The Evolution of Charles Darwin

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 19, 2006

The most comprehensive public exhibition on the life and thought of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) is on display at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute through December 31. In case any introduction is needed, Charles Darwin is father to the theory of evolution, and the current show provides an intimate view of the development of his science and religion.

Like many young men of his era and social class, Charles Darwin originally intended to study for the gospel ministry. However, his studies at Cambridge University soon turned in the direction of science. This did not represent any fundamental change in his religious viewpoint, but only a personal recognition of his growing interest in any and every aspect of the natural world: geology, botany, chemistry, biology, and his lifelong fascination with beetles. Soon Darwin was off on his famous and world-changing expedition on board the HMS Beagle (1831-1836). It is impossible not to admire the passion with which he approached his observation of nature and his appreciation for its diverse grandeur.

From his upbringing, Darwin’s worldview was generally Christian. He was quite capable of using God-fearing language in his personal correspondence. To his wife Emma he wrote, “My own dear future wife: God bless you.” He also expressed his desire that they would share the gift of children–“if it please God,” he said.

Inevitably, however, his scientific theories produced a crisis of faith. This was not because there is any necessary conflict between biblical truth and natural revelation, but primarily because Darwin reached a decidedly unbiblical conclusion about the origin of human beings. There were other aspects of his evolutionary theories that brought him into conflict with the church, of course, but some of these did not involve any necessary contradiction with Scripture. For example, in the 19th century it was widely believed that the earth was only 6,000 years old, and that this was the plain teaching of Scripture. However, the Bible does not give us the kind of year-by-year chronology that enables us to date the universe. We can trust the natural world itself to give us accurate information about the age of the world.

But Darwin’s theories about the common ancestry of all life and the origins of the human species had explosive implications, as Darwin well knew. This was one of the reasons that he hesitated for two decades before writing his world-changing book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). But Darwin’s view of humanity came through more clearly in his later book The Descent of Man (1871). There he argued that “man, in all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Darwin said this because he believed that human beings share a common ancestry with the apes, that as he put it, “Monkeys make men.”

How different this is from the biblical view that human beings are the special creation of God. Though we are made “a little lower than the heavenly beings,” our origin is not lowly; we alone are made in the image and likeness of God, and thus are “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5; cf. Gen. 1:26, 27). Darwin sensed the loss that his view entailed and felt it keenly. Writing about the evolution of human beings by natural selection, he said, was “like confessing a murder.”

No one felt the pain of this confession more intensely than Darwin’s wife Emma, who apparently was a devout Christian. Emma’s particular fear was that her husband had lost his faith in God and that therefore he had lost his salvation. Darwin’s father had warned him of the distress this fear would inevitably bring to his marriage. “Some women suffered miserably,” he said, if they thought their husbands would never get to heaven.

The most poignant correspondence in the exhibition concerns this issue. As far back as 1839 Emma warned Charles where his religious skepticism would lead him. She wisely asked: “May not the habit in scientific pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved, influence your mind too much in other things which cannot be proved in the same way, and which if true are likely to be above our comprehension?” Emma was suggesting that science is not the only rational method of thought; nor is it the only form of intellectual proof. Since Christianity is a matter of faith, it cannot be measured scientifically, but it is not for that reason irrational.

Mrs. Darwin went on to warn her husband not to dismiss God’s revelation in Scripture. I have a fear, she wrote, of your “ingratitude in casting off what has been done for your benefit as well as for that of the whole world.” What did Emma mean when she spoke of what had been done for the benefit of Charles Darwin? She was referring to the death that Jesus died on the cross “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). By this point Charles believed that it was sufficient for him to be a moral person–this was all the Christianity that he or anyone else needed. Emma dismissed this position out of hand. It was mere moralism, she said, not gospel Christianity, and it would not secure his eternal salvation.

What was Darwin’s response? As far as anyone knows, he never confessed personal faith in Jesus Christ. What makes this especially tragic is that by his own account Charles wrestled painfully with his wife’s entreaties. At the bottom of her letter he added this note, signed with his initials: “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed and cried over this.” But of course there was no need for Charles Darwin or anyone else to come to such grief, suffering the loss of heaven. There is everlasting joy for everyone who believes in the Creator God of Adam and Eve, and in the cross of his Son, Jesus Christ.

[Quotations from Charles and Emma Darwin come from printed texts in the “Darwin” exhibition]

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