We may begin our exercise in “fishing in the middle of the lake” (that is, considering religious and scientific answers together) by exploring the question of God’s character in relationship to natural history. This question was posed very articulately by one reader of a draft version of our book, who urged us to address what he saw as the “incompatibility of the brutality and wastefulness of the evolutionary scenario with the idea of an all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving God.” This reader asked, “Is it reasonable to suppose that the loving, compassionate God revealed in the mission of Jesus of Nazareth would employ such a process?”
While this question looks out over the lake, it is clearly posed from the side of faith and morals, not that of science and reason. The observation is being made that within the evolutionary process, a great number of different life forms come into being, but that they survive for greatly varying lengths of time. Only a very few survive for a significant portion of the total period of time for which we have fossil evidence, and it appears that all of them ultimately become extinct. This observation is being made specifically in value-laden language: The process is judged “brutal” and “wasteful.”
But that is not necessarily the case. The expenditure of life towards a goal is only “brutal” if it is done with disregard for the value of life. We do not consider a general brutal who wins a victory and perhaps ends a war at the cost of many casualties, if these were the minimum necessary to reach that end and if they have prevented the potential loss of a great many more lives. But we do consider a general brutal who thoughtlessly and needlessly sacrifices soldiers out of disregard for the value of their lives.
In the same way, the expenditure of any resource towards a goal is only “wasteful” if the expenditure is only a means to an end, not also an end in itself, and if that end could have been achieved with much less expenditure. Science would simply say, descriptively, that the evolutionary process has generated many kinds of life forms and that very few have survived for relatively longer periods of time. It is only when we superimpose certain premises—such as that God’s goal throughout the whole process was essentially to produce humans—that it may appear “brutal” and “wasteful.”
In the question, God is described, consistently with biblical teaching, as “all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving.” The implication is that such a God would have known a different means by which to have created humans, and the species with which they currently share the planet, without needlessly sacrificing countless more species on the altar of natural selection; that this God would have been able to use this alternative means; and that this God would have cared enough about the creatures themselves to have used it, thus sparing them the brutal fate to which an evolutionary process would have consigned them.
There is a problem with this analysis, but is not in the description of God. It is rather in the description of evolution.
One can look at the evolutionary process and ask, “Why so much death?” The process itself seems to involve constant small-scale extinctions as less-adapted species are selected out, and historically it seems to have been punctuated by massive, planet-wide extinctions.
But when I look at the evolutionary process I wonder instead, “Why so much life?” If evolution were simply the means that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God were using to produce humans, it should not have taken nearly so long as it apparently did. I claim no expertise in this area, but apparently natural history does not describe a “straight line” development from simpler forms to the most complex ones. Rather, it finds many twists and turns and detours along the way.
How are we to explain these: that God did not know, or did not care, or was not able? Or that God loves life so much as to produce it in variety and abundance, for its own sake? Is it really kinder to a potential creature never to bring it into existence than to let it have its “day in the sun,” even if it ultimately “returns to the dust”? Was God inefficiently trying only to bring humans into existence? Or was God also receiving joy from making a beautiful variety of creatures along the way?
(These questions imply an explanation for why the development of biological diversity proceeded less directly and quickly than it conceivably might have. Admittedly, this explanation cannot be entertained within a biological perspective, from which the process is seen to be blind and ateleological, as will be discussed shortly. There is therefore no “potential creature” in the first place to consider giving a “day in the sun.” Even if such a creature might exist in the mind of God, it is not accessible to biological investigation. The need to ask questions that make sense only when seen from one shore illustrates the hazards of fishing in the middle of the lake! But we will continue to try to do just that as we pursue these questions in the next post.)