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Romans 1:18-24 sounds like an argument from Intelligent Design to me:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

Can Romans 1:18-24 and the Theory of Evolution be reconciled? How do Christians who believe in the Theory of Evolution make sense of Paul's teleological argument? If Paul is arguing for design, isn't Paul arguing indirectly against evolution?

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    May I propose that for Christians who believe in evolution, said evolution is simply one of the tools of the designer?
    – kutschkem
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 10:32
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    This scripture would have been more appropriate with the question "Does Romans 1:18-25 pose a challenge to Christians who believe the universe was not created by God?", as it says nothing about biological evolution. But I doubt there are many such people. Commented May 2, 2023 at 14:25
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    Not sure if "belief" is a good word in the context of evolution. Maybe accepting or understanding that it is a scientific fact is better?
    – user58875
    Commented May 3, 2023 at 5:19

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Paul is indeed making a teleological argument here, but it functions somewhat differently from modern watch-maker arguments.

Paul is writing at a time when nearly everyone believed in some supernatural Being or beings; his emphasis is not proving to them that God is the Creator, but that the God with these specific attributes is the Creator. It's a discussion of the nature of God, not the nature of creation.

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Jews vs. Gentiles

Let's back up a few verses:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul is addressing the controversies between Jewish Christians & Gentile Christians circa AD 56--verse 16 is one of the principal theses he will defend at length in this epistle: the same gospel message is being offered to everyone.

One of the central disagreements in the early church was the applicability of the Law of Moses and to whom (see Acts 15). Paul will make the case later in the epistle that salvation does not come by the Law of Moses (for Jews or Gentiles); right now he's establishing that those without the Law of Moses are still accountable to God. He calls out several pagan practices in the succeeding verses; Paul indicates that these practices are still sinful--even without the Law of Moses--because Creation manifests the divine nature of God and these practices are contrary to God's nature.

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Conclusion

This passage is a teleological argument regarding the nature of the Creator. Paul does not specify the mechanisms by which the creation occurred. Proponents of guided evolution, intelligent design, creation with appearance of age, and everything in between, will find these verses consistent with the views they already hold.

Since the OP specifically asked about Christians who believe in evolution:

  • The idea that life arose without the assistance of a Creator is clearly inconsistent with this passage.
  • The idea that life arose at the direction of a Creator (even if that happened in stages) is consistent with this passage. Christians who believe in evolution do not subscribe to the implausible "chance hypotheses" of naturalism; they see evolution as a tool used by the Creator.

Acknowledging some fraction of how God ransomed the world does not invalidate the reality & power of His actions. Neither does acknowledging some portion of how God created the world invalidate that He did so.

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Genesis 1 is a much more serious challenge to evolution, so why worry about this?

But really, this passage is all about idolatry, not evolution.

This is far more evident in a modern English paraphrase, such as the New Living Translation:

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.

And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

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  • 1. "Genesis 1 is a much more serious challenge to evolution, so why worry about this?" Can you support this claim with evidence? I thought that Genesis 1 was usually explained away as metaphorical, so this is not obvious at all to me. 2. You forgot to include verse 20 in your quote, which is the most important verse actually, where Paul argues that you can infer the Creator from creation. How is that not a teleological argument?
    – user61679
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 13:54
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    "verse 20 … is the most important verse". Yes, even many atheistic astrophysicists can't help speculating there there seems to be some original design to the universe. But this question is about the Theory of Evolution, not about the creation of the universe. I really don't see how Romans 1 even relates to biological evolution, much less needs to be considered as a challenge. Genesis 1 on the other hand explicitly states that modern life forms were created quite recently. If one can easily explain away that highly significant event, then surely everything else is even easier to rationalize. Commented May 2, 2023 at 14:19
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    @mark "I thought that Genesis 1 was usually explained away as metaphorical" But why? If you start taking passages of the Bible as metaphor, where do you stop? Was Cain and Able metaphor, Noah? Moses? For as much as it appears to go again the spirit that is in this world, we must believe and worship a God who is able to create all things from nothing in the span of 6 literal days. Why limit His power? Commented May 3, 2023 at 16:23
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If we zoom in: Romans 1:18-24 aims to emphasize the invisible attributes of God as the creator. But if we also zoom out and consider the context of the chapter, it is about how human perspectives on the attributes of God and his creation can influence their life and future. Paul contrasts the possible consequences: godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:25-32) with righteousness and salvation (Romans1:16,17).

Maybe it is useful to take a perspective that makes a distinction, between (1) God the creator, and (2) it’s creation process, and (3) the realized creations. And then compare it to some more ordinary processes of creation like a potter making a pot out of clay, or an artist and his painting, and then discuss some slight variations. A simple variant is that there is a potter shaping the clay with his hand and some tools to create and realize a pot. The creator performs a direct art or technique to realize a goal. A somewhat more sophisticated variant is that a potter uses a machine that creates the pots for him. At this point, one could argue if the pots are really ‘created’ by the potter or just by the machine? One line of reasoning is that if he provided the resources and the machine, then legally/reasonably/morally the resulting products ‘the pots’ are also his creation. To Christians that believe that evolution was used as a tool, mechanism or process to develop life, this view could potentially lead to marginalizing the role of God the creator. This is essentially a variant of Newton’s “Clockmaker analogy, where God is seen as the designer and initiator of the universe, setting it in motion to function autonomously according to predetermined laws. Leibniz critiqued this view, because it diminished the role of God, and comes dangerously close to removing or forgetting about the initial creator. Some might start to see the pot-making machine or ‘evolution’ as a given natural mechanism and equate the process, or the machine to the creator For example Spinoza argues that God and Nature are identical. From such an abstract concept of God to seeing nature as an inanimate collection of random stochastic processes which have no objective or purpose then only seems a small step. But this step can have large consequences.

If we zoom out and consider the context, especially the following verses, it is all about the consequences of beliefs about creation. Paul mentions the attributes of God the Creator in the framework of contrasting righteousness with wickedness. The cause and processes related to Nature or creation are not just some philosophical or metaphysical topic here, Paul argues that beliefs about creation or God, influence the actions, life, and future of people. Paul contrasts righteousness, salvation and life:

Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. A7 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, e just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

against the wrath of God against godlessness and wickedness, suppression, foolishness, dishonorable passions, homosexuality (1:27), evil, greed, and murder.

Romans 1:29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

So is this a challenge to Christians who believe in the Theory of Evolution? Maybe it depends on the consequences. Is it essential for life or salvation, to know the mechanisms by which God performed creation? Or is it essential for life and salvation to act righteously instead of godlessly and wicked? The difference between believing in “God” or “Evolution” or “God and Evolution” is not really as essential as the difference in the consequences of these different beliefs. Was life created by a creator with a purpose, or is it an ‘emerged’ coincidence of some inanimate nature? If it was created, then: what is the purpose? What are the attributes of the Creator? These are maybe more important questions, than details about which methods the creator used.

When you look at a painting, and you ‘zoom in’ one could analyze the chemicals of the paint, maybe even the exact order and the movement of how the brush strokes with what paint mixtures were applied on the canvas. And one could have a lot of scientific debates about different theories on possible techniques, paint-making processes, and so forth. But if in all of that, you miss to perceive the emotions and message the artist intended to express, you might miss out on the big picture.

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    The real danger of Evolution is that accepting it eliminates the necessity of a giver of life. Commented May 7, 2023 at 14:35
  • This is an excellent post. I’m saving into my library✅
    – Kristopher
    Commented May 7, 2023 at 15:21
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Q: Is Romans 1:20 a challenge to the Theory of Evolution?

First off, what is meant by "evolution"? Organisms change over time; the evidence for this is, by any sane and rational definition, undeniable. One needs only look at modern dog breeds¹ to see this. No one to my knowledge denies Natural Selection, including those that believe God Created all things — Heavens, Earth, all plants and animals according to their kinds, and humans — circa 4,000 BC.

On the other hand, dogs are still dogs; they reproduce "after their kind" (Genesis 1). When lay people speak of "evolution", they often mean the supposition that all life originated from non-life and diversified through common ancestors, i.e. "Common Descent".

(¹ Many specific breeds of dogs show remarkable changes just in the last hundred years. There are many other example of rapid adaptation and diversification, and the variety seen among all animal kinds, including among humans, is a testament to how much change has occurred since Creation. Dogs just happen to be one of the most easily recognized examples.)

Let's try again:

Q: Is Romans 1:20 a challenge to the Theory of Common Descent?

A: Yes.

One of the groups that Paul likely encountered in his travels to Greece were the Epicureans, who believed that all worlds, and all life, "was the result of a fortuitous concourse of appropriate atoms" (Lucretius). Like modern believers in Common Descent, Epicurean theory requires belief in a remarkable series of coincidences. Paul's argument in Romans is, simply, that such beliefs are simply not credible, and that, moreover, this lack of credibility is self-evident.

Strictly speaking, Paul is not attacking the Epicurean (or Darwinian) belief directly, but is rather is pointing out that those who accept such arguments are "without excuse".

Many atheists claim that there is "no evidence" of a Creator. Paul, in Romans 1:20, tells us in no uncertain terms that such people are willfully blind; they "suppress the truth" that "is plain to them" and "clearly perceived"; they are "futile in their thinking" and "fools" who have "exchanged the truth about God for a lie".

2 Peter 3 also warns against such "scoffers" who believe that "all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation" and who "deliberately overlook [the] fact that [...] the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished" (i.e. Noah's Flood). Elsewhere we learn that "God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11).

What, then, of Christians that believe in Common Descent? If God directed "evolution", then Romans 1 might not be an argument directly against Common Descent... although 2 Peter poses a serious objection, along with every other place where Genesis 1-11 is taken to be historical, including by Jesus Himself.

It needs to be noted that most Christians believe that only belief in Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, Paul challenges us to not disregard the evidence that is all around us... and that evidence says not only that life is designed, but that "the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished".

On the one hand, we have claims that are ultimately rooted in God-denial, and are full of scientific contradictions. On the other, we have the plain reading of Scripture and mountains of evidence that support such a reading. Paul challenges us all, atheist and Christian alike, to open our eyes to that which is "clearly perceived", and to be skeptical of the foolishness and futile thinking of those who "exchanged the truth about God for a lie".

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