The Pope Speaks on Creation and Evolution

On October 27, Pope Francis inaugurated a bronze bust in honor of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and gave a talk to the assembled members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. After saying some nice things about Benedict, Francis spoke about science and faith.

The sound bites that got picked up by the press were mainly these:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magician, with a magic wand able to make everything. However, it was not like that.  He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive at their fullness of being.   He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all things.


The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature is not opposed to the notion of creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

These quotes by Francis were rightly taken as support of modern cosmology and of evolution. He also noted a distinction between humans and the rest of creation:

With regard to man, however, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy that is different from that of nature, which is freedom.

With privilege comes responsibility; on some level God holds man responsible for managing the rest of creation, so man is called to use his faculties to do good science in the service of all humanity:

…this makes him responsible for creation, so that he might steward it in order to develop it until the end of time.   Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature.   But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator.       Then, although limited, man’s action participates in the power of God and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons.  This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity.

A less polished English version of his whole speech is given here.  You can watch about a minute of this talk (in Italian, with English subtitles) here.

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century

This speech was not a radical departure from previous Catholic teachings. The Roman Catholic church has cautiously endorsed Big Bang cosmology and evolution for many decades. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical of 1950, Humani Generis, took a neutral position on human evolution:

The Church does not forbid that … research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.

However, an individual Adam was stipulated as the progenitor of the whole human race. This is not really compatible with normal evolution, which operates on whole populations.   We know from the study of human genomes that there was never a time in the lineage of Homo sapiens when it bottlenecked down to just one man and one woman.

Pope John Paul II gave a more robust endorsement of evolution. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, he referred to developments in science in the decades since Pope Pius’s encyclical:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

While acknowledging the weight of evidence (“more than a hypothesis”) in favor of the physical evolution of living beings, John Paul critiqued the reductionistic view of humans which flows from purely materialistic world-views:

The theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

John Paul distinguished among different approaches in the study of what it means to be human. While acknowledging the value of detailed physical observations, he noted that philosophical reflection is needed to analyze the bigger questions:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

Of Catholics and Protestants

The Roman Catholic church got off to a bad start at the dawn of the scientific era with burning Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 (mainly for dodgy theology, but that was partly tied to his scientific view of an infinite universe containing other worlds), and then with forcing Galileo to abjure the heliocentric system under threat of imprisonment or worse. The Protestants of that era appeared to be less prone to suppress scientific findings on the basis of dogma.

In the 1500’s, the reformer John Calvin wrote that, in the Genesis creation narrative, God accommodated the story to the limited understanding of common people, rather than giving a scientifically precise account. “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere” – – meaning, the Bible was not written for the purpose of telling us about the physical universe. In Calvin’s view, the way to understand the stars and the planets was to go scientifically study them, not to rely on Biblical pronouncements:

Astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend… For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.

Four centuries later, the tables have turned: the Roman Catholic magisterium is fully cognizant of the physical evidence for the long history of life and of the universe, while the most fervent Protestants are mired in denial of reality, in the forms of young earth creationism and anti-evolution Intelligent Design.

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Biology Professor Brags About Bullying Religious Students

An Astrophysicist Declaims on Religion

In the opening lecture for his course in cosmology, Professor Gordon Smalley at Mooretown State University routinely includes the following speech:

And now, it is time to share with you The Talk about how atheism and astrophysics get along. More to the point, how they don’t. Some folks believe that religious beliefs and science can be maintained as separate spheres, as “non-overlapping magisteria.” However, these magisteria are not nearly as non-overlapping as some of you might wish.

Theism is comfortable with the sudden creation of the universe. However, a pillar of atheism for centuries has been the notion that the material universe has always existed – – that the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there will ever be. This belief dates back at least to 400 B.C. with the atomistic theory of Democritus, and was carried forward by other classical philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, it did appear that the universe was a closed mechanical system which had been going on forever. The discoveries of the twentieth century, however, smashed that static picture and sent atheists reeling. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published in 1916, implied that the universe was not static and eternal, but either  expanding or collapsing. To try to maintain an eternally-old universe, Einstein added an arbitrary cosmological constant, which he later admitted to be his “biggest blunder.”

In the 1920’s, Edwin Hubble observed that the light from more-distant galaxies was “red-shifted” to longer wavelengths, indicating that galaxies are all moving away from each other. Georges Lemaitre took these findings as evidence that the universe was expanding from a tiny initial point, which came into being at a point in time some billions of years earlier. This was resoundingly confirmed by the discovery in 1964 of cosmic background radiation predicted by this “Big Bang” theory.

The sudden creation of our entire universe suggests the agency of a very powerful something or someone existing beyond our space-time world. Non-theists have been driven to varying degrees of desperation in order to maintain an eternal, uncreated cosmos. Fred Hoyle maintained a steady-state universe, long after the evidence had turned against it. Bondi and Gold proposed an infinitely-old expanding universe, with matter continually being created out of nothing. Several oscillating universe models have been proposed, involving an endless series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches.  These models all fail, for reasons we shall discuss. Stephen Hawking has tried to obviate a Creator by formulating the Beginning in imaginary numbers, in order to paper over the singularity there. This is merely sleight of hand, since in the real world, in real time, that embarrassing singularity remains.

A few of his students shift uncomfortably in their seats, but he continues:

Today’s atheists largely cling to the notion of an eternal “multiverse”, which burps out an infinite number of expanding universes. While this is consistent with some fashionable physics theories, these parallel universes are inherently undetectable, so believing in them is an act of raw faith.

Moving from desperation to prevarication, we have the spectacle of Lawrence Krauss on the book and lecture circuit, proclaiming that whole universes can pop out of nothing, such that no Creator is needed. It turns out that Krauss gets all his mileage by equivocating on the definition of “nothing.” We have known for many decades that a vacuum which is devoid of detectable particles is not really empty. There are always fluctuating quantum fields, leading to the appearance and rapid disappearance of pairs of virtual particles. The vacuum is also permeated with “dark energy”, which drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Even if it were reasonable to extrapolate from the appearance of pairs of particles to the production of a whole universe from the vacuum state, the quantum vacuum is not “nothing.” True “nothing” would involve the absence of the pre-existing quantum fields. This is pretty basic, and a number of scholars have taken Krauss to task here. Krauss also tries to appeal to the Wheeler-Dewitt equation to invoke an even deeper form of “nothing”, but this also fails: this equation deals with a whole collection of spaces, which again are not “nothing.”

Although you atheists don’t have to discard your beliefs in order to inform yourselves about cosmology (or even to pass my course), if you insist on retaining and respecting both, you will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.

“Wait a minute!” you may say, “Is that a fair representation of atheist views of cosmology?”  Or, “Why is an astrophysics professor attacking students’ religious beliefs?” Or, “There must be some mistake; this abuse of professorial power does not really happen!” Or, “I’m going to call an advocacy group to put a stop to this!”

A Biologist Declaims on Religion

The example above is fictional, but the scenario below is not. University of Washington biology professor David Barash recently published an Op Ed in the New York Times, “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class”, in which he describes how he bullies the religious students in his classes in the same manner as the contrived Professor Smalley above. Here are some excerpts:

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

…There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with facts and the latter with values… If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion, save for most religious fundamentalisms …But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of [my students] might wish.

…As evolutionary science has progressed… it has demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith and undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God…. A few of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats. I go on

Barash is annoyed that most of his academic colleagues, like Gould, believe that there is no fundamental conflict between science and religion. He fails to mention that far more eminent scientists than he, such as chemist Henry Schaefer and geneticist Francis Collins, are evangelical Christians. Perhaps the looniest paragraph in his essay is:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

The last sentence is completely delusional. What are the “mental gymnastic routines” which “science” is being asked to do here? Is Professor Gould asking that biologists withhold experimental data which might offend religious sensibilities? Are pastors coming to Professor Barash and asking him to do their thinking for them and provide a theodicy?

In a moment, I will note that his “demolitions” of religion are illusory. But a more basic issue is, why is Barash ranting on theological matters in a biology classroom? As a biologist, he has no special metaphysical insights. He is merely spouting his opinion and using his position of power to cram his religious views down the throats of his students. If they wanted to hear a professor hold forth on theodicy, they would have signed up for a philosophy or theology course.

Obviously there are some students who disagree with him, “shifting uncomfortably in their seats”, but they will not dare challenge the master blowhard in his domain. This is hardly the stuff of liberal education. Among his reviews at Rate My Professors we find this acknowledgement that he does indeed push an atheist agenda in class, from a student who seems to find it entertaining:

He is definitely an atheist and has an agenda to push, but he has some great points and is overall interesting.

Other students are less amused:

…Does not have any sympathy for any other beliefs and tries to throw dirt on those who believe in anything other than his “marvelous” theories.


He has a clear agenda to push, as he’s always rambling off topic about how biology proves that God doesn’t exist and requires his books as reading but are useless.

University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne is an atheist who takes every legitimate opportunity to trash theism. However, even he recognizes that what Barash is doing is not legitimate. While Coyne agrees with the content of Barash’s talk, he writes:

…There’s one thing about his piece that bothers me: Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university….

But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?

The Crude Ideas blogger is more pointed in his critique:

My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.

Then David Barash should be fired.

 More than that: David Barash’s firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.

Both Coyne and Crude point out that if Barash is allowed to present his arguments against religion in science classrooms, then surely Intelligent Design proponents, or more credible theists, should be allowed to present their arguments for religion in those same science classrooms. However, if Intelligent Design or anthropic fine-tuning is discussed favorably by a college science instructor, a lawsuit is often filed against him, or he may face dismissal, denial of tenure, or other harassment. A number of cases could be cited here.  On the other hand, in recent years I am not aware of atheist professors being reined in from pushing their views on students. There appears to be a double standard in academe.

Assessing Barash’s Claims That Evolution Has Demolished Pillars of Faith

We now turn to the three devastating blows to traditional religion delivered by evolution to traditional religion, according to Barash.

(1) Defeat of the Argument from Complexity

The twofold demolition begins by defeating what modern creationists call the argument from complexity. This once seemed persuasive, best known from William Paley’s 19th-century claim that, just as the existence of a complex structure like a watch demands the existence of a watchmaker, the existence of complex organisms requires a supernatural creator. Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

(2) Dispelling the Illusion That Humans Are Not Part of the Natural World

Next to go is the illusion of centrality. Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

These are examples of debating trickery, of putting up weak “straw man” versions of your opponent’s position and then knocking them down. Most scholarly theologians long ago forsook the God-of-the-gaps argument exemplified by Paley and by today’s Intelligent Design proponents. For example, while in a Nazi prison in 1944, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of “…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”

The Roman Catholic Church, representing some 1.2 billion Christians, has been on board with evolution for decades. In Christian Belief in a Postmodern World Princeton Seminary philosopher Diogenes Allen explained why inserting God into physical gaps is not only bad science, but bad theology: “This is theologically improper because God, as creator of the universe, is not a member of the universe. God can never properly be used in scientific accounts, which are formulated in terms of the relations between the members of the universe, because that would reduce God to the status of a creature. According to a Christian conception of God as creator of a universe that is rational through and through, there are no missing relations between the members of nature.”

As we have learned more about the nature of the universe, our appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation has increased, not decreased. What seems like solid matter is found to be mainly empty space, a product of the interaction of probabilistic quantum fields. We now know that this universe had a creation point some 13 billion years ago, with exquisitely tailored physical constants that allow the existence of matter and life, including the intricate story of evolution. More glory for the Creator: A billiard player who can rack up the balls up at the start, give one mighty crack of the cue, and have all the balls ricochet around and then sink in order is far more impressive than the player who works by sinking the balls one at a time.

Barash claims this evolutionary process to be “undirected”, but his biology lab has no instruments for detecting “directedness”. That claim is metaphysical speculation, unconnected to physical science.

Dialing back to New Testament times, Jesus himself stated that “no miraculous sign” would be given to skeptics, apart from his resurrection. An implication of this statement is that the fabric of operations of the physical universe will appear to be seamless. Thus, thoughtful Christians would expect that the development of organisms will occur in conformance with natural regularities.

But Barash ignores this serious theistic position on creation, and instead bashes the uninformed type of design argument held by many lay folk who have been misinformed by the Young Earth creationist and Intelligent Design organizations. In this view, naturalistic processes cannot account for the development of today’s diverse life-forms from primeval cells, and so God (or a comparably capable Intelligent Agent) may be invoked to fill in this apparent gap. Barash is correct that the findings of evolutionary science show this argument to be untenable. But, as explained above, the God-of-the-gaps design argument is not a “potent pillar of religious faith” for most educated theists in the West.

Similarly, the finding of evolutionary science that humans are physically related to other species does nothing to threaten belief in God. All it threatens is the simplistic interpretation of the Genesis narrative which was known from geology by 1840 to be incorrect. Humans were categorized by classical philosophers and Christian scholastics as “animals”, long before modern science. The “image of God” in humans was not thought to be located in some alternate bodily metabolic pathway which could be discoverable by biologists. Human exceptionalism is alive and well, though of course its boundaries shift with time as our knowledge grows of humans and other animals. No other species, for instance, has been observed to write Times op-eds.

Barash’s announcement that, “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens” is just silly. Christians who reflect on the rationality of nature and on Jesus’ saying about “no signs” were not expecting some supernatural trait to be exhibited in humans. Even if some rare miracles did occur in the human body or brain, they would fall outside the sphere of detection of science, which is concerned with repeatable regularities.

(3) The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Barash’s third big blow against religion is:

Adding to religion’s current intellectual instability is a third consequence of evolutionary insights: a powerful critique of theodicy, the scholarly effort to reconcile belief in an omnipresent, omni-benevolent God with the fact of unmerited suffering.

Theological answers range from claiming that suffering provides the option of free will to announcing (as in the Book of Job) that God is so great and we so insignificant that we have no right to ask. But just a smidgen of biological insight makes it clear that, although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things. The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.

This, too, is ridiculous. Theists have known about “predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death” for thousands of years before Darwin. Evolution adds nothing of significance here. Modern science tells us merely that this state of affairs has been going on for millions, not thousands of years.

So, how does a theist cope with the suffering that is “built into the nature of things”? On one level, it is elementary: From the propositions (a) that God is all-good and (b) that God is all-powerful, it is straightforward to infer that He has a morally sufficient reason for the evil and suffering that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. So the alleged “problem of evil” poses no logical challenge to theism at all.

Unbelievers may complain that God has not explained His purposes to their personal satisfaction, or they may try to embarrass theism by calling attention to particularly distressing instances of suffering, but that is emotional propaganda, not rational argument.

This intellectual resolution does not, of course, experientially remove our suffering and our distress over the pain of others. Pain still hurts. That said, for the believer it is comforting and centering to know that beneath all the random, scary, and painful events of life run the good purposes of Almighty God.

The extent to which God is revealed in the natural world is discussed at length in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology . Without trying to summarize that whole article, it is worth noting that in the New Testament perspective this physical world is indeed a place of seemingly unmerited suffering, where nice things and nasty things happen to good people and to evil people with about the same probability. However, all the experiences in this world, which press so heavily on our current perception, are like a blink of an eye or a puff of vapor compared to the intensity and duration of the afterlife.

Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity. If a man chooses to cut himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself.

Posted in Evolution, Natural Theology | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Some Simple Evidences for an Old Earth

The age of the earth is important in framing an interpretation of the early chapters of the Bible. Genesis 1 describes the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the formation of earth’s life forms, in six “days”, which were demarcated by “evening and morning”.

Early Christian writers held various opinions on the length of these days. Some (e.g. Basil) believed them to be 24-hour days, some (e.g. Cyprian) held them to be 1000-year periods, others (e.g. Origen) to be allegorical only, while Augustine opined that it was difficult to be sure about what the “days” of Genesis actually were.

Today’s Young Earth (YE) creationists typically take them to be normal 24-hour days, and also take the genealogies in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible to be literal and exhaustive representations of post-creation chronology. This leads to a Creation about 6000 years ago, with nearly all the observed sedimentary rock layers deposited in a 1-year Flood about 4500 years ago (~2500 B.C.).

Bible literalists often claim that a recent creation and Fall of a literal, sinless Adam and Eve is essential for the Christian gospel. That assertion is not remotely true. Nowhere in Jesus’ teachings or in the apostolic preaching in Acts is the Fall ever mentioned, and Paul develops his doctrine of the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 quite apart from Adam. (See here for more on Adam and the Fall and evolution).

When young Christians are taught that a young earth is an essential part of Christianity, this can and does cause some of them to lose their faith when they later encounter the evidence for an old earth in geology or biology classes. Thus, we should be cautious about asserting that one Bible interpretation is the only valid approach.

Other Christian viewpoints are compatible with the ancient earth which science reveals. Old Earth (OE) creationists are willing to accept that the earth is billions of years old. They often take a flexible approach to interpreting the verses of Genesis 1-3, trying to identify the “days” with various epochs of geological history (“Day-Age” approach). Other Old Earth interpreters suggest that the six “days” of Genesis 1 are not 24-hours days when creation actually took place. Rather, they are six successive days when God showed visions to Adam or Moses of what happened long before in creation. Another suggestion is that these “days” reveal six groups of divine creation proclamations (“let…”), while the outworking of those proclamations occurred sometime later, possibly through natural means.

The Reasons to Believe site lists about 40 well-known, impeccably conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield. Ditto for John Piper.

Evolutionary creationists, sometimes called theistic evolutionists, believe the earth is old and also accept that God used macroevolution to bring about today’s living creatures. They recognize that in the Bible God often used stories which were not necessarily true to communicate spiritual truths.  Thus, the Genesis narrative may function much like the parables of Jesus, or the story that Nathan told David about the poor man’s lamb. Essentially all Roman Catholics, and nearly all evangelical Protestants who are practicing geologists or biologists, are evolutionary creationists.

Advocates on both sides of the age issue present long lists of physical evidence. Here I will mention a few that are relatively straightforward, not requiring scientific training to understand.

Angular Unconformities

There are many spots on earth where you can observe rock layers with this sort of pattern:

angular unconformity PNG

There is a lower set of rock layers, often steeply tilted, overlain by an upper set of layers which meet at a different angle. This is called an angular unconformity.  A classic example of an angular unconformity is at Siccar Point, in Scotland:

Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

This shows the erosional interface between steeply tilted layers of “greywacke” rock, topped by nearly horizontal layers of conglomerate and the distinctive Old Red Sandstone. By 1800, European geologists had realized that this sort of formation required the following sequence of events:

(1) Thousands of feet of sediment accumulated underwater to form what we now see as the greywacke. Even more sediment was laid down on top of that, to compress and cook it to form solid rock layers. Such sediments typically derive from the weathering of pre-existing rocks on land, so it would take many years to produce all the sediments we see in the rock layers around us.

(2) This whole assembly was tilted and raised above sea level.

(3) Hundreds of feet (meters) of solid rock were eroded away to form the top surface of the greywacke that we now see as the unconformity. We know the greywacke was solid (not just recent, soft flood deposits), because broken-off chunks of the greywacke are found in the conglomerate layer just above it.

(4) The greywacke then sank below the waters, and many more feet of sediment were deposited, starting with the conglomerate and the Old Red Sandstone, then more layers on top to lithify them.

(5) Finally, this formation was again lifted above sea level, and many feet of the overlying rock were eroded away to form the present land surface in that area of Scotland.

All of these events cannot be fitted into a one-year Flood, or any reasonable reconstruction of a 6000-year-old earth.

In some cases, there is an erosional surface between two rock layers (e.g. C and D, in the figure below) which are nearly horizontal:

NonAng Unconformity FIg

Because both all layers are flat, it may not be immediately obvious that there was a time gap between their depositions, so geologists have to look closer for more clues. Often, the presence of hard, loose pebbles of a lower layer (“Layer C”, here) embedded in valleys at the C-D interface demonstrates that the lower layer had hardened into solid rock and then was eroded prior to deposition of the upper layer. Thus, such a location must have gone through the same cycles of deposition/ lithification/ uplift/ erosion/ subsidence/ deposition/ lithification/ uplift/erosion as with an angular conformity.

In places, two or more unconformities are found among successive layers, making it extra clear that these layers were not laid down in a single, year-long Flood. For instance, in the Grand Canyon, at least three distinct disconformities are found among the main visible horizontal layers, along with a dramatic angular unconformity at the base of these layers. Unconformities in the Grand Canyon rock layers are treated more thoroughly here.

If you want to stop reading now, this above is all you really need to know about the evidence for the age of the earth. There just is no reasonable way to fit these observations into a young earth scenario. On the basis of evidence like this, essentially all practicing geologists, many of them evangelical Christians, had concluded by 1840 (long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species) that the earth must be at least several million years old.

However, with passing decades, more observations have confirmed the great antiquity of the earth. Some of these observations are discussed below.

Fossil Soils and Animal Burrows in the Midst of Rock Layers

In Flood geology, the main sedimentary rock layers were all laid down in a one-year Flood. Where these layers are many thousands of feet deep, the rate of deposition must have been very high.  Arguably the sea level may have sloshed back and forth, occasionally exposing the surface of the sediments and leading to variable deposition rates, but something like a foot an hour would be a typical average rate for the Flood year in many areas of North America. That leaves no time for deep soils to build up from rock weathering in the middle of Flood deposits (i.e. in the middle of the Flood year), or for terrestrial animals to dig deep burrows in that soil.

Yet just such soils and burrows are found in the midst of thousands of feet of sedimentary rock layers (see here, here,  and here). Such ancient, buried soils are called “paleosols.”  Here is an example of a well-developed paleosol (the brownish layer across the middle of the photo) in the Morrison formation which dates to about 150 million years ago and is centered in Colorado and Wyoming.  In this layer are whitish fossilized burrows made by vertebrates. All this simply could not happen under the raging sea while many feet per day of sediment are raining down, and thus the existence of these paleosols and burrows invalidate the notion that the sedimentary rock layers were deposited during a recent worldwide Flood.

Source: Radiometric Dating, Paleosols and the Geologic Column: Three strikes against Young Earth Creationism”, by Joe Meert

Source: Radiometric Dating, Paleosols and the Geologic Column: Three strikes against Young Earth Creationism”, by Joe Meert

As with the unconformities described above, only a long sequence of events can account for this formation. Again, thousands of feet of sediments were deposited, covered by more sediments, to turn them into rock. Then this formation was lifted above sea level by plate tectonic motion (which we now know to be huge, over time), and the rocks eroded down. Erosion formed a layer of soil, and some animals lived there and dug burrows. Later this area got covered with water again, and more thousands of feet of sediment were deposited, and eventually turned to rock. Once again, this area was raised out of the sea and the solid rock eroded down to the present level.

Massive Salt Deposits in the Midst of Rock Layers

In many locations (see map below) there are huge salt deposits, hundreds or thousands of feet thick, laying under thousands of feet of sediment. These salt deposits were formed over many thousands of years, from the evaporation of shallow coastal lagoons or of vast inland seas. These evaporations occurred after the deposition of lower rock layers, and before the deposition of further rock layers above. This could not happen in the middle of a year-long Flood.

Map showing location and age of some of major basinwide evaporite deposits, from “Evaporite basins with emphasis on the Permian Zechstein” by Kristin Börner

Map showing location and age of some of major basinwide evaporite deposits, from “Evaporite basins with emphasis on the Permian Zechstein” by Kristin Börner

Thick Limestone Layers, Caves, and Fossil Reefs Among the Rock Layers

Limestones are deposited by the slow raining down of shelly organisms as they live and die, in a mainly clear body of water where sand and mud sediments are not being brought in to commingle with the animal shells. For instance, limestone formations are depositing in some areas of the Caribbean, where there are no major continental rivers dumping sand or silt into the ocean nearby. In many areas of the earth, in the midst of other rock layers, there are over a thousand feet of limestone deposits. These limestones would require many years to form, in relatively clear, calm waters. They could not have been deposited in the midst of a raging, worldwide Flood.

After the shelly remains have has been consolidated into limestone rock, and that rock has been raised by tectonic forces above sea level, slightly acidic (freshwater) rain from the atmosphere can seep into it and erode channels and large caves. Sometimes these caves reach up to the land surface, which then collapses into the cave to form a sinkhole. Such cave formations are found by geologists with hundreds of feet of sedimentary rock layers above and below them. This all takes many thousands of years to happen, and could not occur in middle of a year-long global Flood. For instance, Davis Young writes of the Redwall Limestone, which is near the middle of the Grand Canyon rock layers:

Still another indication that the Redwall was exposed to the atmosphere for a lengthy period of time – far more than a year – is the existence of caverns beneath, and of sinkholes in, its upper surface. The caverns and sinkholes are commonly filled with red shales from the overlying Supai Group or with angular blocks of fragmented Redwall.     [Davis A. Young, Portraits of Creation, ed. H.J. Van Till, et al., Wm. B. Eerdman’s, Grand Rapids (1990), pp.68-69.]

The sustained growth rate of a coral reef is about 8 mm or 0.3 inch per year. The Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific is over 1380 meters or 4600 feet ( =55, 000 inches) deep, so it is at least 180,000 years old, and probably much older. Its features show that this atoll is indeed grown-in-place coral, not (as argued by YE creationists) the result of some Flood deposition.

Geologists have discovered many fossilized reefs deep down among the sedimentary rock layers. The porous nature of these fossil reefs makes them important reservoir rock in oil fields.  Daniel Wonderly, after discussing the modern Eniwetok Atoll,  describes   a set of fossil reefs over 800 ft thick, which lie among thousands of feet of other sediments in a Canadian oil field. In the YE creation model, these reefs lie among sedimentary layers laid down by Noah’s Flood, but it is not possible for thick coral reefs to grow in the middle of year-long Flood.

Tens of Thousands of Annual Layers (“Varves”) in Lake Bed Sediments

In some lakes in northern latitudes, there are patterns of light and dark layers of sediment. Analyses of their composition (e.g. pollen from nearby terrestrial plants in bloom, and carbonate from tiny shelly organisms) establish that each pair of layers corresponds to the passage of the seasons of one year. In one lake near Interlaken in Switzerland, these layers can be traced back undisturbed at least 9,400 years.

Lake Suigetsu in Japan is an ideal locale for annual varves, being sheltered from storms and from gross river deposits. The varves in Lake Suigetsu have been counted to more than 60,000 years ago. As described by Natural Historian these varves have been cross-correlated with carbon-14 dating, and by dating of ash-falls from known, ancient volcanic eruptions, which confirm their yearly nature. The figure below is drawn by Davidson and Wolgemuth, and shows agreement between the carbon-14 dating of the varves sediments taken from two different lakes, and the carbon-14 dating of the annual growth rings in the trunks of ancient trees.  Their caption on this figure reads:

Tree-ring number (solid line) and varve number (circles) vs. measured  carbon-14. Varves less than 5000 are from Steel Lake, Minnesota; varves greater than 5000 are from Lake Suigetsu, Japan.

  “Measured carbon-14” is shown as the natural log of the carbon-14 activity. Vertical bars represent the magnitude of uncertainty in the measured value. Data comes from references in footnotes 6 and 7.

Source: Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, “Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood: Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology”, essay at

Source: Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, “Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood:
Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology”, essay at

The data from growth rings in tree trunks in this graph extends back more than 10,000 years, and serves as confirmation of the overall soundness of carbon-14 dating, and also as a means to estimate ancient atmospheric carbon-14 levels to make minor calibration corrections to the carbon-14 dating.

These varves were laid down in relatively undisturbed lakes, and thus invalidate the notion of a raging worldwide flood which occurred in 2500 B.C. YE advocates have no valid response to this. They attempt to point to examples of some other lakes where storms or other factors caused more than one pair of light/dark layers being deposited in a year, but this is irrelevant. Geologists are well able to distinguish annual layering from storm layers using a variety of tests, and the analyses of the layers in Interlaken and Lake Suigetsu clearly show them to be annual.

The figure below shows the difference between random storm varves (on left) from Lake Walensee in Switzerland, and the regular laminations seen in yearly varves from Lake Zurich.

Source: From A. Lambert and H. J. Hsu, Sedimentology, Volume 26, Issue 3,  pages 453–461, June 1979.  Posted on-line at, “Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look”.

Source: From A. Lambert and H. J. Hsu, Sedimentology, Volume 26, Issue 3, pages 453–461, June 1979. Posted on-line at, “Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look”.

Hundreds of Thousands of Annual Layers in Arctic and Antarctic Ice Cores

Cores of ice, hundreds of feet long, have been drilled out of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. Summer/winter layering can be discerned in them. The GISP2 core from Greenland has been counted back at least 110,000 years, using the corroboration of two to three independent methods. Antarctic cores go back more than 400,000 years, quite undisturbed by any world-wide Flood. At least nine different methods were used to date the layers of the Antarctic cores.

Hugh Ross comments:

How do scientists confirm that these ice layers correspond to years of Earth’s past history? They can check for telltale markers, such as volcanic ash signatures. The Krakatoa eruption of 1883 and the Vesuvius eruption that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79 left their specific marks in exactly the annual layers anticipated. Climatic cycles also allow for testing. As it turns out, these cycles-caused by regular variations in the eccentricity or ellipticity of Earth’s orbit (period = 100,000 years) and the tilt of Earth’s orbit (period = 41,000 years)-correspond perfectly with what’s seen in those core layers. Finally, researchers have performed radiometric dating of minerals embedded in the ice to make sure their age corresponds with their annual layer, and in each case it does.

For example, at the right of this photograph of a 22-inch section of a Greenland ice core is a dark brown volcanic ash layer that occurs at about 55,000 years down according to annual ice layer counting. Analysis of its contents shows it to be the same as the “Z2″ ash layer which has been widely found in Atlantic ocean floor sediments and independently dated to 55,000 years.

Volcanic Ash Layer in Ice Core Cross-Dated to 55,000 Years Old.           Source: “Synchronization of ice cores using volcanic ash layers” from Centre for Ice and Climate   at University of Copenhagen  ,

Volcanic Ash Layer in Ice Core Cross-Dated to 55,000 Years Old. Source: “Synchronization of ice cores using volcanic ash layers” from Centre for Ice and Climate at University of Copenhagen ,

YE creationists argue that these are not really annual layers in the ice, but are due to a succession of storms within just a few years. The Western Geologist and Old Earth Ministries show why these arguments fail.

Some World War II era airplanes which landed on a Greenland glacier are now covered in many meters of ice. YE creationists note a discrepancy between that rate of ice accumulation, and the much slower (in terms of centimeters per year) ice accumulation in the Greenland cores. However, that difference in rates is expected: the airplanes landed near the coast, where snowfall in much higher and the glaciers flow more, whereas the cores were deliberately drilled near the center of Greenland, where the glacier does not move much and where the snowfall is lower.

Further Evidence for an Old Earth

I tried to pick out some observations above which would be clear for both scientists and non-scientists alike. There are yet other evidences that the earth is millions or billions of years old, which may require more thinking through. Some of these are described in the links below, listed roughly in order from shorter to longer articles.

How are the ages of the Earth and universe calculated?      [Biologos]   About two pages. Treats very diverse (geology and astronomy) methods to date the earth and the universe

How Do We Know the Earth is Old? (Infographic)            [Biologos]    This infogram packs brief descriptions of ten different dating methods , with lots of illustrations, into about two pages. Excellent for those who are new to this whole topic or who have short attention spans.

What evidence is there for the earth being billions of years old?  [by Russell Downs at]  Brief discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, answering objections raised by YE creationists.

Christian Geologists on Noah’s Flood: Biblical and Scientific Shortcomings of Flood Geology – – Clear, illustrated discussion of salt deposits, ordering of rock layers and fossils, tree rings, and varves, by geologists Gregg  Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth of Solid Rock Lectures.

100 Reasons the Earth Is Old – – Short, clear discussions of 100 evidences for an old earth, with illustrations. On Christian geologist’s  Age of Rocks blog.

Scientific Evidence for an Old Earth   [Reasons to Believe]  Articles include:

Deep Core Tests for the Age of the Earth

Multiple Lines of Evidence Support an Ancient Earth

The Age(s) of the Continents

Helium Diffusion in Zircon: Evidence Supports an Old Earth, Part 2 (of 2)

Radiometric Dating  A Christian Perspective – – This is a classic, in-depth discussion of radioactive dating of rocks, on ASA website.

Evidence against a recent creation  [Rationalwiki] – – covers many topics, as listed below

RationalWiki Evidence Old Earth

Posted in Age of Earth | Tagged , , | 29 Comments

A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology


Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The Teachings of Paul

   Paul and the Philosophers

   Wild Times at Lystra

   Paul’s Letter to the Romans

   A Case Study in Ingratitude

   Beyond This World

   The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

Concluding Thoughts


Intelligent Design and Natural Theology

The modern Intelligent Design movement attempts to identify gaps in our knowledge of how the features of the natural world can be explained by ordinary physical laws. This leads to the claim that an Intelligent Designer must be invoked to account for these features.

I have earlier criticized Intelligent Design on scientific grounds, pointing out where its advocates have exaggerated the magnitude of our knowledge gaps in areas such as the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, and human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities.

Intelligent Design is also subject to question on theological grounds.  Intelligent Design proponents are, for all practical purposes, practicing natural theology by claiming that the existence of an Intelligent Agent can be inferred from the features of the biological realm. This Intelligent Agent must be eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient, or nearly so, in order to have implemented the purported design features in the genomes of organisms over the past 3 billion years. Indeed, the majority of principals at the Discovery Institute are evangelical Christians, who see this Intelligent Designer as none other than the Judeo-Christian God. Intelligent Design is a modernized version of William Paley’s 1802 teleological argument that the existence of a complex, functional entity (such as a watch found lying on the ground) implies the existence of an intelligent “artificer” who designed and formed that entity.

Natural theology involves making inferences about the existence and nature of God using reason and observations of the physical world.  This contrasts with revealed religion, where God takes the initiative to make himself known by some more direct means, e.g. through direct epiphany or by communicating propositional truths to or through humans.

In modern thought, natural theology is a branch of philosophy. Natural theology has gone in and out of fashion over the centuries.  Its history is described in detail in this article in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  This article concludes with a summary of the status of natural theology today:

Outside neo-Thomistic circles, natural theology was generally out of favor throughout the twentieth century. Due to neo-Kantian criticisms of metaphysics, an extreme confidence in contemporary science, a revival and elaboration of Humean empiricism in the form of logical positivism, as well as existentialism among Continental thinkers, metaphysics was thought to be forever eliminated as a way of knowing or understanding truth about God (or anything at all for that matter). Natural theology was thought to have suffered the same fate as being part of metaphysics. It is fair to say that in many places metaphysics and natural theology were even held in contempt. Towards the second half of the twentieth century, however, the tide began to turn – first in favor of the possibility of metaphysics and soon afterwards to a revival of natural theology.

Natural theology today is practiced with a degree of diversity and confidence unprecedented since the late Middle Ages. Natural theologians have revived and extended arguments like Anselm’s (the so-called “perfect being theology”). They have also re-cast arguments from nature in several forms – from neo-Thomistic presentations of Aquinas’s five ways to new teleological arguments drawing upon the results of contemporary cosmology. Arguments from the reality of an objective moral order to the existence of God are circulated and taken seriously. Ethical theories that define goodness in terms of divine command are considered live options among an array of ethical theories. Discussions of divine attributes abound in books and journals devoted exclusively to purely philosophical treatments of God, for example, the journal Faith and Philosophy. Debates rage over divine causality, the extent of God’s providence, and the reality of human free choice.

A number of modern Christian thinkers, such as Karl Barth, have rejected the notion that humans are capable of coming to a genuine knowledge of God apart from God’s particular self-revelation in Jesus Christ. A Reformed blogger, Michael Bauman, recently wrote along the same lines:

Knowing God is not a matter of arriving at this or that true statement about Him, however elemental or tautological that statement might be.  That is not Biblical knowing.  In order to have Biblical knowing, you cannot substitute for its methods and content your own definition of knowing, your own methods for knowing, your own ideas about God, and still think you have knowledge of Yahweh that meets Jesus’ criteria for knowing God.  Call it whatever you wish, but Jesus does not call what you have knowing God, even if you do.  Knowing God is about relating properly, well, and intimately to a Person, as Adam knew Eve and as Joseph knew Mary…To think you know Yahweh by independent personal cogitation apart from Christ is merely pagan metaphysics masquerading as Christian theology.  It arrogantly assumes that it can span the gap between us and the transcendent God all on our own, without Immanuel, without the transcendent God becoming immanent. 

I think most Christians would agree that the mere inference of some facts about God falls far short of a proper relationship with Him. That does not mean, however, that apprehending truths about God has no value at all. For many people, reading the well-reasoned works of C. S. Lewis has been a means of opening their hearts as well as their minds to Christ. James Barr devoted his 1991 Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, to refuting Barth’s viewpoint. Barr argued that the Bible not only endorses elements of natural theology, but is heavily dependent on natural theology both in its composition and for its responsible interpretation.

Natural theology in its most rarefied philosophical sense would be out of place in the Bible, which is, after all, a book of revealed spiritual truths. However, statements do appear in the Scripture concerning how God’s character and operations are displayed in the natural order. It may be appropriate to use the term “natural revelation” rather than “natural theology”.  “Natural revelation” implies initiative and positive agency on God’s part towards self-disclosure, whereas “natural theology” is more linked to man’s efforts to comprehend matters on his terms.

While much more can and has been said on this subject, my main interest here is to examine some key Bible texts that touch upon it. These passages include two of the Psalms, Paul’s speeches in Acts 14 and 17, and the first chapter of Romans. All citations are from the New International Version.

Natural Revelation in the Psalms

The most-quoted Old Testament passage on this subject is Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.  [Psalm 19:1-6]

The thought in this Psalm moves smoothly from God’s general revelation in the natural order to the special communication in His law:

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.  [Psalm 19:7-8]

According to verses 1-4, some sort of declaration or revelation regarding God’s glory and creative craftsmanship is provided by the physical skies. This revelation is not in the form of verbalized propositions, but is mediated by optical observation of whatever is visible overhead. Presumably this includes the sun, clouds, and blue expanse by day, and the moon, stars, and planets set against the black night skies of the preindustrial age. This celestial proclamation is made to all people everywhere (not just to Israel), even as the sun shines on everything under the heavens.

It is not stated exactly how this revelation works. There is no effort to demonstrate, in Greek philosophical categories, that the observation of some specific feature in the sky proves that God exists. However, it is reasonable to infer from the vastness of the heavens and successful functioning of their moving parts that their Creator and Sustainer is immensely powerful and skillful. A common human response to the glory of the heavens is awe, which in a wise person is directed towards the Creator.

However, some people will take the position that the vast universe (or multiverse) just happens to exist, as a brute, unexplained, uncreated fact.  This atheistic alternative was known to the Psalmist, who put it this way: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ “ [Ps. 14:1].

As our knowledge of the vastness of the universe has grown, simple awe at the celestial spectacle can give way to despair over how small the earth and its inhabitants seem to be in a cold, lifeless expanse.   Astronomer Owen Gingerich notes:

We are no longer in ecstasy about the beauty of creation, but we are instead crushed down by our insignificance in the vastness of the universe. Rather than Psalm 19, we turn to Psalm 8:3-4a.

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained;     What is man that thou art mindful of him?”

Psalm 104 is also cited in discussions of natural revelation. Here are some representative excerpts:

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. [vv. 14-15]

He made the moon to mark the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. Then people go out to their work, to their labor until evening. [vv.19-23]

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. [vv.24-26]

All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. [vv. 27-29]

Again, the agency of a Creator is assumed. This Creator has devised a complex, well-functioning web of being, which is indicative of his “wisdom”. He is represented as involved in an ongoing way, in what later theologians would term “providence”, in the gracious provision of food for man and beast, and even for “wine that gladdens human hearts.” Also, he seems pleased with the natural order, which includes Leviathan (possibly the crocodile) which He formed to “frolic” in the vast and teeming sea.

This Psalm does not shy away from realistically describing the full circle of life: although a species or a phylum may endure for eons, any individual animal will die and its nutrients will “return to the dust”. The lions roar and seek their prey “from God”, as part of the natural order, which is not depicted as fallen or evil.

Will a hardboiled skeptic be convinced of God’s wisdom and beneficence by observation of the complex, effective interactions of the biosphere? Generally not, for at least two reasons. First, we now know, at least in outline, how this complexity has developed from the earliest single-celled organisms, and also how the earth itself developed from supernova detritus to become a suitable habitation for life.  This does not obviate the most basic question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, but it does push the key creation event back by at least 13 billion years,  to the formation of an expanding space-time continuum possessing  the finely-tuned properties that would allow the existence of matter. It could go even further back, to the formation of a quantum vacuum or a multiverse from which our local universe may have sprung. The further back and more obscure the creation becomes, the harder it is to see the hand of God in it.

Second, all is not sweetness and light in the biosphere. The prey of that roaring lion experiences pain, and probably terror, in the process of being hunted and killed. As Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species (6th ed., p. 49):

Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind. Yet unless it be thoroughly engrained in the mind, the whole economy of nature, with every fact on distribution, rarity, abundance, extinction, and variation, will be dimly seen or quite misunderstood. We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

Thus, the case for God’s beneficence here is nuanced. This issue will be revisited below.

Justice in Job and Ecclesiastes

The book of Job is an epic poem concerning a man who was righteous, yet had his life ruined by losing his children, his health, and most of his belongings. As he is sitting in the ashes, scraping the boils on his body, three friends come to try to help him out. They work from the then-common assumption of retributive justice: in this life, God sees to it that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Thus, Job must be guilty of some huge, hidden transgression to merit this horrible fate. Job’s friends try, for his own good, to get him to acknowledge this and to confess and forsake his sin.  Job stoutly maintains his innocence, citing his honest and benevolent dealings with everybody. Like his friends, Job believes that justice should be expected in this life, and cries out for a hearing with God so he can prove that he really is a good man who deserves better treatment.

Job eventually gets a response from God, but it is not the sort of answer he had expected. God describes at length the powerful and providential care He exercises over all aspects of the creation, including providing food for the ravens and (as in Psalm 104) for the lions, and (also as in Psalm 104) making the formidable Leviathan. This discussion is framed in the limits of ancient physical understanding. (If God had a comparable dialog with a twenty-first century accuser, it might include questions like, “Do you know when a particular uranium nucleus will spontaneously split?”, or “Where were you when I created quantum fields?”)

Job is never given an explanation of why he experienced the suffering he did. The personal encounter with God apparently gave him renewed confidence in God’s general power, competence and care, such that he no longer required a justification of his particular circumstances.

The three friends of Job were rebuked for incorrectly speaking of God – – presumably their retributive justice theme was flat-out wrong. Although at the end Job himself was restored to health and wealth, no promise is given that justice will generally be displayed in the natural order.

There are many passages in the Old Testament that foster the expectation that only good things happen to good people, but other passages show an awareness that this is not always the case. Psalm 73, for instance, goes on at great length on how the wicked prosper, and get away with oppression and impiety. They have a successful, healthy life and an easy death. The Psalmist is deeply troubled by this, and only finds solace by contemplating that justice will be eventually be served in some future episode, perhaps after death.

The book of Ecclesiastes is concerned entirely with natural wisdom, as opposed to special revelation. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes relies on his own wits to try to understand what happens in this world (“I devoted myself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven”) and is agnostic about what happens after death. He advocates enjoying everyday life as best we can, and not worrying about what we cannot control or understand. His teaching [3:1-8] that there is a time and a place for everything in life was the basis for the 1965 #1 hit song Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together…

The Teacher believes it will somehow go better for a reverent man (8:12), and God will eventually judge every deed (3:7), but justice is not always manifest in this life:

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. [7:15]

There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.   [8:14]

In fact, the affairs of life seem rather random to the natural eye:

“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (KJV: “All is vanity”)  [1:2]

The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.   Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come. [9:11-12a]

Although this viewpoint (“time and chance happen to them all”), is realistic and is congenial to modern evolution, it militates against trying to conclude much about God from the observation of human affairs.  As in Job, the book of Ecclesiastes stresses the limits of human understanding. Although the Teacher “increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled in Jerusalem” [1:16], he found that “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” [8:17]

In more recent times, the philosopher Immanuel Kant has noted that, while the human mind can do a good job thinking about physics, it is simply not well-equipped to process metaphysical categories. This argues for a degree of humility as we pursue our reasoning about God and nature.

The Teachings of Paul

Paul and the Philosophers

The clearest recorded encounter of the apostle Paul with classic Greek thought is in Acts 17. It describes how Paul addressed a meeting of officials and philosophers at the Areopagus court in Athens. He was brought to this council by some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who wanted to call him to account for what he was preaching. This was a tough crowd; Paul had to chip away at a whole cluster of their existing beliefs in order to clarify and justify his message. Nevertheless, he did make a few converts, including at least one member of the Areopagus itself.

In his speech, Paul begins by seeking common ground with his hearers. He notes that the Athenians were very religious, having made various objects of worship, including an altar to “An Unknown God”. Paul then proposes to teach about that God which was heretofore unknown by them. The rest of his address goes like this:

24 The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

29 Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Given his starting point of a Creator God, Paul proceeds to build a reasonable case as to how this God should be worshipped. Most of his learned hearers could agree with him that any god or God would not be confined to a temple building; they surely did not think Athena was cooped up in the Parthenon, any more than Yahweh was localized in the Jerusalem Temple. In arguing against idolatry, Paul does not say, “God forbids that in the Torah!” Rather, as Barr notes, Paul makes a rational argument, using “the enormous qualitative difference between the piece of stone or wood, and the transcendent deity, creator of the world” to discredit idolatrous worship.

Furthermore, if God is in some sense our father, his nature must be at least as elevated as man’s; hence, we should approach God as one would approach an intelligent, personal being. This is another argument against reverencing an idol.

The transcendent God, who needs nothing from human hands and who graciously “gives everyone life and breath and everything else” is also immanent. God has arranged that people should seek Him, with the possibility of actually finding Him.  Paul quotes two of the Greeks’ own philosophers or poets to establish God’s accessibility: “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and “We are his offspring.”

Paul probably had most of his audience with him to this point, at least provisionally. The Epicureans believed that God needed nothing from men, and the Stoics saw God as the source of life. However, neither school believed in life after death, or in accountability to a relational God. When Paul transitioned from talking about God in general, to the particulars of Christ, the Resurrection, repentance, and final judgment, his cordial reception at this meeting was over:

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  At that, Paul left the Council. [Acts 17:32-33]

In order to justify belief in these Christian particulars, Paul claims that God “has given proof of this to everyone by raising [Christ] from the dead.” Acts 1:3, written by a Christian for Christians, describes in some detail the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, referring to them as “infallible proofs” (Greek techmerion). In speaking to the Greeks in Acts 17:31, however, Paul uses a milder word (pistis) for “proof”, which is often here translated as “assurance”. This connotes reasonable grounds for belief, not necessarily an airtight Euclidian deduction. Paul does not try to explain in detail to these foreigners about all the early Jewish witnesses to the Resurrection. Nonetheless, he does offer this objective historical event (not merely his own opinion) to authenticate Jesus as the standard of final judgment.

Wild Times at Lystra

Acts 14 tells the story of Paul’s misadventure at Lystra, in what is now Turkey. After he and his travelling companion Barnabas arrived at the city, Paul’s word of faith healed a man who had been crippled from birth. The crowd erupted in a religious frenzy, shouting “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called Paul “Hermes”, because he was the chief spokesman, which made Barnabas “Zeus”.  The local priest of Zeus geared up to offer a sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, honoring them as gods. This was certainly not the response Paul was aiming at, so he and Barnabas did some quick damage control:

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.  Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” [Acts 14:14-17]

This speech is similar to Paul’s later talk in Athens, using appeals from nature and logic. The Creator of heaven and earth must be far superior to any idol or local god. This God is gracious, overlooking their prior idolatry. He has demonstrated His kindness by giving rain and crops and food and general human happiness.

With this impassioned speech, Paul and Barnabas (barely) managed to prevent these excitable people from sacrificing to them, and presumably brought a degree of further enlightenment. However, all this required the apostles’ inspired teaching regarding God and nature. Left to themselves, with only natural revelation, the locals would have remained mired in pagan idolatry.

Stephen Spencer, a skeptic regarding natural theology, comments, “Though the people of Lystra had lived their entire lives surrounded by God’s witness to himself by his generous gifts, they did not seem to have profited from it. In their natural condition, surrounded by God’s witness in the natural environment as viewed naturally, i.e., apart from Scripture, they did not affirm and worship the true God. They even misunderstood the sign-miracles and message of the servants of the true God.”

(To finish the story here: Later, the crowd in Lystra turned against them, stoned Paul, and dragged him out of the city as dead. After he revived, he got up and went back into the city and encouraged his disciples. )

Paul’s Letter to the Romans

A key passage in the New Testament regarding natural revelation is found in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In this letter Paul develops his theology of salvation via faith in Jesus Christ, rather than by carrying out works of the law. Paul starts by noting the general culpability of humans before a holy God:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. … 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

Paul makes a far-reaching claim regarding what is revealed in nature: “What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” As we have noted earlier, the Creator of this world must be powerful and, in some sense, very wise.

Why doesn’t everyone then worship and serve the true God? It is not that the natural revelation is objectively insufficient, but rather that people subjectively do not want to accept it. In fact, they actively “suppress the truth”, according to Paul, in order to justify their unbelief. They do not want to be accountable to their Creator. They are not epistemologically neutral; at some level, many actually hate God (Rom 1:30).

This issue of confirmation bias characterizes how humans approach most issues which have emotional overtones. I have elsewhere noted that political liberals and conservatives see issues through their own narrow lenses, and that young earth creationists are literally incapable of perceiving the evidence that shows their view is incorrect.  Everybody thinks that they themselves are fair-minded, but only a conversion-like experience can open them to see the full sweep of reality. According to Paul, unbelievers are no exception to this common conceptual failing. “All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD” (Prov. 16:2).

The primal sin here is not pride or lust, but ingratitude. Failure to honor and thank the Creator leads inevitably to futile thinking and darkened hearts and so on. Humans claim to be wise but are in fact foolish as they choose to exchange the truth for a lie, and set their hearts on created things rather than the Creator.

A Case Study in Ingratitude

As I was googling references on natural theology, I ran across a 2012 blog post by University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne. Coyne’s article consisted of gratuitous sneering at some religious meditations on evolution offered on the Biologos website.  What interested me more than his article were the comments on his post. At the end of his article, Coyne posed to his readership the following question:

What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?

The responses to this question form an interesting case study on how folks can express their perspectives on God and nature. Let us first consider what a fair-minded response to this question from a typical non-believer in the West might entail. At one level, the reader might respond: I don’t see any evidence of God in nature and evolution – – things just roll along with natural regularity, with no outside intervention. Fair enough.

The reader who engages the question at a deeper level (i.e. assuming for the moment that there is a Creator who is responsible for the existence of our world) would have a range of considerations, such as:

Hmm, what kind of a world do we have here? As I look out my window here, it’s pretty impressive – – trees, birds, squirrels, functioning ecosystems, all produced by evolution.

On the other hand, there is a lot of death lurking in the background – – eventual death of every individual and extinction of every species. On the other hand, these individuals and species were granted the gift of life, at least for a season; and on a finite earth, if yet more individuals are to have their day in the sun, then others must disappear and contribute their nutrients to the circle of life. It is not reasonable to expect every seed to develop into an oak tree, or every tree to live forever.

Look at all the babies born with severe genetic defects; and look at the many more babies born healthy.

I am outraged by abuse and exploitation of children, animals, and the environment, and I am appalled at all the human and animal pain and tragedies for which I see no possible justification, such as cancer and tsunamis and the holocaust.   On the other hand, as a materialist, I recognize that my visceral responses to abuse and injustice are merely emotional phenomena in my brain; there is no objective standard “out there” on which I can base moral judgment. My feeling that there is way too much suffering is nothing more than a feeling, but for me it is a very strong feeling.

That said, I personally have much to be grateful for. I have been granted the privilege of existence. I don’t have to worry if I will be able to eat tomorrow. I have access to education and to the tablet or computer on which I am reading this right now. I am aware of courageous and compassionate deeds that are done by people every day in this world. I have meaningful friends and family; these individuals exist only because the evolutionary history of the world was exactly what it was.

Thus, a fair assessment of this world shaped by evolution would include appreciation of its good and beautiful aspects, and of one’s own privileges, along with the registry of unhappiness over the amount of apparently unjustified suffering. Darwin’s closing words in The Origin of Species struck that kind of balance:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

How do the comments on Coyne’s post stack up? In the first two days after this article was published (Oct 1-2), over a hundred comments were posted. Many of these were side comments, or mini-debates on other topics like mysticism. My estimate is that about 33 of these comments represented independent, more or less direct answers to the posed question (“What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?”).

Of these 33 comments, about a quarter were fairly neutral. These replies mainly focused on the lack of discernable divine interaction.  These responses included:


None   Random mutation. Natural selection (drift, gene transfer)  Chemistry. Physics.

The rest of the comments ranged from negative to very negative. These all pointed out the aspects of death and suffering in nature, with no balancing acknowledgement of the good. Some excerpted examples here:

[God] provides for his creatures in each moment… Except when he doesn’t and he leaves them to starve to death, or die of innumerable ghastly diseases..

My avatar on this site is a good example of God’s care for his creatures. It a fossil of a Pterosaur that died apparently because it got a plant jammed through it’s lower mouth and starved.

How does God deal with the conflicting interests of a parasite, like the organism causing malaria, and its host? If God is a provider, he is like an arms dealer who supplies both sides during a war that he himself instigated.

Callousness. I think that whenever I consider Antarctica, and of the lush ecosystems it used to host, only to be slowly killed off as the land drifted ever southward.

Epic bloodlust. The flipside of Evolution is a huge pyramid of pointless death. Countless gametes, embryos, eggs, young, adults that got infected or eaten.

Surely we can see the blessed mercy of our savior in his design of cancer cells. And the AIDS virus. And birth defects, Smallpox, the Black Plague, Polio, Malaria, etc.,etc.,etc.,   Can I get a big PRAISE JEEZZUSSSS!!????

Stendahl, French playright and general polymath in the early 19th C, stated it succinctly: ’God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist’.

The prime characteristic of God that I draw from studying nature and evolution is that God is a villain in an inexplicably popular anthology of really bad ancient faery tales.

Mind-boggling cruelty and an inordinate fondness for horrible people.

In all these comments, I was unable to detect the slightest glimmer of gratitude or appreciation for anything in this world. These commenters simply expressed their underlying contempt for God. This fits the pattern of biased ingratitude described by Paul in Romans 1.

As an aside, these issues with unexplained suffering are a subset of the general “problem of evil”: How could a good and powerful God allow these distressing events? I have dealt with the intellectual problem of evil elsewhere, following Greg Bahnsen’s treatment.

The bottom line is that it is eminently reasonable to infer that an all-good and all-powerful Creator would have a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists, whether or not He reveals to us that reason. Thus, within theism there is no actual philosophical problem of evil. The unbeliever, however, finds this explanation offensive to his sensibilities. As Bahnsen notes, the problem of evil is not a valid intellectual basis for a lack of faith in God. Rather, it is the expression or consequence of such a lack of faith:

What we find is that unbelievers who challenge the Christian faith end up reasoning in circles. Because they lack faith in God, they begin by arguing that evil is incompatible with the goodness and power of God. When they are presented with a logically adequate and Biblically supported solution to the problem of evil (viz., God has a morally sufficient but undisclosed reason for the evil that exists), they refuse to accept it, again because of their lack of faith in God. They would rather be left unable to give an account of any moral judgment whatsoever (about things being good or evil) than to submit to the ultimate and unchallengeable moral authority of God.

This addresses the problem of evil at the level of cool logic. For a treatment which integrates the intellectual and personal aspects of suffering, see “How Not to Solve the Problem of Evil” on the site of philosopher Dan Herrick.

Beyond This World

Even with an appropriate acknowledgment of all the good in the world, some folks will still conclude that existence is a net negative. Interestingly, Paul would actually agree with that assessment, if one’s perspective is confined to this present physical universe. He described this viewpoint as being “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). It bears repeating that, while the Bible claims that God’s power and wisdom are displayed in the natural order, it never claims that divine justice is likewise displayed in nature.

The second half of his own life was marked by toil, suffering, and disappointments. We described above his experience at Lystra. That was pretty typical for Paul. He was constantly being imprisoned and beaten. He shared with his friends at Corinth:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. [II Cor. 11:24-28]

What kept Paul going was the hope of a future resurrection. He told the Corinthians that if their only hope was for things to go well for them in this life, they were “of all people most to be pitied” (I Cor. 15:19). If the dead are not raised, then the Epicurean approach of just maximizing current pleasure would make sense: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (15:32).

This hope allowed Paul to put pain in this life into a larger perspective: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Cor. 4:17-18); and “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

In the next life, we shall see clearly and “understand fully”. At present, however, we see only “dimly” and understand only “in part” (I Cor 13:11-12).  This present life, with all its uncertainties and distress, is the arena where we can exercise courage, demonstrate trust in God’s character, and perform good works whose value will endure for eternity (I Cor. 3:12-15).

In the next life, all that is unworthy, even the vivid memory of shame and pain and injustice will vanish (the imagery is that they are consumed in a refining fire), while every act of faithful goodness will be celebrated forever. The grief at losing a child will be no more; all the joy of the child’s early days or years will remain, and the child herself will be present in the company of God’s people.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. [Rev. 21:1, 3-4]

A heavy emphasis on the next life could potentially lead to detached other-worldliness or inhumane behavior such as crusades, jihadism, or burning widows. Not so for Paul. For him, the highest virtue was not coercion or abstract contemplation, but a positive and engaged love for God and for other people:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13: 2, 4-7, 13)

In his long-term optimism Paul went so far as to say, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”(Rom 8:28), and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death nor life… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35, 38a, 39b).

He held that not only God’s people, but the whole creation would someday undergo transformation. He affirms that this present world is marked by suffering: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom 8:22). However, in God’s time, “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Besides his robust expectation of a better experience in the next life, Paul enjoyed the comfort of the Holy Spirit here and now: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day”. (II Cor. 4:16). This Spirit confirms to believers’ hearts that they have been adopted as beloved children, which in turn acts as a guarantee or down-payment of the future redemption (II Cor. 5:5).

I doubt most people would object to experiencing exactly one second of excruciating pain, if that were the only pain they ever had to endure in their whole life. That pain would seem bearably brief. Unfortunately, the sufferings of this life may drag out for years of disability or pain, as happened with my father before he died. As we experience time, that seems long, far too long. Logically, however, the whole of a man’s or woman’s life is like the blink of an eye in comparison with eternity.

Thus, to focus entirely on the balance of pain and pleasure in this present physical world is to miss the larger reality. If a man cuts himself off from the hope of a future transformed life and from the current comfort of God’s presence, it is not surprising if he views reality as inconsistent with a good Creator. But this is as much a statement about this man’s presuppositions as it is about the world itself. Nothing in life makes sense, except in the light of eternity.

The Form of Paul’s Witness to the Corinthians

In his first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul rehearses how he presented the gospel to them. This, then, serves as a window into whether Paul routinely invoked natural theology in his teachings. From I Cor. 1:

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

And from I Cor. 2:

1…When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…

14 The person without the Spirit [lit. “the natural man”] does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

Paul stresses that he presented the gospel to them in a straightforward manner, with no rhetoric or flattery (cf. II Cor. 2:17). He did not pander to demands for philosophical proofs or for miraculous signs, and did not alter his message to make it seem more appealing. Some people received his message and some did not; Paul accepted that outcome, trusting that God would grant enlightenment to at least some of his hearers. Without that enlightenment, his message would seem “foolishness”.

Paul repeatedly distances himself from relying on natural reasoning to support his message to the Corinthians.  This would seem to rule out classic natural theology altogether. This seems quite different from his approach to the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17. This may in part reflect a different audience. Paul consciously tailored his style to his hearers (I Cor. 9:22). Corinth was a bustling port city, where sailors and former courtesans would likely outnumber cultured aristocrats in his flock. Paul reminds them (I Cor. 1:26), “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”

At first blush this seems like raw fideism: “Don’t think or ask for reasons, just believe what I say!” However, Paul does allude to other grounds of faith for the Corinthians. In 2:4-5 he notes that his message came “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” This was not merely forceful preaching. From II Cor. 12:12 we learn that Paul demonstrated among them “the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.” He could not write thus to the Corinthians and maintain his credibility  unless they had in fact experienced notable miracles under his ministry.

In the accounts in Acts, healing miracles were a hallmark of Paul’s evangelistic method. Indeed, this sort of supernatural activity continued among the Corinthians even in Paul’s absence. Chapters 12 and 14 of I Corinthians are devoted to the regulation of spiritual gifts such as prophecy and healing, and even “workings of miracles.” Paul notes in passing that the utterances of the prophets in the Corinthian church were so insightful that they could serve as evidence to unbelievers: “But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ “ (I Cor. 14:24-25).

Towards the end of this epistle Paul circles back to how he first shared the gospel with the Corinthians. In I Cor. 15:1-7 he writes:

 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,  and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Here Paul is engaging in classic evidential apologetics, building a case for the Resurrection by citing the testimony of eyewitnesses, such as Peter (“Cephas”) and James, the brother of Jesus. We know from Gal. 1:18-19 that Peter met with these two apostles within just a few years of the Resurrection, so this would all be vivid and real in his mind as he shared his faith with others. For us, two thousand years later, the Resurrection is an event of ancient history, albeit an exceedingly well-documented event as ancient history goes.

Paul mentioned two main types of divine intervention in the physical world, namely, the appearance, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and healing miracles. These interactions have to do with particular people at particular times, not with general cosmological speculation. The Spirit’s inner confirmation of the truth of the gospel message is probably the most critical “intervention” for an individual to come to faith, but that would be considered supernatural, not natural revelation.

The Early Fathers on Nature and Gratitude

I have collected about ten pages of excerpts from some of the earliest (c. 100-200 A.D.) Christian authors here: Church Fathers.  As disciples of the disciples, these writers offer a valuable perspective on the interpretation and outworking of the canonical Scriptures. Here are a few passages from these fathers of the church which relate to issues raised above. From the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians [c. 96 A.D.]:

…Let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions.

…The heavens, revolving under His government, are subject to Him in peace. Day and night run the course appointed by Him, in no wise hindering each other. The sun and moon, with the companies of the stars, roll on in harmony according to His command, within their prescribed limits, and without any deviation. The fruitful earth, according to His will, brings forth food in abundance, at the proper seasons, for man and beast and all the living beings upon it, never hesitating, nor changing any of the ordinances which He has fixed. The unsearchable places of abysses, and the indescribable arrangements of the lower world, are restrained by the same laws. The vast unmeasurable sea, gathered together by His working into various basins, never passes beyond the bounds placed around it, but does as He has commanded.

… For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works. For by His infinitely great power He established the heavens, and by His incomprehensible wisdom He adorned them.

According to Clement, the observed heavens display the power and wisdom of God. There is no contemplation here of unnatural gaps in the operation of the universe which require periodic miraculous intervention. Rather, the ongoing functioning of the world is entirely in accord with natural laws. Clement does not see that as evidence for God’s absence or redundancy. Instead, he presents this smooth, harmonious operation of the natural world as evidence for God’s peacefulness and good will, which in turn is a model for the Corinthians to follow (he is writing to urge them to stop their internal squabbling).

Aristides was a philosopher in Athens who became a Christian. Aristides came to faith in a Prime Mover by considering the orderly arrangement of the sun and moon. He wrote and presented his “Apology” (i.e. “Defense”) to the Emperor Hadrian when Hadrian visited Athens around 125 A.D. In the paragraph below, he describes the Christians’ way of life:

They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins.

Decades earlier, Paul had enjoined believers to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thes. 5:16-17). The Christians of Aristides’ day were practicing this radical gratitude, thanking God “every morning and every hour” for practically everything. This is the opposite of the pagan ingratitude discussed above.

Justin Martyr was another a philosopher who converted to Christianity. He retained his philosopher’s robes, and proclaimed Christianity to be the true philosophy. Justin, like most of the early prominent churchmen, was killed for his faith, hence the surname “Martyr”.  The passage below is excerpted from his First Apology, presented to the emperor Antonius Pius c. 155 A.D. Here he is addressing the accusation that Christians are “atheists”, since they do not worship the usual Greco-Roman gods with animal sacrifices:

What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe, and declaring, as we have been taught, that He has no need of streams of blood and libations and incense; whom we praise to the utmost of our power by the exercise of prayer and thanksgiving for all things with which we are supplied, as we have been taught that the only honor that is worthy of Him is not to consume by fire what He has brought into being for our sustenance, but to use it for ourselves and those who need, and with gratitude to Him to offer thanks by prayers and hymns for our creation, and for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons; and to present before Him petitions for our existing again in incorruption through faith in Him.

Justin here contrasts pagan religious practice, which was to waste meat by burning it as a sacrifice, with the Christian approach, which was to give thanks for it and use it as food. Again, the Christians were distinguished by a lifestyle of gratitude for the natural world, giving thanks “for all the means of health, and for the various qualities of the different kinds of things, and for the changes of the seasons”.

Concluding Thoughts

Paul’s experience at Athens, where he got pushback as soon as he moved from a general God to the Christian particulars, illustrates an inherent limitation in natural theology: to a hearer who is open to the notion of a Creator, we can make reasonable arguments that the Creator must be very powerful and very smart, and in some sense beneficent. We can also make arguments from the common moral law within us that we all fall short of full goodness. However, it takes verbalized special revelation to move further, to the ultimate revealing of God’s purposes in Christ.

For today’s atheist, who holds that the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be, it is hard to see how classic natural theology would have any traction. The formational economy of the universe, as best we can tell from scientific study, shows no breaks in the natural order starting from the Big Bang, through primordial clouds of hydrogen and helium, their condensation into stars, the generation of heavier elements via supernovae explosions, the accretion of planets, and the evolution of life.  The main lacuna in the narrative here is how the first living cells arose, but, at a high level, most other knowledge gaps have been or are being filled.

Theists argue that the Big Bang itself is the granddaddy of all formational gaps. Atheists counter that, maybe, our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes which happen to pop into existence. The otherwise awkward fact that our universe is exquisitely fine-tuned to allow the existence of ordinary matter (and thus carbon-based life-forms) is thus conveniently explained away: out of an infinite number of all possible universes, some will allow matter and have life, and we just happen to live in one of those. This multiverse theory, however mathematically pleasing, is beyond hard empirical verification, and thus is every bit as faith-based as theism. So these cosmological arguments seem to end in a draw.

There are other, more philosophically abstract, arguments for the existence of God which may be cogent, but they are apparently not persuasive to atheists.  The indirect, but self-vindicating quality of beauty in the world may be a more effective mediator of God-consciousness to the modern or post-modern mind than the direct arguments of cosmogony or ontogeny.

Intelligent Design (ID) proponents try to identify gaps in evolutionary history where they can invoke the necessity of an effectively supernatural Intelligent Agent. ID errs on several counts. First, it confuse gaps in our current understanding with genuine gaps in the natural order. Second, its advocates routinely misrepresent the actual state of our knowledge. As noted above, in areas such the Cambrian explosion of animal life, “junk” DNA, human/chimp/gorilla gene similarities, and the overall fossil record,  ID proponents suppress relevant evidence to make our knowledge gaps seem much bigger than they are. This dishonesty is contrary to biblical teaching, and gives outsiders the impression that the Christian faith is built on a foundation of lies.

Finally, the expectation of discernable gaps in the natural order is not supported by our survey here of biblical natural theology.  Whatever aspect of nature Paul had in mind when he asserted in Romans 1 that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are displayed in nature, it had to be something that was readily accessible to everyone everywhere, not requiring lengthy explication by Christian apologists. Presumably Paul was referring to the size and intricate functioning of the universe, which demonstrates the power and skill and care of the Creator.

Some people respond to the gift of existence with gratitude to their Creator, while others shrug it off and focus on created things. Paul writes that God’s attributes are “plain” and “clearly seen” from the natural world. Nevertheless, Romans 1 emphasizes that unbelievers can and do dismiss this natural revelation.  There are reasonable grounds for Christian faith, but the evidence is not of the type to compel assent by someone who does not choose to believe.

This lack of proof on our terms, of itself, does not justify unbelief. Our most important decisions in life are often made in the face of uncertainty. We routinely commit to marriage or to conceiving a child in the absence of complete information or guarantees as to how it will turn out. I would not think much of a suspicious fiancée who demanded proof of my whereabouts every hour.  Also, much of what we believe about the world (e.g. in realms such as world geography and nuclear physics) is not based on our personal observation and verification. Rather, we have faith in the truthfulness of those who communicated these concepts to us, though of course we test any new learning for consistency with our existing beliefs.

The net result is that the choice to trust and follow Jesus Christ is (in the absence of human manipulation) a free, uncoerced decision. This comports with the New Testament presentation of relationship with God being more of a love affair or familial relationship than a matter of giving cold intellectual assent or of following a set of rules: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  [Mat. 22:37-39]

Matt Rossano addressed the question, “Would Evidence for God Mean the End of Atheism and Christianity?” :

A complaint often voiced by scientific atheists is that there is simply no evidence for God and therefore belief in the old codger is thoroughly unjustified. Frightened witless by this snort, creationists (and I include intelligent design advocates here) scurry about frantically trying to provide just such evidence. But what would scientific evidence for God look like, and what implications would it hold?…

Imagine obviously intentionally engineered artifacts descending harmlessly from the sky (God doesn’t want to hurt anyone!) each with an engraved label saying “made by God.” Scientists are able to perform definitive tests on these artifacts and conclude beyond all doubt that they have been fashioned by an omniscient, all-powerful agent…..

[While being the end of atheism, this would also be] the end of Christianity… How so? A fundamental tenet of Christianity is free will. It is no stretch to say that Christianity without free will is simply not Christianity anymore. The Christian God grants humans free will and will not interfere with its exercise. Humans are free to believe or not believe, free to follow God’s laws or free to sin and separate themselves from God…

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement and atheism remains an option. A God who values free will would set it up just that way.

Posted in Natural Theology | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Realistic Expectations for Transitional Fossils

Evolutionary theory asserts that today’s plants and animals developed from far different ancestral life-forms. The characteristics of populations have changed with time, to produce new species. These changes are believed to be relatively gradual. Scientists believe that a new species may take thousands of generations to become clearly differentiated from its original form. Major transitions, such as going from fish to amphibians, or reptiles to mammals, must have involved millions of years and a whole range of intermediate forms. We intuitively expect to see evidence of these intermediate forms in the fossil record.

Mainstream science says that plenty of such transitional fossils have been found. Young Earth (YE) creationists and Intelligent Design advocates disagree. They cite what Darwin himself wrote in the Origin of Species (6th Ed., pp. 341-342), “The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.”

Thus, transitional fossils are a significant part of the evidence for or against evolution. It is necessary to have a correct understanding of the nature of transitional fossils, in order to properly evaluate the physical evidence. Four factors which impact the nature of fossil intermediates are described below.

First, a little vocabulary: living organisms are grouped together in various levels. From highest level (most inclusive) to lowest, these are: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Below species there are strains or sub-species. All animals are grouped in one kingdom, and all plants in another. These are mainly human constructs forced onto the messy biological world, and scientists can legitimately differ on how any particular organism should be classified. A common definition for a plant or animal “species” is the largest group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

Four Key Factors Governing the Transitional Fossil Record

 (1) The fossil record is inherently very sparse. Very, very few of all the organisms that have died in past eons become fossilized.  As we can observe today, nearly all carcasses rot or are eaten by scavengers rather than being buried intact in rock layers. Of the remains that do get fossilized, many are later eroded away if the rocks in which they are embedded are raised above sea level.  If these rocks become deeply buried, the fossils can become smeared beyond recognition in metamorphic transformations. This is even more of an issue for older rock layers, such as the Paleozoic era (Cambrian through Permian periods), since they have had more time to be either raised up to the surface for erosion or to be buried more deeply.  Also, of all the potential fossil-bearing rocks, only a small fraction is available in surface exposures for paleontologists to examine.

As Wikipedia points out, “The number of species known through the fossil record is less than 5% of the number of known living species, suggesting that the number of species known through fossils must be far less than 1% of all the species that have ever lived.”    No fossils have yet been found for about a third of the 30+ phyla of living animals.  Occasionally (e.g. once every 15 million years or so) we find a rock formation such as the Burgess Shale where conditions were just right to preserve a rich assemblage of fossils (including many soft-bodied animals) in that locale at that snapshot in time.  These “Lagerstatte” are the exceptions which prove the rule: they confirm that the ancient seas were teeming with diverse life-forms, but in most times and in most places (i.e. apart from these very rare fossil-rich formations), these organisms simply did not become preserved as recognizable fossils.

The Coelacanth order of fishes furnishes a classic example of the fickleness of the fossil record. These fish were once widespread in the ancient seas. Coelacanths peaked in the fossil record about 240 million years ago, and then declined. The most recent known fossil dates back to about 80 million years ago. It was thought that they had become extinct. In 1938, however, a live coelacanth was discovered in the Indian Ocean. Since then a number of others have been caught.  Unless we are prepared to claim that an Intelligent Agent supernaturally re-created these modern coelacanths, we must acknowledge that some population of these fish has existed for the past 80 million years but without leaving a trace in the fossil record. 

We should expect to observe many gaps like this in the fossil record.  Here is a list of other “Lazarus taxa” which disappear from the fossil record for millions of years, but appear again later.

(2) New species tend to develop in small, isolated populations. The arithmetic of basic population genetics shows that it is more difficult for new genetic mutations to become established in very large populations, than in small populations. This is readily confirmed by laboratory studies. For instance, Perfeito et al. found that new beneficial mutations were much more readily established in small populations of bacteria than in large populations.

Thus, it is far more likely that a new species would develop within a small, isolated population, especially if that population is under some environmental stress that would favor genetic changes. The odds of us finding fossils from that small, localized population is are nearly zero.  If the new species becomes more fit than the old species, the new species will expand, and only then is likely to appear in the fossil record. But once a species is widespread and successful in its ecological niche, there will be diminished selection pressure for changes, so fossils of this now well-adapted species are likely to appear for perhaps million of years with showing little change.

(3) A given population can persist for many millions of years with little morphological change.  As demonstrated by the longevity of the coelacanth group, a specific type of organism can persist for tens of millions of years with only modest changes.  Thus, if we find a fossil of some species in rocks dated as being, say, 100 million years old, it is quite possible that a similar, related species (same genus or family) also existed 110 million years ago, and maybe even 150 million years ago, whether or not we have found these older fossils yet.  For instance, the past 80 million years would constitute such a “ghost” lineage for coelacanths.

 (4) Evolutionary lineages tend to be “branchy”.  Typically the organisms on the side branches show up in the fossil record, rather than the directly ancestral ones along the main “trunk” of the family tree.

Horse Evolution: Example of Branching Lineage

The evolution of today’s horse (genus “Equus”) from a tiny ancestor is well-supported in the

Source: Professor Donald Levin's course in BioEvolution at the University of Texas in Austin, copied from

Source: Professor Donald Levin’s course in BioEvolution at the University of Texas in Austin, copied from

fossil record.  Hyracotherium (sometimes called Eohippus, i.e. “Dawn Horse”) lived in the forests about 55 million years ago. It stood roughly 18 inches (50 cm) tall at the shoulder, resembling a small dog. Its teeth were adapted to eating fruit and soft foliage, and its feet and leg bones were quite different from today’s steeds that thunder across the plains and eat tough grass.  The graphic on the right depicts some of the changes in teeth, toes, and overall body size.

The picture below, from the Florida Museum of Natural History, shows how the size and shape of fossil horse skulls has changed with time:

Source: “Fossil Horses” on-line exhibit, by the Florida Museum of Natural History

Source: “Fossil Horses” on-line exhibit, by the Florida Museum of Natural History

In her article at TalkOrigins on horse evolution, Kathleen Hunt shows a more complete family tree (grouped at the level of genus), with even more branches than depicted in the figures above:

Source: “Horse Evolution” by Kathleen Hunt, at

Source: “Horse Evolution” by Kathleen Hunt, at

Hunt notes a number of clear, graduated changes that appear in this fossil series. For instance, Hyracotherium (“Eohippus”) had only three grinding molars on each side of its jaw, Orohippus had four, Epihippus had five, and Mesohippus had six grinding “cheek teeth.” That looks pretty “transitional” to me.  Although a clear line of descent can be drawn between Eohippus and today’s horses, Hunt cautions that the fossils show a complex pattern, not a unidirectional trend:

Horse species were constantly branching off the “evolutionary tree” and evolving along various unrelated routes. There’s no discernable “straight line” of horse evolution. Many horse species were usually present at the same time, with various numbers of toes, adapted to various different diets…Tracing a line of descent from Hyracotherium to Equus reveals several apparent trends: reduction of toe number, increase in size of cheek teeth, lengthening of the face, increase in body size. But these trends are not seen in all of the horse lines. On the whole, horses got larger, but some horses (Archeohippus, Calippus) then got smaller again. Many recent horses evolved complex facial pits, and then some of their descendants lost them again. Most of the recent (5-10 My) horses were three-toed, not one-toed, and we see a “trend” to one toe only because all the three-toed lines have recently become extinct.     

In his general article on transitional fossils, Keith Miller offers these observations on the horse lineage:

Interestingly, some critics of evolution view the record of fossil horses from “Eohippus” (Hyracotherium) to Equus as trivial. However, that is only because the intermediate forms are known. Without them, the morphologic distance would appear great. “Eohippus” was a very small (some species only 18 inches long) and generalized herbivore (probably a browser). Besides the well-known difference in toe number (four toes at front, three at back), “Eohippus” had a narrow elongate skull with a relatively small brain and eyes forward in the skull. It possessed small canine teeth, premolars, and low-crowned simple molars. Over geologic time and within several lineages, the skull became much deeper, the eyes moved back, and the brain became larger. The incisors were widened, premolars were altered to molars, and the molars became very high-crowned with a highly complex folding of the enamel.

The significance of the fossil record of horses becomes clearer when it is compared with that of the other members of the order Perissodactyla (“odd-toed ungulates”). The fossil record of the extinct titanotheres is quite good, and the earliest representatives of this group are very similar to “Eohippus“. Likewise, the earliest members of the tapirs and rhinos were very “Eohippus“-like. Thus, the different perissodactyl groups can be traced back to a group of very similar small generalized ungulates.

Expectations for Fossil Lineages

Figure 1 represents a naïve expectation of what the fossil record should look like for the evolutionary family tree encompassing some species A through D. In this figure, there is a single lineage, with the direct ancestors all appearing as fossils.  Each earlier form neatly disappears from the fossil record as the next one appears, so there are no overlaps. From the four factors discussed above, it is obvious why Figure 1 is not realistic, yet this is what YE creationists often demand to see.

Figure 1-Evol Lineage

Figure 2 shows a more realistic fossil lineage. The points of actual divergence (common ancestors) are relatively unlikely to have left fossils. It is more probable that we will find fossils of successful populations on the side branches of the family tree, such as B and C in this figure. This is not due to some weakness in evolution. Rather it is due to the intrinsic nature of speciation and fossil preservation (branching, new species arising in small populations, etc.).

Figure 2-Evol Lineage

While this diagram shows the branching which is characteristic of evolutionary lineages, it is unrealistic in depicting the rate of morphological change as being roughly constant with time. As noted above, evolutionary changes tend to happen relatively quickly in small populations that do not leave a trace in the fossil record, while large successful populations can continue with only modest changes for many millions of years. (By “relatively quickly” we mean that a new genus might develop in a million years or so for vertebrates, and of course in shorter times for organisms with faster reproductive rates.)

Figure 3 below better represents the type of fossil pattern we expect from what is known about speciation and fossilization:

Figure 3-Evol Lineage

The thick vertical lines denote the chronological extent of the fossil remains for the four species A-D.  There are fossils of B and C which display some characteristics which are intermediate between A and D. However, some of these fossils do not appear in strict morphological order.  All of the extant fossils of C predate all the fossils of B, even though the morphological progression suggests that B would be in some sense ancestral to C.  Some fossils of D appear at the same time as fossils of C.

YE creationists sometimes claim these “out of order” fossils represent some sort of dire problem for evolution. This claim is false. This type of pattern is exactly what is predicted by the four factors discussed above. Populations like A, B, C, and D that actually appear in the fossil record are likely to be large and stable. But there will always be an earlier time, before these populations expanded (or when geological conditions did not favor preservation), when each of these populations was present but was not represented among the known fossils. It is entirely plausible that a common ancestor between B and C existed sometime before the earliest fossils of C, even though the lineage from that ancestor up to the B fossils has not yet been observed in the rock layers.

Figure 4-Evol Lineage

A possible family tree for these fossils is shown above in Figure 4. The thick lines denote the observed fossils, with the thin lines denoting inferred lineage relationships.

Figure 5-Evol Lineage

Another potential family tree for the same fossils is shown above in Figure 5. It shows a slightly different pattern of splits from common ancestors. How can we determine which lineage pattern is a better fit to the fossil evidence?

Arthropods: Example of Fossil Family Tree

There is a whole field of study called cladistics  where scientists ponder these questions. They define and analyze various characteristics of physical features in fossils, and also genetic relations among living species. Here is an example of the type of thinking that goes into cladistics, centered on the evolution of arthropods (think: bugs) about 500 million years ago. Dennis Venema at Biologos writes:

All living arthropods have a suite of defining characteristics such as a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton), specialized body segments, and specialized appendages. While these characteristics are useful for defining modern arthropods, these criteria become less useful as we travel back through the evolutionary history of arthropods. The reason is simple – from an evolutionary point of view, one would not expect these different traits to arise as a unit in one fell swoop. Rather, one would expect that these traits would arise over time in the lineage leading to modern day arthropods. [Thus] we would expect to find species in the fossil record that do not have the full suite of “arthropod” characteristics, but only some:

Source: Dennis Venema, “Evolution Basics: The Cambrian Diversification and Assembling Animal Body Plans, Part 1”, at

Source: Dennis Venema, “Evolution Basics: The Cambrian Diversification and Assembling Animal Body Plans, Part 1”, at

For example, based on the above phylogeny we might expect to find two groups of “arthropod-like” organisms in the fossil record: species that have only (1) of the three traits (specialized appendages only), as well as a second group (2) with specialized appendages and segments. …these species would represent “transitional forms” in the sense that they have intermediate sets of characteristic features that indicate the steps the arthropod lineage took to achieve the “modern” suite of characteristics.

And in fact, this sort of pattern is reflected in the fossil record. The figure below, from Legg, et al., shows that the ancient fossils are consistent with sequential modifications in appendages and body segments as populations developed from early arthropod-like forms to full modern-type arthropods. Here, modern arthropods (e.g. Hexapoda [insects], and Crustacea [crabs, etc.]) are shown at the bottom, with the earliest evolutionary branching at the top.   For instance, Anomalocaris had large compound eyes and hardened specialized appendages, but it did not have a hardened exoskeleton over its whole body. It is considered a transitional “stem” arthropod, not a full-fledged “crown” arthropod.  Each point (1, 2, 3, etc.) represents the appearance of a key innovation, such as compound eyes, arthropodized limbs, arthrodization of the trunk exoskeleton, etc.

Source: D.A. Legg et al., Proc. Royal Soc. B, 2012: vol. 279 , pp. 4699-4704

Source: D.A. Legg et al., Proc. Royal Soc. B, 2012: vol. 279 , pp. 4699-4704

The cladistic relationships in this figure were not just randomly proposed to rationalize the fossils. Nick Matzke  described the rigor that went into constructing this diagram:

These researchers, and the previous researchers that they are building upon, identified 580 individual, variable characters, each of which has to be identified, defined, divided up into discrete character states, and encoded. This laborious process had to be repeated for (in this) case 173 fossil [or living] taxa… A lot of fossils are missing a lot of characters – typical and expected in paleontological analyses – but it is still a lot of work. After this, one runs a cladistic or other phylogenetic analysis… and calculates support statistics. …Almost any biological dataset typically has extremely statistically significant tree signal, and this is true whether or not it agrees precisely with other analyses, and whether or not all relationships of interest to the researcher are precisely resolved with high support.

Fish-To-Tetrapods: A Missing Link Is Found?

400 million years ago, the seas were teeming with various types of fish, most of which lived entirely underwater, and had fairly flimsy fins. By about 365 million years ago, fossil evidence exists for primitive tetrapods, such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega. These creatures had four limbs which could support some weight and assist in moving around in shallow water, although they probably could not readily walk around on dry land. How did fish evolve into tetrapods? Besides the development of limbs, the bones of the head had to change from two parts to one, and the solid head/body connection in a fish was replaced by a flexible neck.

The leading candidates among fishes for tetrapod ancestry are the “lobe-finned” fishes. The bottom fins of these fishes are arranged in pairs and supported by internal bones, which would facilitate the evolution of these fins into legs. Also, the lobe-finned fishes of the Devonian period were already able to breathe air, when necessary, via “spiracles” in their skulls.

Various lobe-finned fish fossils have long been known, where the skeletal structures of the fins include primitive versions of the bones found in the limbs of later, terrestrial animals.  Examples include Eusthenopteron and Panderichthys, whose remains have been dated to about 380 million years ago.  While these fossils hint at evolutionary pathways toward tetrapods, these are still very much like regular fishes. It would be gratifying to discover a fossil species with more pronounced tetrapod-like features.

In 1999 a team of scientists led by Neil Shubin of the University of Chicago set out to find such a transitional fossil. Since the main fish-tetrapod fossil gap was in the 363-380 million year range, they decided to focus on an exposed formation of rocks in the Canadian Arctic which were of that age, and which had been deposited in a shallow freshwater environment. The team kept digging year after year. In 2004 they were rewarded with the discovery of remains of a fish they named Tiktaalik. While Tiktaalik is firmly on the fish side of the fish-tetrapod divide, it has an impressive suite of tetrapod-like features.

This was a dramatic vindication of evolutionary theory. A key test of any scientific theory is the ability to make novel predictions which can be experimentally verified. Operating within the conceptual framework of mainstream geology (an old earth) and biology (common ancestry), Shubin’s team picked one location to excavate, and found the type of fossil (previously unknown) that they had predicted. There is nothing in YE creationism or Intelligent Design which could produce such a precise and novel prediction.

According to Wikipedia, the mixture of both fish and tetrapod characteristics found in Tiktaalik include:

 Fish               – Fish gills, fish scales, fish fins

“Fishapod”        - Half-fish, half-tetrapod limb bones and joints, including something like a wrist joint, and radiating, fish-like fins instead of toes

- Half-fish, half-tetrapod ear region

 Tetrapod        - Tetrapod rib bones and lungs

- Tetrapod mobile neck with separate pectoral girdle

In 2014, Shubin and co-workers published details on the pelvic girdle and fins.  Again, features intermediate between fishes and tetrapods are evident:

The pelves of Tiktaalik are paired and have broad iliac processes, flat and elongate pubes, and acetabulae that form a deep socket rimmed by a robust lip of bone. The pelvis is greatly enlarged relative to other finned tetrapodomorphs. Despite the enlargement and robusticity of the pelvis of Tiktaalik, it retains primitive features such as the lack of both an attachment for the sacral rib and an ischium.

The figure below from Ahlberg and Clack  shows the differences in skeletal and other features among the fossils species discussed above. There is a gradual loss of the gill cover (blue), and a reshaping of the skull.

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

Source: P. E. Ahlberg and J. A. Clack, Nature 440, 747-749 (2006)

The following figure by Kevin Padian, reproduced by Anastasia Thanukos, shows more details in the fins and limbs of these transitional species. A progression is seen from 8 to 7 to 6 digits, as intermediates between fish fins and the 5 digits found in living tetrapods. No particular timescale is given for the ghost lineages that predate the fossil appearance of these species.

Source: K.  Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.

Source: K. Padian, Integra Comp Biol 2008; 48: 175-88, reproduced in A. Thanukos, Evolution: Education and Outreach 2009; 2: 84-89.

The discovery of Tiktaalik does merit accolade, but there is a danger of overstating its role. Some science popularizers have referred to this fish as our “ancestor.” It bears repeating that all the species shown here are dead-end side-branches of evolutionary lineage. As indicated by a careful examination of the figures above, none of them is directly ancestral to living tetrapods. What they do show is that a variety of fishes with some tetrapod characteristics, and a number of early tetrapods with some fish-like features, were present in the geologic strata that predate the appearance of the fossils of modern-type tetrapods. This amount of transition fossil evidence is about what we would expect here, if tetrapods actually did evolve from lobe-finned fishes. This era was over 350 million years ago, which is a lot of time for continents to rise, fall, split, and crash, all of which could destroy early fossils or make them inaccessible.

To bring the tetrapod story up to date, in 2010 Niedźwiedzki et al. published on the discovery of what appear to be tracks of an unknown tetrapod in rocks in Poland that are dated to 397 million years ago.  This is about 30 million years before the earliest known primitive tetrapod fossils such as Acanthostega and Ichthyostega. Possible tetrapod tracks, dated to 385 million years ago, have also been found on Valentia Island, off the coast of Ireland. Debate remains over whether these trackways were made by genuine tetrapods. If they were, that pushes the transition from fish to tetrapods some 30 million years earlier than previously believed. YE creationists have claimed that this is a problem for evolution, but it is not. It merely extends the ranges of Tiktaalik, Acanthostega, etc. somewhat further than originally thought.

Friedman and Brazeau have analyzed the patterns of tetrapod-related Devonian fossils, and find evidence that only a small fraction of those species that existed are represented in the known fossils. The preservation rate of species there is about an order of magnitude sparser than for, say, Cenozoic mammals in North America. Thus, it is “unsurprising” that there are “outstanding stratigraphic gaps in the Devonian tetrapod record.”

Below is shown a phylogram from Niedźwiedzki et al.  of selected lobe-finned fishes and stem tetrapods, which incorporates these trackway findings. Here Pan= Panderichthys,  Tik=Tiktaalik,  Aca= Acanthostega, Ich= Ichthyosteg, and  Tul = Tulerpeton.

Source:   G. Niedźwiedzki et al., Nature 463, 43-48 (2010)

Source: G. Niedźwiedzki et al., Nature 463, 43-48 (2010)

Another possibility is that at least some of the early Devonian trackways were made, not by tetrapods walking on (almost) dry land, but by fish scooting along on their fins in shallow water.   King, et al. in 2011 published a study of how some modern lungfish can use their pelvic fins in an alternating pattern to “walk” on the sea floor, with the whole rest of their body held off the bottom. Polish trackway PGI 1728.II.15 (Figure 2 c.) in the Niedźwiedzki paper looks like what a pair of fins might do – – it seems that this trackway was made by a single pair of appendages (not four limbs), with the two appendages sometimes alternating and sometimes pushing along in parallel.

Reptiles to Mammals

The reptile-to-mammal evolution has an interesting twist. There are striking differences between the jaw and ear bone structures of reptiles and of mammals. Reptiles have at least four bones in the lower jaw , while mammals have only one;  but reptiles have only one middle ear bone, while mammals have three (the hammer, anvil, and stapes). Studies of developing embryos indicated that two of the bones which, in a reptile get incorporated into a reptilian jaw, in a mammal become part of the middle ear.

Source: Douglas Theobald, “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution”,; Figure based on K. V. Kardong, Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution.  New York: McGraw Hill (2002).

Source: Douglas Theobald, “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution”,; Figure based on K. V. Kardong, Vertebrates: Comparative Anatomy, Function, Evolution. New York: McGraw Hill (2002).

This had scientists in the early twentieth century wondering what kind of evolutionary intermediate could possibly have maintained adequate hearing and jaw function as these two bones gradually moved from the jaw (in reptiles) to the ear (in mammals). The full story is found in the magisterial “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” article by Douglas Theobald at TalkOrigins.

In the course of the twentieth century a range of fossils were found which documented many stages of the migration of these bones. At one point, there were actually two independent pairs of jaw joints. This was an essential feature that allowed jaw movement while these bones were in intermediate positions.

On the right is one diagram from the TalkOrigins article which illustrates this transition. It shows a side view of three idealized skulls of mammals, therapsids (mammal-like reptiles), and pelycosaurs (early reptiles). The migration of the bones coded purple, yellow, and blue are clear. The location of the jaw joints is shown as black dots. For the therapsid intermediate form, there are two jointed bone interfaces for the jaw.

Do Transitional Fossils Prove Evolution?

We have shown for a number of cases, that the fossil record is consistent with evolution, given the four factors (sparse fossil preservation, speciation in small populations, etc.) discussed above. The little changes from one species to the next are not accessible, and direct lineal ancestors are typically not found. However, for a typical major transition a range of “cousin” fossils are found which manifest key intermediate characteristics, in the appropriate time range for that transition. For most objective observers, this constitutes strong supporting evidence for evolution.  It certainly shows that the fossil record is not a “problem” for evolution.

What do YE creationists make of these facts?  To grind through all the claims and debunking here would take a whole book, so I will just note a few issues. One YE creationist response is to put forth some “fact” which seems to disprove the evolutionary case. Since the horse evolution is so clearly evidenced in the fossils, this seems to call for extra effort by the anti-evolutionists. One such “fact” which has appeared on dozens of YE creationist sites is that the fossils of Hyracotherium (“Eohippus”) are not from an ancient horse ancestor, but are merely the bones of a form of the modern “hyrax” (which lives in the Middle East and looks like a rabbit). This claim is debunked on TalkOrigins here.

Another such “fact” promulgated by YE creationists is that fossils of Hyracotherium and modern Equus have been discovered in the same rock layer. This also is false.

Over the course of the last 150 years of fossil collection and classification, it is inevitable that some mistakes would be made by scientists along the way. For instance, a hundred years ago the figures in most science textbooks showed a single, clean, uniform lineage from little four-toed Hyracotherium to big, one-toed Equus.  As noted above, the full picture is more complex than that, with various branching, dead-end lineages, some of which co-existed with each other. Various scientists since 1950 have acknowledged that the earlier simplistic picture of horse evolution was not accurate. YE creationists have taken these statements out of context to make it seem like even “evolutionists” admit that the fossil record does not support evolution.

Deceitfully quoting real scientists is common among YE creationist writers. This “quote mining” enterprise takes statements out of context, and (often making generous use of ellipses) carefully carves out just the words that give the desired effect. There is a large section ( the “Quote Mine Project”) of the TalkOrigins site dedicated to exposing these misleading quotations.

That said, let us circle back to such a quote that we noted at the beginning of this essay: “”The number of intermediate varieties, which have formerly existed must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and serious objection which can be urged against the theory.”

This quote from Darwin’s Origin of Species is presented endlessly on YE creationist web sites as an admission by Darwin that the facts were against his theory. What the creationists typically fail to include is the very next sentence, in which Darwin tells why this is NOT a problem for his theory: “The explanation lies, as I believe, in the extreme imperfection of the geological record.”  This is exactly correct, as we have explained above.

In the next paragraph after these words, Darwin displays a subtle grasp of the nature of likely fossil lineages:

In the first place, it should always be borne in mind what sort of intermediate forms must, on the theory, have formerly existed. I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself forms DIRECTLY intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor. [emphasis in the original]

This “common but unknown progenitor” corresponds to the lineal common ancestors which, as noted above, are unlikely to be found as fossils.

These quotes of Darwin occur in the tenth chapter of The Origin of Species, which is appropriately titled “On The Imperfection Of The Geological Record” .  Darwin concluded this chapter:   “I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished or even disappear.”   Right again.

Darwin acknowledged that there were not millions of finely-graded intermediate fossils lying everywhere, yet still a reasonable number of significant transitional fossils had been found. He wrote in Chapter 11 of the 6th edition:

As the accumulation of each formation has often been interrupted, and as long blank intervals have intervened between successive formations, we ought not to expect to find, as I attempted to show in the last chapter, in any one or in any two formations, all the intermediate varieties between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of these periods: but we ought to find after intervals, very long as measured by years, but only moderately long as measured geologically, closely allied forms, or, as they have been called by some authors, representative species; and these assuredly we do find. We find, in short, such evidence of the slow and scarcely sensible mutations of specific forms, as we have the right to expect.

… I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect; … that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; … that, owing to subsidence being almost necessary for the accumulation of deposits rich in fossil species of many kinds, and thick enough to outlast future degradation, great intervals of time must have elapsed between most of our successive formations; …that varieties have at first been local; and lastly, although each species must have passed through numerous transitional stages, it is probable that the periods, during which each underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition. These causes, taken conjointly, will to a large extent explain whythough we do find many linkswe do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all extinct and existing forms by the finest graduated steps. [emphases added]

These citations show that sound reasons for the relative paucity of intermediate fossils (i.e. the inherent sparseness of the fossil record, the likelihood that evolutionary changes mainly take place in small local populations, branching lineages, etc.) were clearly stated in The Origin of Species. My article here has merely fleshed out what Darwin wrote more than 150 years ago. There is therefore no excuse for opponents of evolution who assert or imply that Darwin was acknowledging an actual weakness in his theory.

Varieties of Skepticism

The fossil record is clearly compatible with evolution. Indeed, the same can be said for all physical observations, in geology, biology, chemistry, and genetics. The hard reality, though, is that a dedicated YE creationist will not be convinced of macroevolution by any physical evidence. No matter how many fossil intermediates he is presented with, he will always find a way to wiggle out.  He can say, “Yes, there is a sequence of fossils with gradually varying characteristics, but you can’t prove that one evolved into the next; you are just assuming evolutionary relationships among them.” Or, “How do you know that God did not miraculously create these species in this sequence?”

I had some critical things to say about YE creationist Ken Ham’s presentations during his recent debate with Bill Nye.  However, I appreciated Ham’s honesty about the basis of his convictions. When he was asked the question, “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”, he responded: “Well, the answer to that question is ‘I’m a Christian.’ And as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you but God has definitely shown me very clearly through his word and shown himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The bible is the word of God. I admit that that’s where I start from… And so as far as the word of God is concerned, no, no one’s ever gonna convince me that the word of God is not true.”  This exemplifies the attitude which renders YE creationists largely impervious to the evidence.

Most Intelligent Design (ID) advocates are motivated by the same sort of conservative Christian faith as YE creationists, but they are not as forthright about their methodology. They claim to be “detecting design”, driven solely by the scientific evidence, but in practice Intelligent Design reduces to the classic god-of-the-gaps.  Many Christians find it heartening to learn of various gaps in our current understanding of evolutionary history, as though that somehow demonstrates the necessity of God. Unfortunately, ID consistently overstates the magnitude of these knowledge gaps, relying on deceptive half-truths (e.g. with chimp and gorilla genomes, “junk” DNA, and the Cambrian explosion) to make its case.        

ID proponents generally accept the mainstream geological dating of the fossils, which puts them in a quandary: if all those intermediate horse fossils between 5 and 55 million years ago did not result from evolution, how did they get there?  If all those reptile-to-mammal transitional fossils back in the Mesozoic do not represent natural evolutionary development, how did they get there?  It seems that the Intelligent Agent must have poofed all these species into existence (in a sequence that would later deceive us humans into thinking they had evolved), or else the Agent reached in and physically tinkered with their DNA to make it mutate in unnatural ways. YE creationists may be OK with poofing, but ID advocates are stuck. Since they try to maintain a scientific façade, (ironically) they cannot credit their Intelligent Agent with any actual, specific agency.

Most authors at major YE creationist organizations have some depth exposure to the data of geology and genetics and paleontology. They must actively engage in deception in order to portray these data as compatible with a young earth and incompatible with naturalistic evolution (e.g. see here on Grand Canyon geology).

However, the bulk of the 46% (per recent Gallup poll) of Americans who believe that humans were specially created by God a few thousand years ago are simply going along with their traditional beliefs, reinforced by what they hear from the YE creationist mouthpieces.  Furthermore, the evidence for evolution is not as obvious to laymen as they would like to see.  We scientists can point to lots of circumstantial evidence, where evolution fits the observed patterns. However, we cannot show a new phylum evolving before their eyes, or even in the course of a 50-year experiment. Nature just does not provide that satisfying level of demonstration of the ability of unguided evolution to cause huge but viable changes in living things in a short time-frame.

What the layman sees with his eyes are animals reproducing “after their kind”, with only minor changes. Scientists can, of course, offer valid reasons for this state of affairs (“Evolution happens to be a really slow process”; “The fossil record is inherently sparse”), but these can come across as lame excuses to someone who is predisposed to doubt evolution.

For perspective, my wife (who is well-educated, but not as a scientist) has commented that, to her anyway, the evidence for evolution seems similar to the nature of the evidence for the Christian faith. By that she meant that there are sound documentary grounds (e.g. some of the letters of Paul) to believe that within a decade of the purported resurrection of Jesus there were people going around risking their lives proclaiming that they had encountered the risen Christ; we have a universe that came into existence at a certain point in time; millions of people today testify to a life-enhancing experience of God; there are videos of extraordinary healings in answer to prayers in the name of Jesus (some of which I have described here and here). These factors are all consistent with the gospel, but do not constitute mathematical proof. (I won’t delve into why God may have set things up such that people must come to Him freely, as opposed to being bludgeoned into faith by frequent miracles or apparitions).

I have read of atheists who sweep aside all the circumstantial evidence that exists in favor of God, and demand to see some miracle like an amputated limb growing back before their eyes. This is unreasonable, at least in relation to the Christian God, since Christ clearly stated that on-demand signs will not be given to unbelievers (Matthew 12:38-39).  It is thus similar to the demand of YE creationists to see some spectacular demonstration of accelerated macroevolution.  (I suspect that, if these demands were actually met, both the hardcore atheist and the hardcore YE creationist would find some way to discount their experience so as to maintain their previous positions.) My point here is not to justify YE intransigence, but to note that all of us to some degree fit the facts in around our existing opinions.

Addressing the Underlying Issues 

A key error of YE creationists is to hold that their interpretation of the Bible is the only valid one. They claim that the only faithful reading of the Genesis creation account is a wooden literalism, and that the six “days” of creation in Genesis 1 were necessarily 24-hour solar days. That is simply not true.

The 24-hour day interpretation was represented among the early church fathers, but it was not the only one. Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.) saw these days as 1000-year ages, Origen (c. 225 A.D.) saw them as figurative, and Augustine sagaciously averred that nobody knows for sure: “What kind of days these were is extremely difficult or perhaps impossible for us to conceive” (City of God 11:6, c. 419 A.D.).

A broad swath of contemporary evangelical Christians (especially in the U.K.), as well as many Orthodox believers and a billion Roman Catholics, hold that a recent, six 24-hour-day creation is not the only faithful Christian view.  Evangelist Billy Graham has no problem with God using evolution to accomplish His creative purposes for mankind:

I think that we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

For YE creationists to let go of their false beliefs on the age of the earth, they must either (a) renounce their Christian faith altogether, or (b) find a way to reconcile core Christian beliefs (e.g. those asserted in the Nicene Creed) with the facts of science.  Many young adults do reject their faith upon exposure to the evidence of geology and biology, after having been told by parents and pastors (and Ken Ham) that evolution and an old earth are flatly incompatible with the Bible.

Option (b) is, of course, less disruptive. If one is willing to acknowledge that the Bible regularly makes use of metaphor, story-telling, and other figurative language (e.g. Jesus’ parables and Nathan’s confrontation with David), that opens up various options for viewing the Genesis story as meaningful without being literal history.  I have outlined here the understanding of Scripture that I have come to, along with links to related resources.

While most YE creationists are driven by their peculiar Bible literalism, the key motivation for the Intelligent Design folks at the Design Institute is more cultural or philosophical. In their foundational “Wedge” document  they spell out their dismay over “materialism”, and blame Darwin (among others) for a range of modern problems, up to and including the abuses of communism:

…thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art…. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. …Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. … In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions….Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

There may be some valid points here, but attacking evolution is not going to fix the problem (“materialism”) that the Design Institute is worried about. Here is why: Every human alive today was conceived and grown by strictly materialistic processes. We can watch sperms fertilize eggs and see the egg cells divide; we can in large measure track the biochemical processes behind all this. The growth of neuronal networks in the fetal brain unfolds without supernatural invention. Every mental event corresponds to some array of physical events in the brain, which in turn are subject to the usual laws of physics. These are the key facts that anti-materialists have to deal with.

Whether or not scientists are able to explain every twist and turn of evolution does not touch these currently-observed facts. Thus, ID’s campaign of sowing doubt about evolution cannot possibly accomplish its avowed goal of unseating materialistic philosophies.

If ID supporters grasped this fundamental point, that could cause the ID movement to refocus in a constructive way. That would be a welcome development, since currently the Intelligent Design movement squanders financial and intellectual resources that might be employed in engaging the real issues with materialism. 


Various posts are listed on the right hand side of the main window. Longer essays or letters (e.g. STAN 3) dealing mainly with science/faith issues are accessed by clicking the tabs at the top of the page. Skim the README page to get an overview of what is in these letters. My personal journey of faith-and-science is told here.

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The Great Debate of 2014: Creationist Ken Ham versus Bill Nye the Science Guy

On the evening of Tuesday, February 4  Answers in Genesis president Ken Ham debated Bill Nye at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origins?”   This event was watched by at least 3 million viewers on line.

So, how did it go?  This NPR link gives a text summary (in reversed chronological order) of the phases of the debate, and a link to the complete 2:45 YouTube video of the debate.

Secular commentators seemed to come away pleased with Nye’s performance. For instance, Jennifer Welsh collected tweets which summarized Nye’s best lines, in a short article titled “Bill Nye Dominated His Debate Against Creationist Ken Ham.”

Rebecca Savastio provided a short synopsis of the debate which is a useful window into the affair, though her write-up is clearly biased against Ham. She concluded, “In the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham debate, the answer to those asking who won is: it’s clear Nye emerged the winner because he relied on a large amount of fossil and scientific evidence. Ham relied almost exclusively on the Bible and provided no fossil or scientific evidence whatsoever.”

I respectfully disagree with Welsh and Savastio as to whether Nye’s performance should be celebrated by those who care about science education. Here is why:   Although Nye did get in some good points (e.g.  Antarctic ice cores showing 680,000 summer/winter bands), he never really cornered Ham with contradictions that were glaring enough to make conservative Christian listeners start to question YE creationism.

These Christians are the crucial audience for this debate. The nonbelievers who tuned in are exceedingly unlikely to change their minds. The secularists have their own religious prejudices, plus the physical evidence on their side, so Ham had no leverage with them.  The Christians, however, are caught between what the scientists are showing them and what they hear from devout teachers and pastors, so they can go either way. Ham skillfully played to the Bible-believing Christians, basing his thinking on the inspired Word of God.

Some Things I Liked About the Debate

(1) Both men were polite and pleasant. The moderator did a good job keeping things brisk and fair.

(2) Nye was able to point out several evidences for an old earth, including the ice cores, tree rings over 6000 years old, thick layers of limestone, and the sequence of animal fossils in rock layers.  Ham’s response here (“We didn’t observe those tree rings growing, we didn’t see those ice layers forming in the Antarctic) was manifestly lame.  Nye noted that mainstream science is able to make significant predictions that can be tested. For instance, science predicted that animals with transitional features between fish and amphibians should have existed in a particular geological era. When scientists went digging in a fossil bed of that era to look for such transitional fossils, they found them.

(3) Ham’s spirituality seemed deep, sincere, and a clear source of moral grounding. He made his prior commitment to the Bible transparently clear, without ranting. He and his followers display moral courage in standing against the prevailing cultural views on origins. Nye’s motives seemed likewise honorable: though he has no use for religion himself, he was not trying to attack it. Rather, he is concerned about the large number of American youths who are being taught false views about science and physical reality, which can rob these youths of fully enjoying modern discoveries and which can inhibit their contributions to technical progress.

Some Things I Did Not Like About the Debate

(1) Nye’s biggest play to the audience, stated repeatedly, was that belief in YE creationism will hinder the progress in invention and innovation that the nation needs in order to remain competitive. Nye is simply wrong here.     As I know from personal experience , it is quite possible to hold false beliefs about what happened six thousand or six billion years ago and still be a productive engineer or scientist. (We men excel at compartmentalization). There are a few fields like geology, astronomy, biology and some aspects of drug discovery where willful ignorance of evolution and deep time would be a significant hindrance, but even there the occasional YE creationist can make valuable contributions. Ham masterfully showed short video clips of several world-class inventors/engineers/scientists who stated on tape that they hold to YE creationism. Ham also noted that pioneering scientists of centuries past were also creationists. This thoroughly undercut Nye’s claim of the perilous consequences of teaching YE creationism.

(2) Nye let Ham get away with claiming that there are “hundreds” of methods for dating the earth, and that these methods mainly disagree among themselves and many of them support a young earth. Letting Ham’s claim just hang out there unchallenged gave support to the YE creationist position.

The lists of evidences proffered for a young earth are well-known, and have been refuted in detail. I have refuted many of these bogus YE claims here.  More systematic debunkings are here, here, and here.

If Nye had been truly prepared for this debate, he would have combed through these lists ahead of time and maybe even had copies of these lists open on his computer. In order to defuse whatever YE evidence that Ham would present, Nye should have said in an early statement something like this:

Young earth creationists put forth several lines of evidence that are supposed to support a young earth and militate against an old earth.  These evidences include items like the decay of the earth’s magnetic field, rate of recession of the moon from the earth, amount of helium in the atmosphere, amount of salts in the ocean, and occasional discrepancies in radioactive dating.  Where these claims are amenable to outside investigation, they turn out to be false. In a few of these cases, such as the depth of dust on the moon, and human and dinosaur footprints allegedly found together, the young earth creationists have admitted their mistakes. In most other cases, they doggedly hang on, despite being shown that their claims are based on partial truths or outright falsehoods.

Radioactive dating is one of the clearest means to establish that the earth is billions of years old. This naturally makes it a target for young earth creationist denial. A number of attempts have been made by young earth workers using radioactive dating to produce results which refute the old earth understanding.  When competent scientists examine this work, they find it to be sloppy to the point of dishonesty. For instance, it is well-known that radioactive dating will likely give unreliable results when applied to a rock which has been re-heated after its initial solidification. Nevertheless, young earth researcher Andrew Snelling collected a set of metamorphosed (partially re-melted) whole rock samples from the base of the Grand Canyon, and sent them off for radioactive dating by different methods. The different dating methods, as expected for this circumstance, gave discordant results. Snelling claimed that this demonstrated deep problems with radioactive dating in general, when the reality was that he had deliberately chosen samples that guaranteed invalid results.

This is not to say that scientists know everything about everything. The reason scientists still have jobs is that most discoveries which answer current questions also uncover new questions.  Mainstream science explains, with predictive power, the vast majority of astronomical and geological evidence. It is unreasonable to ignore all that, and demand that science must be able to completely explain every single phenomenon in order to be considered trustworthy.

This sort of statement would have provided a global answer to Ham’s claims about many methods of dating which support a young earth, and also set Nye up to deal with whatever specific young earth claim made by Ham in the course of the debate.  Had Nye diligently studied the popular young earth arguments and why they fail, he could have provided suitable responses to the two specific radioactive dating instances cited by Ham.

For instance, Ham referred to creationist Steve Austin taking some recently-congealed lava from Mt St Helens, separating out some of its minerals, and sending the minerals and whole rock off for potassium-argon dating. The dates on these samples came back scattered between 0.34 million and 2.8 million years old.  Ham’s claim here seems damaging to the old earth cause, and Nye was unequipped to respond.

What Ham stated is true, but it is only a partial truth. The rest of the story (as stated in the various young-earth-debunking sites listed above) is that the radioactive decay of potassium to argon is a very slow process, so it was simply not possible for the laboratory to obtain valid dates for recent rocks by this method. It would be like trying to measure the width of a human hair using a yardstick. This was well-known to everyone, including Austin. The dating laboratory specifically stated on its website at the time that “We cannot analyze samples expected to be younger than 2 M.Y. [Million Years]”.  Thus, Austin sent his samples to be analyzed by a technique known to be inadequate for the age range of these samples. As with Snelling’s Grand Canyon rocks, the intent was to obtain scattered, erroneous results, not to properly date the rocks. This is typical of the deception which pervades young earth science.  (More on deception vs. truth here, regarding the features of the Grand Canyon).

Ham also cited a case where fossilized wood was supposedly encased in hardened basalt, down in a coal mine in Australia. When the samples were given to Andrew Snelling for radioactive dating, the wood was dated at about 45,000 years old by carbon dating, while the basalt was dated at some 45 million years by potassium-argon.  The proper response to this claim would be that 45,000 years is about the upper limit for carbon dating, where it is very sensitive to contamination, and there is no guarantee that nature or the coal miners or subsequent handling did not introduce trace modern carbon into these samples. Also, the actual discovery place for the wood samples is not accessible for independent examination, so this whole episode remains anecdotal. It is thus inconsequential compared to the vast numbers of radioactive datings that do agree with each other (e.g. see here). Again, Nye was unable to respond properly here.

And when Ham flashed this slide:

Ham Debate 100s Dating Methods

to substantiate his assertion that there are many dating methods that militate for a young earth, the proper response would be, “Please, Ken, we both know that this laundry list has been around since the 80’s, and was addressed and refuted at TalkOrigins back in the 90’s.” But Nye was clueless.

Not only was Nye unequipped to answer Ham’s examples, he did not present his own affirmative examples as effectively as he could have. For instance, he spent a lot of time expressing his personal incredulity that Noah’s family could have built a giant wooden boat, but his opinion here would carry little weight with Christian listeners. He briefly flashed the slide showing some rock layers in the Grand Canyon, muttering something about “one type of sediment [ i.e. the Temple Butte formation here ] has intruded on another type.”

Grand Canyon_Nye Debate_2

This all came and went too fast to have much impact on the audience. This was a wasted opportunity, because rock formations like this utterly disprove YE creationism. These “unconformities” are the key reason that European geologists concluded by 1830, long before Darwin or radioactive dating, that the earth must be far older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow. In the YE creationist scheme, all the horizontal layers that make up the upper 2/3 of the Grand Canyon must have been deposited during a one-year Flood.  If Nye had spent two minutes on this photo, explaining and listing the sequence of events that MUST have occurred to make this formation (multiple rounds of deposition, lithification, uplift, erosion of hundreds of feet of solid rock, etc., which could not possibly have all been packed into one year), the debate would have been over. A year ago I wrote an article ( “Unconformities” Showed Geologists By 1800 That The Earth Was Very Old)  on this very subject, using a photo of the same formation that Nye showed, so I was pained to see him fumble this.

(3) Ham asserted that the only proper interpretation of the Bible was that God created the world in six 24-hour days, 6000 years ago.  Nye, to his credit, noted that there are billions of religious folks in the world who do not hold that view of creation. But that was as far as Nye could take it, since he is admittedly ignorant of theology.

Ham’s assertion is refuted by a reading of the early church fathers: some held that the creation Days where the common 24-hour variety, others said that the Days represented thousand-year periods, Origen saw them as merely allegorical, and Augustine wisely observed that it wasn’t clear exactly what sort of days they were.

Turning to modern times, Reasons to Believe lists about 40 well-known conservative Christian leaders and writers that endorse or are at least open to an old-earth perspective. These include names like Gleason Archer, Michael Behe, Chuck Colson, Norman Geisler, Hank Hannegraff, C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, C. I. Schofield, Lee Stroble, and B. B. Warfield.  Billy Graham, the foremost representative of evangelical Christianity of recent decades, has no problem with evolution:

I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. … whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.

The Bible is full of allegory and metaphor.  Jesus communicated mainly by telling stories that never really happened, and he directed his hearers away from blaming others (think: Adam) for their own sinful choices.  When the prophet Nathan wanted to get King David’s attention, Nathan told the king about a rich man who seized a poor man’s lamb. Nathan presented that story as though it actually happened, though in fact it didn’t. It is unbiblical to insist that every story told in the Bible is literally true. II Timothy 3:15-17 clearly spells out the purpose of the Scripture, and it has nothing to do with teaching geology or biology.  I have dealt with the treatment of Adam and the Fall in the New Testament  here.

Ham’s approach (that a literal six-day recent creation is the only faithful Christian viewpoint) dooms a generation of young Christians to disillusionment when they eventually find out that the earth is old, and that our genomes show the
unmistakable imprints of evolution.  There are also the thousands of science-literate folks who are repelled from consideration of the gospel by its association with Young Earth foolishness. Augustine (c. 408 A.D.) put it well:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the Earth, the Heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn…. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? 

Professional versus Amateur

Ham has been writing and lecturing on his subject for decades. He has smooth answers for the common objections that folks have against YE creationism, and well-honed jabs against evolution. He thoroughly integrated his case with his reverence for the Bible and the God of the Bible, linking the YE creationist viewpoint with traditional morality and value for life. This is appealing to his evangelical Christian audience.

Nye was emphatically warned by his secular colleagues against entering into this debate. It is well-known that a typical debate format gives YE creationists the opportunity to spout untruths faster than a scientist can possibly correct them (the “Gish Gallup”).

Nye made some effort to prepare for the debate, but it was not nearly enough. He rambled at times, was incorrect on his biggest play to his audience (as explained above), and failed to exploit the errors in Ham’s claims.  Although I hold the same general views as he does on physical science, he had me cringing as he repeatedly failed to give the sharp, clear young-earth-refuting responses which were available.  It is hard to imagine that listening to this debate would give a single YE creationist the motivation to question the YE position.

Nye’s hubris gave the YE creationists all they could have hoped for: publicity for their position and website, a financial windfall, exposure for their personable spokesman, and surviving an encounter with a famous opponent essentially unscathed. I’ll bet attendance at the Creation Museum soars.  From the standpoint of truth in both science and theology, this debate started as a bad idea, and ended as a squandered opportunity.

Eugenie Scott pointed out that debating YE creationists is fine, as long as the format is shaped to focus in detail on a few key controversial, predetermined topics such as transitional fossil forms, radiometric dating, and the second law of thermodynamics. “Instead of the “Gish Gallop” format of most debates where the creationist is allowed to run on for 45 minutes or an hour, spewing forth torrents of error that the evolutionist hasn’t a prayer of refuting in the format of a debate, the debaters have limited topics and limited timeWith this format, the audience is given digestible bits of information and is not overwhelmed by a barrage of impossible-to- answer nonsense. The evolutionist at least has a fighting chance to teach something about science and evolution.”

I would be good with that, with the added proviso that the science advocate be well-schooled in creationism issues and preferably have a background in geology. For the purpose of helping Christians swallow the notion of an old earth, it would be better to have a fellow Christian like Ken Miller, rather than a (nice) pagan like Bill Nye, speaking for the side of science literacy.

Posted in Age of Earth, Bible Interpretation | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Adventures in High-Yield Investing

On a different topic than the usual science-and-faith…Over the New Year’s holiday I reflected on how ten years from now I will likely be retired and living largely off the returns of whatever I have been able to invest by then. So I decided to do some reading on investing.

The data I have seen indicates that if you don’t need to draw down your investment for fifteen years or more, you are usually best off to put it all in stock funds and just leave it alone. Studies show a long term average return (including reinvested dividends) in the stock market of 9.6%, or 6.2% after adjusting for the effects of inflation.

However, for later phases of life, financial advisors typically counsel investors to allocate some portion of their portfolio to fixed-income securities that generate cash to spend.  Also, after a 30% runup in stocks last year, the market may well muddle along flatter in 2014, making other investments more attractive this year.

For some time now, short-term money market funds have yielded essentially zero. Currently a one-year CD yields a little over 1%, a five-year CD about 2%, and a ten-year U.S Treasury note yields just under 3%. These are viewed as essentially risk-free yields.  These rates are near historic lows, so presumably they will be higher in coming year. Nevertheless, I’d like to get higher yields than the minimum. Therefore, I have been reading up to understand what types of higher-yielding investments exist out there. Naturally, with higher yields come higher risks. But I found a couple of investments that seem to have attractive fundamentals, and have made some small purchases to put some skin in the game.

Yahoo Finance  is a good starting place to check on basic data for a security, and gives links to recent articles. A lot of people spend a lot of time studying investments, and many of them share their learning on the internet. For instance, Bruce Saunders has presented a compact discussion of a number of income-generating investments, with great charts and links.

I have found the Seeking Alpha site to be very educational. Contributors are always posting short articles sharing information and touting some stock or fund; what really adds value is the comments on these articles. If the article’s thesis is bad, usually some reader will point it out.

Here I will note a resource I found particularly helpful for identifying investments that yield high income. A private investor named Tim McPartland, who has some finance background, has studied lots of high-yielding securities and put together a preferred list of them. His full list is here.

I have taken his master table, and trimmed away many rows and columns, and copied the remainder below. I removed several whole categories (e.g. Exchange Traded Debt and Master Limited Partnerships) to make it more digestible.

High Yield Table

The first category here is Preferred Stocks. Without going into all the details, a preferred stock should pay out a fixed dollar amount of dividend each year. Unlike with common stock, the dividends on preferreds do not rise from year to year. Thus, they usually perform much like long-term bonds.  If interest rates rise (which is likely to happen in 2014), the value of preferred stocks will drop. This may not matter to you if you plan to just hold them forever and collect their dividends.

However, the Dividend Hunter site pointed out several preferreds which have a special characteristic: the issuing company has committed to buy these shares back at fixed price, at a fixed date in the future. That removes much of the interest rate-related fluctuations in market price.

For instance, Oxford Lane Capital has issued two series of preferreds, one of which will be redeemed in 2023 (and is listed in the table above), and one in 2017. I checked the historical price of the 2017 issue and found it has traded in a range of about 26.0-26.4 for the last year. I bought some of this last week and now have a locked-in 8% yield for the next three years.  There is a low probability/high impact risk here of having Oxford Lane Capital’s earnings tank, making it unable to pay the dividend.

Instead of you personally buying an apartment complex and renting out, you can buy shares in an enterprise doing just that. A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) can buy and rent out properties, and is required to distribute nearly all the taxable income back to shareholders. A REIT (in general) does not pay tax at the corporate level, which is a huge advantage.

I looked at some of the REITs listed above, and decided to buy some shares of Realty Income (symbol “O”).  At 5.9% its yield was not the highest, but it is a very well established company and is likely to continue raising the dividend. Its share price has flopped around similar to a long bond.

The common stocks listed include some familiar names like AT&T, Proctor and Gamble, and the utility Southern Company. I got intrigued by the 9.25% dividend on Seadrill, read up on the company (they contract off-shore oil-drilling platforms), and decided to buy some shares. It’s riskier than some of the other choices in the list above, but offers a chance at capital growth in addition to plain income.

Closed end funds (CEFs) can trade higher or lower than the net asset value (NAV) of their holdings. The pros advise waiting to buy until the discount to NAV is deeper than whatever is the historic average for that fund, since the discount will likely later revert back to its long-term average. Four CEFs are listed above, which have various investing strategies.

These funds can employ leverage, e.g. Nuveen Preferred and Income (JPI) borrows low-interest short-term money to buy higher-yielding longer-term preferred stocks.  This gives a higher return for the fund, but also magnifies its value swings up and down.  JPI currently trades at about a 6% discount to its NAV, probably because investors are anticipating that the NAV will fall if interest rates continue to rise. For a non-leveraged, non-CEF play on high yield bonds, a highly-regarded high yield (“junk ”) bond fund is AdvisorShares Peritus High Yield ETF (HYLD). It yields around 7%, and has relatively low interest rate volatility since the average duration (time left till maturity) of its bond holdings is only about 3 years.

The Blackrock Global Opportunities (BOE) closed end fund listed above buys stocks, then sells (“writes”) call options on them. This is a pretty reliable way to generate 8-9% returns, though you have to ride out drops in share prices if the stock market dips. The fund values here do seem to come back after a correction.  I bought some ETV which is a buy-write fund like BOE but with better price stability, which yields around 9% and makes its distributions in tax-advantaged ways.

Instead of trying to choose among the hundreds of CEF’s out there, you could buy shares in an ETF which has selected a basket of CEF’s. You pay an extra 0.5%  or so in expenses for these ETF’s, but get expert picks and diversification. YieldShares High Income ETF   (YYY) and PowerShares CEF Income Composite Portfolio (PCEF) each yield about 8%.  YYY’s holdings are tilted towards stock CEF’s, including call-write funds, while PCEF holds more bonds than stocks.

One common high yield security is missing from this list. The REITs listed above are equity REITs, which buy and rent out physical properties. A different animal is the mortgage REIT, which borrows fistfuls of low-interest, short-term money to buy higher-interest mortgage loans. Annaly Capital Management (NLY) is a classic mREIT. It typically yields well over 10%, but with rising interest rates and other factors, its stock price is down to about half of what it was 18 months ago. Ouch. Most commentators agree that the worst is over for NLY and similar pure mREITs, but they may drop another 10% in 2014 if interest rates spike.

Two Harbors (TWO) is a hybrid mREIT, which has diversified and taken special steps to protect against the effects of rising interest rates. I am not competent to run the financials myself, but essentially every article I read agreed that TWO is pretty safe (unless we get another 2008-style meltdown), so I bought some. It currently yields 10.7%.

Another class of income securities that does not appear in this list is adjustable rate loans, which banks have made to companies.  Because the interest rates on these loans tend to ratchet up if general interest rates rise, their value does not gyrate as much as for bonds. (There is some complexity here involving the “LIBOR floor” which I won’t go into).  Also, secured bank loans have a higher priority on the assets of a bankrupt company than do bonds, so they are less at risk if a company fails.  Nevertheless, we can expect the prices here to dip during an economic slowdown as fears rise over loan repayments, leading to equity-like risks for these funds.

I am trying to decide whether to dip into this space. A leading exchange traded fund (ETF) in this area is PowerShares Senior Loan Portfolio (BKLN), currently yielding around 4.5%. As an ETF, its shares tend to track along with its NAV.  Invesco Senior Income Common (VVR) is a leveraged bank loan fund which yields about 6.5%. The higher yield is attractive here, but because this is a closed end fund as opposed to an ETF, the market share price can go considerably higher or lower than the NAV. This makes VVR about twice as volatile as BKLN. The Fidelity Floating Rate High Income (FFRHX) fund, currently yielding 3%, is renowned for low volatility. This is a regular Fidelity fund, which has a minimum purchase amount of $2500 and a redemption fee of 1% if held less than 60 days. I think it can be purchased through a stockbroker account. Ridgeworth Seix Floating Rate High Income Fund  (SAMBX) has volatility similar to FFRHX, with a slightly junkier portfolio and a yield of about 4%.

A reality check on this sort of high-yield investing is offered by Seeking Alpha contributor Steven Bavaria. He put together a portfolio of mainly closed-end funds for his IRA, listed and described here.  Most of these funds borrow cheap short-term money and buy higher-yielding bonds and preferreds. For 2013, his portfolio yielded 9% in cash dividends and distributions. So this is doable. Because of his long-term perspective, he does not worry if the share prices of his funds fluctuate.

Other useful sites for checking on various securities include QuantumMorningstar, CEFChannel (for closed-end funds), and PreferredStockChannel for preferreds.

Technical trading note: Some CEF’s and preferreds are thinly traded issues (maybe just a couple trades per day), which means the spread between bid (the price at which someone is currently offering to buy) and ask (the price that someone on the stock exchange is offering to sell for) can be large. Thus, it is recommended to place limit orders, rather than market orders, to buy or sell these securities at reasonable prices.

On taxes (U.S. federal; details omitted): Most dividends, and capital gains on assets held more than a year, are taxed at a special low rate of 15%, or even 0% for the lowest income brackets. Short-term capital gains, interest, and most dividends from REITs are taxed as ordinary income, at tax rates which can be over 30%.  The interest from most municipal bonds is not taxed, so for someone in a 28% tax bracket, a 5% yield on a muni is like 6.9% regular interest.

For my description of the overall workings of the modern monetary system, see here.  Happy investing…

[Boilerplate Disclaimer: This page should not be taken as advice to buy or sell anything].

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