Rejoinders to Joel Edmund Anderson’s responses: A continued dialogue

Joel has been kind enough to take a lot of time in offering a really robust response to my original blog. Below, I offer my rejoinders.

Joel. I see a lot of people parse the ideas of “perfect” and “very good.” Notice that this necessarily requires that God made a less-than perfect creation. He did less than He was capable of, intentionally. I could have written a perfect response, but I decided to go for the marginal one that was just okay. Really? The Hebrew combination of “very good” is typically understood (elsewhere in the Old Testament) as “exceedingly good.” Thus, you’re saying that it was “exceedingly good” that man was created such that he suffered and died. All of this is moot, because Genesis 3 indicates the first death of man, as a consequence of sin, God curse even upon the wild animals. Why would the author of Genesis bother to indicate that we were originally designed to be vegetarian? What possible gain is there from adding this dictum? My point is not that all of this is literally true, but that the author went to great lengths to point out a severe fall of all creation as a result of sin. Why do so if it’s just a made up myth? If death isn’t really a problem, but is instead a great benefit, why does the author of Genesis work so hard against that notion?

I would also say that the distinction Irenaeus makes is very different from how you cast it. He believed God to be maximally simple and unchanging, therefore perfect. Nothing could be added or taken away from God, and God needs nothing. This is his definition of “perfect.” In contrast, created things grow and develop. They change. They also are added to or subtracted from. Therefore, they are not perfect as God is. This speaks little to the issue of making some distinction between “very good” and “perfect.” It’s also worth noting that Irenaeus is just one third generation apostle. His views actually stand in contrast to most of his. You claim to take the early church fathers seriously. But essentially all of them were young earth, and believed in a literal Adam & Eve. Lactantius, Victorinus, Ephrem the Syrian, and Basil were six-day literalists. Others, like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine, believing instead that everything was created instantly (no calendar days).

The next point: You write, “There is a glaring difference in writing between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of Genesis.” This simply isn’t true. It’s said a lot, but it doesn’t hold up to even cursory scrutiny.

Consider Genesis 11: 27-32,

27This is the account of Terah’s family line.

Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28 While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29 Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milkah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milkah and Iskah.

30 Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.

31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.

32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.

Now, Genesis 12: 1-5,

1The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.[a]
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”[b]

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

The first thing to notice is that three children are mentioned in Genesis 11:27. It seems, for Abram to exist in Genesis 12, Terah must be literally real too. Further, for Genesis 18 and 19 to be literal history, Lot must really be the son of Terah too. In order for Sarai to be barren—and for God to perform a miracle in Genesis 21—Genesis 11:30 must be literally true too. I could go on. But we see a clean continuation of the narrative. No sharp abrogation of fable and the beginning of literal history. If anything, Genesis 12 begins more like a story, while Genesis 11 ends as literal genealogical history. Further, Luke’s genealogy pursues the lineage of Genesis right through that Genesis 11-12 barrier.

Next, you say, “Nowhere did I say that suffering and death weren’t evil.” It immediately and necessarily follows then that God is the creator of evil, and that He needs for it to exist.

On salvation, are you now ascribing to the Orthodox Church? You didn’t really answer my concern. You simply offered another’s view. I noticed the Orthodox priest affirms a literal garden of evil, a literal Adam who sinned, causing the corruption of all creation. I have to ask, what does it mean when the crucified Christ yells, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The veil is torn, the sky darkened, etc. This all is indicative of Jesus taking on our sins, and God turning from those sins. What else would it mean?

Thanks for clarifying your view on death (annihilationism). We could talk a lot about this, but it does relegate New Testament passages like Luke 16: 19-31 to the allegorical (I think it is actually). It also massively changes all discussion of the end of this creation and the judgement.

I do have some follow up questions on that point though. You say,

“(1) Human beings (i.e. Adam) are made in God’s image, yet (2) still come into this world naked, naïve, vulnerable, with no wisdom or knowledge of good and evil, and hence (3) they sin, and in doing so, although created in God’s image, they fall short of being like God; therefore (4) the reality is that we are sinful image-bearers in a world of suffering and death, and we are in need of salvation.”

I do think an evolutionary account can make some sense of this. Animals don’t sin, because they aren’t aware of moral notions. Presumably, we do. But, we begin unaware of what sin is. I touched on some of the stickiness of this in my first blog. But, would it be your view that, if we did not sin, we would not die? I think not. At that point, we would still need salvation, even as we are blameless. Thus, my original point would hold true: God is the physician who offers us the antidote only after He poisons us. I do wonder how you take Paul’s writings on this issue. The “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man” passage. It’s hard to wiggle out of the idea that Paul believed in a literal fall. One alternative I’ve heard is that Paul was so crafty that he was describing Israel using Adam as an analogy.

As an aside, my statement was “just a demonstration of God’s power over death.” Key word being “just.” I was hoping you’d speak to the idea that it wasn’t about being a perfect sacrifice, atoning for all sin. I don’t see a real distinction by what you and I have said on the issue. In the Old Testament, people offered a sacrifice in order to reconcile with God. The law is very important up until Jesus. And, God both pours out wrath for disobedience, and offers redemption, throughout the Old Testament. Jesus is the end of that. No further reconciliation can be attained.

Moving on, you write, “as is virtually on every page of the New Testament, it is through suffering and death that resurrection and transformation happen.” That’s an assertion not evidenced thus far. I don’t see that as the central theme at all.

By the time we get to “You are created in God’s image; you sin; you live in a world in which you are a slave to suffering and death; you’re not a finished project,” you’re sort of just repeating your previous statements, not offering justification for them. If the Bible really teaches, “you were intentionally made imperfect of no fault of your own, and suffer, of no fault of your own,” then the only recourse is to say that God did it. Unless you want to award creation a level of freedom from God’s hand that most don’t go for. Again, my claim seems validated. God breaks our arm, just so he might set it. I will offer a rejoinder to my own claim though. You could argue that God breaks our arm, and promises it will be infinitely better than it was before. Of course, as I argue, that’s not particularly obvious in most cases. It’s not clear that we are better for having suffered or died. And, of course, a great many will die without salvation, in some cases because of their suffering in this world (or what they’ve seen others go through).

It is true that the Christian can rejoice in suffering. But, notice that almost all of that commentary (seen throughout the New Testament) involves reference to “the evil one,” as “Lord of the air,” and “ruler of this world.” That is, essentially all of the New Testament authors (including Jesus) saw suffering as us standing up to a fallen world and the powers of Satan, with the full assurance of eternal salvation and victory. Like Jesus, both in earthly form and beyond, and as with the angels, we are at war with something counter to God. This view is almost the polar opposite of what you’re arguing.

I do appreciate your final clarification on theistic evolution. I do wonder how you would interpret Genesis if the mainstream consensus was that humanity is just 12,000-6,000 years old. Just a thought.

Also, while this exchange has been pointed, let me say I think it’s great to clarify differences. Additionally, I’m not like Ham in thinking that, if you don’t agree with my views or accept my critique, you’re somehow not a Christian. The more I read, think and discuss various aspects of Christianity today, I find ever-nuanced spectra of views (rather than clear camps). Additionally, I’m guilty of having the “more I learn, the less I understand,” approach. That is, most of these issues seem more muddy (on all sides) than I once appreciated. Thus, straight-forward conversation on these issues is necessary. What I really appreciate is that you don’t seem to dodge or play hide-and-seek. I’ve had way to many dialogues that feel more like a series of bullfighter oles.

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Joel Edmund Anderson on Suffering and Death

Joel Edmund Anderson and I probably don’t agree on much when it comes to theology. We’ve bumped heads before on a few issues. A large part of his recent academic work has been  inoculating evangelical Christians against what he believes is false and dangerous theology offered by Young Earth Creationist (YEC) Ken Ham. Most recently, Anderson has offered a review (broken into three blogs) of Ham’s newest book, which deals with the problem of suffering and death. I won’t retread his concerns, other than to say that he flatly rejects Ham’s theological positions. What I thought I would do is assess what Anderson has to offer in place of Ham’s view, in his fourth blog. Before I critique his view, let me say that there are places of agreement, and that I applaud him (and anybody) who takes on this problem. Suffering and death is a problem for any form of theism, and I don’t think any philosopher or theologian has figured it all out. If there were a likeable, workable answer, we would all have it today. On this front, I actually agree with N.T. Wright’s assessment of the problem of suffering. The Bible doesn’t really satisfy our curiosities about why it exists and where it came from. But, it does tell us how we are to approach it, and how it will be resolved.

Let me also add that Anderson’s view is actually more coherent than many I’ve heard. I’ve been particularly bemused by some of the ID views that try to affirm both an old earth with death and suffering and a perfected Eden (with no death). The problems I outline here are not specific to his view. Rather, his is illustrative of some of the problems that need to be addressed.

Having said all of that, the YEC view has a lot going for it theologically. For starters, it takes Genesis 1-3 seriously. Thus, it doesn’t have to draw some arbitrary line in the sand where mytho-historical storytelling ends, and real history begins. It also affirms a coherent view of God’s goodness. God is not the arbiter of evil, suffering and death. He is the solution (via the cross). His creation begins without the flaw of decay and death, and God offers a plan to restore this creation, which has been corrupted by sin. Because it affirms a literal Adam & Eve, the view also doesn’t require any special pleading or theological contortions when the New Testament authors (namely Paul) appear to adhere to a literal Adam & Eve and the fall of man (Romans 5:12, 1Cor. 15:21, Luke 3:23-38, 11:50-51, 1 Timothy 2:13-14, etc.). I won’t go into any more details than this for the moment, because my critique is not of YEC.

To summarized Anderson’s view, suffering and death have always been part of creation. Creation is not perfect, and it is incomplete.

“Suffering, pain, and death are inevitable in this created order. They are a part of God’s original creation. But this created order, God’s original creation, is not the finished product. It is phase one.”

For this reason, suffering and death are not evil. Rather, they are constructive, acting as some refining fire for each of us as individuals. As Anderson puts it, “Transformation and salvation comes through suffering. Resurrection life only comes after, actually through, death.”

Anderson mocks the widely-held view that we are in need of moral reparations in our relationship with God. That sin condemns.

“Unfortunately, it seems too many churches present a version of the Gospel that completely misses everything. The presentation goes something like this: You’re a sinner; you’ve ticked God off, but He still loves you; but the good news is that Jesus came and suffered for you so that you can be happy, find fulfillment, and  avoid hell and go to heaven when you die…the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus gives us the answer and explanation for suffering in this world.”

As a side note, I would be very interested to know what his view of sin and damnation is. I don’t know if Anderson is an annihilationist, universalist, or something in between. Anyway, his understanding of the crucifixion is as follows:

“The Good News of Christ says, ‘There is a way to defeat death, but it means taking up your cross, bearing unjust suffering, and following Christ into death. Do you trust Him to take you out the other side?’”

I hope this is a fair characterization of what he offers in his blog, and Joel is more than welcome to correct me if I’ve misrepresented anything.

If I haven’t, then several concerns arise.

1. Perhaps the biggest is that Anderson makes no mention of sin. Seemingly, there was no fall of man. By his own words, suffering and death are not consequences of sin. Suffering and death themselves are not evils, but are necessary and formative aspects of existence. Like so many others, Anderson’s solution to “suffering and evil” is that suffering (and death) is not evil. God needs them, and so do we. How then do we make sense of the crucifixion of Christ? If we are not stuck in wrong relationship with God, condemned in sin, then there is nothing Christ’s sacrifice atones for. It does no work at all. Perhaps Anderson just left that out, but it’s completely absent from his blog. It seems that he believes the crucifixion was just a demonstration of God’s power over death. He went first, to show us it could be done.

But, why bother with being falsely accused and innocently killed? Jesus could have simply lived a normal life, died at a ripe old age, and then rose again. His innocence does no work, and He does not act as a sacrifice for sin. This also wreaks havoc on the entire story line leading up to that moment. The law and the sacrifices of the Old Testament would be rendered meaningless too, and Jesus ceases to represent the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for all sin for all time. What’s the point of the law to begin with? (See Romans 7)

2. To argue that any form of redemption comes through death and suffering is to presume that we need redeeming. That is, we have a problem that must be remedied. From what we read in Anderson’s blog, this problem is suffering and death. But, who made the problem? Not us. God did it. This is like the physician who sets your broken arm, only after he broke it. He offers an antidote, only after he poisons you. In this sense, Anderson’s theology suddenly takes the form mocked by Michael Shermer in his forward to A Manual for Creating Atheists: “God sacrifices himself to himself to save us from himself. Barking mad!”

3. If suffering and death are not evil, then we  suddenly feel the weight of theological contradiction. Nowhere in the Bible does God directly cause evil. (Isaiah 45:7 is often cited as one place where we do see God causing evil, but this is a faulty understanding of the word used there for calamity). It would be inconsistent with His nature. Yet, 1 Cor. 15:26 identifies death as the “final” (ultimate) enemy that must be destroyed. Romans 6:23 informs us that the wages for sin is death. Jesus does not come to offer us the benefits of suffering and death, but spends His time on earth reversing them! He is at war with them. If God is the arbiter of suffering and death, then He is at war with Himself.
4. Finally, Anderson spends some time explaining (and offering personal accounts) that suffering is formative, refining us into better Christians. The alternative, which he acknowledges, is that the flames of these trials simply burn us up, as we turn away from God. Two problems stem from this view (in my opinion). First, it isn’t particularly obvious that suffering makes us better than if we hadn’t suffered. Most people who survive true suffering (even Christians, for example, with PTSD) aren’t necessarily better people for it. Oftentimes, they’re broken people for the rest of their lives. A child sold into sex trade at the age of eight, and raped repeatedly by inhuman monsters, is not better for it. The fourth grader who dies of a rare brain cancer is not growing into a better Christian, and it’s not clear to me that her parents are better off for it (spiritually or otherwise) either. When the sick, maimed, or dying come to Jesus, He never said, “suck it up buttercup, this is how I make you a better person.” When directly asked about it, He tells his disciples,

“Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)

He doesn’t claim to cause death or suffering. He doesn’t suggest they’re good. He tells us to look to the more important issue, which is the condition of our eternal relationship to Him.

Second, what do we do with the double-standard? If someone pelts a child in the head with a rock, and the child suffers life-altering brain damage, we would call that evil. This seems unequivocal. But, if a brain cancer or some other natural cause creates the same condition, we are to thank God for such a formative opportunity. This seems incoherent to me.

If even a couple of these concerns have traction, it becomes of interest to ask what Anderson gets from this view. Or better, why does he hold it? I don’t want to psychoanalyze him too much, but I suspect that Anderson’s view on suffering and death is a necessary consequence of some underlying theological positions. That is, his view on suffering and death follows necessarily from something else. Namely, I think it follows as a consequence of his view on creation more broadly. As a theistic evolutionist, Anderson rejects YEC, and maintains that life (including humans) is ancient. Thus, death must exist for eons before the biblical stories pick up. It paints him into a corner. Sure, there have been some attempts at workarounds, most recently in Joshua Swamidass’s cockamamie idea that humans have a long lineage, stemming from the great apes, but Adam & Eve were specially created by God to breed with those humans, recently. But these attempts are so contrived, speculative and convoluted that I don’t think they’ll be taken seriously by most evangelicals.

No, Anderson must reject a literal Adam & Eve (or go in for the Homo divinus story). Thus, no fall of creation. Thus, creation begins “fallen.” As Anderson suggests, creation remains unfinished, and perfection remains well in front of us, not behind us. If true, it also follows that the crucifixion of Jesus isn’t particularly germane to the problem of sin, since there really isn’t a problem of sin. To quote theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson,

“But what, exactly, does it mean to be sinful?… sinfulness is mainly selfishness. Evolution says some interesting things about selfishness. Selfishness, in fact, drives the evolutionary process . . . After many generations selfishness was so fully programmed in our genomes that it was a significant part of what we now call human nature.”

On this view, it also follows that death, the creation of God, is also the enemy of God. Yet He forces all through it (save for apparently the angelic beings). Put simply, theistic evolution puts the biblical story in a blender. What’s left is fairly unintelligible. In that gruesome scene in the movie Predator, Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) asks, “Did you find Hawkins?” His subordinate replies, “I can’t tell.” Similarly, we might ask, “Did Joel find an answer to the problem of suffering and death?” It’s such a mess, we can’t tell?

 

How to do exceptionally biased (lousy) science

(image from http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/going-to-school/grade-by-grade/first/)

 

A friend brought a paper to my attention this week:

“Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds”

By Corriveau et al. (2014).

The abstract is fairly provocative:

“Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children’s upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional…The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”

Maybe I’m paranoid, but it would seem that the agenda here is to demonstrate that kids raised in religious homes are superstitious, and apt to believe fantasy. Upon closer inspection, the paper has a few devastating flaws, and really represents bad science.

Consider the set up. The authors have 66 total individuals (5-6 year old female students), broken across four groups (so at best, you’d have 16 kids in each group). With such small numbers, I’m not confident that they can really separate out confounding factors (is a kid who is a “non-churchgoer,” but attends parochial school more or less “religious” than a “churchgoer” who attends public school? And can any analysis really tell you that with these sample numbers? There are liars, damn liars, and statisticians. You can make almost anything “significant”…I know from experience).

But, even if we grant them all of that, the questions were loaded and represented repeated measures. They begin with, “Now I’m going to tell you some stories about some people you’ve never heard of. Some of them are real, and some of them are pretend. After I finish the story, I’m going to ask you to put the picture in the ‘real’ or the ‘pretend’ box, and then I’m going to ask you why you decided to put the picture there.” But what story did they tell?

Religious
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
Fantastical
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
Realistic
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.”

Joseph is a well-known biblical character, not someone a 5-6 year old has never heard of. So, the name Joseph is going to instill trust in the story for those who have any religious background. The researchers should’ve said “This is Charlie. He went fishing…,” etc. Worse, they use the same character in three consecutive stories (in their appendix they detail that they did this for the other stories as well). If the first story was one a religious kid would trust because it involves a known biblical character (Joseph) and God’s miraculous work, that will affect subsequent stories about Joseph. You’ve tainted the child’s perception of who Joseph is, and what kinds of things can happen to him.

Again, an honest way of doing this research would’ve been to offer a biblical story (of Joseph), then a similar story using non-biblical themes and characters, etc.

Notice that their first finding was that, if Christianity is actually true, the secular kids produced false negatives (meaning, they thought biblical stories were fiction). The authors say so,

“[A]ll four groups were significantly above chance in categorizing realistic characters as ‘real.’ All three groups of religious children were also significantly above chance in categorizing religious characters as ‘real.’ However, secular children were significantly below chance in categorizing religious characters as ‘real’ (i.e., they judged them to be pretend).”

Unsurprisingly, churchgoer kids failed to identify fiction as fiction (false positives) about 1/3 of the time. Again, those “fictional” stories involved the same basic story line (same names and events), but removed God. So, this is an expected result.

Their second experiment was equally biased. It was aimed at separating “magical” from non-magical stories. This one dealt with just 33 students, broken into two groups (those who attend parochial schools and attend mass, and those who attend public schools and do not attend mass). The experimenter said,

“Now I’m going to tell you some stories about some people you’ve never heard of. After I finish the story, I’m going to ask you to put the picture in the ‘real’ or the ‘pretend’ box, and then I’m going to ask you why you decided to put the picture there.”

But look at the stories:

“Familiar+Magic

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic

This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.”

Come on! If John waves his stick and the mountains part, that’s magic, even if the sentence doesn’t call his stick “magic.” Again, the stories still resonated with biblical stories kids would trust. John is a biblical character involved in miraculous events. As is Moses. The researchers jumbled names and events, but it would clearly taint children’s impressions of what is possible. Their findings?

“[S]ecular children were significantly below chance in categorizing all sets of story characters as ‘real’; in other words, they systematically treated the characters as ‘pretend.’ By contrast, religious children performed at chance across all 4 story contexts.”

But remember the abstract (summary) of the paper:

“Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children’s upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional…The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.”

The abstract gives the impression that kids raised with religion cannot discriminate between reality and fiction. But, the findings actually show that kids raised in secular settings think anything and everything that violates naturalism is fiction (i.e., no miracles are possible). The religious kids perform well in making distinctions between reality and fiction except for one aspect of the experiment, in which the authors bias the methods by introducing repeated (but modified) stories with biblical characters and events.

I don’t think I need to say any more about what’s really at play here.

The Untouchables: when consensus doesn’t matter to the evolutionary creationist

I want to wrap a bow on the conversation I had with Jim Stump last week. First, let me say that I am greatly appreciative of Jim’s willingness to engage in a lengthy dialogue, and that he went to great effort to unpack his views and answer various questions. In this sense, it was clarifying and informative.

In that vein, let me say that I was relieved to see just how much Jim (and BioLogos) affirms, particularly in the New Testament (see below). For example, for every time that I have asked if BioLogos accepts or believes miracles like Jesus’s resurrection, or the healings he performed, the answer is an unequivocal yes. However, this does raise some other interesting things that need to be addressed.

Given the theistic evolutionist’s (TEists)—though they prefer evolutionary creationist (ECist)—reliance on secondary natural causes in the creation of the world, I had asked Jim if he believed God ever violated natural laws to work “miraculously.” He responded:

“I wholeheartedly affirm (and sign) the BioLogos belief statement, ‘we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture.’…so I affirm it. But it is not the way I would write it if I were writing for philosophers. So here are two qualifications and nuances I’d want to add:

  1. I think it is better to understand ‘natural laws’ as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Natural laws are our best descriptions of the regularities we have discovered nature. In that sense, I don’t think God set up, say, the inverse square law of gravitation before all time (like he was fiddling with some celestial dial), and that it somehow constrains what he will do from now on. It would seem strange to me that God would set up a prescriptive situation, and then proceed to violate that by performing miracles. I think it is better to understand natural laws as describing how God normally acts in preserving and sustaining the natural order; and it is totally fine for God to act in different ways than he normally does.”

This is theologically deep water. As I wrote in my book, the theistic evolutionist seems to conflate the creation with the Creator. The actions of the creation are the actions of the Creator. So, if a chance-based process is at work (as in Darwinian evolution), science will not see intentionality in the actions or outcomes. Nonetheless, God is doing it. Just to flesh this out a bit more, Jim also said,

“I find the glory of God more fully on display when we understand the secondary causes… I look at nature and see that God did lots of stuff: he created mountains and seas and animals and plants.”

Elsewhere Jim has written: “At BioLogos, we believe that God created the Hawaiian Islands too, and yet there is a process involved that science can describe comprehensively.”

In fact, at least to date, the folks at BioLogos more or less see “comprehensive” naturalistic explanations for everything from the Big Bang to the 12th chapter of Genesis (the establishment of Abraham). But, these explanations do not require agency. They show no signs of intelligent design. In fact, biological evolution is constructed to be dysteleological, meaning it is blind, pitiless, unguided, etc. As Jim did earlier in this conversation, the ECist will often rhetorically ask the Christian skeptical of Darwinian evolution, “Are you saying God did it?” Of course, the flip-side is that the ECist is effectively saying God didn’t do it! Or, more precisely, there’s no evidence that an intelligence has acted on the system.

The conversation got a little muddy when Jim tried to walk the tightrope on what we mean by “violating natural law,”

“So in that sense, it is not a violation of the ‘law of nature’ for God to act to resurrect Jesus from the dead (which I believe he did). It certainly goes against how we’ve observed the natural order to work, but our observations are drastically limited by space and time. I believe God will act differently in the future than he has in the past, by resurrecting all dead bodies. The scientists of the future (if there are such in the Kingdom of God in its fullness!) will develop different laws for how things normally operate, because dead bodies resurrecting will be an observed regularity.”

While ECists routinely appeal to “consensus” in the scientific community on the past, they seem more than willing to buck the consensus elsewhere.

But let’s revisit a couple of items on the table. If the BioLogian assumes that God is literally doing all actions at all times (remember, natural laws are descriptive, not prescriptive or causal), why doesn’t the BioLogian say, “When ice falls from a roof top and kills a little old lady, God did it”? “When a tire blows out on the highway, and a bus full of kids perish in an accident, God did that.” God did everything. Notice the subtle difference here. It’s not that God allows, permits, or simply sustains the workings of creation. God is the workings of creation.

(There is some flexibility among theistic evolutionists on this point. Polkinghorne has written, “An evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself,” and guys like Ayala have said, “I prefer to see this as natural selection, rather than [as] a consequence of design by an intelligent designer, the Creator. . . I don’t want the God of benevolence and the omnipotent God to be given the credit for having made that creation.”)

The second thing I want to further investigate is what appears to be a dichotomous grouping of things that science is free to explain, and things that science can never explain. When asked if God violated natural law to perform other miracles in the Bible, Jim answered,

“Yes, that is exactly what I think actually happened in water miraculously turning to wine: you would see water, and then ‘poof’ there would be wine. In that case there would be no scientific explanation of the process. You start with a positive affirmation from Scripture, and you have a robust theological underpinning for an event like that (or even more so, for the resurrection), which seems to remove it from the ordinary sequence of events for which science tries to give explanations.”

In contradistinction to the move of affirming a miracle based on its necessity in the Bible, Jim feels,

“God of the gaps explanations (at least the way I understand them) start from the opposite direction: you’re working in an arena for which the expectation is that these are the ordinary workings of nature, and you can’t figure out how it could have worked that way, so you invoke a miraculous intervention.”

So, as long as you begin with a positive affirmation from Scripture, science cannot, in principle, explain the miracle. If however, we don’t find it necessary to believe a miracle actually violated natural law, we are free to let science attempt to explain it.

I understand that folks at BioLogos have different views, but this move (I just mentioned above) stood out to me when reading a blog at BioLogos by Kathryn Applegate. She wrote,

“Many Christians accept evolution of plants and animals but draw the line at humans. Why don’t I? Because I have encountered compelling evidence from multiple scientific disciplines that supports common ancestry of humans with other animals. While it might be convenient in church circles to dismiss or downplay this evidence, to do so would violate my integrity.”

But then, literally two sentences later, she wrote,

“If accepting evolution meant I had to reject core doctrines of the Christian faith, or deny the authority of Scripture, I wouldn’t do it.”

So, it seems like there’s a weird cognitive dissonance at play here. It would be intellectually dishonest to deny scientific description just to hold onto a biblical claim of a miracle. But, if a core doctrine in the Bible is out of step with scientific description, then you can reject the scientific description.

To look at a gap or failing in scientific explanation (as they put it), and suppose that an intelligent agent (even God) is more likely than a natural cause, is a god-of-the-gaps move. But, to assume that science can’t explain a miracle in principle (like water to wine, or the resurrection) is not. Cool huh?

I would say, the honest view is to begin with the idea that none of the miracles have to be actual supernatural events, because, at least in principle, Christianity could be wrong (and could be disproved, given appropriate scientific explanation). BioLogians seem to have made a category of “up for scientific explanation” items and “not up for scientific explanation” items, which feels biased to me.

My Little Pony, the Elements of Harmony, and confusion at BioLogos

With today’s blog, I want to really make the case that we need to approach BioLogos cautiously with respect to the theology they’re advancing. Frankly, I think it’s toxic stuff. In light of some discussion over the historical Adam & Eve, I started digging into their online content. Sadly, two things seem very evident:

First, nobody over at BioLogos wants to make a firm claim about much of anything with respect to their beliefs. As we’ll see, they instead offer lines like, “Each Christian’s view of [insert topic] is informed by a variety of biblical and scientific data as well as by theological tradition and personal intuition.” So, as I’ve posted before, don’t expect to actually get answers to your questions once you’ve taken the red pill and abandoned what you thought you knew about the Bible.

Second, it seems clear to me that, after distancing themselves from the original founders (Collins, Giberson, Falk, etc.), the folks at BioLogos are now sliding leftward day-by-day in their theological “squishiness.” I’ve also already warned what that can look like.

What has really saddens me is the way in which N.T. Wright has entered this conversation. I was taken aback when he said, “If creation is through Christ, evolution is what you’d expect.” It’s hard to square that with Darwin’s view of evolution (“From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals”). Christ, a Lord of death and misery, random action and poor design. Really?

Anyway, he seems to be heading for full-on mystic mode these days, which is disappointing, given his absolutely exceptional work on the historical Jesus (and the New Testament in general). It’s here we begin our story, with a summary of his 2015 book, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues, offered at BioLogos.

Admittedly, I have not read his book. In fact, I just ordered it, and will offer subsequent comments if necessary. So, I’m really just looking at how BioLogos interprets it.

Now, with respect to Adam & Eve, BioLogos does have consensus on the following items: They confirm common ancestry (that we evolved from a primate ancestor), and that it is unlikely that there was a single couple from whom all humanity descended. The real question for them is whether or not there’s any “real” Adam in history, or if it’s all symbolic. Of Wright, they offer,

“Many seem to think that the authority of Scripture hangs in the balance here and treat it as though it were a collection of ‘true but miscellaneous information’ or ‘an early version of the Encyclopædia Britannica.’ But Wright says that’s not the kind of authority that Scripture is. ‘The risen Jesus doesn’t say, ‘All authority in heaven and earth is given to… the books you chaps are going to go and write.’ He says, ‘All authority has been given to me.’”

Conclusion:

“[The Bible] is not a collection of timeless truths to which all people everywhere and every time must intellectually assent in order to be saved. It is the dynamic means through which God transforms people into Christ-followers no matter what their context.”

Of course, the question then becomes, how do NT Wright or the folks at BioLogos know that’s true? That is, from where do they derive the idea that the Bible is the “means through which God transforms people into Christ-followers”? From the Bible? Yes. But, what if, in my context, I disagree with their view? What do we do then? This is the sort of self-sacrificing argument all relativism makes. The relativist will say, “what’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” But, is that true? What if I don’t think their statement is true? This is where I start getting really uncomfortable with what BioLogos is selling.

But, this is just the sort of squishy theology they actually mean to advance. They continue,

“This emphasis on the dynamic nature of Scripture might trouble some. Wright’s goal doesn’t seem to be to uncover the one correct interpretation of the text that must be imposed on everyone. He says, ‘No, the Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text’ (p. 29) and ‘Each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up, not simply to look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition’ (p. 30).”

So, what if one of my students feels that the Bible is just one giant mythical document, intended to teach us the same kinds of wisdom we see in other holy books? Jesus didn’t really exist, but he makes for a nice story about redemption and the need to “die” to sin and be “raised” a better person. And again, from where does Wright get the authority to say that’s what the Bible is?

The stroke is obvious. It permits a continual re-working of what the Bible really means, as secular academic advances necessitate. It permits lots of wiggle room to reconfigure theology around modern thought. For example, they continue,

“In this vein, Paul routinely reinterpreted Old Testament texts, infusing them with new meaning which the original audience of these texts would not have understood. His rereading of the Adam story into his own context of first century Judaism is a prime example. In so doing, did Paul establish that as the normative context for all future Christians? Or did he model for us what we should do too—reread the Adam story in our context, which means to do so in light of what God has allowed us to discover about genetics, prehistoric human beings, and our relatedness to (and distinction from) the rest of created life?”

Well, that depends on the fact that Paul was actually talking about Israel when he “re-read” Adam’s story. Is there really evidence for such a move? That is, did Paul really believe that Adam never existed, but use “Adam” to symbolize Israel? Let’s look:

Romans 5:12-19

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” [1]

Are we really to think that Paul didn’t mean Adam? How exactly would Israel have brought death to all men? “From Israel [Adam] to Moses” seems not to fit either. At any rate, the suggestion here is, whether or not the generations of people before Paul thought Adam was real, the BioLogos folks are suggesting that Paul knew very well that Adam was not, and used Adam’s name to advance some story regarding the fall and redemption of Israel. Of course, the problem is that, while there can be many views, only one of them can be right. At the end of the day, either Adam did or did not exist. If Adam did exist, then the past peoples were right, and the modern thinkers are wrong. If he did not, then the people of the past were confused, but the modern academics have it figured out. But, both of these options can’t be true at the same time.

This would also be true for the genealogies offered in both the Old and New Testaments. If we believe Jesus actually existed, do we believe Joseph was really his father? Did Hezekiah exist? What about Jesse? Where do we leave the “real” people and move into metaphor and symbolism?

So what does the Adam = Israel move open the door for?

“Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account…God’s purpose of making all of creation a place of delight and joy and order was to take place through them. But they failed and ‘abdicate[d] their image-bearing vocation and follow[ed] the siren call of the elements of chaos still within creation’ (38). Instead of reflecting the glory of God back to creation, through their sin of worshiping created things they ended up reflecting death to the rest of the world. It was Jesus who became the obedient human—what neither Israel nor Paul’s Adam could do—even to death on a cross. ‘He does for Israel what Israel couldn’t do for itself, and thereby does for humans what Israel was supposed to do for them, and thereby launches God’s project of new creation, the new world over which he already reigns as king’ (39).”

I couldn’t help but chuckle at the, ‘abdicate[d] their image-bearing vocation and follow[ed] the siren call of the elements of chaos still within creation,’ line. It sounded so much like a My Little Pony episode my daughter owns, regarding the “elements of harmony”:

Nightmare Moon: You still don’t have the sixth Element! The spark didn’t work!

Twilight Sparkle: But it did! A different kind of spark. I felt it the very moment I realized how happy I was to hear you, to see you, how much I cared about you. The spark ignited inside me when I realized that you all… are my friends! You see, Nightmare Moon, when those Elements are ignited by the… the spark, that resides in the heart of us all, it creates the sixth element: the element of… magic!

That is to say, this sounds wonderful, but such phrases are devoid of any real content. What does it mean to “follow the siren’s call of the elements of chaos still within creation”?

So, then, what do we do with this revelation? What “truth” do we move to in understanding our Christian faith?

“In this narrative there is still the question of why the created order was in need of rescuing in the first place. Wright acknowledges that it was in such a state before human beings arrived on the scene, but he doesn’t offer simplistic answers for why this is so. This is a difficult question for us today, and we’ll not find the answers of previous generations satisfactory if they don’t take into account what we have learned about the created order.”

In other words, stay tuned, because the gang at BioLogos hasn’t figured out exactly what to believe. But, whatever they come up with will no doubt conform to consensus science!

To show everyone just how far down the rabbit hole this goes, consider where this particular review ends up:

“Why didn’t God just zap us into existence fully formed? We might as well ask why God didn’t just create a perfect and final heaven and populate it with us from the start. I’m not sure we can say much more to such questions than that God seems to delight in partnering with his creation in order to bring about his intentions. And those intentions seem to be for transformation—not some far off neverland of a heaven that has no connection to this world. If that were the intention, God would have just done that directly. But as Wright keeps reminding us, God is in the business of re-creating this world into the new heavens and new earth, and of transforming us through Christ from what we were into what he would have us be.”

So then, is this really that far from Neil Spurway’s view that,

“If the approach I have outlined is on anywhere near the right lines, Darwinian thinking keeps us earth-bound. We are animals…and are wholly the products of terrestrial evolution…We are ‘of the earth, earthy.’ What glorious things that says about the earth!”

Gone is the meaning of the resurrection. All this talk of Jesus “going to prepare a place,” and Paul saying, “The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,” or,  “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds,” is just hyperbole. It’s nonsense about some “neverland.” It seems, increasingly, that naturalism is absolute for BioLogos. We truly are just stardust. So, the question you must ask is, does it look to you like God is “re-creating this world into the new heavens and new earth”?

More tomorrow.

[1] A similar statement is made in 1 Cor. 15:20-22, 45 “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.”

Answering the theistic evolution go-to playbook

In continuation of my post from yesterday, Jim Stump has offered me a chance to tackle a few more predictable moves in the theistic evolution playbook.

To catch people up to speed, in a facebook conversation, Stump made the statements,

“Common ancestry [here he means Universal Common Ancestry] is a multiply confirmed theory that explains the observable data in detail. So asking what kind of evidence would contradict that is about like asking what kind of evidence would it take for you to accept geocentrism.”

And,

“The fossil record continues to be uncovered, and continues to show more and more what you expect to see if common descent is true. At all of the major transitions, there are intermediates found in just the right places.”

I responded on that thread, and then decided to convert those responses into a blog. The major thrust was that multiple origins of life is a viable and growing option for many biologists, and that the fossil and genetic data are not as clear and unequivocal as he had suggested. I made no apologetics arguments, and didn’t even mention god. I just offered scientific evidences that his positions were debatable.

In private discussion with a friend (on who’s page this conversation took place), I then made a prediction:

“Personally, I just don’t think that the doubt about UCA is religiously motivated. Too many secular biologists are skeptics (and for too good of reasons). Just because UCA is false, it doesn’t follow that anyone is saying ‘god did it.’ That’s Jim Stump’s fear. They SOOOOOO fear the god of the gaps fallacy.”

It took less than a day for my prediction of Stump’s response to be validated. Rather than grapple with the examples I offered, Stump’s response was,

“I’m curious what your alternative explanation is for the Cambrian Explosion (and even more, the rest of the fossil evidence)….What I’m wondering is what you would see if a video camera had been rolling. Did God create one species out of nothing (so there was nothing there, and then “poof” we see a certain number of these organisms); and then a million years later all of those have died out, and God creates another species out of nothing that looks very similar with just a few tweeks; and so on and so on through millions of years, so there is a sequence of slightly modified species that look like a progression, but are actually not related?”

In other words, when I pointed out there is a growing number of serious biologists who are skeptical about Universal Common Ancestry (UCA), and that the fossil record isn’t as easily interpreted as he suggested, he didn’t respond with a counter to my evidences. He changed the subject to what really haunts him: the god-of-the-gaps fallacy (but see here). Of course, I hadn’t mentioned god at all. I simply tried to demonstrate that the science didn’t necessarily support his claim.

Notice how this argument works. If there is a gap in understanding, we are asked to assume that it will be filled with a naturalistic explanation. That is, we will find no evidence of God directly acting in a divine way (i.e. miraculously violating natural law). Now, it is true that saying “God did it,” doesn’t tell us how it happened. But, that’s an entirely different concern than whether or not science can detect such action. Every day, Jim Stump assumes he has the capacity for objective observation and free-willed decisions, even though science cannot explain how it is possible. None the less, the patterns produced by intelligent agents can be detected by science. So people like Stump are conflating the questions “did it happen?” with “how did it happen?” Science can work on either.

But notice the more concerning issue in this line of arguing. If Stump is incredulous about the possibility of God acting divinely, suspending natural law, then what exactly does he think God did do?[1] The conclusion is that, in order to be intellectually honest, he must assume that God has never acted to produce miracles that violate natural law. Wherever Stump inserts a claim of miraculous divine action, he is committing this god-of-the-gaps fallacy himself!

I’m going to return to this last observation in a subsequent blog, but I want to finish by discussing another go-to in the theistic evolutionist playbook: the appeal to consensus. Sadly, this is a common and well-known logical fallacy, so it’s shameful that people pull it. Consensus science is used by many to beat up and belittle anyone with a “fringe” view on a topic. Stump is no exception. His second response to my comments was,

“As I said, I know you can produce some scientists who object to evolution. But just saying that gives the impression that scientists are roughly divided on the subject, when the reality is that 98% accept evolution (and 99% of those with PhD’s in biology or medicine). So I’m guessing my 95% estimate of paleontologists is pretty safe.”

First, I’m not convinced of this number. I hadn’t made a case against evolution in its broadest sense. Only that his views on evolution were flawed. But, tucked in here, is an equivocation on the word evolution. For most polls of this sort, you only have two options: naturalism = ‘evolution,’ and supernaturalism = anti-evolution. Anyone committed to naturalism must choose some form of evolution. But, what evolution is, whether the pattern or the process, is very fluid today. For example, at a meeting of the Royal Society back in 2016, Gerd B. Müller offered no less than six different definitions for “evolution.” Even the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) believes in a form of evolution: some small number of animals got off Noah’s ark, and then diversified into what we see today. That’s evolution.

Leaving that aside, notice the appeal here. Since 98% of PhDs in biology accept “evolution,” any examples I bring to the table can be rejected out of hand. This is why Stump said that doubting such things was tantamount to believing in geocentrism. Only about a third of scientists in biology and medicine believe in God. So, if Stump’s argument was valid, it would actually harm his views. He shouldn’t be a Christian, since it’s a minority view.

But let’s knock this down once and for all.

Francis Crick shared in a Nobel Prize for making one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the biological sciences (the DNA double helix). Yet, in 1973, he and Leslie Orgel argued,

“As an alternative to these nineteenth-century mechanisms, we have considered Directed Panspermia, the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet.”

This was certainly not the consensus view. So, if Crick were alive today, what would Stump say to him? Would he call him out on some “god did it” argument? Would he pummel him with consensus science?

In Darwin’s day, everybody repeatedly described the cell as simple, referring to it as a “globule of plasm.” Today, a common textbook, Molecular Biology of the Cell, is nearly 1500 pages, and barely scratches the surface of the cell’s complexity. The consensus view was wrong.

The consensus view once supported Newtonian physics. Until relativity came along.

The consensus view once supported a steady-state (eternal) universe, until Big Bang cosmology came along.

The consensus view held that Grand Canyon was 70-80 million years old, until a few years ago, when we determined it’s just 5-6 million years old.

The consensus view held that 97% of our genome should be “junk.” Until ENCODE (and several papers since 2012) supported functionality for the majority of the genome.

The consensus view once held gradualism. Now punctuated equilibrium and catastrophism now rule the day.

The consensus view once held that Darwinian evolution (natural selection + heritable variation) was the only game in town. Since the 60s, neutral evolution has rivaled, even supplanted, Darwinian evolution.

We once thought fossilization was an extremely slow process. We now know it can happen in minutes.

The consensus was that chimps and humans were 98% genetically similar. But that is now eroding.

I could just keep going. But, you see the point. We’re not interested in whether or not a view is “consensus.” We’re only interested in whether or not it’s scientifically respectable. Is it science? Thus far, the answer is a resounding YES! For as long as there are respectable biologists offering models consistent with what I’m arguing, I am perfectly justified to hold those views, consensus or not. This is not about counting noses.

 

[1] Remember, for the theistic evolutionist, the best evidence that God is involved in everything is that He cannot be detected in anything.

Does Jim Stump think PNAS supports geocentrism?

“He puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.”

Jim Stump, senior editor over at BioLogos, made some interesting claims on facebook this week. Trying to convince yet another ID proponent to fully commit to organic evolution,[1] he asserted that

“Common ancestry is a multiply confirmed theory that explains the observable data in detail. So asking what kind of evidence would contradict that is about like asking what kind of evidence would it take for you to accept geocentrism.”

While this makes for good rhetoric, you’ll struggle to find modern astronomers who publish on geocentrism. However, you will find a large and growing number of biologists who question universal common ancestry (UCA).

The idea that there may have been multiple origins of life was even offered by Darwin, when he wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one…” And it hasn’t gone away. In 1983, in PNAS, Raup and Valentine published Multiple Origins of Life, and argued for just that. So apparently, these two biologists published something tantamount to geocentrism…in one of the biggest journals in the world. This should be the first indicator that Stump’s statement might be hyperbole.

But, Stump went on to double down on his allegiance to UCA, cavalierly offering,

“The fossil record continues to be uncovered, and continues to show more and more what you expect to see if common descent is true. At all of the major transitions, there are intermediates found in just the right places.”

This would be a surprise to most in the industry. For example, the man considered to be the 20th century’s Darwin (Ernst Mayr), in his 2002 book What Evolution Is, said of the Cambrian fauna, “Almost all of these phyla appeared seemingly full-fledged…No fossil intermediates between them have been found and no living intermediates are in existence.” Time has not relieved evolutionary theory of this burden, but has further substantiated it.

Haldane once said that, if you wanted to convince him that evolution (however we’re defining that) was wrong, show him a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian. We haven’t done that, but since his time, we have discovered several vertebrate forms from both the agnatha and the gnathastomes (primitive sharks) in the early Cambrian (alongside the first sea cucumbers, crustaceans and flatworms, to name a few). This likely wouldn’t persuade the loyalist. But the fact remains that we find 30 phyla and 50 classes of animals emerging on the scene in a narrow span of geologic time (Erwin and Valentine have pegged it at a 5-8 million year window). Hardly what you’d expect if common descent was true, and definitely not the plenitude of transitional fossils we’d anticipate.

It’s true that the prevailing theory has been UCA. It’s only been in the past 30-40 years that data have suggested otherwise, and change is slow. But, slow or not, change is coming.

Let’s return to the Cambrian discussion for a moment. The situation is so bad that, just this year, a large research team (33 researchers from 23 different labs around the world) published a paper in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. In it, they attempted to explain the Cambrian by cosmic panspermia:

“Life may have been seeded here on Earth … bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth…”

By “ova” they’re actually talking about cephalopods. That’s interesting, because the phylum Mollusca (which contains the Cephalopoda) has long been problematic. In fact, clear back in Darwin’s day, Huxley suggested HAM (the Hypothetical Ancestral Mollusk), because no common ancestor to the mollusks was forthcoming. And it hasn’t come as of 2018. In fact, a recent study by Lindberg and Chiselin found that,

“Our best approximation of the phylogeny of HAM (based on known ancestor-descendant relationships and stratigraphy) requires 53 more steps than the most parsimonious tree found by cladistic analysis. The evolution of HAM exhibits all the typical process-es and developmental heterochronies thought to encompass organic morphological evolution, and both phenetic analysis and cladistic analyses have problems relating paedomorphic taxa. HAM has not aided evolutionary biologists or paleontologists in solving problems, but it has often had the opposite effect, by requiring that theories be treated within its framework… Unfortunately, these imaginary animals do not come clearly labeled with warnings about the harm that they might do if mistaken for real organisms.”

Again, contra Stump’s original claim, this is exactly what you wouldn’t expect if UCA was true.

Many scientists today doubt UCA.

Ford Doolittle (from the National Center for Biotechnology Information) has. Rokas and Carroll have as well. Craig Venter has probably sequenced more genomes than any man alive. At an origins of life panel discussion he recently said,

“I’m not so sanguine as some of my colleagues here, that there’s only one life form on this planet . . . The tree of life is an artifact of some early scientific studies that aren’t really holding up. . . . there may be a bush of life.”

The discussion got more lively when Paul Davies chirped up,

Davies: “Well, I’ve got the same genetic code, ‘We’ll have a common ancestor.’”

Venter: “You don’t have the same genetic code. In fact, the Mycoplasmas [a group of bacteria Venter and his team have used to engineer synthetic chromosomes] use a different genetic code that would not work in your cells. So there are a lot of variations on the theme…”

You see, the national database for genetic information (at NCBI) currently identifies more than 20 different DNA codes used by various organisms. Not what you’d expect on UCA.

Even as an atheist, I thought this might be the case. If life can evolve once, then we should expect it could evolve multiple times. If that’s true, why should we force the data to coalesce on one original life form? It’s just the way we rigged the game. (see also: https://www.newscientist.com/…/mg20126921.600-why…/)

And fossils are not where they always ought to be. In fact, another little report from just this year (out of the Royal Society of London), found the so-called “walking dead” (accumulations of fossils in mixed groupings due to movement of rock and sediment post-mortem), sufficient to distort our understanding of extinctions events of the past! We still don’t know the relationships between the tetrapods for crying out loud!

Stump continued,

“And remember that fossils are just one piece of the puzzle. Now genetics allows us to construct family trees of species in remarkable detail. That genetic evidence could have contradicted common ancestry, but it absolutely confirms it. Again, you can always say God created things separately but made them look like they were related… but how long can you keep that argument up?”[2]

ORLY? Again, that’s news to many in the field.

To quote Dávalos et al.,

“Incongruence among phylogenies estimated from different sets of characters is pervasive. Phylogenetic conflict has become a more acute problem with the advent of genome-scale data sets. These large data sets have confirmed that phylogenetic conflict is common, and frequently the norm rather than the exception.”

Antonis Rokas has been deeply involved in the study genes and phylogenies. In a 2005, he and his colleagues admitted, even “a 50-gene data matrix does not resolve relationships among most metazoan phyla.” The metazoans are all multicellular animals (save for sponges). The more genetic code we look at, the worse things get. Point-and-case, in a recent meta-analysis dealing with “bushes” in our tree of life, Rokas and Carroll (2006) decided to omit 35 percent of the single genes from the data matrix because, “those genes produced phylogenies at odds with conventional wisdom.” (see also https://academic.oup.com/bib/article/16/3/536/243419 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5026250/, as two more examples.)

While this post isn’t about the monkeys to man hypothesis, Stump did bring that up as well. It’s very important that our primate ancestors don’t get triggered by the blasphemy of suggesting we may not have descended from them after all. Founder of BioLogos (and renown scientist), Francis Collins, put his foot down back in 2006, writing,

“Darwin’s theory predicts that mutations that do not affect function (namely, those located in ‘junk DNA’) will accumulate steadily over time… That is exactly what is observed…If, as some might argue, these genomes were created by individual acts of creation, why would this particular feature appear?”

In other words, if evolution and UCA was true, our genome should be littered with the remnants of failed and derelict DNA, no longer serving any function. So called “junk DNA” was thought to make up about 97% of our genome at that time. Collins made it clear that this was a very testable prediction. If junk is plentiful, it supports evolutionary theory. If it is not, it would be a strong support of ID theory.

Six years later, a massive (and I mean massive) consortium of researchers from around the world published their work on the ENCODE project in the journal Nature.

Their major finding?

“These data enabled us to assign biochemical functions for 80% of the genome, in particular outside of the well-studied protein-coding regions.”

This shook everyone. Famed molecular biologist Dan Graur wrote,

“If the human genome is indeed devoid of junk DNA as implied by the ENCODE project, then a long, undirected evolutionary process cannot explain the human genome… If ENCODE is right, then evolution is wrong.”

He then promptly walked it back, first suggesting that we might be able to accommodate up to 10% functionality in the genome while retaining the basic evolutionary model, and then 25%.

Unfortunately for Graur, the needle has kept moving. A study from this year now suggests that 95% of the human genome is under selection (meaning it has some functional role in fitness).

Meanwhile, if Stump actually reads the scientific literature he touts, he must have been shocked earlier this year, when biologists completed a full re-work of several great ape genomes. This was important for many reasons. First, as the authors conceded, the first chimp genome project was heavily biased. There was actually human DNA contamination in roughly 40% of the labs doing the work. Additionally, the human genome was used as a scaffold for assembling the chimp genome (i.e., they were literally matching DNA segments from the chimp genome to the existing human genome sequences). In this new attempt, the controls were much better, and there was no explicit comparison of the primate genomes to any existing human genomes. As such, Richard Bugg, professor of evolutionary genomics at the University of London, decided to do the comparison, and found that, “The percentage of nucleotides in the human genome that had one-to-one exact matches in the chimpanzee genome was 84.38%” (a far cry from the presumed 98% similarity between chimps and humans). What’s really scary is that this is almost exactly the degree of similarity predicted by Jeffrey Tomkins, a young earth creationist scientist! BioLogians may have to lay down for that one. Again, clearly not what we would predict under Darwinian evolution and UCA.

So, in the holiday spirit, and lift a quote from Dr. Seuss, “He puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the theistic evolutionist thought of something he hadn’t before. What if evolution, he thought, was a little bit more.”

[1] This is an unsettling pattern with BioLogos. (see here for an example: https://shadowofoz.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/silver-linings-or-rose-colored-glasses/)

[2] Note that Stump equates the scientific hypothesis of multiple origins to some kind of god-of-the-gaps argument, and this shows his true fear, which is not scientific, but theological