The Gospel in Evolutionary Perspective

Gary Pence

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."1 There is something wrong in the human soul. Things are not as they ought to be.

Human beings appear universally to perceive a gap between the way things are and the way they believe things ought to be. Christian teaching has interpreted this gap in terms of a "fall" from primal perfection and innocence. God had created a "very good" world, but that world was spoiled and corrupted by self-assertive human rebellion. As a result, humans suffer estrangement from their Creator and from their own better nature, an estrangement that issues in continued thoughts, feelings, speech, and behavior both defiant toward God and harmful to the world and its inhabitants. Feeling hateful resentment toward God, humans come to believe (through psychological projection) that God hates them, and they engage in endless strategems to regain God's good will and favor. The Church itself has often enough colluded in such futile efforts, the Lutheran Reformation standing as their outstanding repudiation.

While acknowledging the estrangement they experienced in themselves and observed in others, Luther and the Reformers denounced the attribution of malevolence to God and the obsession with attempts (e.g. indulgences) to alter God's attitudes through human manipulation. They exposed the wrathful God as a human invention, a projection onto God of human resentment that the world is not what it ought to be. In fact, the Reformers declared that God's will and promise are stable, sure, and unchanging, and unremittingly accepting and compassionate toward the world of God's own creating power. The estrangement humans experience is wholly theirs, not God's. In Jesus God has presented God's self as accessible and benign--a tiny baby gurgling at its mother's breast; a friend of children, widows, and outcasts; an advocate for human freedom who refuses to use power to protect himself or to retaliate against those who send him even to his death. The Christian Gospel, in its Lutheran reframing, is a comforting word of ultimate acceptance for humans exactly in their estrangement, fear, resentment, and rage.

The theory of organic evolution offers an alternative understanding of the gap between what is and what "ought to be." I believe it is also potentially congruent with the Lutheran reframing of the Gospel.

In evolutionary understanding there is no "fall" from primal innocent perfection. There is, rather, an exceedingly slow development from original undifferentiated matter/energy toward an increasingly complex proliferation of both inert and living forms. This development is not "directed" by any yet more transcendent "being" or immanent life force. Development, especially for life forms, results from the unpremeditated and unplanned cumulative "natural selection," over many thousands and millions of years, of gradual, minute, random, step-by-step changes that favor gene transmission.2 The effect of this evolutionary process has been the awesomely rich and diverse emergence of more than 1.2 million identified and named living animal species (800,000 of them insects, 100, 000 of them molluscs, 47,000 of them vertebrates including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals) and 250,000 identified and named living plant species. There are probably many more yet unknown, perhaps as many as 3-5 million species in all.3

Of all of these species, only one, to the best of our present knowledge, namely, the human species, has developed a very large brain and with it the mental capacity for self-transcendence, i.e. the ability not only to think and act, but the ability mentally to step outside of itself, to observe itself feeling, thinking, and acting, and to pass judgments on what it observes. As the emerging field of evolutionary psychology has begun to establish, natural selection has also hardwired human beings with numerous "innate epigenetic rules of moral reasoning"--what appears to be an "ensemble of many algorithms whose interlocking activities guide the mind across a landscape of nuanced moods and choices."4 These innate rules, emergent in human beings out of millions of years of natural selection, "the inherited regularities of mental development," according to Edward O. Wilson, "are the genetic biases in the way our senses perceive the world, the symbolic coding by which we represent the world, the options we open to ourselves, and the responses we find easiest and most rewarding to make."5 Moreover, they display themselves in moral sentiments and issue both in ethical codes and in religious myth and ritual.

We have become a species that feels empathy for others in pain and a moral obligation to help them. We feel conflict about how far we should permit the pain of others to affect us and how great our obligation is to help them. We conceive of a moral agent (or agents) somehow managing the universe and holding us accountable, and we are drawn to form communities with others to address that moral agent and gain its favor. These proclivities natural selection has favored in us, preserved for us, hardwired into us. They helped our ancestors to survive. According to Wilson,

There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose. Even when individuals subordinate themselves and risk death in common cause, their genes are more likely to be transmitted to the next generation than are those of competing groups who lack equivalent resolve.6

In evolutionary understanding, it has been the development of a large complex brain and of innate "algorithms" which have "created" moral consciousness, engender moral sentiments, and structure moral reasoning, all of which has led to the sense of a gap between what is and what ought to be and to the resultant feeling of estrangement from self and world. Philip Hefner has written:

The highly developed interpretations of sin and evil in myth, philosophy, and theology/doctrine are not properly understood unless we view them as interpretations and elaborations of the more primordial sensing that occurred early on in the history of Homo sapiens. The origin of the myths, philosophy, and theology of sin and evil, lies in the primordial human reading of the world and our place in it.7

That is to say, through myths, rituals, philosophical treatises, and religious doctrines of all traditions humans have attempted to give language to an experience of self and world that has arisen universally in the human species exactly as an emergent from its particular evolutionary history. It is in the context of that history that we must read the sacred texts and reflect on the sacred rites of our own moral/religious tradition.

To ask the most fundamental question, Why speak of God at all? Why use God-talk to express the most profound meaning of our universe? Hefner suggests that God-talk "expresses something about our experience of the world,"8 and our experience of the world is intensely and indispensably personal. It appears that we humans are unable long to conceive our world in abstract, disembodied, statistical, intellectual categories. In our heart of hearts we convert the raw data of our world into personalistic terms. We speak of "brother sun, sister moon." We think of weather, landscapes, and oceans as friendly or hostile. Our cars, our homes, our gardens, our pets we imaginatively endow with human characteristics and feel a "relationship" with them as compelling and meaningful as relationships with family and friends. Little children overtly and touchingly people their whole world with living creatures, but adult humans do so too, if more subtly, shyly, covertly, unconsciously.

Lindon Eaves speaks of this pervasive use of personal language to describe even the inanimate objects or our world as something "forced on us by the character of the reality in which we are embedded and the character of our engagement with that reality."9 Whether or not personal language is forced on us by "the character of the reality in which we are embedded," the emerging research in evolutionary psychology is beginning to teach us that "the character of our engagement with that reality" is programmed in us as a product of evolutionary development. That is, we experience the world in personal, anthropomorphic terms because natural selection has preserved humans who experience the world that way. Or we can say that because humans who experienced the world in personal terms were more likely to survive, humans today carry the genes of those who automatically experience the world personally.

Hence, out of this evolutionary development God-talk almost inevitably arose. Prehistoric humans experienced rocks, mountains, trees, rivers, plants, and animals as alive, endowed them with influential powers, and created animistic religions. In the course of history civilizations systematized and refined the spirits of these natural phenomena into complex supernatural bureaucracies of greater and lesser divinities. Civilizations that developed monotheistic faiths came to believe, as Hefner describes it, "that the world owes its existence and its maintenance to a great big cosmic individual most often conceived of as human and as male and as parent. To this is added the notion that in order to experience God, one must be in concourse with this great big person."10 Although Hefner views these as "an unfortunate set of notions" and notes that "most learned theologians dismiss such images of God as puerile and uninformed,"11 the fact is, he acknowledges, that for most persons, "religious believers or not," such images remain "vivid representations of what our experiences of the 'personal' God conveys to us."12

Hefner himself--quite usefully I think--follows Tillich in using the term "God" to refer to what is ultimate, or what concerns us ultimately. But he chooses to speak, not of ultimate concern, "but rather of the way things really are and what really is." God, he says, "is the term men and women use to signify that what they are talking about, what they have come upon in their experience, touches upon the way things really are."13 Of course, if "what really is" seems personal, something (someone?) with which (whom?) we feel ourselves to be in relationship, then we are drawn to describe "what really is" in the language of a personal God, though that language is necessarily symbolic, as Tillich emphasized.14

One can see the problem that arises for us in making this imaginative "leap of faith." Experiencing the world as personal and having begun to describe this sense of personal intimacy with the world in terms of a personal God, we inevitably and inescapably attribute to that God the personal characteristics we recognize in ourselves and others. As Freud rightly saw, we project onto God our own human sentiments, opinions, and habits. In fact, we project onto God both the innate epigenetic rules that have been engrained by natural selection into human nature and the particular patterns of behavior we have experienced in our own parents and significant others.

Of the epigenetic rules that we project onto God perhaps the most significant and the most problematic are rules for "social exchange." Evolutionary biologists and psychologists have tried to account for altruism, the sharing of resources with another, as an outcome of natural selection. If the outcome of natural selection is the preservation and transmission of genes, why would the genes of animals or humans who care for others be selected?

Care for members of one's relations is relatively easy to explain, since one may more effectively transmit one's genes by assisting one's kin, who share at least a proportion of one's own genes, than by exclusively protecting and promoting oneself. In a widely cited work, Hamilton set forth a formula to define this "kin selection" or "inclusive fitness."15 He theorized that "genes for sacrificial behavior will thrive so long as the cost to the altruist (in terms of impact on future reproductive success) is less than the benefit to the recipient (ditto) times the degree of relatedness between the two."16 The formula explains why soldier ants and termites sacrifice themselves for their colony and especially for their queen. Because most of their genes are in the queen, her survival best assures that the soldiers' genes will be transmitted. "As a result, the soldier's more fertile brothers and sisters flourish, and through them the altruistic genes are multiplied by a greater production of nephews and nieces."17 What is true for social insects, is at least as true for humans, whose readiness to sacrifice self for children, spouse, and even more distant relatives is reported daily in the press.

But what of support, even sacrifice, for those with no apparent kin relationship? To account for this phenomenon, Williams,18 Trivers,19 Axelrod,20 Rapoport,21 and recently Cosmides and Tooby22 have developed a theory of "reciprocal altruism," which draws on an economic concept of trade. As Cosmides and Tooby describe it:

Selection may act to create physiological or psychological mechanisms designed to deliver benefits even to nonrelatives, provided that the delivery of such benefits acts, with sufficient probability, to cause reciprocal benefits to be delivered in return.23

In essence the theory is that animals, including humans, will cooperate and share resources with nonrelatives, provided that those nonrelatives reciprocate with cooperation and shared resources. Rapoport has called a version of this process "Tit for Tat." But the implication is that, when a nonrelative whom I have helped does not reciprocate, I will withdraw future support and may even punish the freeloader. In fact, according to Trivers, "friendship, dislike, moralistic aggression, gratitude, sympathy, trust, suspicion, trustworthiness, aspects of guilt, and some forms of dishonesty and hypocrisy can be explained as important adaptations to regulate the altruistic system."24

If such adaptations regulate human social exchange, it is to be expected that those same adaptations will be projected onto God. Matt Ridley describes how epigenetic rules for social exchange come to dominate our relationship with the "supernatural":

We frequently and universally anthropomorphize the material world as a system of social exchanges. "The gods are angry because of what we have done" we say to justify a setback in the Trojan War, a plague of locusts in ancient Egypt, a drought in the Namib desert or a piece of bad luck in modern suburbia. . . . If we please the gods--with sacrifices, food offerings, or prayer--we expect to be rewarded with military victory, good harvests or a ticket to heaven. Our steadfast refusal to believe in good or bad luck, but to attribute it to some punishment for a broken promise or reward for a good deed, whether we are religious or not, is idiosyncratic to say the least.25

Cosmides and Tooby make the same association:

From the child who gets dessert if her plate is cleaned, to the devout Christian who views the Old and New Testaments as covenants arrived at between humans and the supernatural, to the ubiquitous exchange of women between descent groups among tribal peoples, to trading partners in the Kula Ring of the Pacific--all of these phenomena require, from the participants, the recognition and comprehension of a complex set of implicit assumptions that apply to social contract situations.26

What Christians have named "legalism" refers exactly to these innate assumptions, sentiments, and reasoning patterns for social exchange, and these inherited "algorithms" substantially influence our understanding of the nature of God. It underlies the notion that we "owe" something to God--even if only gratitude--in exchange for God's gifts. It is the basis for the idea that God will be angry if we fail to reciprocate God's love and will either withdraw that love or punish those who fail to reciprocate. It suggests that human "sin" incurs a debt that must be repaid to God. It promotes the idea of heaven as the ultimate reward for a life lived in gratitude and service to a God who provides all of one's needs. "Tit for Tat" pervasively and often unconsciously structures the social exchange humans imagine between themselves and God. It is at the core of the projection of our own human nature onto God.

We also project onto God the particular forms whereby that common human nature has assumed flesh in the persons of our parents, siblings, and significant others. To the degree that our parents and others reinforce our human nature, for example, unrelentingly expecting/demanding reciprocation from us for every act of beneficence, we will hardly be able to imagine God in any other terms. God will become the supreme Accountant, keeping track of our "good" and our "bad" deeds, calculating our just deserts, meting out rewards and punishments to us--generosity for gratitude, prosperity for obedience, and eternal life (heaven) for faith, but also chastisement for disrespect, disaster for disobedience, and eternal death (hell)for apostasy.

The Bible itself reflects the impact of the evolutionary legacy of Tit-for-Tat social exchange and correlative family experience of the humans who wrote it. The God who establishes a covenant with Israel, for example, describes himself as a "jealous" God, "punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject [him], but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments." (Exodus 20: 5f., Deut. 5:9f.) This God wreaks terrible vengeance on those who oppose him. "Vengeance is mine," he says. "As I live forever, when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment; I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me." (Deut. 32: 35, 40f.) Kin selection takes priority over reciprocal altruism in injunctions to maintain ethnic purity: "The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever." (Ezra 9: 11f.) Under the influence of apocalypticism, the New Testament extends punishment and reward to include eternal recompense for present behavior. Jesus himself declares, "And these [lacking compassion or care] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matt. 25:46)

Yet, within this same Bible, standing over against genetic predisposition, cultural assumptions, and family experiences, stands an alternative vision of "the way things really are," of "what really is." It is a vision of generosity, graciousness, steadfast love, and inalienable compassion at the heart of reality. Repudiating the parsimony of Tit-for-Tat algorithms, it evokes a sense of inexhaustible bountifulness providing everything needed for the whole cosmos, now construed as a single kinship group.27 The manna in the desert provides enough for everyone; they have no need to hoard or to calculate a cost-benefit analysis of sharing. (Ex. 15-20). The eschatological knowledge of "what really is" ends competition for survival and peace among all creatures:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isa. 11: 6-9)

God shows care, not only for Israel, but for Egypt and Assyria. (Isa. 19:20-25) God cares for widows, orphans, and aliens (Deut. 10: 18; Ps. 146: 9) and commends altruism toward them, persons without the resources to reciprocate: "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow." (Deut. 24: 19-21) In this alternative vision, division, competitiveness, and self-service are replaced with kinship, care, and compassion.

With the birth of Jesus as the transparent paradigm of "what really is," i.e. of God, we are given access to the most radical insight into the ultimate meaning and goal of the evolutionary process. Kin selection and reciprocal altruism are received, integrated, and transcended in Jesus' life and message. He universalizes kin selection by identifying God as a parent and declaring the whole human species (perhaps the whole cosmos!) a family of brothers and sisters, God's children, thereby expanding sacrificial love to any creature in need. In Jesus' view, no one is a nonrelative. He dismisses reciprocal altruism as an adequate behavioral norm, suggesting that God shares resources even with those who violate God's norms and telling us to share love even with enemies who do us injury: "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5: 44f.)

We may conclude that our evolutionary heritage has provided us the innate genetic equipment for kin selection and reciprocal altruism, traits that we share with less complex social animals. We automatically fall into sentiments and behaviors reflecting the algorithms instilled in us by that genetic heritage. But, with our large complex brains, we are able to grasp a vision of an even more profound community of care that extends beyond family and potential benefactors to include the whole biosphere. With our advanced language and the development of culture we are constructing, enacting, and refining that vision, which transcends the boundaries of natural selection.

Of course, this is uncharted territory with no more than a few thousand years of human experience behind it, a blink of an eye within the expansive landscape of evolutionary history. Hence, our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are confused and often contradictory. As Hefner has written, "We are often dangerously confused concerning what really is, and we conduct our lives in ways that are at odds with what really is." This confusion he defines as "alienation and sin" while hastening to add that they "do not occur in a framework of our offending someone or some power that is totally outside nature (we do not even know what 'outside nature' could mean)." That is, there is no great big Person out there who is upset and angered by our behavior. "Nor, more to the christological point, do our alienation, confusion, and evil behavior accumulate a debt that must be paid if God is to be real and gracious for us. . . ." "The way things really are" is not defined by a reciprocity that demands payment of a penalty for faulty behavior. "We are never 'outside' God and the grace of God. God will use our lives, weak as they are, for the purposes of what really is." Natural selection has endowed us with everything we need to grasp and enact a new way of being. "Christ's message is not that he came to pay our debt through his death, but rather that despite our sense of guilt and inadequacy, we have never been outside God's gracious ambience." Our "sense of guilt and inadequacy" is itself a product of our received evolutionary algorithms, a sense which we are now invited to transcend. "The cross and death, far from paying some imagined debt, are instantiations of how life for us is to proceed, a project we are part of. The project is the creation's moving toward fulfillment according to God's purposes, a fulfillment that requires our self-giving for the creation, even as Jesus gave himself"28

When we are burdened by a "sense of guilt and inadequacy," we are evidencing our evolutionary heritage. We feel the generosity of the resources we daily receive from our world, and sense the paltriness of our own response. We project onto God the displeasure and rage we are inclined to feel when we are treated shabbily by those to whom we have extended our generosity. We also project onto God the delight we feel when we receive gratitude or gifts from those on whom we have expended our care, and we fantasize rewards that God will shower on us for our obedient devotion. Ultimately we fear hell and long for heaven. All of this is simply an extension of the tit-for-tat algorithms of social exchange we have inherited from our primate and earlier ancestors.

The Gospel, in this context, is liberation from such algorithms. It is the assurance that "what really is" lies beyond natural selection in the generosity, compassion, and community of the world to come, a world for which natural selection has elegantly fitted us to serve as "created co-creators."29 Our engagement with that role is the human project.


1Marcellus to Horatio in William Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, iv, 90.

2Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Norton, 1986.

3Scott Freeman and Jon C. Heron, Evolutionary Analysis. Prentice-Hall, 1998: 732f.

4Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Knopf, 1998: 254.

5Edward O. Wilson quoted in Ken Gewertz, "A 'Consilience' of Science and Poetry at PBK Exercises," Harvard College Gazette (July 1998): 5.

6Wilson, Consilience 258.

7Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Fortress, 1993: 125.


9Lindon Eaves, "Adequacy or Orthodoxy? Choosing Side at the Frontier," Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 26 (December 1991): 502. Quoted in Hefner 85.





1433. Hefner: "I also follow Tillich in his insistence that we can speak about God only in symbolic, not literal, language, and this too may account for my preference for myth and ritual as the chief resources for understanding God."

15William D. Hamilton, "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour," parts 1 and 2, Journal of Theoretical Biology. 7 (1964): 1-52.

16Robert Wright, The Moral Animal. Vintage, 1994: 164.

17Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature. Harvard, 1978: 153.

18George C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of Some Current Evolutionary Thought. Princeton, 1974.

19Robert Trivers, "The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism," Quarterly Review of Biology. 46 (1971): 35-56.

20Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic, 1984.

21Anatol Rapoport, Fights, Games, and Debates. U. Michigan, 1960.

22Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, "Cognitive Adaptations for Social Exchange" in Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, & John Tooby, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford, 1992: 163-228.


24Trivers, abstract.

25Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Viking, 1997: 131.

26Cosmides & Tooby 207.

27See Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. U Chicago, 1997, for a discussion of the alternative motifs of scarcity and plenitude, negation and multiplicity, in the Hebrew Bible.

28Hefner 253.

29Hefner 27, "Human beings are God's created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome for the nature that has birthed us--the nature that is not only our genetic heritage, but also the entire human community and the evolutionary and ecological reality in which and to which we belong. Exercising this agency is said to be God's will for humans."

Healing Religion's Harm
Gary Pence, Ph.D.