What the Incarnation and the Resurrection Tell Us About Creation and Evolution

It’s December 31th, and Western Christians are within the season of Christmas (my Eastern Christian brothers and sisters will celebrate it on January 7th). Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God into human flesh. More precisely, Christians believe that the person Jesus Christ is both true God and true man.

So this is bonkers. I believe it, but it is really bonkers. There are some who attempt to slot the Christian doctrine of the incarnation into the same category as Zeus or some other deity taking a human form, but if we take Christianity on its own terms, it’s saying something very different.

The doctrine of the incarnation is saying that the Creator of the universe, who is beyond time and space, and in fact created them himself, who is self-existing and is the very ground of being, became human. This is not a question of some really big and powerful being becoming a lesser being or disguising themselves as one, which would be at least comprehensible. This is the claim that the inventor of “being” itself became a small, vulnerable child, grew to adulthood and died, and then rose bodily from the dead. Disagree with it if you like, but recognize that it’s a separate category. The Athenians St. Paul encountered understood this, and we should too.

So what the heck does this have to do with the title of the post? It’s really common in Christian circles (and for non-Christians commenting on Christian beliefs) to take for granted that something like “scientific creationism” must be true if God is really the creator. Otherwise, if evolution is true, it is alleged that everything just sort of happens “by itself” and (as Stephen Hawking suggested in A Brief History of Time) there’s nothing left for God to do at all. And matter itself is just bumbling along for billions of years, occasionally doing something interesting by complete chance and necessity but overall just awaiting the inevitable heat death. Thus, physicist Stephen Weinberg said that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless”, and paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson claimed “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

I’ve already spoken before about how it’s a huge category mistake to assume that evolution is a process that can compete with creation by God, as if a process that he was ultimately responsible for could somehow get in his way or would be less “done” by him than (say) creation ex nihilo (which is an important theological doctrine, but that’s a topic for another time). But this second assumption, that the fact that we originated physically by “natural” processes tells us that matter has no telos to speak of, is challenged by the incarnation and decisively refuted by the resurrection.

In the creation story in Genesis 1, God repeats over and over again how good everything is that he has made. By becoming human, by taking on the substance of quarks and leptons (or maybe strings or loops or twistors or whatever may underlie them), by beginning life as a blastocyst and undergoing the normal, messy, and “natural” process of human development, God reaffirms the goodness of matter and being material. And in case it wasn’t clear enough for you, Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and the attending promise that the entire universe itself will experience a similar transformation (Revelation 21), is God’s final seal of approval.

As a much younger Christian, I used to think that if evolution were true, that it would say something negative about the nature of being physical, being biological, being human—in other words, Weinberg and Simpson would have a point. But for Christians, the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus sweeps that all aside. It really proclaims the whole question of creation or evolution (again, already a category mistake) as mostly irrelevant, at least on this score. For Christians eager to follow the science where it leads, this is a good thing.

Prayer and the Coronavirus

This past week, a stir was created about the following tweet of this photo:

I’m not interested in either supporting or attacking the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the context of this post. Similarly, though photo-ops of politicians praying is always a little dicey (though see David French’s take on this), I’m also not interested here in the question of why the photo was taken.

For me the real issue of interest is why a photo of politicians and others tasked to respond to the outbreak bowed in prayer should mean we are “screwed.” To be fair, it’s not a secret that the GOP doesn’t have the greatest track record on issues of science policy. If that’s your beef then I cannot argue otherwise.

But here the issue seems to be that they were praying in the first place. The implication is that there would be no science-based medical response, only prayers. Again, maybe the administration’s response will turn out to be flawed—or maybe it already is—but prayer isn’t the reason.

Lots of people these days seem to think that Christians just pray whenever something goes wrong and then sit around waiting for God to do something. Caveat again—sometimes promises of prayers do sound very hollow, especially when coming out of the mouths of politicians who are ostensibly in a position to enact policy to solve problems.

But this fundamentally misunderstands what the vast majority of Christians, both now and through the centuries, have believed about what prayer actually does. Prayer is not a substitute for action. Rather, it is a preparation for it and often a summons to it. Conversely, those who pray and then do not respond to the evils of the world with action are not behaving biblically. Prayer and action are supposed to go hand-in-glove.

Prayer is fundamentally about orienting ourselves in relationship to God. Part of that is indeed asking him to protect us from all manner of ills and enemies, including viruses. But we know that protection usually comes about because of medicine and experienced doctors and surgeons, which though of proximate human origin are ultimately good gifts from the Creator. As a Christian, I do believe that God can heal people without such intervention, but we are not enjoined by Scripture to expect such a thing automatically. So, the vast majority of Christians both pray and seek the best medical attention they have available—and there is no cognitive dissonance necessary. Most prayers for healing even begin with words such as “guide the hands of the doctors and the nurses” or something similar.

So I am happy for our leaders to pray in a situation like this—but then they need to get moving, with God’s help at their backs, to mobilize the scientific and medical communities to combat the spread of this virus. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, including in the eyes of God.

Responses like the above tweet are not just ill-conceived—they perpetuate the perceived war between science and religion and help to convince religious people that scientists and science are against them. Whether you believe in God and prayer or not, since people who do are not going away, it’s better to not drive this wedge further. Better to let those of us who are scientists in religious communities try to educate our brothers and sisters better in the proper relationship between science and their faith.

So, in liturgical fashion, let us pray for a resolution to the coronavirus outbreak:

That our leaders may make wise decisions informed by science, medicine, and common sense,
let us pray to the Lord.

That our medical professionals may be kept from sickness and have everything needed to treat the ill, let us pray to the Lord.

That those who contract the virus remember to stay at home, get rest, and have plenty of fluids, and that they may have a speedy recovery, let us pray to the Lord.

That the family and friends of those who are deceased from the virus may be comforted with love from God and neighbor, let us pray to the Lord.

That we may all remember to wash our hands and keep prudent distance from others, in order to protect and safeguard the health of our neighbors, let us pray to the Lord.

Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.