It was the summer of 1925. The place was the small mountain town of Dayton, Tennessee. The issue at hand was a legal confrontation that made headlines around the world. On one side was William Jennings Bryan and on the other was Clarence Darrow. Their confrontation was not over a crime or misdemeanor; it was not over a legal suit involving a will or a trust. It didn’t even involve special prosecutors or a grand jury. In fact, the courts had never encountered a case quite like this one.
The subject was the very origin of human life.
It is known in the history books as the Scopes Trial. A young biology teacher by the name of John T. Scopes was charged with violating a Tennessee law stating you could not teach evolution. As a result, the trial posed defenders of evolutionary theory against those who wanted public schools to teach what was considered to be a biblical view of the origin of the world’s inhabitants. William Jennings Bryan represented the state and, by default, those who believed in the biblical view of the creation of human beings. Clarence Darrow represented those who embraced the evolutionary theory.
The three main parties of the Scopes Trial: William Jennings Bryan (left), John T. Scopes (center), Clarence Darrow (right). Source: Wikimedia Commons
It really was the clash of two worlds. Bryan was the good-old-boy, religious Southerner. Darrow, in favor of evolution, was the outspoken, religious agnostic from the North, polished and intellectual, supplied to defend Scopes by the ACLU. Many people do not know that the result of the trial found the teacher guilty, but not before Darrow (the evolutionist) had made a fool of Bryan (the creationist). Bryan allowed himself to be cross-examined by Darrow, arguably the greatest trial lawyer of his day, on the precise accuracy of the Bible. In the course of that examination, Darrow forced Bryan to admit that he couldn’t answer even the most basic questions about what the Bible puts forward as truth. Not because there weren’t answers, but because Bryan wasn’t the sharpest biblical scholar around.
So the verdict as it stands in history is intriguing: Bryan won the battle, but he lost the war. While he technically won the case, the conflict stamped the entire debate with an unmistakable image. Evolution vs. creation came to be seen as the city vs. the country; places like New York and Chicago vs. backwoods Dayton, Tennessee; science vs. ignorance; the modern world of the 20th century vs. the American Religious Fundamentalism of the 19th century. That image has remained firmly in place for nearly a century and so have the lines of debate. Evolution has become the accepted scientific theory of how human beings and all of life developed and came into being. Whether through evolution or not, the biblical idea of a God creating is seen as a view that is anti-scientific and out of touch with the real world.
But is that the caricature we should have in mind? A divide between smart and dumb, sophisticated and backward, science and the Bible... or even between evolution and creation? Or is there something more to be considered? Namely, that the real divide is between a naturalistic view of the universe (seeing nature as all that there is) and a theistic view of the universe (remaining very much open to the existence and activity of God). In other words, a view of the world that sees nothing but the temporal, the material and the natural, over and against a view that is open-minded toward the eternal, the spiritual and, yes, even the supernatural.
To be sure, those who are Christians believe that God created human beings. If you are a Christian, you are, by necessity, a creationist. You believe that we were wonderfully and carefully designed, and that the entire creative process was miraculously and supernaturally generated and guided by God.
But this is the “who” of the matter, not the “how”; which, in truth, is the real debate.
And according to a new study released this month by the Pew Research Center, this is where most Christians land. The majority of Christians today (as in 58% of white evangelical Protestants and 66% of black Protestants) “agree that human evolution is real—and that God had a hand in it.”
Pew acknowledged that perhaps they had, in the past, been asking the question regarding evolution wrong, meaning not phrasing it in a way to allow both the embrace of evolution along with a role for God.
Of course, any reasonable glance at evolution cries out for some kind of intervention. The timeline alone is problematic. While the age of the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years, the age of the Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years. But life didn’t exist 4.5 billion years ago. It couldn’t. It was a geologically violent time, there was constant bombardment from meteorites, and the Earth itself had to cool and its surface solidify to a crust. Life on Earth, the latest thinking goes, began about 3.8 billion years ago, in the form of single-celled prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria. Multi-cellular life didn’t come into play until over a billion years later. It’s only in the last 570 million years that the kind of life forms we are familiar with even began to evolve, starting with arthropods, followed by fish 530 million years ago, then land plants 470 million years ago, and then forests 385 million years ago. Mammals didn’t evolve until just 200 million years ago, and our own species, Homo Sapiens, only 200,000 years ago (according to theorists).
So humans have been around for a mere 0.004% of the Earth’s history. That’s the evolutionary time frame, but also the evolutionary problem.
The whole idea behind naturalistic evolution is that it’s a product of time plus chance. But there just hasn’t been enough time for the Earth to cool and life to be produced naturalistically by chance. One-time Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge University, Sir Fred Hoyle, has determined that if you computed the time required to get all 200,000 amino acids for one human cell to come together by chance, it would be about 293.5 times the estimated age of the Earth. Even further, Hoyle, along with his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe, calculated the odds for all of the functional proteins necessary for a one-cell animal to form in one place by random events. They came up with a figure of one chance in 10 to the 40,000th power—that’s the number 1 with 40,000 zeros after it. Since there are only about 10 to the 80th power atoms in the entire universe, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe concluded that this was “an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.”
For the current proposed evolutionary timeline to work, it would be like having the working dynamics of the latest iPhone along with the entire corporate campus of Apple that produced it to be instantly created – by chance – through a single explosion in a computer geek’s garage. If you are going to embrace the theory of evolution, you also need to (seemingly) embrace some kind of outside, guiding, enhancing force that sped it along and guided it strategically in the time frame of the age of the Earth.
There is, of course, more to consider, such as the initial complexity of life from which evolution had to begin (How did that initial complexity come into being?). Also, there is the problem of explaining how the evolutionary process created ever-increasing diversity (How one species creates a completely different species is, at best, vague.).
But beyond the lack of time for evolution to have done its work without outside help, beyond tracing the origin of life back to its roots and finding that its starting point was so complex that it couldn’t have evolved naturally (step by Darwinian step) to get there, there’s the beginning of life itself. You can’t say “Life exists because 3.8 billion years ago it began evolving from single-celled prokaryotic cells” and consider the case closed. Just like Big Bang theorists have to wrestle with where the stuff that got banged came from and who made it bang, evolutionary theorists have to ask how those first bacteria came to life. How did life come from non-life? You can say that within chemically rich liquid oceans organic molecules transitioned to self-replicating life, but that’s like saying your SUV became Optimus Prime after it went through a car wash. It doesn’t just happen.
So the real decision is not between creation and evolution, but between theism and naturalism. And it would seem that those who have the most scientific problems are the naturalists, as everything in science that reveals “how” repeatedly points to a very necessary “Who.”
James Emery White
Nadia Whitehead, “Origins Opinion Surveys Evolve from ‘How’ to ‘Who’,” Christianity Today, February 12, 2019, read online.
George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925.
Dr. Devleena Mani Tiwari, “Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth,” Science India, read online.
Sir Fred Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe.
Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.