The opening hymn in my village Anglican church last Sunday started:
God is love: His the care, Tending each, everywhere, God is love – all is there!
Jesus came to show Him that mankind might know him.
Sing aloud! God is good! God is truth! God is beauty! Praise Him.
The image is of God as a caring nurture, wholly good, as demonstrated by the tender and merciful character of Jesus. The gospel reading in the service was from John 14. It has the famous passage where Jesus says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.’ But he goes on to say rather more. Jesus is not just the way to the Father: ‘If you had really known me, you would know who my father is. From now on, you do know him, and have seen him!…. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’
Earlier in the week, I had been to hear a talk entitled ‘Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?’ by Dr Dennis Alexander, Christian bio-chemist and author of a book by the same title. As a theologian who is a creationist, and has a strong interest in science, this was a chance to listen to a Christian scientist whose answer was the opposite to mine – he as a theistic evolutionist says ‘No, you don’t have to choose’. I took copious notes, but there wasn’t really anything new for me. I had a question which I have never seen remotely satisfactorily answered by those who take his kind of position, but I waited to hear what other questions he was asked at the end. My question is simply this: how can the good God as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ have chosen to create in a manner that necessarily involved millions of years of suffering as part of that process? In all his talk about how, in his opinion, there was no contradiction between biblical theology and evolution this topic of the moral character of the Creator was not touched on in the slightest, and yet it cuts to the very core of Christian doctrine and faith.
The last question Dr Alexander was asked before time meant no more questions could be asked was not one I would have expected would have led straight to this issue. A young man got up and asked Dr Alexander to speculate as to what humans would look like in a million or so years from now. After a bit about how any creature that lived in Jupiter, for instance, would have to adapt to totally different conditions, Dr Alexander said that assuming humanity stayed on earth, there was good reason to believe that there would be no substantial changes to the human species. He gave two basic reasons, both to do with natural selection. The first was because of global travel – there is now basically no room for isolated populations and associated genetic bottlenecks that would lead to developments. The second was the one that leads directly back to the issue of God’s character. He said that as the teaching of Jesus was obeyed more and more, so natural selection in humans would slow and stop – in particular Jesus’ teaching to care for the weak, and the disabled, and so on.
At this point, my hand went straight up, because right there was a colossal theological contradiction, and Dr Alexander just didn’t even to be aware of the problem, but unfortunately, no more questions were allowed. At the heart of both the Jewish and the Christian faith is what is called ‘the Shema’ in Jewish thought. In Mark 12.29-31 Jesus affirmed it as the greatest of all commandments:
“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”
Now, the first part of the ‘Shema’ can equally well be translated ‘Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord, is one. Among other things, it holds in it the notion that God’s character is whole and undivided. His character is constant. This is expressed in relation to God as creator of the Sun, moon and stars in James 1.17 as follows:
Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.
Or as one translation puts the last part: ‘with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.
James, of course, was the (half or step) brother of Jesus.
In the talk, at one point Dr Alexander rightly pointed out that creation is ‘Christological’ – that it has to do with Jesus Christ. The New Testament affirms over and over that Jesus is the Creator, is somehow God. It does so in many ways. That reading from John’s gospel sums it up where Jesus says ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’. In fact, in at least one place it clearly links Jesus being the exact likeness of God specifically with Jesus as Creator, in Colossians 1:
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world. Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.
So there is the inescapable problem – contradiction in fact. Jesus was called ‘the Lamb of God’ for various reasons, partly to do with his role as God’s Passover Lamb, but also because of the gentleness of his character. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus healing all the sick, in 12.15 on, and says it is the fulfilment of Isaiah 42, which he quotes. Part of it, v3-4 reads:
He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth.
In fact, that passage goes on to talk of the fact and act of creation too. So the problem is that if God, if Christ, chose to create using millions of years of suffering, sickness and death, then this the complete opposite of the character of God as revealed in Christ – who heals, relieves suffering and the like. This is one of the reasons that young earth creationists so rigorously oppose any notion of millions of years, when they point out the bible describes a ‘young’ (in relation to the standard view today) world. Proponents of long ages, such as Dr Alexander will typically assert that God’s glory or power as Creator is not diminished because he took billions of years, rather than the 6 days of Genesis 1. Let us put aside for a moment the obvious reply that a gradual process of creation over vast ages might as well be specifically designed – arguably was indeed developed – to remove the need of the notion of a Creator. A long slow gradual process does not obviously need a Creator – a very short process does. Young earth creationists’ objection to millions of years has not been just about the time frame, but even more about the moral implications of the method that is inextricably bound up with that time frame. Since all old earth positions take the fossil record to contain animals from millions of years before humanity and their fall, which the bible says – at least very strongly implies – is what brought suffering and death into the world as a whole, this applies to pretty much any old earth position, but especially to theistic evolution which involves a process of creation that at its core involves intrinsically and unavoidably creation by a process of death and suffering. Regardless of whether you call it ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘reproductive success’, the process necessarily involves ‘nature’ ‘selecting’ by means of death and suffering. The fossils contain dinosaur remains with cancer, and evidence of other diseases, and carnivory – healed wounds and the like. There is a total reversal of character here.