In my opinion, the challenge posed by evolutionary biology to the Christian faith is not that it refutes the so-called “argument from design”, but that it offers a narrative of nature that is at odds with the Christian understanding of Creation. Whereas Christians view the cosmos as essentially “good” and attribute the presence of death and suffering to the fallen state of humanity, Darwinists understand death and violence as intrinsic properties of the biological realm that predate the advent of the human species. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is nothing good or decent about creation; the story of life is one of brute force, of Nietzschean will to power, where all the spoils go to the strong and progress occurs by benefit of (and not in spite of) death. Nature exists only by virtue of its willingness to dominate; it has no purpose, no morals, no beauty (given this, it is somewhat surprising that so many evolutionary biologists are ardent environmentalists. E.O. Wilson, for one, has a strong sense of purpose to preserve this purposeless world).*
Christian thinkers have responded to this incongruity between the biological and Christian narratives in two fashions (here, I am greatly indebted to a series of excellent posts by Lee at verbum ipsum – please read them here, here, and here). The first approach, advocated by Keith Ward, holds that “destruction and death are built into the universe as necessary conditions of its progress to new forms of life.” That is, death and suffering serve to promote the greater good, namely, the evolution of intelligent life. The drawback of this argument is that is makes God the author of death and evil, and, for this reason, it has been strongly opposed by David Bentley Hart, especially in his book The Doors of the Sea. For Hart, death and destruction are alien forces in God’s creation to which He is implacably opposed. The advantage of this position, of course, is that God is no longer complicit in the existence of evil, and it more closely adheres to the traditional view that death is the result of man’s original sin. But, as Lee points out, Hart’s rhetoric can easily lapse into a kind of gnostic dualism wherein God is only the redeemer of the world, not its sole creator.
While I tend to think that Ward is more right than Hart on this point, I take issue with the assumption, implicit in both arguments, that death is evil. Isn’t it death that makes us creatures and not gods, serving as the most dramatic expression of our finitude? In particular, I find the notion that death only arose as a judgment for sin simply preposterous.** Perishability, after all, is what gives the world the possibility of true becoming and creativity, as well as its historical character (see Jüngel's excellent discussion of the positive aspects of perishability in God as the Mystery of the World). Moreover, the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate once and for all that death is God’s servant, not his enemy.
It is man’s sinfulness, his lack of faith, that transforms death from something natural into something terrible, something evil. Humanity, apart from God, begins to have delusions of immortality, and then death becomes only an absurd negation. But the Christian understands that his life is never his possession, that he is always dependent on the higher power. His faith in Christ also teaches him that death has no real finality; it is God’s love that is absolute. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t mourn the passing of those we love, or try to heal the sick. We must always cherish and protect life. But we should never begrudge God death when it is He who so graciously grants us life.
So, in my estimation, the evolutionary biologists are right when they say that death is a necessary part of nature. But are they also correct in concluding that the world is not good, as the book of Genesis would have us believe? I think the answer depends on how one interprets the biblical statements concering the goodness of creation. Are these meant to imply that the world is intrinsically good, that is, good in-and-of-itself? Or do they mean that creation is only good when it’s in communion with its Creator? I think the latter answer is correct, which means that only a redeemed creation is truly “good”. We should never draw too sharp a distinction between God’s roles as Creator and Redeemer, as if He first made a supposedly good creation and then had to save it when all hell broke loose. Creation always involves redemption, and redemption always involves a new creation. Thus, it’s not surprising that a purely atheistic worldview like neo-Darwinism is incapable of seeing the inherent goodness of creation, since it cuts itself off from the salvation that redeems and restores this fractured world.
* The purpose of this post is not to challenge the scientific merit of the theory of evolution, which is quite simply beyond question. My target is Darwinism as a metanarrative, a sort of theory of everything, which is advanced by the likes of Dawkins and Dennett.
** Of course, there is a form “unnatural” death that did arise because of man’s sinfulness: murder. But murder is not the same as death in general, and it provides no evolutionary advantage that I can think of.