He couldn’t believe his eyes. Along with many other Catholics around the world, on Oct. 25, 1996, he read a newspaper headline that announced, “Pope John Paul II Backs the Theory of Evolution.”
For Tulio Hernandez, a 32-year old-Catholic, the news came as a shock. The newspaper mentioned the pope had addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome and mused that the theory of evolution seemed valid for the physical evolution of man and other species through natural selection and hereditary adaptations.
“The Pope said we could have descended from the apes,” said Il Giornale, a conservative Italian newspaper. The Pope clarified that he regarded the human soul as being God’s creation and not subject to the evolutionary process. (This mixing of evolution and God is called theistic evolution and, as we shall see, has an enormous impact on whether people take the Bible at face value or much is considered to be well-meaning myth.)
What was Tulio’s reaction? “It left me quite confused,” he remarked. “I had always thought Adam and Eve really existed and had been created directly from the ground by God.”
What were his thoughts now about biblical teachings and the afterlife? “I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m looking seriously into reincarnation and other religions for more answers.”
How did this surprising declaration by Pope John Paul II come about? What are factors that led to this far-reaching conclusion?
How Early Catholics Understood Genesis
Notice what Time magazine said about the pope’s endorsement of evolution: “[Pope] Pius [in 1950] was skeptical of evolution but tolerated study and discussion of it; the statement by John Paul reflects the church’s acceptance of evolution. He did not, however, diverge at all from Pius on the question of origin of man’s soul: that comes from God, even if ‘the human body is sought in living material which existed before it.’”
The statement is unlikely to influence the curriculum of Catholic schools, where students have studied evolution since the 1950s. Indeed, taking the Bible literally has not been a hallmark among Catholics through much of the 20th century. Asked about the pope’s statement, Peter Stravinskas, editor of the 1991 Catholic Encyclopedia, said: ‘It’s essentially what Augustine was writing. He tells us that we should not interpret Genesis literally, and that it is poetic and theological language’ ” ( Time, international edition, Nov. 4, 1996, p. 59).
So, from the time of Augustine and for the next 1,300 years, covering roughly the medieval age, the view of the Greek philosophers became the standard for explaining creation and a flat earth in the Roman church. Further, ecclesiastical leaders adopted the earth-centered view of the universe of Ptolemy, a Roman astronomer of the second century. “It was … from the work of previous [Greek] astronomers,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica , “that Ptolemy evolved his detailed description of an Earth-centered (geocentric) universe, a revolutionary but erroneous idea that governed astronomical thinking for over 1,300 years …
“In essence, it is a synthesis of the results obtained by Greek astronomy … On the motions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, Ptolemy again extended the observations and conclusions of Hipparchus—this time to formulate his geocentric theory, which is popularly known as the Ptolemaic system” (15th edition, Chicago, 1975, Macropedia Vol. 15, “Ptolemy,” p. 179).
The Bible and a Round Earth
Thus it was not the biblical perspective, but the Greek view of the cosmos that was to guide man’s concept of the universe for many centuries. Whereas the Greeks thought of the earth as stationary and imagined that everything else circled around it, the Bible speaks of earth revolving in space. Job 38:14 Job 38:14It is turned as clay to the seal; and they stand as a garment.
American King James Version×compares the earth to a seal turning and leaving its impression of day and night in the sky. Although the Greeks thought Atlas held up first the heavens and later the earth, and the Hindus believed the earth rested atop four gigantic elephants, the Bible has long revealed the true explanation. We read in Job 26:7 Job 26:7He stretches out the north over the empty place, and hangs the earth on nothing.
American King James Version×an astonishingly modern scientific concept, that God “hangs the earth on nothing.” Science has demonstrated that this “nothing” is the invisible force of gravity that holds the planet in its orbit.
Over time, of course, these erroneous Greek ideas, incorporated into the Roman church, were proven wrong. “The early Fathers thought they were defending the Bible when they argued that the world must be flat,” says British physicist Alan Hayward. “But in fact they were only defending their own wrong interpretation of the Bible. And in the long run they harmed their own cause, by giving people the impression that Christianity was opposed to the scientific method of seeking knowledge” ( Creation and Evolution, Bethany House, Minneapolis, 1985, p. 80).
The voyages of various explorers, including Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World, demonstrated that the earth was round rather than flat. A bit later Nicolas Copernicus calculated that the earth was not the center of the universe. However, he was cautious about challenging the Roman church on this belief. More than a century would elapse before someone would be bold enough and possessed sufficient evidence to clash with the church.
In the 1690s, after he had invented the first telescope, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei saw clear evidence that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice-versa. The church considered the idea heretical, and Galileo was threatened with death if he did not recant. Finally he did, although legend has it, as he left the presence of the pope, he muttered under his breath about the earth: “But it still moves.” “When the Roman church attacked Copernicus and Galileo,” says Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer, “it was not because their teaching actually contained anything contrary to the Bible. The church authorities thought it did, but that was because Aristotelian elements had become part of church orthodoxy, and Galileo’s notions clearly conflicted with them. In fact, Galileo defended the compatibility of Copernicus and the Bible, and this was one of the factors which brought about his trial” ( How Shall We Then Live?, Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, New Jersey, 1976, p. 131).
In fact, some believe that the invention of the printing press and subsequent broader distribution of the Bible in the 1500s played a large role in the emergence of modern science. “The rise of modern science,” says Francis Schaeffer, “did not conflict with what the Bible teaches; indeed, at a crucial point the Scientific Revolution rested upon what the Bible teaches.
“Both Alfred North Whitehead and J. Robert Oppenheimer have stressed that modern science was born out of the Christian world view … As far as I know, neither of the two men were Christians … Because the early scientists believed that the world was created by a reasonable God, they were not surprised to discover that people could find out something true about nature and the universe on the basis of reason” (Schaeffer, pp. 132-133).
As this more biblically based science expanded, ecclesiastical leaders had to admit that their long-held positions were wrong. With these two teachings—that the earth was flat and that it was at the center of the universe—proven false, the church had lost two rounds of prestige against emerging science. As time went on, scientific study grew increasingly apart from the dominant religion, which was mired in its Greek and medieval thought. This gap has only widened with time.
The Theory of Evolution
“The early Greek philosophers,” explains Dr. Hayward, “were probably the first thinkers to toy with the notion of evolution. Along with many other ideas from ancient Greece it reappeared in western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries … But one great difficulty stood in the way. Nobody—not ever Lamarck, who made a brave attempt—could explain convincingly how evolution could have taken place. Each species seemed to be fixed. There seemed no way in which one species could give rise to another. “Darwin changed all that with his theory that the way evolution worked was by ‘natural selection.’ He proposed that small variations in each generation—the kind of natural variations that enable breeders to produce new varieties of dogs and cows and apples and roses—would eventually add up to very big differences, and thus, over hundreds of millions of years, could account for every species on earth” ( Creation and Evolution, Bethany House, Minneapolis, 1985, pp. 4-5).
Thus, in the late nineteenth century, scientists and educators were sidetracked from finding the truth about the origin and meaning of life when they adopted Darwin’s reasoning. Their widespread acceptance of an alternative explanation for the existence of man and the creation apart from the account of Genesis soon led to a general distrust of the Bible. This massive shift of thought has had far-reaching consequences for humanity. “Darwinism,” says Dr. Hayward, “begins to look more like a huge maze without an exit, where the world has wandered aimlessly for a century and a half” (Hayward, p. 58).
Meanwhile the churches, on its base of Greek philosophy, could not adequately explain and defend aspects of their teachings. They, too, were ultimately sidetracked by their mixing of pagan philosophy with the Bible.
Acceptance of Evolution
Some of the reasons for the acceptance of Darwin’s theory involved conditions of the time. The 19th century was an era of great social and religious unrest. Science was riding a crest of popularity. Impressive discoveries and inventions were appearing constantly. Darwin himself had an impeccable reputation as a dedicated naturalist, and the length and tediousness of his book hid many of the real weaknesses of his theory (he described his own book as “one long argument”). It was in this climate that Darwin’s theory gained acceptance.
At the same time, the Roman church was being affected by its own cumulative mistakes about science as well as the critics’ onslaughts against its teachings and the Bible. The church itself began to accept scientific explanations rather than supernatural ones.
The momentum grew in the 20th century until Protestants and Catholics alike accepted theistic evolution. This is the belief that God occasionally intervenes in a largely evolutionary process through such steps as creating the first cell and then permitting the whole process of evolution to take place, or by simply waiting for the first man to appear from the gradual chain of life and then giving him a soul.
“Darwinian evolution to them,” says Dr. Hayward, “is merely the method by which God, keeping discreetly in the background, created every living thing … The majority of theistic evolutionists have a somewhat liberal view of the Bible, and often regard the early chapters of Genesis as a collection of Hebrew myths” (Hayward, p. 8).
The implications for the trustworthiness of the Bible are enormous. Is it the inspired and infallible Word of God, or are parts of it merely well-intentioned myths? Are sections of it simply inaccurate and unreliable? Were Jesus Christ and the apostles wrong when they affirmed that Adam and Eve were created directly by God? (Matthew 19:4 Matthew 19:4And he answered and said to them, Have you not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 15:45 1 Corinthians 15:45And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
American King James Version×).
Was Christ mistaken, and did He mislead others? Is 2 Timothy 3:16 2 Timothy 3:16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
American King James Version×true, that “ All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine [church teaching] … “? As you can see, the implications for Christian faith and teaching are profound (see “The Testimony of the New Testament,” p.6).
Perhaps the effects of his own theory on Darwin’s own faith can illustrate the damage it can do to religious convictions. Darwin started as a theology student and a staunch respecter of the Bible, but once he formulated his theory he lost faith in the Old Testament. Later he could no longer believe in the miracles of the New Testament. A danger lies in following in Darwin’s footsteps. Remember the old saying, “If you teach a child he is only an animal, don’t complain when he behaves like one”? Can we not lay part of the blame for today’s rampant immorality and crime on society’s prevalent values and beliefs derived in part from this theory?
Darwinism and Morality
If there isn’t a just God to judge the actions of men, isn’t it easier for man to do as he pleases? Sir Julian Huxley once admitted why many quickly embraced evolution with such fervor: “I suppose the reason we jumped at Origin of Species was that the concept of God interfered with our own sexual mores” (Henry Morris, The Troubled Waters of Evolution, San Diego, Creation-Life Publishers, 1974, p. 58). He later wrote, “The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous” ( Essays of a Humanist, London, Penguin, 1966, p. 223). Could this have something to do with the immorality seen in so many schools and universities where God is banned from the classroom and evolutionary theory is taught as fact?
So can the Genesis account be reconciled with the idea of an ancient earth? What about evolution? How strong is its case? These questions will be covered in future installments. To be continued . GN