Religious Studies

Christianity: beliefs about creation and evolution

Many of the world's religions have ideas and beliefs about the origin of the universe, including people and animals. Usually these take the form of creation accounts in the sacred books of the religions concerned.

The origins of the universe

In Christianity, the creation accounts are found in the first two chapters of the book of Genesis in the Bible. There are two accounts - and it's important not to confuse them.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

This account tells how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

After creating the earth, the sky, the seas and plants, God made birds and fish on the fifth day and animals and humans on the sixth day.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Genesis 2:4b-25

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve leaving Eden

This is a much earlier account. It describes how the Lord God first of all created a man by taking some soil from the ground and breathing life into him.

God placed the man in a garden in Eden, and made beautiful trees grow there. God said to the man:

You may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except the tree that gives knowledge of what is good and what is bad. You must not eat the fruit of that tree; if you do you will die that same day.

Genesis 2: 16-17

The Lord God took soil and formed the animals and birds; the man named them, but none was a suitable companion for him. The Lord God put the man into a deep sleep, and while he slept he took one of the man's ribs and formed a woman out of it.

 

Different views

There is a variety of interpretations of the biblical accounts of creation among Christians today.

Most believe that God brought the universe into being from nothing (ex nihilo); some believe that it was created from matter that already existed (ex materia).

Some Christians take the biblical accounts of creation literally, believing that they describe exactly how the universe and human beings were created.

Other Christians regard these accounts as more like parables or symbolic accounts that tell (in story form) the profound truth that God brought the universe and all that is in it into being, and sustains his creation. These Christians might look to science to help them understand how God did this.

Scientific ideas

For many Christians there isn't a conflict between the religious ideas about creation expressed in Genesis and the findings of science. Professor John Polkinghorne is both a scientist and a priest in the Church of England; he says:

Genesis is not there to give short, technical answers about how the universe began. It gives us the big answer that things exist because of God's will. One can perfectly well believe in the Big Bang, but believe in it as the will of God the creator.

 

Cosmology

  • Cosmology is the study of the universe, and humanity's place in it.
  • One of the theories put forward by cosmologists is the Big Bang theory. This suggests that about 15 billion years ago there was a massive explosion. This was the point at which all matter in the universe began; space and time began then too. Over time the universe that we know, and human and animal life, emerged.
  • This theory is generally accepted by scientists as being the best theory they have to explain the origins of the universe.
  • If this theory is true, then it could mean that the universe 'just happened' and that it did not emerge as a result of the activity of a creator God.
  • Many Christians have no problem in accepting the Big Bang theory. They see the cosmologists helping them to understand how God brought the world into being - the Big Bang could have been the mechanism God used. And there is nothing in the theory itself which proves that there is no such being as God.

Evolutionary biology

  • The idea that life might have evolved was first mentioned as early as the 4th century CE by St Augustine, who wrote that God probably only created very simple life forms and that these developed over time.
  • Today we associate evolutionary science with scientists such as Charles Darwin who wrote 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859. He argued that life began with very simple cells and later developed into what we see today. He said that natural selection was one of the major mechanisms driving evolution.
  • Darwin upset many people with his views and even some respected scientists such as Philip Gosse argued that the fossils, which were discovered in the ground, had been placed there by God deliberately to fool people.
  • Some Christians found Darwin's theory a threat to their faith because it appeared to challenge the authority of the Bible. If the Bible was wrong on this matter, might it be wrong on other things too? These Christians preferred to maintain a 'literalist' or 'creationist' understanding of Genesis chapters 1 and 2.
  • A belief in various forms of creationism [Creationism: Creationism is a religious belief that humanity, life, the earth and the universe were created in their original form by God. In relation to the creation-evolution debate, creationism is used to refer to a religiously-motivated rejection of evolution. ] is quite strong in the USA and this had led to a number of attempts to teach creationism (in one form or another) in schools. It is still illegal to teach creationism in schools run by the state though this does happen in some private religious schools.
  • Other Christians don't see any problem with their understanding of Genesis and the scientific theories such as evolution. This goes for scientists who are also Christians, as well as Christians who are not scientists. If science and religion are asking different questions, then they see no contradiction.
  • Christians who don't see any problem with evolution see the Bible as an authoritative account of God's relationship with human beings and the wider universe. They see it all as part of God's plan, and that humans have specials rights and responsibilities as a result. This view is perhaps currently the view of the majority of Christians.

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