At this point in this four-part series of posts, I feel I should provide a disclaimer. These 4 posts represent a broad overview of a journey surrounding this subject that lasted about six years in some respects and my whole life in other respects. There is so much more I would like to delve into and elaborate on and there is a great deal more I would like to share that preceded this journey going all the way back to my childhood. To do so would require me to write a book and perhaps I will do that some day. I mention this because I can imagine that portions of what I have shared and especially of what I am about to share, some might find unsatisfying due to the lack of elaboration and attention to detail. If you want to write me and ask specific questions or cover issues in more depth in the discussion group, I am happy to answer any questions I can.
In order to answer the question, whether or not evolution can explain grace, I would need to examine the following:
- Revisit the Jesus story and the evidence for the claim that Jesus is God.
- Jesus’ own statements and behavior
- Jesus’ disciples’ statements and behavior
- The effects of the Jesus narrative and how it has changed the world
Revisiting the Jesus story: Evidence for the claim that Jesus is God
Prophetic fulfillment from the Old Testament is covered extensively in Christian writings and is considered by many Christians to be the crowning evidence of Jesus’s claim to be God. There are numerous other resources that can cover this topic so I will not reinvent the wheel here. What I will do is apply evolutionary theory and ask, could it explain these properties? I think at first glance one might think an argument could be made from an evolutionary standpoint concerning the Messianic prophecies as being a collective unconscious hopeful wish to solve systemic issues within the nation of Israel. Sacrifice to God or the gods was a deeply ingrained part of ancient cultures (not just for the nation of Israel). There was a need to try and set things right with the various gods or show gratitude to the gods to avoid a precarious reaction from one of the gods.
Rob Bell points out in his “the gods are not angry” talk, that you never knew where you stood with the gods. You were always on edge. That when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son and provided an animal in its place it was completely revolutionary. That the elaborate tabernacle ceremonies that provided a system where you knew you were at peace with God and did not have to guess, was revolutionary. It was something completely new; a completely new way to view God.
The question this poses then is, was this an evolutionary progression in human religion, unrelated to any divine guidance or intervention (which would assume Abraham based his whole life on hallucinations)?
If we take it in isolation, then I think that would be a reasonable conclusion for a skeptic.
Here’s where it breaks down though. The arguments over how many prophecies Jesus fulfilled range from 50 to over 500. Let’s take a conservative estimate of 40. There were 40 unique things about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.
How does one explain this?
Could the Jesus stories have been modified to fit the prophetic narrative after the fact?
The evidence does not support this. The four Gospels are quite different in the way they describe Jesus. This is even used to argue the lack of consistency in the Bible from people who do not believe. There are subtle, but significant clues this is not the case as well. One notable issue is that of women being the first to witness the resurrection. In that time, a woman’s eyewitness account was substandard and unreliable compared to a man. If they were going to modify the story to make it more believable to their audience, they would have certainly not had women being the first eyewitnesses.
The genealogy in the opening of Matthew comes to mind. This is given to show that Jesus has the right genealogy to fulfill the Messianic prophecies. When taken with all the other little subtleties though and with the other information, I find it unconvincing that intentional misrepresentation took place. It seems far more likely that they witnessed the real risen Jesus and in retrospect, pieced together the puzzles in different ways in the four Gospels showing the significance of Jesus in context.
Except for the resurrection which cannot be established historically due to being a supernatural event, there is no disputing this historically, so I am not going to spend more time here. Historians say Jesus really existed, was really crucified, his disciples really believed he rose from the dead and almost all of them went willingly to their deaths holding to what they claimed they witnessed.
There was also continual exploration of just exactly what the death and resurrection of Jesus meant that carried on far past the first disciples on to this day. They were not all knowing, anymore than we are. What they were was witnesses of something miraculous in the life, death and resurrection.
Mass hallucination perhaps? People see UFO’s all the time. No, I don’t buy into that idea even for a moment. This is categorically different than simply seeing strange, unfamiliar lights in the sky. We are talking about a group of people who followed Jesus for three and a half years everywhere he went.
Jesus’ own statements and behavior
Did you ever see the movie Armageddon, where Bruce Willis, at the end of the movie, sacrifices his life to save his daughter’s fiancé? It is an emotional scene. Did you ever stop to think, wait a second, he is a mad man! He has lost his mind! Why sacrifice himself? If you said that at the end of the movie to those touched by the emotional scene, they would say don’t be an idiot. He wasn’t crazy, he didn’t have a death wish, he did it out of love for his daughter and his would-be son in law.
That is the same kind of scenario we face with the Jesus story. I am convinced of the same about Jesus of Nazareth. He wasn’t crazy, he didn’t have a death wish. He did what he did out of love. This is evidenced throughout the Gospels in incredible ways. He had a deep love for and attraction to outsiders, those rejected by society and the religious elite. The woman at the well, the prostitutes and tax collectors, the lepers; they were just about the most outcast people you could have picked out from society at that time. He told Pilate his kingdom was not of this world, yet as he hung on the cross, he said “Father forgive them, they no not what they do.” His claimed to forgive sin, which from a Jewish perspective, was a claim to be God, yet how he presented himself in relation to others, specifically his disciples, is perhaps (aside from his crucifixion) portrayed no more powerfully than when he washed his disciples’ feet.
It was the servant’s job to wash the feet of the honored guests and feet washing was the lowest job in the household because people wore sandals in that time and their feet would become quite filthy from walking all day. His disciple Peter was so offended at him taking such a lowly stance toward him that he initially refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet.
Now think about that for a minute. A man who seems to love everyone, with a particular fondness for the outcasts of society, yet also sees himself as God or equal with God, taking on the role of the lowliest servant. And what was his command to his disciples? That they love each other the way that he loved them.
Was he a madman? Was he crazy? Or did he do it all out of love?
Jesus’ disciples’ statements and behavior
I already mentioned this, so I won’t dwell on it much further, but the lives of Jesus’ disciples were transformed after the resurrection. Peter, the one Jesus chose as his main disciple, who denied him three times, is said to have been crucified upside down at his request because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his master.
The concept of the depth of such love is as foreign today (even within many churches) as it was 2000 years ago, yet if you look closely at the story, without bringing preconceived, critical judgements to the text or the baggage of religious dogma, there it is, right where it has always been.
The events surrounding Jesus have transformed the world
There is a wealth of information out there that covers this subject so I will not belabor the issue here. One of the best summaries I am familiar with is from a secular historian and atheist Tom Holland who wrote in an article in 2016 for the New Statesman…
We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian. (Holland, 2016)
In other words, even if you are an atheist, if you grew up in the west, then your morals and values are largely Christian. Grace has changed the world.
Evolution tells us that organisms adapt to survive. Reciprocity, cooperation, and tribal relationships are three key aspects to how humans and similar animals have evolved to navigate and master their environments and relationships with others, long before the formation of cultures and religious systems.
One could make a case for evolution of thought in the Old Testament (and before) with a trajectory toward the concept of grace. An entirely naturalistic explanation becomes far more problematic however when we get to Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the concept of grace that would end up transforming the world truly originates. Jesus comes on the scene abruptly and leaves in the wake of his resurrection, a belief that his life and death has somehow changed things at universal level for mankind. The religious systems that existed before (and still exist today), attempted, and failed to use natural means such as reciprocity, cooperation, and social (group) identification to navigate toward a right relationship with God and with their religious tribal community (presumably for survival and favor purposes).
Religion was and is an extension of the ways in which we strive to survive in our environment. Religions also provide larger structures for imparting information about survival to different generations within larger grand narratives, Seeing religion through this naturalistic lens just makes so much more sense. That religion as a whole is not something God is doing, rather it is man using concepts of God for collective survival purposes. The Christian religion often behaves this way as well.
This “new and living way” (a reference to Jesus himself in the New Testament) however was something different. Jesus didn’t say, “I will show you the way.” Jesus said “I am the way”, God Himself, coming down and accomplishing what was necessary for reconciliation and right standing with God, once for all, as a free gift and without mankind even asking for it.
One could definitely argue (and I would agree) that this belief adapted and survived afterwards and continues to do so today. The history of organized Christian religion is certainly replete with examples of adaption and capitalization of resources for tribal furtherance of self-interest, while marginalizing or even killing off the opposition.
Jesus of Nazareth though is not so easily dismissed. On the contrary, Jesus’ story is one that seems to transcend human nature, touching the deepest places in the human heart that long for complete love and acceptance, not just from one’s fellow man but from the creator of the universe. He defeats mankind’s two greatest enemies, defeating the shame and despair that comes from our flaws and failures of the shortcomings of our human nature that destroy our relationships and defeats our concept of the finality of death with his resurrection.
The question of whether evolution can explain grace really boils down to the question of whether evolution can explain Jesus; is the Jesus story true? There are aspects of Jesus that were very human. He got angry, he was tempted, he cried, he felt compassion, he pleaded with God to spare him from the cross which shows he wasn’t all knowing in that state, but rather was completely dependent on God who he referred to as his Father. If you believe the accounts, there was definitely something supernatural going on with Jesus as well; calming the storms, healing the sick, raising the dead. Even more compelling than these aspects though was the seeming unconditional love with which he loved those who others felt unlovable, culminating at the cross. It is something you would expect from a loving God who created humans. Something about the scene at the cross even moved one of the Roman soldiers to such a degree that he evoked, “surely this man was the son of God.”
Concerning contradictions between modern scientific understandings of human nature and Paul’s explanation in Romans of sin entering the world through Adam, I am forced to conclude that this was Paul’s lack of possessing all knowledge and understanding. In another letter he quotes a pagan poet saying, “we all see through a glass darkly, then face to face.” And so the same is the case today in my own understanding and everyone else’s. I have attempted as best I can to make sense of the eternal through my limited and temporal mental faculties. At the end of the day, I am at peace with this.
What does that mean for what Jesus accomplished on the cross? Well, He certainly revealed the transcendent love and goodness in the character and nature of God that no one would have ever guessed or assumed upon, even to this day.
The love of God that Jesus’ story reveals is also not something that I could ever see evolution producing. In theological terms, evolution is a works-based system. It does not freely offer up unlimited resources to be taken advantaged of and killed, because if it did, it would not survive. Evolution works on reciprocal relationships. The love of God that Jesus reveals though just empties itself and gives unconditionally and Christians call this grace.
Can evolution explain grace? Well, if you believe the Jesus story really happened, then no, it can’t. It might be able to explain a number of behaviors of people before and after Jesus, but it cannot explain the resurrection and the disciples who witnessed with their own eyes the resurrected Jesus and chose to die rather than say it did not happen.
As I stated at the outset, nothing can truly be conclusively proven, and everything is ultimately a matter of faith, especially so in matters of spiritual faith. For me, I find my confidence in religious institutions to be low, yet at the same time understandable because they are made up of flawed people like myself. The realization of human evolution, specifically concerning common ancestry has definitely been a paradigm shift for me and the understanding of the faith I was raised in. It sent me on a spiral into a land of doubt that forced me to completely re-evaluate my entire worldview based on this new information, which resulted in me discarding many of the institutional positions and presuppositions, neatly formed by manmade doctrines based entirely on a premodern framework and influenced by historic and present-day cultures.
My faith in Jesus of Nazareth though I have found has, overall, weathered this soul storm of the century. I do not believe true certainty about God can ever be attained, but I find the love and grace of Jesus, even after all the surrounding religious systems and doctrines are stripped away, to be just as compelling, as they were prior to this unexpected journey.
There are many things I am still uncertain of in terms of belief that I am not sure I will ever have a satisfactory answer to. All I can say today is, even though I still have many doubts, questions, and uncertainties, I do believe Jesus actually did rise from the dead and I choose to continually to place my ultimate trust and dependence on God’s unconditional love for and acceptance of me that Jesus revealed. And if or when the day comes that every knee bows to Him (and I hope it does), mine will bow joyfully. If I am wrong, then as Paul says, “…each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.” I did my best to seek the truth in the matter.
Thank you for taking the time to read. If you would like to ask me any questions or interact concerning any of these topics, feel free to comment or visit the Borderland Faith discussion board for more in-depth conversation and interaction.
Tom Holland: Why I was wrong about Christianity, 2016