Evolution and Fear of Death
Dr. Craig is asked to expound on his views of evolution and also receives a question from a young agnostic who fears death.
Evolution and Fear of Death
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, thanks for being in the hot seat again and answering some questions that we get at ReasonableFaith.org. But I want to give a shout out to the Reasonable Faith chapter in Feyettville, Arkansas. A good buddy James is leading that Feyettville chapter, and we appreciate him writing in. He says,
Greetings, Dr. Craig. Instead of giving you a specific question, could you please dedicate one of your weekly blogs to simply clarifying what you believe concerning Darwinian evolution, in light of Dr. Jay Richards also contacting you on this? You address this in question 269.
You want to give us a synopsis and elaboration on that question?
Dr. Craig: Sure. This isn't the same person whose question I chose for question 269, though the question is obviously on the same topic. And it had to do with my statement that evolutionary biology is compatible with theism, despite the fact that evolutionary biologists claim that the genetic mutations that drive evolution forward occur randomly. Some theists have said this shows that the theory of evolution is incompatible with theism because on theism these events do not occur randomly, where that's understood to mean by chance, or without design, or with no purpose, or with no end in view.
What I point out, however, is that according to Francisco Ayala, who is an eminent evolutionary biologist whom I debated on intelligent design theory, when evolutionary biologists use the word random they do not mean by chance or without purpose or without design. That would be a metaphysical statement which no scientist could justifiably make. Rather what they mean by random is that these mutations do not occur with the benefit of the host organism in view. They happen irrespective of any benefit, or detriment, they might bring to the host organism.
Now that puts a totally different perspective on evolutionary theory because what that means is that evolutionary theory is completely compatible with God's directing the course of evolutionary development toward his provisioned ends. And therefore it is not purposeless, it is not undirected; in fact you could even say God causes some of these mutations to occur at certain key junctures in the process of evolution so as to drive the evolutionary process forward. And that would be completely compatible with staying that these mutations typically occur irrespective of their benefit to the host organism.
And so certain people were concerned about this because they misunderstood this to be saying that it's compatible with theism to say that life on earth and biological complexity has evolved by chance alone, or something of that sort. And that's clearly not what I'm saying. Quite the contrary, what I'm suggesting is that when scientists or others make these claims – that evolution is undirected, purposeless, and without design – that they are making metaphysical statements, non-scientific philosophical statements that go beyond the theory, and therefore they're to be corrected not by denying the theory but by telling them, “Look, you've exceeded the bounds of the theory; you've gone beyond what the theory states and you've begun to interpret it in this philosophical way, which you as a scientist cannot do. You have no justification for this.” And so what I would do is to say, you make sure the evolutionary biologist sticks to the theory itself rather than begin to make these extra-scientific metaphysical statements which he's not in a position to make.
What Jay Richards and some of the others would say is they think that the theory does in fact affirm that these mutations occur undirectedly by chance and without purpose, and therefore they want to criticize the theory itself; they say we should reject the theory itself. On my view that's unnecessary. The theory doesn't assert those things, and therefore there's no reason that the theist needs to reject the theory. There's no reason to think it's incompatible with theism. Rather, what's incompatible with theism are these extra-scientific philosophical statements that sometimes evolutionary biologists will recklessly and carelessly make.
Kevin Harris: This seems encouraging to we who are not biologists and haven't had time to just study and study and study Darwinian evolutionary theory, but we can look at the big picture and critique the philosophical presuppositions and the metaphysical statements that sneak into the theory.
Dr. Craig: That's exactly right. And on a purely pragmatic level, to talk here now pragmatics, Kevin, it also means that as Christians you don't have to make a frontal assault on one of the pillars of contemporary science in the name of Christianity. That, in the minds of most people, will simply disqualify Christianity rather than evolutionary biology. If they hear that evolutionary biology is incompatible with theism, well guess which belief is going to be given up? It's going to be theism, because the evolutionary paradigm is so entrenched that theism, if it's incompatible with it, will simply be disqualified as incredible. As one blogger recently said in a blog that we discussed on one of these podcasts, it would be a fantasy comparable to alien beings coming down and manipulating the genetic mutations that drive evolution forward. So I think that pragmatically there's great benefit in insisting that the scientists speak as scientists on what matters of evolutionary biology can establish, as Ayala does, and where we need to correct them is when they transgress the bounds of science and begin to make metaphysical statements which they're not in a position to make.
Kevin Harris: You've often said that as a Christian, as followers of Christ, we can be confident and just follow the evidence where it leads, according to how God may have done things and so on. That seems as well as to say, “We'll let you scientists fight this out, but stick to the scientific method and stick to the science and if you transgress that we'll call you on it.”
Dr. Craig: Exactly. And I have to say that the folks like Jay Richards and others in the Discovery Seminar are quite willing to agree that having an evolutionary process is compatible with the biblical revelation. They're not young earth creationists, typically. They don't think that the world was created in six literal twenty-four hour days, typically. Therefore their opposition to evolutionary theory is not based upon the Bible; it is not biblically grounded. Rather it is grounded in the fact that they think the word “random” means by chance or undirected or without purpose or design, and it is on that basis that they think theism is incompatible with evolutionary theory. And I agree, theism is incompatible with the claim that this process is without purpose, design, or simply by chance. But that's not part of the theory. Those are extra-theoretical philosophical assertions, not part of the theory proper.
Kevin Harris: Bill, having said what we just said, the main contention would seem to center around the identity of Adam and Eve. Now, there are so many Christians who would not hold to young earth, and they believe the Bible to be inerrant and infallible, they just don't think the Bible teaches this young earth and they certainly don't think science teaches it; and that it is perfectly orthodox to hold to long periods of time of creation. But when it comes to Adam and Eve there is a real tension there if the claim starts to be that they didn't exist.
Dr. Craig: Yes, this has become a very hot issue of contention among Christians in recent years as certain theistic evolutionists have come to think that Adam and Eve are purely symbolic rather than historical figures. And I think when you read the Genesis narrative certainty Adam and Eve do have a kind of symbolic function. The word Adam in Hebrew just means man. So this person's name isn't like the typical names of ancient Semitic peoples, like Abraham or Lot, his name is Man and Eve's name is Life or the Mother of Living. Again, these are clearly symbolic names that stand for humanity. Nevertheless, having said that, Adam and Eve are part of the historical narrative that includes other indisputably historical persons, and they're listed as part of the genealogies in Scripture that eventually lead to Christ. Paul certainly seems to think of these as historical persons. So I think that it would be difficult exegetically to regard them as pure symbols not having a historical reality behind them.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, this next question is from a seventeen year old young man and I find it very important. Let me read it out to you.
Dr. Craig, I'm a huge fan of your work but I had an important question. My biggest fear is death. I'm afraid of two things about death: one, the process of dying; two, nothingness after death. When I watched your lecture on YouTube about the absurdity of life without God it really moved me, because it was the utter truth. But there are times when I just find it really difficult to believe in the afterlife. In all honesty, I'm an agnostic, though I suspect that there is more likely to be a God than otherwise. The point being, I get really depressed at times when I think about all the people I love so dearly and thinking that someday they will all grow old and die. I fear that I will have to go through the miserable process of outliving people I love and then being miserable without them. At times I just seriously feel like killing myself because I don't want to go through a life in which you work hard, suffer, cry, and at the end it is all ultimately for nothing. What's the point? I'm seventeen and I'm dealing with a growing-up stage in my life which is really sparking it. Is there any evidence you may have for me about dealing with this fear and depression that I so often face from a day to day basis. Thank you, Dr. Craig.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, wow.
Kevin Harris: Isn't that something?
Dr. Craig: This is a powerful letter. I as a non-Christian teenager sensed this same sort of despair and the dread of nonbeing after death, of nothingness after death. The idea that I would some day cease to exist, cease to be, was just an overwhelming thought. And many philosophers have experienced this same sort of dread, and French existentialist philosophy is a sustained reflection upon these very questions of the absurdity of life without God. So what I would encourage our young listener to do is to consider the claims of Jesus Christ; this is what changed things for me. If God exists and has revealed himself decisively in Jesus of Nazareth and has raised him from the dead as the guarantee of our own immortal life after death then we don't need to fear this nothingness after death. Rather we shall live forever. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” So we can find hope of eternal life through the resurrection of Christ in our own resurrection someday. And that goes as well for loved ones that we want to be reunited with forever. They are not lost to us, but we can be reunited with those loved ones who we know in Christ.
So I would really urge our young listener to get a copy of something like the four spiritual laws – I'm sure you can find these online – read through them, and at the end of that there's a prayer of commitment. If that expresses the sentiment of your heart I'd encourage you to pray that prayer to God yourself. And it's not the words that matter so much as the attitude of your heart – do you really mean it? And if you really mean it commit your life to Christ. Ask him to come into your life, to fill you with his Holy Spirit, and to give you eternal life. Eternal life doesn’t begin when you die, it begins right now. And I have eternal life now. Someday this body which is decaying and wasting away will finally die but then my soul will go into eternity to be with Christ, and someday there will be a resurrection of the body from the dead and we will have new, glorious, powerful resurrection bodies like Jesus' resurrection body – free from all the limitations and infirmities of this finite existence. So this is a tremendous hope that we have.
Now if our young listener is doubtful of the resurrection of Jesus and finds it difficult to believe, I'd really encourage him to get a book like my book The Son Rises,which lays out in a very simple way the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I've studied the resurrection of Jesus for years now, and I've debated some of the top skeptical New Testament critics on this very topic, and I am convinced that the best explanation of the historical evidence concerning Jesus of Nazareth is that God really did raise him from the dead. And this is the foundation on which we can have hope for eternal life and immortality beyond the grave.
Now, that being said, that does not solve in itself the first problem that our young listener mentions, and that's the process of dying. That does remain a daunting fear. I saw my own father waste away through Parkinson’s Disease, a long lingering decline in which he was reduced from a successful businessman to an invalid that couldn't even care for himself, and this was painful to watch. And as I watched his decline I couldn't help but feel this cold hand on my shoulder and a voice whisper in my ear, “This is you.” And I would try to ignore that voice and put it away, but it would come back again and say, “This is you; this is what you are going to be like someday; this is what you've got to look forward to.” And that just is the reality of this finite existence in which we live. As one person said at a funeral I just attended this last week of a lady in our Defenders class who passed away, this man said, none of us is getting out of here alive; and that's just the sober truth. And for some of us it might be a merciful death, maybe we'll be killed quickly. Jan has often said to me, “I hope we're just blown up in plane crash or a terrorist crash.” [laughter] But others may have to struggle with cancer or Alzheimer’s or other diseases.
And what I can say there is, if God asks you to bear that terrible cross you follow a savior who has born that cross before you. Jesus suffered the most agonizing and painful of deaths and he did it because he loves you so much. He gave his life, he suffered what he did voluntarily for you, and if he can bear that pain and suffering for me then I believe I can bear the cross he asks me to endure. The Bible says what we endure in this life, the suffering of this life, is just a short momentary affliction compared with the eternal life of joy that we will enjoy with God in the afterlife. And so God can give you the strength and the courage to face that process of dying which all of us will have to face.
One final thing needs to be said about this, and this is not a biblical point, but just a point from the experiences of those who have had near death experiences, and then have come back. Almost everybody says that the process of dying is tremendously joyful, that it is the most wonderful, exhilarating experience they have ever had. So that when you go through this process of finally dying, apparently this is just an indescribably wonderful experience, and will be a relief from the pain and the trouble that you have born up to that point. It really, apparently – if we take seriously these reports of those who have been there – is something greatly to be looked forward to, an experience that is beyond any sort of joy or happiness that we've known in this life, so great that those who've experienced this don't want to come back to the earthly life. They so enjoyed this process of dying that they don't want to return to earthly life. So those thoughts, hopefully, can help you to face this process with confidence, with hope, and relying on God's strength.
 The questioner is referring to Q&A #269 titled “Who Speaks for Science?” See http://www.reasonablefaith.org/who-speaks-for-science (accessed March 3, 2014).
 http://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/the-absurdity-of-life-without-god-veritas-forum-chicago (accessed March 3, 2014).
 Total Running Time: 19:44 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)