Death and Rebirth: The Role of Extinction in Evolution
Article by Dennis Venema (2012)
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What is the Science?

According to Dennis Venema, evolutionary theory is the “theory that changes in heritable variation over time can shift average characteristics of a population, and that differential reproductive success (selection) is a major mechanism for driving changes in heritable variation from one generation to another.” Or, to put it a little more simply, it is the theory that changes in traits that can be inherited may, over time, shift the typical characteristics of a whole population of organisms; and that differences in success in having offspring (selection) is a major driver of inherited variation.

Underlying evolutionary theory is the role of death and extinction. Sporadic extinction happens when one species outcompetes another species. Sometimes this occurs when a nonnative species enters a new environment and is better adapted to the new ecosystem than a native species. Other times, one species is better adapted to new changes in an environment than another, resulting in extinction by one species and the flourishing of another. Mass extinction occurs when large numbers of species go extinct at a time. 250 million years ago, heavy volcanic activity appears to have resulted in the raising of global temperatures; 65 million years ago, a large asteroid struck the earth. Both of these led to mass extinction.

Fortunately, death is not the final note in evolutionary theory. Both sporadic and mass extinction are often the occasion for other species to flourish. Sporadic extinction can open niches in an ecosystem for another species to flourish. Mass extinction is often followed by a mass growth in the number of species. In this manner death and life, extinction and speciation, go hand-in-hand as evolution and natural selection shape the way life as we know it exists on earth.

“By some estimates, over 99% of the species that have ever lived have gone extinct.” -Dennis Venema

What is the Theology?

The role of death in evolution raises important questions for Christians who believe in evolutionary theory. What does it mean if competition and death are essential parts of the natural processes God uses to create? This has caused some Christians to reject evolutionary theory entirely while others continue to wrestle with the theological implications. Consequently, one of the most important roles is for pastors to create a safe space for truth-telling and dialogue where tough questions about science and religion can be asked. Pastors can also connect these discussions of life and death to the creation narratives, God’s role as sustainer of creation, and the new creation.

What to Consider

  • What is the relationship between the way we read the Bible and the way we conduct scientific research? More specifically, is evolution a viable choice for Christians to believe?
  • How could God be present in, or use, evolution as part of his process?
  • What are the theological implications of evolution if death is an important part of the process? What might it say about God if death is an essential part of the mechanism for creation and the flourishing of life?
  • What does it say about the ability of creation to promote life if, according to some estimates, 99% of the species that have ever existed are now extinct?

How to go Deeper

  • Invite a biologist to discuss the pros and cons of nonnative species. Make sure to identify nonnative species in your area and how they positively and negatively affect the ecosystem.
  • Discuss the basic tenets of evolution, highlighting survival of the fittest and natural selection. Follow up with a time to explore where God is at work in the competition and cooperation between species.
  • Form a small group for those interested in exploring deeper issues about science and religion. Try the Test of Faith curriculum or use these resources from Scientists in Congregations.

Relevant Scripture

All references in parenthesis refer to Lectionary readings. For more information on what the Lectionary is, please click here. For additional Lectionary resources click here.

Related Research

Did Death Occur Before the Fall? – BioLogos

Losing and Recovering Faith – Institute for Youth Ministry

Southern Baptist Voices: Evolution and Death – BioLogos

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About the Author:

Zach is currently a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary researching the role of leaders in congregational change. His calling in life is to train and equip pastors to faithfully lead local congregations. When not studying, he'll most likely be watching Sporting Kansas City score goals or hiking with his wife and two kids.

4 Comments

  1. Weabz April 4, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Interesting. That’s a tough issue that begins with our presuppositions. Under the “things to consider” one question what put forth concerning the “theological implications of evolution if death is apart of the process?” is interesting to say the least. It’s hard for me to make the connection as I interpret the Bible from a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic.

    But that aside, even if we say evolution is God’s process of creation then we have to divorce death from the process of Creation through evolution, if for no other reason than death is not seen Scripturely until after the Fall. This of course opens a whole other can of worms but I guess in the end it really comes down to how we interpret Scripture and more importantly what hermeneutic the NT writers and Jesus himself employed when interpreting OT passages.

    I really appreciated this article

    • matt@ncstudycenter.org July 6, 2017 at 1:42 am

      Christ does say he saw “Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18) which indicates a fall of Satan prior to the fall of humanity in Adam and Eve (hence the snake in the garden). Augustine sees this already in Day 1 of creation with the separation of light and darkness (City of God). I wonder how theologically this might factor into how we think about death prior to the human fall?

  2. matt@ncstudycenter.org July 6, 2017 at 1:38 am

    I bought Francis Collins intro Q+A book “The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions” recently. There’s some helpful content in there on this topic.

  3. Reed Metcalf September 12, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    While I understand the concern that some may have with imagining “death before the Fall,” I think this is primarily a concern for Reformed Christians (Presbyterians, Baptists, most fundamentalists and nondenominationalists). The concept of the Fall and pre-/post-lapsarian ontologies are really innovated in the Calvinist tradition, and many orthodox Christians (John Wesley, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas) have no problem with reading nonliteral readings of Genesis 1-3 that allow for things like death prior to Adam or “Adam” (see: http://biologos.org/common-questions/biblical-interpretation/early-interpretations-of-genesis). Simply put, I think we Christians who believe in evolution can agree with Genesis 1-3–that something in God’s good world is not as it should be–without subscribing to the notion of a literal Fall and the prohibition of death before it.

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