Justifying God

Theodicy is commonly thought to concern itself with the problem of evil. The most banal expression of this is the phrase: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But it is more than that. So much more. In fact, theodicy has to do with the justification of God. It is a defense of God’s goodness and greatness in the face of evil, of suffering, and of death.

One of the best descriptions of the problem was recently expressed by Stephen Fry, who when asked what he would say to God:

I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.

There are creatures who use humans as hosts for part of their life cycle, creatures responsible for a great deal of pain, suffering, and death. Take for example, the protozoan known as Plasmodium, which is responsible for Malaria. The five species of Plasmodium are all spread from human to human using mosquitoes, and all five species mature and reproduce in the human liver. The World Health Organization says that in 2013, around 584,000 people died of malaria, most of them children under the age of five. You could say that the existence of Malaria has as its primary purpose the killing of children.

Dracunculiasis is the formal name for the infection by the Guinea worm. The Guinea worm primarily infects humans (and possibly dogs) by drinking water containing guinea worm larvae. Once a human is infected, the worm matures, mates, and slowly travels through the body to the lower leg, often causing intense pain. Eventually the worm causes an allergic reaction. Blisters form, eventually burst, and the worm begins to protrude from the body. Slowly, over a period of weeks, the guinea worm exits the body. As it slowly makes its way out of the, the burning sensation causes people to seek relief by soaking their leg in water, allowing the worm to release larvae which are eaten by water fleas, continuing the life cycle. The sole purpose of the Guinea worm’s existence seems to be to cause great pain and suffering; it does this indiscriminately, and for the sole purpose of furthering its own reproduction.

If you are a creationist, you have to believe that God created these (and other) creatures whose sole purpose is to cause pain and suffering. Thus we must assume that God desires to see his creation suffer. It is not enough that some humans will suffer in the afterlife, but quite a number of the sufferings of this life are caused by creatures God created for this express purpose. We humans have a name for this type of personality disorder; if we are indeed created in the image of God, than this name would necessarily apply to a God who seems to enjoy the sufferings of his creation.

If you are an evolutionist who believes in God, you have other difficulties. The evolutionary process which led to the existence of humans has been the result of a great deal of suffering and death. There have been five great extinction events, known colloquially as the “Big Five.”

  • Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction: 443 million years ago; 85% of sea life went extinct
  • Late Devonian mass extinction: 359 million years ago; 75% of all life went extinct
  • Permian mass extinction: 248 million years ago; 96% of all life went extinct
  • Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction: 200 million years ago: 50% of all animals went extinct
  • Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction: 65 million years ago; extinction of the dinosaurs, allowing for the rise of mammalian life

So much death and destruction, leading the way to the development of human beings. How do we account for this? What was the purpose of death on such a large scale, occurring multiple times? If we accept the biblical creation accounts, death is the result of sin. Yet how could there have been sin before humanity existed? And if suffering and death existed prior to the fall, how then is God a good God? How can we love a God who seems to enjoy the suffering of His creation?

I have no answers, only questions. One day, I hope to ask God what was the point of it all. As Stephen Fry recently noted when asked if after death he found himself in front of the pearly gates: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?”

Seriously, what’s the point of it? In the book of Job, the answer given seems to have been: “Who do you think you are to be asking me that question?” But, if the Bible is true, humans were created in the image and likeness of God; I therefore presume upon that likeness to ask the impertinent, impolitic, and possibly blasphemous question: “Why?”

And yet, I know that God exists. I have experienced his providential care. Yes, what I call providence could be chalked up to chance, but I’ve also experienced miracles in my life — at least one of which was witnessed by others. My life (and those with me) has been saved twice in miraculous ways, at least one of which has no rational explanation. I have therefore personally experienced the hand of God working in my life.

When I begin to doubt the goodness of God, I am also forced to remember the goodness of God towards me. The God who seems to delight in suffering, also seems to delight in being good towards his creation. I cannot reconcile the two. One day, I hope to ask God the same question Stephen Fry asks: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?”

Beneficial Mutations and Creation Science

Scottish Fold (cat with ears that bend forward)

Scottish Fold

When I was growing up, one of the truisms of Creation Science was that there were no beneficial mutations; that they were all destructive, and therefore random mutations could not have resulted in the overwhelming diversity of life on earth.


Let’s take the domestic cat, for example. There are a great many mutations which are prized by cat lovers around the world.  Let’s run down the list (taken from Wikipedia.)

  • Tails
    • Shortened tails (Japanese bobtail gene, recessive; Manx tailless gene, dominant)
    • Curly tails (such as the American Ringtail; the gene(s) responsible have not been identified)
  • Legs
    • Short legs (Munchkin gene, dominant)
  • Paws
    • Split Foot (Syndactyly) (This is a dominant gene, and is considered undesirable)
    • Extra toes (Polydactyl) (Multiple genes, both dominant and recessive)
    • Extra toes near the dew claw (Thumb-cat polydactyly gene, dominant)
  • Ears
    • Backwards curling ears (American Curl gene, dominant)
    • Forwards curling ears (Scottish Fold gene, dominant)
  • Size
    • Diminutive (a germ-cell mutation, dominant)

In each case, the mutation created a trait that was considered desirable by cat lovers, enabling cats with those traits to survive and breed. To those cats, the mutation was certainly beneficial.

Wheat Field

Wheat field

Let’s talk about grain. Most grasses have weak stalks that bend over when the seeds grow large and heavy. Modern wheat is the result of a mutation that created a stronger stalk, which made it easier for humans to harvest. Those seeds were saved and re-sown. Modern wheat is the result of millennia of selective breeding of various beneficial traits, but it all began with a single mutation.

Blue-eyed girl with dark skin.

Blue eyes

Let’s talk about humanity. Much of the diversity of human beings is the result of genetic mutations.

  • Blue eyes are the result of a mutation in the OCA2 gene. All blue-eyed people have the same switch on the same location of the same gene. My blue eyes are the result of a genetic mutation which conferred some degree of survival advantage. Perhaps it was simply a matter of sexual preference. Who knows?
  • Red hair is a recessive trait, occurring in the MC1R gene. People with two of the recessive genes have red hair, light skin, and will freckle rather than tan. On the other hand, red-haired people have a naturally higher pain tolerance. People with only one copy of the mutated MC1R gene will not have red hair, but will have a tendency to both freckle and tan.
  • Around 35% of the population are born without wisdom teeth. The genetic mutation responsible has not been found, although it is thought to have originated in China between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago.
  • A small community in Italy has a mutation that allows them to produce a modified HDL that is more effective at cleaning cholesterol from artery walls. There is a different mutation occurring on the PCSK9 gene that has much the same affect.
  • A mutation in the LRP5 gene amplifies bone density, resulting in stronger bones and resistance to age-related skeletal degeneration.
  • Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in the HbS gene. This mutation is recessive; people with one copy are naturally resistant to malaria, while people with two copies of this gene come down with sickle-cell anemia.
  • A mutation to the HbC gene confers resistance to malaria; people with one copy are 29% less likely to get malaria, while people with two copies are 93% less likely. People with two copies of the gene may experience mild anemia, but it is certainly not life-threatening.
  • Some women have a mutation that gives them four color receptors instead of the normal three. Thus they can see millions more colors than the rest of us.
  • A Finnish family has a mutation on the erythropoietin receptor gene, which gives their blood the ability to carry 50% more oxygen.
  • A mutation on the DEC2 gene gives about 5% of the population the ability to sleep far less than normal people.
  • A genetic mutation is what gives most people of European ancestry the ability to tolerate lactose, which allows them to digest milk as adults.
  • The ccr5-Δ32 mutation gives people with two copies resistance to HIV-1, as well as plague and smallpox. But two copies of the gene also makes people more susceptible to the West Nile Virus.
  • Other mutations are light skin and blond hair, leading to the inescapable conclusion: white people are mutants.
German soldier from WW2, the Aryan mutant.

The Aryan mutant

Creation and Evolution

"Then a Miracle Occurs": cartoon by Sydney Harris

Then a Miracle Occurs –
cartoon by Sydney Harris

Growing up as a Creationist

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, bible-believing household. And so, like many other conservative Christians, I grew up believing in creation as a scientifically valid explanation of existence. To be specific, I believed in young-earth creationism. This literalistic interpretation of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis was profoundly important to my Christian faith and to my view of the world. Although the title of Intelligent Design did not become part of the evangelical zeitgeist until a lawyer by the name of Phillip Johnson published a book called Darwin on Trial, the underpinnings for this concept were part of the fundamentalist world view. Johnson’s book, plus biologist Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box, laid the intellectual foundation for Intelligent Design, which has become so well-entrenched in the Protestant community that it is even taught in some seminaries.[1]

The belief in young-earth creationism is the idea that the book of Genesis is meant to be taken literally — that God created the heavens and the earth in a literal seven days of twenty-four hours duration. When combined with the genealogies found in the book of Genesis, the Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) determined that the heavens and the earth were created in 4004 BC. This interpretation of Genesis was widespread, and was incorporated into the 1701 printing of the King James Bible. Since the King James Version is accorded such profound respect, the incorporation of Archbishop Ussher’s conjecture became dogma.

When confronted by the higher critics and liberal theologians, an American businessman by the name of Lyman Stewart (along with his brother Milton), anonymously funded the creation of The Fundamentals, a series of 90 essays in defense of conservative Protestantism. The essays were not confined to any specific denomination, but represented a broad defense of the faith against the perceived (and sometimes real) onslaughts of the modern era.  Some of these essays explicitly attacked the scientific theory of evolution, which had the effect of codifying hostility to evolution as an article of faith.[2]

There are problems with the concept of young-earth creationism, problems that are apparent to any scientifically literate person. Yet there were always glib and somewhat satisfying answers to these questions. Like the apparent age of the universe, for example, which was explained away as God creating a fully functioning universe; so when he created the stars in the heavens, he created them with light that could be perceived by us. Thus the knowledge that the stars are billions of light-years away can be explained as a benevolent God creating a universe that was fully operational, which therefore appeared to be older than it actually is.[3]

I gradually became aware that a literalistic interpretation of Genesis was not the only way to interpret the text, and that in some ways it did violence to the author’s intent. Given that the grammatical-historical method of exegesis is widespread among conservative Protestants, the idea that the author may have written Genesis for a different purpose than we were using if for was troubling. Still, I could find no way to reconcile science and faith, especially when the most vocal proponents of science were actively hostile to religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

The Problem of Biofilm

The problem came to a head when I was reading about biofilms. In science class I remember looking into a drop of pond water and viewing a host of free-swimming microorganisms. Many of us are familiar with the ovoid shape of the paramecium, and the amorphous blob that is the amoeba. But what I failed to realize is that most microorganisms don’t exist in a free-floating (planktonic) state, but in groups called biofilms. A biofilm forms when organisms attach to a solid surface, and build a matrix that binds them together, and to the solid surface. Organisms in a biofilm thrive through cooperation, not competition.

Picture of biofilm


The plaque that forms on our teeth overnight? Biofilm. The slick, slimy surface of rocks in a stream? Biofilm. One of the more interesting things about biofilm is that it is generally not comprised of one type of microorganism, but “in nature biofilms almost always consist of rich mixtures of many species of bacteria, as well as fungi, algae, yeasts, protozoa, other microorganisms, debris and corrosion products”, all joined by a matrix of extracellular polymeric substance (EPS). (Montana State University n.d.)  When a free-floating microorganism becomes part of a biofilm, its phenotype changes — meaning it can change its shape and function through alterations in the expression of its genetic material.[4] (Montana State University n.d.) Through a communication mechanism known as quorum sensing, the bacterium understands that it is part of a biofilm, and begins to actively participate in colony behavior, rather than individual behavior. (Proal 2008)

Diagram of Biofilm Quorum Sensing

Biofilm Quorum Sensing

It is not always the case that biofilm is formed by a mixture of microorganisms. Cholera, for example, forms a biofilm in the intestines, which is spread when parts of the colony are dispersed  and are expelled from the intestines, allowing cholera to spread to another host. Peptic ulcers are caused by biofilms of Heliobacter pylori. The pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa forms biofilms in the lungs of people with cystic fibrosis. These and other biofilms are extremely durable and resistant to antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents. (Mah and O’Toole 2001)

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

Various Modes of Biofilm Movement

As a colony, biofilm can behave as a single organism.  The biofilm can move, can grow, and can reproduce. (Montana State University n.d.) It contains channels that allow nutrients to circulate. (Proal 2008) Being part of a biofilm is beneficial to a microorganism because the biofilm protects its members from environmental hazards. It is considerably more difficult to kill a microorganism existing in a biofilm than one in a planktonic (free-floating) state, which is why we have to brush our teeth to mechanically break up the biofilm rather than just use mouthwash.

Faith and Science

From my exploration of biofilms I saw an existing pathway whereby a microorganism could become part of a multi-cellular colony — a colony that, in many ways, behaved like a multi-cellular organism. From there the development of a multi-cellular organism suddenly seemed reasonable. And so I began to reexamine many of the pat answers I had been given for young-earth creation, and discovered most of them were nonsense.

  • The argument from the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics is faulty, because the Earth is not a closed system.
  • The supposed scientific evidences for a young earth (like pleochroic halos), are arguments made by non-specialists, which have been debunked by specialists.
  • The supposed inaccuracies of the various dating methods are accounted for in the methodologies themselves.
  • The argument that radioactive isotopes may have decayed at different rates in the past is theological nonsense. It postulates a trickster God who has more in common with the gods of pagan mythologies than the God of the Bible.

And so on, and so forth. Many of these pat answers had been debunked for decades, yet continue to be proclaimed from pulpits and written up in books for the gullible masses — among whom I number myself. All this would have posed a challenge to my faith, had I not become aware that my literalistic interpretation of Genesis may not have been the author’s intent. Genesis is God’s opening salvo in the war against the pagan gods. You worship the god of rain? Our God created the rain. You worship the god of fertility? Our God created mankind, male and female, and told them to go forth and multiply. Viewed in this light, the creation accounts speak to the relationship God has with His creation, and specifically with humanity.

The creation accounts in Genesis are theological accounts, not scientific descriptions. How do we know that? From the incorporation of ancient cosmologies. God did not see fit to incorporate the details of modern cosmology into the Genesis accounts. Thus in Genesis 1:7, we have an account of waters in the sky, a concept in total accord with ancient cosmology, but without foundation in modern science. Professor John H. Walton (Wheaton College), in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, describes the attempt to make the ancient cosmology fit modern science as “concordism”. Dr. Hugh Ross, or the organization “Reasons to Believe”, defines Concordism as “the belief that the book of nature and the book of Scripture significantly overlap and can be constructively integrated.” (Ross 2012) The problem with concordism is that any description of ancient cosmology is explained away.[5] The “four corners of the earth”, the “pillars of the earth”, the ancient notion of the “firmament” as a solid dome — all are conveniently dismissed  as figures of speech.

This last, the idea of the firmament as a solid dome, is extremely important to our understanding of the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). The ancients not only believed the firmament was a solid dome, but that it could be pierced by a tower, giving them answers as to the composition of the heavens. (3 Baruch 3:1-8) If the firmament in Genesis 1:7 is a figure of speech, how then to explain the Tower of Babel, which was based upon the same ancient cosmology?

The Relationship Between God and His Creation

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). In these opening words of the bible, the challenge is made to paganism and all forms of false religion. The truth claims of the Old Testament cannot be ignored. They must be dealt with. Syncretism will not work, because the Bible claims to be the ultimate truth. The cosmos serves as a revelation of God, as an expression of His nature.

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:26-27). The Bible not only claims to ultimate truths about reality, but about human beings in particular. In the creation accounts, human beings are part of the created order, and yet God pays particular attention to human beings.  Therefore human beings are part of God’s general revelation of Himself, yet also are special in that humans alone were created in God’s image and likeness.  Numerous books have been written regarding what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, and this is not the place to go into that. It is enough to note that the first few verses of the bible provide a theological understanding of the nature of the world, of human beings, and God’s relationship with His created order.

Dualilsm - The Modern Worldview

Dualilsm – The Modern Worldview

When thinking about the natural world, and God’s relationship with it, we often use the terms natural and supernatural. Thus, we have the natural order, the world of matter and energy, and the supernatural world, the world of the non-corporeal beings and of God. This is a dualistic system, in which the material and spiritual are differentiated, and differ in value. But this is not the scriptural view. The scriptures speak of the created order  —  of the heavens, the earth, and the angelic powers — and of the uncreated God. The created order contains both the material and the spiritual, while God reigns over all — “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same.” (St John Chrysostom 2011)

It will not do to speak of God as supernatural, as though God exists apart from His creation, only now and then reaching in and altering the natural laws to perform miracles. That is not what the Bible teaches. From the very moment of creation, God was intimately involved with the created order. From the very start, “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). The Bible tells us that God is actively involved in “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). Therefore it is wrong to speak of the natural and supernatural realms. Theologically, speaking in this way places God and the angels as part of the same order, making it difficult to separate the creator God from his non-corporeal creations. If God and the acts of God are all part of the same supernatural order, then in what way can we separate God from His creation? In what way are we speaking of a personal God, rather than an impersonal force, an organizing principle of sorts. No, speaking of God and His almighty acts as supernatural acts diminishes God, and brings Him down to our level.

And so we come to the various means of discussing the relationship between the scientific description of evolution, and the theological description of creation. There are those who seek to meld the two by proposing God as the answer for the unanswered questions of science. This “God of the Gaps” concept doesn’t work, because as science progresses, the gaps become ever more narrow, squeezing God out of the picture. This is the problem with Intelligent Design, because it is simply a variant of the God of the Gaps idea, postulating God as the answer to the question of irreducible complexity. But science is increasingly finding answers to the problems posed by Intelligent Design, once again squeezing God out of the picture.[6]

For many evangelical Christians who are also scientists, the concept of Theistic Evolution is a satisfying one. The idea is that God created the universe and everything in it, using the process of evolution. When coupled with the theological concept of God’s foreknowledge, it seems possible that God created a process that would ultimately result in human beings. The problem with Theistic Evolution, in its most common formulations, is that it is based upon the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. As Francis S. Collins describes it, Theistic Evolution postulates God as the special cause of the existence of the Moral Law and the universal search for God that exists within humanity. But this is imposing a theological and supernatural explanation for the uniqueness of humanity, rather than a scientific one. Therefore, the concept of theistic evolution will not do.

Personally, I am comfortable with understanding that God created the heavens and the earth, and created humanity in the image the likeness of God. I am also comfortable with the scientific explanations for the origins of the material world, of life, and of human beings. I see no conflict between the two, but I also see no need to create some sort of grand unified theory. Science answers the questions that theology does not, and theology answers the questions that science does not. Each can inform the other, but attempting a formal unification stifles the human element in both.

For some,It is comforting to think of science and theology as operating in two different domains, but the scriptures tell us otherwise. God is everywhere, and in everything, and upholds all things by the word of his power. Placing God into His own domain apart from science is nothing more than placing God in a box, tying that box with a pretty bow, and placing God on the shelf where we can admire Him from a distance.

This reminds me of Forest Gump’s speech at Jenny’s grave. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” To me, the answer to Forest Gump’s question about destiny and the modern question regarding creation and evolution are similar. Maybe both are happening at the same time. It’s kind of like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: when we look only at the creation ex nihilo, we miss the science; and when we look only at the science, we miss God.


Applegate, Aaron. “Feral hogs are running wild in Back Bay refuge.” PilotOnline.com. January 20, 2014. http://hamptonroads.com/2014/01/feral-hogs-are-running-wild-back-bay-refuge (accessed March 15, 2014).

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Harmon, Katherine. “When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm.” Scientific American. January 30, 2009. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-grasshoppers-go-bibl/ (accessed March 15, 2014).

Mah, Thien-Fah C., and George A. O’Toole. “Mechanisms of biofilm resistance to antibicrobial agents.” TRENDS in Microbiology 9, no. 1 (2001): 34-39.

Matin, A. C. “Biofilm Studies.” Matin Lab Home Page. n.d. http://www.stanford.edu/~amatin/MatinLabHomePage/Biofilm.htm (accessed March 15, 2014).

Montana State University. “Center for Biofilm Engineering.” What are biofilms? n.d. http://www.biofilm.montana.edu/node/2390 (accessed March 15, 2014).

—. “What are key characteristics of biofilms?” Center for Biofilm Engineering. n.d. http://www.biofilm.montana.edu/node/2410 (accessed March 15, 2014).

Proal, Amy. “Understanding Biofilms.” Bacteriality. May 26, 2008. http://bacteriality.com/2008/05/26/biofilm/ (accessed March 15, 2014).

Ross, Hugh. “Defending Concordism.” Reasons to Believe. July 16, 2012. http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism (accessed March 15, 2014).

St John Chrysostom. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.

Wikipedia. Biofilm. February 26, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biofilm (accessed March 15, 2014).






[1] I remember seminarians at Concordia Theological Seminary telling stories of Lutheran professor and theologian Kurt Marquart (of blessed memory) and his engrossing lectures on the subject.

[2] Three titles specifically addressing the Theory of Evolution are as follows: The Passing of Evolution – George Frederick Wright; Evolutionism in the Pulpit – Anonymous; and Decadence of Darwinism – Henry H. Beach. There are other essays which discuss evolution in a range of contexts, which are basically hostile. One that is not is Science and the Faith by James Orr, who argues for science and faith as operating in different domains.

[3] The concept of apparent age is not a scientific concept, because 1) it doesn’t really explain anything, and 2) no testable hypothesis can be derived from it. Instead, it is a theological concept used to resolve otherwise insurmountable difficulties. In this, it has much in common with the deus ex machine of literature, where a seemingly insurmountable difficulty is resolved by some unexpected intervention — like the appearance of the adults at the end of William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies.

[4] Many organisms have one genotype which can be expressed as different phenotypes, depending on conditions. For example, certain grasshopper species change their phenotype due to overcrowding, becoming locusts. Locusts look and behave differently than grasshoppers, yet are the same species. In fact, an individual grasshopper can become a locust within 2-3 hours, while the transition back to grasshopper takes several days. (Harmon 2009) Domestic swine, when released into the wild, undergo transformation into a wild hog. The phenotype for the domestic pig and the wild hog are both contained within the genotype of the swine, but the expression of the genotype changes as environmental conditions change. (Applegate 2014)

[5] Another major problem with concordism is that it uses evidence from science to explain away science. It uses the discipline of science to prove the Bible, when the scientific consensus is always subject to change as new evidence presents itself. Thus Newtonian physics gave way to quantum mechanics, and so on. Proving the Bible through science is the equivalent of building your house on shifting sand. Eventually the rains come, and then your faith is shaken.

[6] Francis Collins, the head of the Human Genome Project, and also an evangelical Christian, describes how the standard arguments for Intelligent Design —  the blood-clotting cascade, the eye, and the bacterial flagellum — all are being answered by science, which dismantles the scientific pretentions of Intelligent Design. From a scientific perspective, Intelligent Design is not scientific because it is not forward looking: it fails to predict other findings and suggest other avenues of scientific exploration. (Collins 2006, 186-193)