Evolving thoughts on origins
Many Wheaton students change their views on origins and the age of the earth after studying at Wheaton. The Record looked into the Theories of Origins class and differing views on origins at Wheaton.
In the spring of 2009, the semester in which Larry Funck, professor of chemistry emeritus, helps co-teach Wheaton’s popular Theories of Origins class, he received an impassioned letter from a student. She wanted to thank him for his teaching in the class which had helped her process the evidence for the Big Bang Theory and evolution through a Christian lens. Unable to reconcile the scientific evidence with his Christian faith, her father had become an unbeliever back in college. She hoped she could share what she learned in the class with her father when she returned home.
Wheaton’s debate about the origin of life can be carbon dated back as early as the turn of the 20th century. But despite the fact that almost all mainstream scientists now uphold evolution as a “theory” — meaning it possesses the highest degree of certainty in the scientific community — many Christians have doubts about evolution and an old earth view. The young earth view is based on a literal reading of Genesis, which takes the seven days of creation to refer to 24 hour periods of time. The Christians who take a different approach tend to read Genesis in a non-literal or allegorical way, though there are other approaches, such as the Day-Age Theory in which the seven days of creation represent long spans of time.
Beliefs are often rigid on both sides of the debate. Sometimes, people who uphold evolution believe that young-earthers are anti-intellectual, while some young-earth students see their beliefs as a central matter of apologetics. In other words, advocating for a young-earth view to the denial of evolution is a key element of what makes them distinct from their secular counterparts, and they fear that those who succumb to belief in evolution have sipped the Kool-Aid of liberalism. According to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 57 percent of evangelicals reject evolution, and say humans and other living things have always existed in their current form. As survey data will show, this young-earth view is still prevalent among Wheaton students.
In the midst of the crossfire of this controversy lies Wheaton’s popular gen-ed class “Theories of Origins.” Started in 1996 by an interdisciplinary team of professors, this team-taught science credit presents scientific evidence for evolution, an old earth and the possibility of an archetypal Adam and Eve. They also present theological interpretation that allows room for these views. According to data from surveys and interpreted responses from students exiting the class, a general trend shows that a large number of young earth creationists enter the class and very few students leave believing in young earth creationism.
It is well worth noting that the data trends collected on the Theories of Origins classes are the result of entrance surveys and interpretation of responses given in a final essay. No rigorous statistical analysis was employed on the data. Professor of geology Stephen Moshier summarized and shared the data that he’d collected for around six years with The Record.
In general, over the course of the nearly two decades that the class has been taught, the trend over time has been that around 30 percent of students who have taken Theories of Origins entered the semester with no opinion about human origins, and by the end of the class, only about five percent still had no opinion.
According to the data collected, the category of “recent representative,” which says that Adam and Eve were a pair of humans chosen by God out of a larger group some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago as image bearers with a special relationship with God, is fairly popular at the start of the class, with between 20 to 25 percent of the class populations espousing that view. At the end of the class, the “recent representative” view is also generally the most popular, with usually 40 percent or more saying that they believe that point of view in their exit essays.
Perhaps the most significant change happens with the students who enter the class saying that they believe in what is traditionally known as a “young earth creationist” view, which says that Adam and Eve are recent ancestors of all modern humans, specially created by God 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. According to survey data, somewhere between 25 and 30 percent of the students entering the class believe in a young earth creationist view. That number drops to less than 10 percent and sometimes even zero percent by the end of the class.
The “ancient representative” view, which says that Adam and Eve were a pair of early Homo sapiens chosen by God out of a larger group some 100,000 years ago or earlier as image bearers early in human history from whom all modern humans are descended, is also popular, if not quite as popular as the “recent representative” view. Both the “recent” and “ancient representative” points of view increase in popularity over the duration of the class, general trends show.
Around 20 percent of the students enter the class holding to an “ancient ancestor” view, which says that God created Adam and Eve specially, who are the ancestors of all modern humans 100,000 years ago or earlier. This view fluctuates greatly, increasing and decreasing by as much as 10 percent by the end of the class.
On the other end of the spectrum, the view called “symbolic Adam and Eve,” which says that Adam and Eve were not real, historical people and are only a part of a symbolic story of human origins, is never popular, with less than 10 percent of the class holding that opinion at the beginning and end of the course.
Scientific developments have resulted in an increase in different speculations on human origins — even over the course of the Theories of Origins class’ existence — so new options popped up over time. Significant scientific revelations, such as the completion of the human genome project in 2003, shed more light on the class’ content and added options for categories of thought for students to adhere to.
Associate professor of biology Raymond Lewis recalled struggling with a perceived conflict between science and faith. Growing up, he remembered people from church showing him material in support of young earth creation and feeling that believing in Genesis necessitated a young earth approach. “I had to believe that it’s a young earth in order to take Genesis seriously,” said Lewis. But when he began studying biology and evolution as an undergraduate and Ph.D, student, he had difficulty reconciling the long age spans taught in the classroom with the young earth model commonly preached from the pulpit.
As he developed as a scientist and a believer, Lewis began looking into other interpretations of Scripture. He cites the book “Creation and Time” by Hugh Ross as significant for him in affirming the inerrancy of Scripture but providing an interpretation of Genesis, which allowed for old earth. For Lewis, it was critical to begin with understanding how to read the Bible: “The science was there. But I needed to know how to bring this in scripturally.”
Because Lewis has experienced this tension personally, he empathizes with students who feel conflicted on how to approach theories of origins. According to Funck, one of the course’s primary goals is to represent the best modern science and demonstrate that scientific evidence is not in conflict with Christianity.
John Walton, professor of Old Testament and one of the course’s instructors, echoed this idea.”I think it’s most important to put information on the table that either might help solve some of [students’] confusion, or might offer different options than just that one narrow belief that maybe people grew up with.” Those who claim the Bible refutes science often don’t fully understand the science, Walton says.
However, some science students push against the idea that old-earth creation is a given. Freshman physics major Aleks Nosewicz recounts feeling pressure to become an old earth creationist upon coming to Wheaton. “I came in young earth and I just got hit,” said Nosewicz. “It was really skewed; it was not both sides.” After taking the class “Where Do We Come From?” — part of the new Christ at the Core curriculum, and similar to Theories of Origins — Nosewicz briefly jumped to the old earth camp, until he realized that he really prefered young earth creationism. He is currently working on establishing a young earth club — which he’s named the Creation Society — for other students to unite over shared views.
The Theory of Origins class is structured to allow an interdisciplinary approach to a myriad of topics concerning origins, including the age of the earth and universe, the history of the first humans, genetics, geological patterns, basic chemistry and cosmology and an interpretive lens to reading the book of Genesis. Five professors currently teach the course: Raymond Lewis, John Walton, Stephen Moshier, Larry Funck and Robert Bishop, professor of physics and philosophy.
Each science professor lectures for two to three weeks, covering issues in his field related to origins, and most contribute an additional lecture at the end of the semester to cap off the course. Walton’s lectures are scattered throughout to address Biblical interpretations of origins, including the Genesis creation account and Noah’s flood.
The “Theories of Origins” class provides a generally consistent old earth interpretation of origins. Of the five instructors, none hold to a young-earth view. This is not surprising, however, as the representation within Wheaton’s science department heavily favors old-earth views. The course’s professors told The Record that there are no faculty in the science department that are young earth creationists.
The professors often characterized the purpose of “Theories of Origins” as encouraging students to reevaluate their views in light of mainstream scientific evidence. Most class sessions deal with detailed scientific subjects, such as plate tectonics, the chemistry of life or fossil evidence for evolution, rather than offering an overarching comparison of competing theories of origins.
Origins and Doctrinal Statements
Other schools have taken a variety of stances on human origins. Schools like Covenant College, Gordon and Westmont have vague statements of faith that refer to God as creator, but do not specify belief about how He created. Biola, however, has taken a more specific stance. Their doctrinal statement reads, “God specially created Adam and Eve (Adam’s body from non-living material, and his spiritual nature immediately from God). Inadequate origin models hold that (a) God never directly intervened in creating nature and/or (b) humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.”
Wheaton’s statement of faith is less specific than Biola’s. The statement of faith includes an addendum which was added in 1961 following a science symposium where an influential professor proposed that Adam might have been born from a woman. It states, in part: “We believe that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.”
This statement allows for professors and students alike to adhere to either a young earth or old earth view. One student, sophomore Tabitha Peter, who holds an young earth view and is currently taking Theories of Origins, was surprised by the results of the survey at the beginning of the class. “I did not expect for so many of my peers to be open towards or to affirm the theory of evolution … I had not heard anyone publicly defend [theistic evolution] until this class, and so much of this thinking has been new for me.”
For Peter, “Young earth creationism remains compelling because it recognizes the existence of a divine Creator, providing a rational explanation for life on earth.” As a math major, she looks at theories of origins “statistically” and “logically.” Statistically, she reasons that the odds of the world coming into existence via macroevolution are so small that evolution seems an “absurd” justification of creation. Logically, Peter finds the classic saying compelling: “ex nihilo, nihilo fit” or, “out of nothing, nothing comes.” Based upon this logic, Peter reasons, “it is illogical to assert that out of nothing comes everything, which is precisely the argument that macroevolution makes.”
Many science majors at Wheaton who don’t take Theories of Origins acknowledge the broader views at Wheaton regarding the age of the earth and evolution. Sophomore Yannie Heng is a biology major who previously felt pressure to believe in young earth: “My youth pastor was a firm believer in young earth creation, and implied throughout all his lessons about origins that if you didn’t believe that the earth was created by God in seven days, you didn’t believe in the rest of the Bible and that you were a heretic … While studying science at Wheaton hasn’t allowed me to solidly form my opinion on how I view origins, or what I think the age of the earth is, it’s really refreshing to know that there are other Christians who believe in different things besides young earth creation.”
A natural result of this worldview expansion that takes place at college is a tendency toward the theologically progressive. The 1935-1939 Bennington College Study, which contemporary sociologists hearken back to as the first of its kind to study student beliefs over time, suggested that the students’ attitude change from conservative to liberal over their four years at school may largely be due to the liberal norm in higher education. This trend causes peers to assume beliefs out of a desire for leadership in a group, and may also be influenced by the fact that adolescence is a time where many students break from their previous beliefs.
According to some of the survey results Moshier published from the years 2004, 2006, and 2007, it appeared that the largest influence on student views on origins was their own reading, though Science and Theology classes at Wheaton also played a role, and high school classes and Sunday school to a slightly lesser extent. The survey did not account for conversation with peers as a category, but at the very least it suggests that students were already exploring these topics outside of the Theories of Origins class. This suggests that students aren’t just falling victim to a liberal-leaning trend, but rather that their shifts in perspective are affected by their own studies.
While for many young-earth creationists, the course professors’ stance on the age of the earth seems to be a fall from grace, it can also be liberating to students who have found it difficult to hold on to their faith in the face of evidence for evolution. Junior Stirling Joyner, a computer science major currently in the class, explained that “I wanted so much to trust well-founded scientific findings, but I had never learned any way to reconcile scientific conclusions with what I believed to be Biblical ones.” Joyner, who describes himself as both a science and theology geek, said that the course has “given me a best-of-both worlds approach to origins that I always wanted but never thought was possible.”
The class does not attempt to explore origin theories such as God hiding fossils in the rocks to make the earth look older. This is what is referred to as a “logical negation.” An illustration Bishop uses in the class textbook describes this idea with the example of a cookie jar experiment. Your friend will hide a cookie jar behind a screen, open the jar and flip a coin. If it lands on heads, she puts the cookie in the jar. If not, she hides it somewhere else. So the options for you to guess are either 1) there is a cookie in the jar, or 2) the jar is empty. These options are mutually exclusive, meaning if a scientist can prove one true then the other is false. This is the common experimental process by which scientists develop theories.
But Bishop asks us to consider a third option: perhaps God made the cookie disappear. This possibility is a logical negation which ignores the context of the original experiment, and cannot be explored by science to a productive end, just like the question of whether God intervened directly at each step of creation by supernatural means. Similarly, the aim of science and this class is to consider all the contextually relevant, physical evidence for origins. Anything outside this scope goes into the realm of philosophy.
Rather, the professors teach that God instilled creation with a functional integrity that can be observed in physical processes. Science cannot determine the exact nature of God’s involvement. Theories of Origins teaches the possibility that God could be working through natural processes, and that the science-faith dichotomy need not exist.
The Special News Report Team is Kirkland An, Katie Bracy, Emily Fromke, Victoria Greenwald, Sarah Holcomb, and Ciera Horton.