Darwin and the Problem of Evil: Sermon Version


John 9:1-9

(Note: This sermon version was presented in supporting churches in the US in early 2005.)

It's great to be with you this morning and to share with you a bit of the vision I have for missions in Japan. My wife Juji and I are involved in a wide variety of ministries, but in this sermon, I can only share one particular area - one that I find very challenging and satisfying personally. Our work centers in the "Science City" of Japan, and since my major in college was physics, I have always had a great interest in science. For the last 11 years, I have been affiliated with an evangelistic organization by the name of "Reasons To Believe" and have put out Japanese translations of several of their books and videos, along with a Japanese website as well. And so I would like to share with you a message related to this theme that I've entitled "Darwin and the Problem of Evil". My goal in this message is to take a look at the proper understanding of the relationship between science and faith, something that is making a significant impact for the gospel of Jesus Christ in Japan, as well as here in the US.

In my research on the historical development of modern science, one thing that has become increasingly clear to me is how important one's philosophical understanding of the world has been in the development of modern science. We call this philosophical understanding "worldview", and it is the "lens" through which each or us views the world and interprets its meaning. Historians of science concur that the very beginnings of modern science depended on people coming to have what we can call "the biblical worldview", namely that natural phenomena are not governed by the whims of various competing gods, but are governed by laws set up by a single, universal Creator. They recognize that this basic prerequisite first came together with other necessary factors during the Renaissance in Europe.

The absence of this basic concept is the reason science was "stillborn" in every other culture prior to that. With the exception of the Jews and Christians, who accepted the message of the Bible, all other ancient societies believed that natural phenomena were governed by various gods according to how they felt at the moment and by various events in the realm of the gods as they fought with each other or whatever. Thus, such phenomena were not thought of as something human beings could understand in anything other than a superficial sense. As an example of this mindset, take the Japanese word for "weather", "tenki". It is made up of two characters, "ten" for "the heavens" and "ki", which has to do with "feelings". Thus, in this very word you can see that ancient concept. The weather is governed by the "feelings" of the "gods". If the "weather god" were angry about something, there would be a destructive storm - or so the reasoning went. Such thinking would surely short-circuit any attempt to actually understand such natural phenomena. Instead, people would focus on how to placate the gods through various religious rituals and magical incantations. It was only as people began to realize that natural phenomena are governed by natural laws instituted by the Creator that modern science became possible.

It is also important to note that essentially all of the early scientists were dedicated Christians. They had gleaned out of Scripture the principle we now call the "scientific method" and used that as their methodology to try to understand the world that God had created. Their work, then, became the foundation on which all of modern science is based.

So, how is it that an enterprise that began with such distinct Christian beginnings later became so anti-Christian in many respects? Was it that scientists were led by the evidence to the conclusion that there wasn't a Creator God after all and that life arose and evolved by undirected chance? It is this issue that I want to look at today. It is my conclusion - and not mine alone, of course, but of a growing number of scholars - that the failure of the Christian Church to really deal with the issue of evil and suffering and to provide a satisfactory resolution to this problem has been in the background all through this fundamental change in the scientific enterprise. This dilemma of how to explain why a God who is supposed to be loving and all-powerful could allow evil and suffering is an important issue that cries out for a resolution.

Today, I don't propose to solve this issue once and for all, as it is a difficult issue far beyond my ability to do in a short message - or even a long one for that matter. It is comparatively easy to give general answers to the problem of evil, but when it comes to doing that on a personal level, that is an entirely different matter. Each time a major disaster such as "9-11" some three and a half years ago or such natural disasters as the recent tsunamis in southern Asia, we are reminded again of the personal tragedies that so many people suffer. For people caught up in such situations, general answers to the problem of evil and suffering are not very satisfying. We are finite beings limited to one place at one time, and so we cannot know the specifics of why God heals in one case while allowing suffering and death in another. Nevertheless, we can come to an understanding of the role of evil and suffering in God's overall plan, and it is this understanding that strengthens our faith and allows us to trust in God whatever our circumstances may be.

Before we delve further into this, however, I want to first go back and give a bit more of the historical background. After all, I've entitled this message "Darwin and the Problem of Evil." I've chosen Darwin both because he was a central character in the takeover of the scientific enterprise by naturalism and also because we have a considerable amount of information into his personal experiences and how those experiences affected his thinking.

Charles Darwin was raised in a Christian home and as a young man he even studied theology with the intent of going into the ministry. As was so common in those days, Darwin experienced numerous tragedies, such as the loss of his mother when he was only 8. As a young man, his plan in life was to pastor a rural parish where he could devote a lot of time to the observation of nature, what was called "natural history". But in 1831, another disaster struck. He had been planning on a scientific trip to the Canary Islands with a close friend, when just before they were to leave, that friend suddenly died, causing the whole trip to be cancelled. This put Darwin into a deep depression, but interestingly, this episode eventually opened up the way for him to be included on the research trip of the HMS Beagle.

While there were no doubt numerous factors that played together in driving him away from the faith he once embraced, there was one pivotal experience that nicely illustrates the dilemma we face in dealing with the problem of suffering and evil. Darwin had a young daughter named Annie who came down with a serious illness. Darwin prayed fervently for her recovery, but it seemed to him that God didn't care, for the child died. Needless to say, this grieved him greatly, and it is not difficult to understand why that experience would make him angry with God. It caused him to question God's love and then even God's very existence. Over time, this and other experiences and influences we know little about led Darwin to reject the biblical God all together. He didn't, however, become a complete atheist, as he realized that there still must be a Creator, but he figured that this Creator simply set up the system and let it run on its own without any present-day involvement.

Thus, when Darwin began his search for a naturalistic way to explainlife that didn't require a Creator's direct involvement,he did so with an agenda in mind. This agenda may not have been all that clear in the beginning, but as his personal tragedies mounted, it became increasingly clear to him. Thus, his goal was to come up with a plausible way to explain how life forms could evolve naturally without the need for a Creator being involved. His conclusions, however, were not really based on where objective evidence clearly pointed but, in my opinion, were based more on his emotional response to the problem of evil and suffering. This in itself, of course, wouldn't necessarily mean his conclusions were false, as that can only be determined from a fair and honest evaluation of the evidence. And I am convinced that the evidence from the fossil record clearly shows that life developed in extremely rapid spurts followed by long periods of little change - very unlike what Darwin envisioned.

Now, it is my conclusion that this kind of emotional response is always a significant factor in the development of one's worldview - be that theistic or atheistic. An interesting statistic was published a few years ago in "Free Inquiry", a magazine put out by the "Council for Secular Humanism", that referred to the results of a survey of its membership. It seems that the vast majority of its membership stated that they had been raised in strict religious homes, predominately of the fundamentalist Christian type. Now, that says something to me. It seems pretty obvious that these people are reacting very strongly to negative experiences from their childhood. In fact, I read a book recently that looked at the family backgrounds of many of the well-known atheists of the last few centuries, and it concluded that without exception, these people had very poor relationships with their earthly fathers, who had abandoned or abused these people as children.

The obvious conclusion from all of this is that atheism is at least usually, if not always, the result of an emotional reaction against very negative experiences related to God and religious experience. That doesn't mean, of course, that such negative experiences will necessarily lead to atheism, as often times other influences can overcome such factors. Nevertheless, it does set people up for wanting to embrace such a worldview.

Now, I know nothing about the personal history of a person like Richard Dawkins, a scientist who is an eloquent spokesman for atheism in today's world. But based on what we can see in the lives of others, I would predict that he too had some very negative family experiences connected with the Church. I doubt very seriously that the passion with which he and others like him fight against "creationism" in particular and religion in general could be fueled by anything other than such personal grudges. The fact that essentially all members of the "Council for Secular Humanism" come from strict religious backgrounds that they have obviously rejected shows that their motivation isn't any kind of objective search for the truth wherever that may lead. It is a way of justifying their rejection of their upbringing. They pride themselves in their skepticism, but I would say that they really aren't skeptical enough. They need to be skeptical about their own motivations as well as the various religious claims they fight against. Skepticism can be a very good thing. In fact, the Bible encourages us to be "skeptical", in that is tells us to not believe too easily and to check things out to make sure they are true. I Thes. 5:21 tells us to "Test all things and hold on to what is good."

Before moving on, I do need to add a caveat to avoid possible misunderstanding. I do not mean to imply that everybody who has accepted random-chance, Darwinian evolution as fact came from a dysfunctional family or anything of that sort. There are numerous observations that seem to make sense from the standpoint of Darwinism, and so it has often been persuasively presented as though it were established fact. Only about 10% of the American public say that they believe what they've been told, and of those, I would imagine that most come from fairly normal families. The point I am making here is that Darwinism as philosophical dogma is not a neutral scientific theory that is simply trying to explain how life came to be; it is a kind of "religion" in which random chance is our creator. As Richard Dawkins said, "Darwinism makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

One other point I want to make before we take a quick look at the problem of evil is the philosophical presupposition of naturalism. I have listened to numerous debates between proponents and critics of what is called "Intelligent Design" (the idea that the scientific data strongly points to design in the natural world), and invariably the point is made by its critics that science must operate on the basis of "methodological naturalism." (Naturalism is the method we must use.) This is defined as "Science can only investigate natural causes and thus there is no room within science for any form of supernatural input." Thus, "Intelligent Design," which allows for the possibility of input from an entity beyond nature, is declared not to be science but is instead "religion."

What has struck me as critical in this whole debate is the failure to distinguish between two very different domains of science - namely "empirical science" and, what I call for lack of a better term, "historical science." "Empirical" is a word referring to what we can experience directly with our physical senses, and thus "empirical science" is the ordinary science we normally think of - namely, things we can directly observe and do repeatable experiments on. When it comes to this aspect, I would readily agree that "methodological naturalism" is a prerequisite. No one in the "intelligent design" camp, for instance, would argue otherwise. In other words, we can't allow for the possibility of "divine input" each time we make a direct observation or do an experiment. In fact, that is the very basis on which modern science was developed in the first place. If we believed that some sort of supernatural control was involved each time we did some scientific experiment, then science could not function and we would be right back to that ancient mindset of natural phenomena being controlled by the whims of various gods.

But does this automatically preclude miraculous intervention by the Creator? We assume that ordinarily things work according to natural law, and so we cannot predict the miraculous if, in fact, it actually does exist. I, of course, believe that it does, but we cannot just assume that from the beginning. We can only look at evidence for it in the past, and judge from that. This, however, is not empirical science. But then, neither is the study of the past history of life on earth. It is what I'm calling "historical science," and rather than operating strictly according to the rules of the scientific method, it more legitimately operates according to the rules of historical analysis. In fact, as a whole, fields of study dealing with origins and past, unrepeatable events are by their very nature historical and not empirical.

When it comes to ordinary human history, how do we really know what happened in the past? We can only analyze the evidence that remains to determine which possible scenario is logically consistent with the facts, and by elimination work out the details of what happened as best we can. So, just as the historical evidence clearly points to, for instance, the miracle of Christ's resurrection, so does the evidence from the world of nature clearly point to the miraculous input of information and design in living organisms. It is only an a priorirejection of any supernatural input that is based solely on philosophical considerations that yields the opposite conclusion.

So, what is the motivation for clinging so desperately to the naturalistic model? It is not because the evidence points that way. It is just assumed to be true by definition. And it is my conviction that the underlying reason for this is strongly influenced by an emotional reaction against the failures of religion, particularly the Christian Church. While there are many failures that could be pointed to, I think the primary one in this regard is the failure of the Church to adequately deal with the problem of evil and suffering in a way that skeptics can relate to. It's been reported that this was the primary reason for Einstein's rejection of the God of the Bible. He was convinced from his scientific research that there had to be a Creator, but when he challenged the Christians he was associated with to explain how a loving, all-powerful Creator could allow such evil as he saw, they could not give him a satisfying answer. And so the end result was that just like Darwin, he opted for a distant, uninvolved Creator and not the God of the Bible.

Well, this does get us to the meat of the issue. Perhaps I'm biting off more "meat" than I can chew in trying to now deal with this issue in the time remaining. And certainly, I can't do a detailed analysis in just a few minutes. So let's briefly look at our Scripture reading from John chapter 9 to see what light it throws on the subject.

In this passage, Jesus' disciples wanted to know why a certain man was born blind. They were assuming that it was the result of sin, and in a broad sense, there is some truth to that assumption in that we live in a fallen world that in the final analysis is the result of rebellion against God. Jesus, however, points out that this man's condition was not the result of his or his parents' personal sin and that its purpose was to serve as a means for God to show his power and glory. This example puts the issue in a whole new context, as it brings God and his long-term goals into the equation. The problem is that we tend to look at everything through our limited frame of reference, namely this short, human life we live on earth. That's only natural, of course, as that is all that we can directly experience. We can only perceive the larger context through the eyes of faith as they are illuminated by what God reveals to us through his Word.

It is within this larger context, however, that we need to resolve the seeming contradiction of evil and suffering in a world that is under God's ultimate control. The Scriptures tell us that God's ultimate goal is the final conquering of evil and suffering without compromising the free will of his creatures. There were two purposes in God creating the universe. One was to prepare an environment where spiritual life could be merged together with physical life in the form of us human beings, and the other is to conquer the problem of evil in the shortest possible time while at the same time maintaining human free will. We humans are the only of God's creations where the two forms of life are wed together as one. Physically we are animals and yet we house a spirit created in God's image. As creatures endowed with free will, we can choose allegiance with the Creator or rebellion against him, either through passive indifference or active resistance. Our free will, however, is limited, as so much is predetermined. We do not, for instance, have the option of violating the laws of nature, and likewise, we cannot choose to do anything that would defeat God's ultimate purposes. These are boundary limitations of our free will.

This is related to another paradox of the Christian faith, as the Bible clearly teaches that while we have this limited free will, God also has predetermined all of history - at least the important points anyway - even if not the details. Two important streams in Protestant Christian thought have emphasized one or the other, namely Armenianism (which emphasizes human free will) and Calvinism (which focuses on God's sovereignty ; "You don't choose God; God chooses you"), and since I have a foot in both camps so to speak - being sent to Japan by both the Methodists and Presbyterians - I've been asked where I come down on that debate. Am I an "Arminian" or a "Calvinist?" I reply that I am a "Calminian" (or is it an "Arminist?"), as I believe both are complimentary aspects of the same truth. It is really a matter of perspective. From the human perspective, whether a person chooses one course of action or another is based entirely on his or her free will operating within the given boundaries. But from God's perspective from outside the constraints of space and time, God has already predetermined at least all important aspects of the future even if not the details as well. Here, though, using words like "already" and "pre-determined" to describe God's realm puts it right back into our human time frame, which is part of the reason it is so difficult for us to comprehend this in the first place.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with lots of questions about specific situations, but it gives a framework in which to view whatever happens to us in this life from an eternal perspective. It's like someone once said concerning the 2 principles of living life happily. The first is, "Don't fret over the small stuff." And the second is, "It's all small stuff!" If we think this short, earthly life is the main thing, then it matters very much how long and how comfortably we live. Now I don't mean to imply that we shouldn't strive to help people, including ourselves, to live long and healthy lives. As followers of Christ, we are of course called to do that. But we must always keep in mind that this life is not the totality of our existence as eternal creations of God. It's not really even the main act of the play. It's all we know experientially, of course, and so it seems that way. But compared to the "New Creation" God has promised, this life is only the prologue.

It is this perspective that gives us the proper mindset with which to weather life's storms. When viewed from only a human perspective, life is inherently unfair. Some people die young or have to endure terrible hardships, while others have it relatively easy. We cannot know why specific individuals find themselves in one category or the other, but when we realize that somehow it all fits into God's great plan, we can put our trust in God whatever comes our way. This, however, doesn't mean we are to just sit back and not try to change things for the better. But we are to do so with discernment. I'm reminded of a short prayer that has become known as the "Alcoholic's Prayer" which says, "Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can, the grace to accept the things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two."

Would such an understanding have changed Darwin's response to his crisis of faith? We'll never know, of course, but I believe it probably would have. Who knows? If Darwin would have had the insight to properly deal with his daughter's death and the other tragedies that surrounded his life, he might have become a great theologian instead of the naturalist who first theorized descent with modification, what we call "biological evolution." It would, of course, have only been a matter of time before some other disgruntled person figured out the same principles Darwin espoused, but today we would call it something other than "Darwinism."

Well, in closing, I want to thank you again for your prayers and financial support that allow us the privilege to serve the cause of Christ in Japan. And as a fellow disciple of Christ, I also want to encourage each of you to remember that we can truly trust God and leave things in his hands. We need to take seriously the commission we have been given to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, and be willing to be instruments in his hands for peace and justice in this world. But we are to leave the results up to him and not fret over things we have no control over. We each need to pray that prayer I mentioned earlier, and so I'd like to close with that short prayer. Let us pray: "Lord, give us the courage to change the things we can, the grace to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two." Amen

Updated: 2006 年 11 月 05 日,06:35 午前

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