where is God When Things Go Wrong?” or “When God Doesn’t Make Sense.” But I can scarcely find any of them attributing all or even some of this disorder and evil to the intentions of a created, evil, counter-being that turned against God and has been for a long time distorting life forms throughout God’s good creation. Unbelievably, in view of that pervasive degradation, some authors actually insist that we should not ask “Why?” but simply trust that God has in mind our good—the theory of the “mysterious good.” For example, one pastor told me I ought to thank God for the cancer that killed my first wife and the same cancer that is now killing me! This I do not believe.
Thus, for me the evolutionary process, which I would prefer to call development, could easily have involved intelligent evil as well as on-going intelligent good. Thus, Satanic meddling with our DNA could likely have engineered many genetic distortions and authored many destructive forms of life—from brilliant viruses to monstrously destructive dinosaurs.
The good angels, meanwhile, have not been idle. With God’s guidance they have devised the human immune system and they have armed many creatures with all kinds of defenses such as hard shells, porcupine quills, changing color, etc.
Perhaps God does not want us either 1) simply to cage or kill all wild and dangerous animals, or 2) to let them do their predatory violence. Maybe it is closer to his desire for us to restore them genetically to their original, created, herbivorous state. Maybe that is why He has been waiting patiently for humans to find out what we now know about genetic processes.
But, note, amidst all this theorizing we are working quite blindly if we are unable basically to recognize the extensive existence of intelligently damaged and “violentized” forms of life, or we fail to understand that such pervasive distortions of God’s good creation are the work of an evil one.
The tendency to overlook this factor of an external, intelligent evil can readily be seen in the arena of health.
The more I think about it the more strange it seems to me that God would expect us to go through some secret, esoteric, spiritual hocus pocus in order to get well. Isn't that gnosticism? Even psychosomatic illness is not strictly speaking "spiritual." What do you think?
Obviously from the time Roberta was attacked by cancer we have been deluged with cures. They are still coming. Most of them emphasize one and only one very specific panacea, like Barley Green, colloidal silver, MG3, Ambrotose, grape diet, coffee enema, exercise, sleep, sunlight, diet, prayer. Each thrust ignores or minimizes the others. None reflects on the possibility of an intelligent, external evil.
Here is an illustration in regard to the idea in one book that if you eat what the Bible tells you to it will defend you against all disease. Okay, suppose there are kids going around bashing in cars' headlights. You can't defend your car against that possibility of damage by going back to the owners' manual and following it meticulously by putting in premium gas, highest quality transmission oil, proper antifreeze, etc.
To do all of that is all to the good and it will prevent many different kinds of breakdowns, but in this hypothetical case there is also an outside, independent, intelligent evil to be dealt with. That is my idea of the role of pathogen-induced disease.
The most repulsive example of overlooking an intelligent external evil is the true case of a comatose woman who after some months of total coma seemed to develop skin abrasions on her toes. Pretty soon the infection or whatever, despite medical attempts to stop it, actually exposed some of the bones. Finally, they realized rats at night were nibbling on her. In this case they did not assume a better diet would help, or exercise, or prayer. They at last discovered that an external intelligence was the problem.
Along this line something that truly caught my attention a couple of years ago was when I found out that quite a few secular paleontologists now believe—as part of their concept of lengthy development of life on earth—that there is an identifiable point when no previous form of life was either predator or prey. They contend that suddenly in the “Cambrian explosion” of new life forms (550 million BC) they now see forms of life that destroy life at every level, from viruses to dinosaurs. What came to my mind instantly when I encountered this is that this must have been the point at which Satan and his evil minions turned against God and began to use their long developed skills in the development of life now to systematically distort and corrupt His good creation. Just a thought.
Let’s return to the concept of unguided evolution VS. involved intelligence. We need a lot of wisdom here. For close to 200 years human beings have discovered old bones, which do not belong to any present-day creatures. During that period, many Christians duly concluded that life must have developed over a lengthy period of time. In my youth most Evangelical leaders believed that either the “days” of Genesis had to be long periods or that between Genesis verse 1:1 and 1:2 a huge period of time elapsed. Back then only the Seventh Day Adventists believed that no form of life on earth could be older than man. More recently a lot of Evangelicals have taken the position that the seeming age of the earth is a huge mistake, based on many false assumptions.
Ken Mulholland, for twelve years our board chair, before he died in 2003—of the same cancer I have—told me that at Columbia Bible College, seminary, university, etc. a good rule of thumb is that undergraduate faculty members tend to believe in a “young” earth while graduate faculty believe in an “old” earth. Perhaps this is true in other schools as well. There are thousands of Evangelical professors who make up the membership of the American Scientific Affiliation (which was started by an astronomy professor member of Lake Avenue Church when I was a teenage member). The entire Affiliation holds the position that life on earth was developed over a period of time.
Admittedly, however, some Evangelicals who really know their science are on the other side of the fence.
I personally welcome open discussion of this question of the age of the earth. But, unfortunately, very little discussion is going on compared to the amount of heated debate. The Navigator press publishes some of Hugh Ross’s books. His letters to the Institute of Creation Research go unanswered.
The October-December 2003 (Volume 20:4) issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions, which I edit at the moment, contains a range of views and articles, most of which plead for communication and mutual respect not debate and condemnation of one another. In these cases it is not that one party believes the Bible and the other doesn’t, but that the two parties differ in the way they interpret it. That is, we have an inerrant Bible but not necessarily inerrant interpretations.
I personally have no doubts whatsoever about the creation by God of the universe, our planetary system, and life on earth. But at the same time I have wondered whether such truths are presented in the Bible other places than in Genesis, and not in Genesis. In that case perhaps Genesis 1:1 refers exclusively to recent events, specifically the very recent creation of humans. Paleontologists are in general convinced that life on earth has been set back and redeveloped many times following massive asteroidal collisions with the earth. Scientific American in May of 2002 displayed a chart of 60 “extinction events,” 45 of which they have traced to impact craters that are 15 or more miles across. There are thousands of smaller ones.
Thus, to me it would be perfectly logical to understand that Genesis is an accurate description of one of many setbacks. That is, it describes what happened fairly recently following a large impact whose extinctions were mainly regional. Thus, in the very first verse in Genesis we are reading about recent and regional events not planet-wide catastrophe much less the creation of the universe. It is a fact that the Hebrew of Genesis 1:1 can be understood in that light. The NRSV for example has a significantly different translation from the King James. I don’t blame anyone, of course, for making the plausible assumption that the Bible might likely begin by describing the creation of the universe. The real question is not whether it might have done so but whether it did. It is not for us to decide what the Bible ought to say.
The main perspective, for me, in Genesis, is that it is at the very end of a lengthy history, when God created human beings. Of course, the paleontologists have discovered man-like animals as long ago as a million or more years. But even very recent man-like beings such as the Neanderthal are now believed on DNA evidence to be sub-human, unrelated to humans.
Recently scholars have indicated their belief that the intelligent cultivation and breeding of plants and animals could not be more than 11,000 years old. For me the Genesis account fits right into this period. The six days of creation described there seem to be a strikingly reasonable description of what would happen following a major, regional asteroidal collision, allowing for the new Edenic beginning in that region. Note that almost always asteroidal collisions throw massive dust into the air that blocks out all light, all over the earth, but as the dust settles first you see light and darkness and only later can you actually see the object, sources of light, the sun, the moon, and the stars, etc. And, in that region animal life was entirely wiped out.
Logically, one of the things God was then counting on is for human beings, created at that moment to be of help in replenishing the earth.
Of course, all this is speculation by one who certainly believes every verse of the Bible. My point is not to convince anyone, even myself, but to encourage generous discussion of what the Bible means. We do not do well to close our minds to the possibility that we have often simply misunderstood the Bible and in the process given it a bad reputation. That has been done.
For example, when both Calvin and Luther opposed the Copernican theory employing Bible verses, in those cases they simply did not understand the Bible. People have even “proven that the earth is flat” by quoting the Bible. We do not deny the inspiration of the Bible to question interpretations.
In other words, for many thinking Evangelicals the inspiration of the Bible is not the issue. The issue is what does the Bible really teach and on what matters is it silent, focusing on what it addresses readers at a time when they by no means yet knew everything about the planet, the solar system, etc. These would give exciting revelations of God’s glory later on.
To me it is important (as they teach you in seminary) to know what a passage “meant” before trying to understand what it “means” today. I also think it is important to go one step further and ask the question “What would Jesus have said to his hearers if they had known what we know about germs?” Would He have warned them against perversions of their DNA by Satan? Would He have encouraged them to fight back and not to assume that destructive forms of life were made that way in the original creation by God? Would He have encouraged His hearers to master enough microbiology to be enabled to restore distorted forms of life to their original state? Or, would He have suggested that cancer is a perfectly normal and expect-able evolution as a famed Anglican Priest/Scientist recently stated? Would not Jesus have urged His hearers to go all out to discover what Satan has done to produce cancer and to seek to conquer this dread disease that will invade half of all males in this country before they die?
Note that right now Evangelical theology says virtually nothing about all this. Thus, do we have a frontier of mission here, which we could not have understood without recent discoveries? Even more important is the question, “In order properly to glorify God is it necessary to distinguish what Satan is doing in this arena and avoid attributing all this evil to God?” Is our evangelism properly empowered if in a sense we are preaching about a God who is not concerned about our seeking out the origins of disease and is content with us mainly just treating the results of disease?
These are questions that come to mind.
Ralph D. Winter (12/8/24 – 5/20/09) was an American missiologist and missionary who became well-known as an advocate for pioneer outreach among unreached people groups. He founded the Roberta Winter Institute in 2001.