Charles Darwin initiated a new way of understanding biological life with his 1859 On the Origin of Species. The theory of biological evolution has been thoroughly tested and refined, and it is accepted by the vast majority of scientists.
At the same time, I constantly hear, from those inside and outside the church, that it’s “either God or evolution.” For that reason I talked recently with April Cordero, biologist at Point Loma Nazarene University, and Telford Work, theologian at Westmont College about their new book, What About Evolution? A Biologist, Pastor, and Theologian Answer Your Questions. (They are joined by a third author, the pastor and theologian, Douglas Estes)
Can Christians with a high view of Scripture accept the biological theory of evolution? These authors respond with a resounding, “Yes!” As Todd Wilson, co-founder and president of the Center for Pastor Theologians, commented, “The authors guide us through a complex thicket of issues—biological, theological, biblical, and pastoral—with both wisdom and grace.”
Let me start by asking how you came to write this book.
April: I started digging into the science and faith conversation deeply in the early 2000s, and in 2016 I became involved in a project called Reconciling Evolution. This project brings university faculty—a biologist and a theologian—and hopefully a local pastor to a meeting to learn how to help students reconcile evolution with their faith. That’s where I met Telford, and we ended up engaging in a great conversation about how to help the person sitting next to me in church that’s just not that into science. When they asked, “Can you explain evolution to me?” My response was, “Not in just one minute.” But now I can give them the book.
You’ve created a dialogue and friendships that create a seedbed for this book.
Telford: Yes, it’s a dialogue from our different disciplines. These occasions are huge opportunities. This book is meant to be a facilitator so pastors can talk with congregations, youth pastors can talk with students, and families can talk. Friends can talk across differences and beliefs. Dialogue is going to be a place where this gets worked out. So even if readers aren’t convinced about evolution, I want them to understand that it’s not a deal breaker.
As a new Christian I had just adopted a literalist reading of Genesis, but in an Old Testament survey class in seminary I encountered a way of reading Genesis that I had not been aware of: literary approaches that treat it more figurally because of indications in the language that it is meant to be taken figurally. That reopened a dialogue between faith and science that had not been very fruitful. My Christian liberal arts college is supportive of evolution, and students might encounter this dialogue for the first time after growing up in non-Darwinian churches with literalist interpretations of scripture, or anti-evolutionary apologetics along the way. Helping students reconcile biology and scripture became just an urgent teaching task.
A lot of times I hear “we didn’t descend from apes”? Can you talk about one or two misconceptions about evolution that you encounter?
April: Yes, one is that we didn’t descend from apes. We often see that picture with the monkey and then the bigger primate and then the gorilla, and it ends with the human. Scientists hate this picture—it’s just so biologically wrong.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t descend from animals. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that this idea that the future offspring of gorillas that you see in the zoo are going to evolve their offspring into humans is wrong.
To understand evolution, you have to think in longer periods of time. Really far back—say 50 million years—there was a species maybe something like a lemur who gave rise to a lot of different species, and one of them led to the gorillas, and one of them led to the orangutans, and one of them led down the line that eventually led to humans.
We could call primates cousins, but we didn’t evolve from them.
In the book, I try to answer the questions that always come up when I speak at events or teach. “I’ve never seen a dog turn into a cat, or a frog turn into a snake.”
And I say, “Yeah, you’re right, you never have, and you never will because that’s not how evolution works. It works on a much slower timescale.”
It’s very, very hard for people to understand these long periods of time and how changes that happen from one generation to the next are so small that you can’t really see differences. You need the accumulation of many changes over long, long, long, long periods of time across many generations and in different environments, and then when you compare, you might see differences.
- April, Douglas, and Telford’s book is What About Evolution?
- There’s also a lot more in the video of our full conversation.
- Another key resource, from a different angle, that connects evolutionary psychology and Christian faith is Thriving with Stone Age Minds, and there’s a video of my interview with co-author Pamela Ebstyne King.
- I also work with evolutionary science in Mere Science and Christian Faith.
- Here’s our resource page for church leaders on evolution.
- BioLogos, which highlights how Christians engage with evolution, has these resources for pastors.
- Cambridge University’s Faraday Institute in the UK also has resources for churches.
You both care about what this means for the person in the pew and for the pastor. How might this book work in a congregation in a way that would enhance church ministries?
Telford: I would hope to see a short stack of these books in a pastor’s office for when the high school group student is encountering evolution, or a student in the college group says, “Yeah, this is really causing problems with my family. We had a fight.” It’s on tap for those moments: “Try this out. Or let me send you the e-book. Read it and discuss it.”
April has also mentioned small groups with voices that ordinarily don’t talk about this because the terms are being set by others they don’t trust. Gather some science-y, STEM-y members of the congregations and some theology nerds to discuss.
More than anything, I want them to know that evolution doesn’t threaten the Bible as inspired or true. We don’t need to put them in opposition to each other. That leads to more shipwrecked faith. This book is intended to help avoid it.
One common misconception is that you can’t be a Christian with a high view of Scripture and accept biological evolution. But you keep both together, and I think that characterizes this book. What else makes it unique?
April: There are a lot of books out there about evolution and faith—and I’ve read many of them. What’s unique about ours is that we tried to write it in a readable way. We tried to make it very approachable and not too long or technical. And the e-book is only $3.99.
I wrote the chapter on evolution. Telford wrote a chapter from the theology perspective, and Douglas wrote the chapter from the pastor perspective. That’s it. There’s three chapters. And if you don’t want to read some of it, it’s written in Q&A format, so you just jump to the next question. It’s very accessible that way.
To April and Telford (and Douglas), thank you!