The following article is part of a series of reports from the Fourth International Bible Conference, hosted in Rome, Italy, July 11–21, 2018. The theme of this particular conference was eschatology, a word that literally means “the teaching of the last things” and describes the study of last-day events and associated subjects. — Editors
As some Christian scholars and leaders are increasingly advocating theistic evolution to explain creation, two scholars presenting at the Fourth International Bible Conference say Adventists cannot accept theistic evolution unless they annul many of their Bible-based fundamental beliefs. Theistic evolution, the belief that God used processes of evolution to create, implies at least believing “an account of origins at odds with the biblical record of history,” said Geoscience Research Institute scientist Timothy Standish. It also implies, he added, introducing the presence of death before sin, or at least defining death in different ways before sin and after sin.
Thus, “Seventh-day Adventists cannot embrace theistic evolution without exhibiting extraordinary duplicity and naiveté,” Standish said.
Southern Adventist University professor Greg A. King seconded the notion. “Because of the unresolvable contradictions between theistic evolution and Scripture … and because of the profound way in which theistic evolution would alter or modify key doctrines of the Bible, it seems clear that there is no middle ground between theistic evolution and biblical creation.”
The questions may be asked, why do many confessed Christians not see a conflict between the work of a Creator God and evolution? Why are they embracing evolution without a second thought? And why can Adventists not accept it?
At the Rome conference, these two scholars shared some light on the topic.
Many Doctrines Affected
Both scholars emphasized that accepting theistic evolution would substantially alter many of the Bible-based Seventh-day Adventist doctrines.
First, believing in theistic evolution affects our view of Scripture, King said. It undermines the authority of Scripture itself, which tells us a different story of origins than is portrayed by evolution. It also affects the doctrine of God; according to the Bible, He created by the power of His word. “The God of theistic evolution is a diminished divinity,” King said.
King also explained how theistic evolution affects the doctrine of salvation. “Why do humans need to be saved, if they are simply following God’s plan for how to get to higher forms of life?” he asked. And “from what do we need to be saved” in the first place?
In theistic evolution, said King, human beings are also diminished. They fall short of being God’s crown of creation and become mere beings emerging at the end of a long, slow process of development. “The biblical doctrine of man is severely altered in such a scenario,” he said.
Sabbath is also affected, he pointed out,because in theistic evolution there is no creation week. Sabbath stops being a memorial of creation and becomes a human invention. And theistic evolution affects marriage. As the marriage covenant loses God’s imprimatur, King believes “theistic evolution helps pave the road for some … unbiblical permutations of marriage.”
Finally, the overall notion of a new earth is affected. King reminded his audience that theistic evolution “has no place for a pristine original world which had no taint of sin and no shadow of death.” Thus, given that there was not a perfect,sinless world to start with, he said, there is no need for God’s work of restoration to pristine perfection.
The Problem of Death
How can believers of theistic evolution account for the presence of death before sin entered into the world? They cannot, said Standish, in support of King’s thesis,unless the biblical definition of death is changed.
Seventh-day Adventists understand death as a fully unconscious state, “the cessation of physiological processes.” Standish reminded his audience that this definition is based in the biblical doctrine of man. According to one of the Adventist fundamental beliefs, human beings are, he said, quoting the official statement, “‘an indivisible unity of body, mind, and spirit,’ rather than a combination of a mortal body and an immortal soul that separate at death.”
Standish explained how the doctrine of the immortality of the soul ultimately opens a way for death before sin entered this earth. “If death is the separation of mortal body and immortal soul, [it] can only exist after God begins creating immortal souls and putting them into mortal bodies,” Standish explained. “Because of this, all the death and suffering leading up to the first human, in the theistic evolution view, is not the same thing as the death of humans made up of a mortal body and immortal soul.”
Thus, an unbiblical teaching that there are two kinds of death “helps” some Christians to reconcile evolutionary teachings with God’s creative act. Once one’s views move away from the biblical teaching about human beings, it is easier to do away with other Bible-based doctrines, emphasized the scholars.
A Word of Caution
For Seventh-day Adventists, the impossibility of embracing theistic evolution without renouncing other biblical beliefs is not necessarily a bulletproof safeguard, Standish noted. As has been the case for other Christian churches, Adventism is not “immune to theistic evolution heresy,” he said, adding that “it is quite possible that this church could follow the path of others … and depart from the biblical faith to embrace something completely different.”
To illustrate his point, Standish painted a bleak hypothetical picture of how such a scenario might look. “The church [would] assuage the concerns of those who embrace the biblical faith by issuing official statements while, at the same time, a small group of academics [would promote theistic evolution] from positions of privilege.” According to Standish, advocates of theistic evolution would eventually reach positions of greater privilege and indoctrinate a new generation. At the same time, lay members would “become progressively more amenable to accepting this unbiblical doctrine,” he said, as “those wishing to maintain the faith [would] find themselves swimming against a shifting tide against which they can make little progress.”
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way, Standish conceded.
“Whether or not this occurs will depend to a great degree on the resolve of administrators to use their political capital and ecclesiastical authority to maintain and promote the biblical doctrine of creation,” he concluded.