Theistic evolution

Theistic evolution: Is it for Adventists?

Some Seventh-day Adventists have become interested in theistic evolution, and a few have apparently accepted it. Because interest in theistic evolution is likely to increase among Adventists, it seems worthwhile to investigate the model to determine whether it is compatible with Adventism.

L. James Gibson, PhD, is the director of the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California, United States.

Theistic evolution is a theory of earth history that proposes that evolution is God's method of creation. Many religious people have been attracted to theistic evolution be cause it seems to offer a resolution to the conflict between religion and naturalistic science. Some Seventh-day Adventists have become interested in theistic evolution, and a few have apparently accepted it. Because interest in theistic evolution is likely to increase among Adventists, it seems worthwhile to investigate the model to determine whether it is compatible with Adventism. A similar model of earth history, often called progressive creationism, differs from theistic evolution mainly in that it considers divine intervention to be episodic rather than continuous. Several of the problems inherent in theistic evolution apply equally to progressive creationism.

Various forms of theistic evolution may differ in detail, but the basic premise of the model is that God used the process of evolution to create a diversity of living organisms over vast periods of time. Our discussion will focus primarily on three points integral to all forms of theistic evolution:

1. Life has existed on earth for a very long time. (The time of creation.)

2. God used the process of evolution to create new species, proceeding from simple organisms to complex descendants. (The process of creation.)

3. Man is descended from more primitive primates. (The purpose of creation.)

Each of these points has implications of importance to Adventism.

Ancient life or recent?

The first tenet of theistic evolution listed above concerns the length of time that life has existed on earth. Theistic evolutionists accept the time scale proposed by naturalistic evolutionists, which maintains that life has existed on earth for billions of years. The evidence supporting the antiquity of life on earth is primarily geological. Fossiliferous strata contain different kinds of fossils in different layers and have features interpreted as being millions of years old. Some construe this as showing that different kinds of living organisms have been present at different times in earth's history. Radiometric dating is believed to provide an accurate measure of the age of both the sedimentary deposits and the fossils they contain. The generally accepted age for earth and the solar system is about 4.6 billion years, with life first appearing on earth about 3.8 billion years ago.

The Scriptures do not give an absolute age for the creation of life, but they do imply that Creation occurred only a few thousand years ago. Adding together the various time periods given in Scripture yields a figure of less than 10,000 years since the creation of life on earth. Even allowing for gaps in the Bible record, the difference between thousands of years and billions of years is extremely large. This major discrepancy in the age of life on earth is one issue that must be ad dressed in any evaluation of theistic evolution.

The age of earth's minerals is a separate question from the age of life on earth. It might be possible to reconcile the apparent age of earth's minerals with the Scriptures. In the Genesis account of Creation, earth is first described as being "without form, and void" (Gen. 1:2, KJV). Water is present before any description of Creation: "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (verse 2). Thus there is room for the possibility that the minerals composing earth were in existence before Creation week. An alternative interpretation is that they were created at the beginning of the Creation week, but the wording of the Scriptures is ambiguous on this point. It is difficult to see theological significance in the age of the minerals of earth anyway. Adventists have generally interpreted such scriptures as Job 38:4-7 to indicate that the universe existed before Creation week, an idea supported by the writings of Ellen White. It is conceivable that this included our solar system. If so, the creation account of Genesis may refer only to events as seen from earth's surface.

Theistic evolution also conflicts with Scripture by holding that the fossil record accumulated over long ages of time. Although theistic evolutionists acknowledge evidence of catastrophic action in the geologic column, they do not consider the flood of Noah a significant event in the geologic column. Yet the Scriptures describe a worldwide flood that destroyed most living organisms and changed the surface of the planet. Such a catastrophe would generate vast quantities of sediment and fossils, and could produce the geologic column in a short time. Jesus refers to Noah's flood as symbolic of the destruction at the end of the world. The Flood is mentioned by several Bible writers. Peter even specifically predicts that the Flood will be denied in the last days (2 Peter 3:3-6). Theistic evolution should not be adopted by Christians unless its teachings harmonize with the clear teachings of Scripture regarding the flood of Noah.

Creation by evolution

The major tenet of the theory of theistic evolution is that God is the Creator, and evolution is the method by which He chose to create. Many objections have been offered against the plausibility of evolutionary progress through naturalistic processes. Theistic evolution answers these objections by postulating that God directs evolutionary processes to accomplish His will. God is seen as working to increase the diversity and complexity of living organisms through such processes as mutation and natural selection. In this view, the present diversity of living organisms is the result of divinely directed evolution acting over long periods of time.

The Scriptures, however, describe the process of creation in terms that are irreconcilable with evolutionary processes. The whole of the Bible portrays God as having absolute command overnature. God spoke matter into existence (Ps. 33:6, 9). He formed the creatures and gave them life by the power of His word (Col. 1:16,17). The great diversity of life was present from the beginning of Creation, according to Scripture. The picture of Creation implied by meistic evolution appears so different from that described in the Bible that it does not seem possible to reconcile them. This objection must be answered satisfactorily before theistic evolution can be seriously considered by Adventists.

Some people are attracted to theistic evolution because they believe it can ex plain earth history without appealing to divine intervention, except perhaps in a few cases, such as the origin of the human conscience or the resurrection of Christ. If this were true, it would give the theory of theistic evolution a certain amount of scientific respectability. However, the perception that divine intervention is minimized in theistic evolution is a false perception.

Scientific experiments have shown conclusively that life cannot originate spontaneously under any known conditions. Not restricted to naturalistic processes, the theory of theistic evolution invokes the activity of God to explain the origin of life. There is no satisfactory alternative to explain how life arose. Despite the objections of the scientific community, divine intervention seems to be necessary to explain the origin of life.

The results of experimental selection indicate strongly that changes in species are very limited. Complexity has not been observed to increase in such experiments. Yet any theory of evolution must include some mechanism whereby complexity may increase. Theistic evolutionists recognize that evolutionary processes could not occur unless God was directing them. In the theory of theistic evolution, divine direction is the driving force be hind evolutionary progress. This is an other situation in which divine intervention is necessary.

Evolution is generally believed to occur gradually, in very small steps. Each of these steps is highly improbable, and evolutionary degeneration is more likely to occur than evolutionary progress. In order for evolution to be progressive, some force must be active in opposing the natural tendency toward loss of information. This force must direct the genetic processes that produce variation so that new structural adaptations will arise and be useful to the organisms involved. This requires a continuous management of the process, not an occasional intervention. Thus the real "scandal"1 of theistic evolution is not that it minimizes divine intervention, but that it relies on continuous divine intervention.

Any theory of God's activity in earth history must be consistent with His character. Theistic evolution entails certain implications about God's character that appear directly contradictory to the Bible' s description of God.

Origin of death

Take death, for example. The Bible is consistent in describing death as contrary to God's will. This applies to the death of both humans and animals (Isa. 65:25; Matt. 10:29; Rev. 21:4). Some have suggested that the "death" of plant cells when consumed as food shows that death is not contrary to God's will. But to equate the death of a cell with the death of an individual is illogical. Plants were apparently designed to produce structures that could be removed for food (Gen. 1:29, 30) without killing the individual plant. These structures---grain, fruits, leaves---can be replaced by regeneration. There is no evidence that individual organisms were killed in the feeding process before sin entered the world.

The explanation for death given in the Bible is that it came about as a result of man's sin. Thus man is responsible for death. A very different picture emerges from the theory of theistic evolution.2 It is a truism that individuals do not evolve; only populations (or species) evolve. In order for evolution to occur, individuals must vary, and some individuals must die and be replaced by other individuals that are "better." This is generally held to be accomplished through the process of "natural selection," the elimination of the weaker by competition for limited re sources. Theistic evolution explains selective death as the divine method for accomplishing evolutionary advancement. In this view, shortage of resources, competition, and death are not the evil result of human sin, but God's chosen method of creation. Theologically, this clashes drastically with the picture of God's character presented in the Bible and preached by most Christians. Those who are confronted with the theory of theistic evolution should demand a clear explanation of why the Bible blames man for death if death is really part of God's method of creating.

The evolution of man

A third important concept of theistic evolution is that God directed the evolution of man from primitive ancestors. Fossils of various extinct apelike or human-like species have been interpreted as evidence that humans are derived from apelike ancestors. The difference between man and his supposed primitive ancestors is explained as largely a result of man's possession of moral responsibility. A common view is that man's moral accountability began with a revelation of God to the chosen progenitors of the human race. This revelation was accompanied by some kind of divine activity that resulted in man acquiring a conscience and an "immortal soul." This view of man's origin has serious implications for the nature of man.

The Scriptures describe the creation of man in the image of God. According to Genesis, man was created from the dust and given life by the direct action of God (Gen. 1:26; 2:7). The biblical narrative rules out the modification of any preexisting organism into a human. Man is described as being a soul, not as receiving a soul (verse 7). The scriptural account is vastly different from the scenario given by theistic evolution. Theistic evolution should not be accepted unless these two contradictory accounts of the creation of man can be reconciled.

The explanation of man's origin and nature is one of the most difficult problems for theistic evolution. The biblical description of man as made in the image of God contrasts sharply with the amoral primate heritage give*h to him by the theory of theistic evolution. If man evolved from animals, he carries with him the genetic nature of an animal, rather than the image of God. He has experienced a moral rise rather than a moral fall. Is it reasonable for God to hold man responsible for behavior that is merely a natural expression of his genetic makeup? Can one defend the character of a God who puts a "soul" in an amoral ape-man and then condemns him for animalistic behavior? Is God responsible for the evil nature of man, or is man himself responsible? These questions must be answered before theistic evolution can be accepted.

The theory of theistic evolution seems to remove the basis for man's need of salvation through the atonement of Jesus Christ. If man has risen from the beasts, he is not a fallen creature, but a rising one. If evolution is God's method of improving created beings, what is the need for Jesus? Can we not expect further evolutionary improvements in the human race? Truly thoughtful Christians will demand sound answers to these questions concerning man and salvation before giving any credence to the theory of theistic evolution.

More theological problems in theistic evolution

Several other theological problems should be considered by any Seventh-day Adventist interested in theistic evolution. A few of the more important points are described below.

The basis for observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is the Creation account recorded in Genesis. If the first few chapters of Genesis are not literal, but merely convey the general truth that God is Creator, then there is no basis for choosing one day of the week above another. Theistic evolution removes the basis for keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. Adventists who are confronted with theistic evolution should insist on an explanation of why one should keep the seventh-day Sabbath. If observance of the seventh-day Sabbath is not important, then the very existence of the Seventh-day Adventist Church is in jeopardy.

The Bible describes the second advent of Christ as a dramatic, spectacular event. Theistic evolution postulates a God who uses gradual processes to accomplish His will. A dramatic, world-ending Second Coming seems inconsistent with theistic evolutionary theory. It is more consistent with theistic evolution to expect an earthly millennium of peace to be brought about through human efforts in direct contra diction to biblical prophecy. Those who are examining theistic evolution should insist on an explanation for the Second Advent that is compatible with the teachings of Scripture.

Even people who deny that Genesis is reliable recognize that the obvious literal meaning of the author is that earth and all its living things were created in six literal days. In order to refute the literal meaning of the words, two tactics are commonly used. Genesis is claimed to be either "poetic" (meaning symbolic in some sense) or inaccurate.

Though portions of the Genesis ac count are poetic (e.g., Gen. 2:23), this in no way means the account is not literal. Literary structure merely expresses the skill of the writer. Stories are not created in order to fill in the lines of a poem. Rather, poems are constructed in order to tell a story.

If the Genesis creation account is in accurate, some serious implications must be faced. First, Jesus and the apostles accepted the validity of both Creation and the Flood (Matt. 19:4; 24:37-39; 2 Peter 3:3-6; 1 Cor. 15:22, 45; Heb. 11:7). If Jesus and the disciples were wrong, as some Christians believe, then Scripture cannot be accepted as the standard of truth. Second, if truth is to be determined by scientific methods, one can hardly accept such beliefs as the virgin birth, the resurrection, or any other miracle. Those who are considering theistic evolution should ask on what basis they are to accept scriptural teaching on some points but reject it on others.

One explanation given by theistic evolutionists for the supposed inaccuracy of Genesis is that God gave Moses a story He thought the Hebrews would be able to understand rather than giving them the true history of Creation. This concept has at times wrongly been included in the term progressive revelation. Progressive revelation is a scriptural concept (Heb. 1:1,2; John 16:12), but the new revelation is always in harmony with the old (Isa. 8:20; John 17:17; Titus 1:2). The consistency of revelation as recorded by some 40 authors over some 1,500 years is testimony to the inspiration of the Scriptures. The concept that God first told a lie, then later corrected it, is fatal to confidence in Scripture, because one could never know whether the most recent rev elation was true or whether it would be amended later. Those who advocate this viewpoint must explain why they believe God would deliberately give a false view of history to His prophets and then allow those who believe His prophets to remain deceived until the real truth was discovered by men who do not believe the prophets.


Theistic evolution contains important theological implications that cannot be ignored. They must be addressed. The questions discussed in this article are critical to the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Theistic evolution should not be considered by the Seventh-day Adventist Church unless the theory can be shown to be consistent with the biblical doctrines that form the core of Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Several questions that need answers are listed below.

1. Why do the Scriptures describe Creation as occurring in six days if it actually took billions of years, as is asserted by theistic evolution?

2. How does one reconcile the biblical description of diversity from the be ginning of Creation with the position of theistic evolution that life began with simple forms and increased in diversity and complexity through the process of evolution?

3. How does one harmonize theistic evolution's interpretation of the fossil layers with the clear teaching of Scripture regarding the worldwide flood of Noah?

4. How can the theistic evolutionary view that resource shortage and competition are God's plan be reconciled with the biblical view of God as provider?

5. Why does the Bible describe God's abhorrence of death and His plan to eliminate it if death is part of God's plan for improving creation by theistic evolution?

6. How does one reconcile the theistic evolutionary view that God is responsible for death with the biblical view that man's sin is responsible for death?

7. Why would God tell the prophets that He created man in the image of God if man was actually modified from a primitive primate by evolutionary processes?

8. How can God be considered just in condemning Adam's sin if Adam's intelligence and moral understanding were those of an ape with a soul?

9. What is the purpose of Jesus Christ's atonement if man has risen from the beasts rather than having fallen from moral perfection?

10. What basis does one have for specifically observing the Seventh-day Sabbath if creation was accomplished by theistic evolution?

11. How does one reconcile the gradual process of divinely directed progress as outlined in theistic evolution with the catastrophic intervention of the Second Advent described in the Bible?

12. How does one decide which biblical teachings to accept after becoming a theistic evolutionist? Is it necessary for a Christian to accept Christ's teachings?


Theistic evolution is a model of earth history that describes the Creation as a gradual process directed by continuous divine intervention over long ages of time. This is not a modification of the present doctrine of Creation as understood by Seventh-day Adventists. It is a potential replacement. Anyone who considers adopting theistic evolution must be satisfied that it is consistent with the doctrinal structure of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

1. D. L. Wilcox, "A Taxonomy of Creation," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 38:244-250.

2. F. G. Van Dyke, "Theological Problems of Theistic Evolution," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 38:11-18.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

L. James Gibson, PhD, is the director of the Geoscience Research Institute, Loma Linda, California, United States.

January 1992

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

At Ministry, a new editor and an enduring purpose

Martin Weber is the new associate editor of Ministry Magazine

Sex in the forbidden zone

Sexual exploitation, by design or accident, in professional relationships is becoming increasingly a source of concern. A psychiatrist looks at the issues and calls for maintaining the sacred frontiers in personal relationships.

New light on the book of Daniel from the Dead Sea scrolls

Recent publications of Dead Sea scrolls confirm the authenticity and the earlier dating for the book of Daniel.

All things to all [wo]men

Instead of cosmetic change of pronouns, why not try inclusive awareness at a level that really matters?

Tips about time

The difference between the mediocre and the efficient may well be in how well you manage your time.

Mailbox nurture

In an age of exploding information, communication is vital for corporate health and stability. The church is no exception.

A cheap vacation, a changed lifestyle

A few simple health choices can make all the difference

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - Healthy and Happy Family - Skyscraper 160x600