On Darwin’s Obituary and Some Wanting to Invite Him Back to Church


Churches around the nation, as we learned in an AP story this past weekend, were going to mark off a Sunday to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution and how we can get Darwin and the Church to come together. I am marking the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth by carefully reading about his death. More specifically, I am reading his obituary. I think you can learn more about the mark of a man by the end of his life rather than by his beginning. My concern is not whether we should invite Darwin back to church but whether he would come? It seems to me that we may be fooling ourselves in this unless we are prepared for some wholesale changes in what we state in our creeds and what we read in our Bibles. But I say again, let us learn from what was said by those who lived when he lived.

For instance, the passing of Charles Darwin was noted in the famous obituary pages of the London Times with these words:

“One must seek back to Newton or even Copernicus to find a man whose influence on human thought and methods of looking at the universe has been as radical (19 April 1882).”

No one can deny the truth of that. The editors of Great Victorian Lives: An Era in Obituaries (London: Times Books, 2007)  added, “…Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection has shaken the scriptural foundations of nineteenth-century Christianity.” I cannot disagree with that either. Darwin’s inquiries and conclusions, some of which may be found in the works of Kant and even his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, challenged the creation teaching of the Church. This was simply the teaching of the Bible, namely, that Mankind was created by God in His own image (p. 245). 

Perhaps no work of Darwin’s is more disturbing than The Descent of Man (1871). In this book the reader learns that man is, according to Darwin, descended from an ape, at least in some stage of his evolution. It was one thing to consider the evolution (subtle changes of appearances that occur within breeding, given mutations and selection and so forth, over several generations) of a species “according to their kind.” This certainly is not outside of Biblical truth. But to suppose that Man was not created by God as a Man but rather evolved from apes caused Mr. Darwin to have to defend himself. And so Darwin wrote, 

“For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey who braved his dreaded enemy to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon who, descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstition.” 

Darwin sounds more like a philosopher than a scientist at this point. But let us take these words as they are. Darwin’s heroic little monkey does seem much more civilized than ancient Man. Christianity never said that Man was civilized. Indeed, St. Paul, in Romans chapter one, says just the opposite. We read in chapter three, “There are none who seek after God.” The truth of the matter is that a truly Biblical anthropology asserts that not only did God create Man, but also that Man fell into sin and that fall was so pervasive the whole order on the earth was affected. Into this ruin, Man rejected the very conscience God had given him in order to sin. That sin, that mindset, that predisposition to sinning, led to Mr. Darwin’s dark view of his ancestry. We cannot choose our relatives, as they say. But Mr. Darwin wanted to. And I can’t blame him. 

A rose is still a rose by any other name. And a monkey is still a monkey, though Mr. Darwin doesn’t think so. We understand the situation as Jesus taught it and as St. Paul taught it and as the Old Testament prophets taught it. We know that there has been a Creation and a Fall. This is where Darwin and the Church part ways. His famous voyage to Galápagos led him to worship the creation rather than the Creator. His much heralded laboratory work missed the evidences of the fall. And we know that there has been a need for redemption from this fall. This is the longing inside of us, the existential ache that burdens everyman. Now Redemption has come and is at work in the world (through the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross and then His rising by the power of God) and so we are no longer bound to look at life or even our own species with embarrassment.  If we could get Darwin back to church this is what we must say to him. Nothing less. But we could say more.

Through Jesus (and not through faith in a system which started out well enough but went amuck when Mr. Darwin and his followers began to project their theories of genes and adaptation and the like upon Man and worse, upon God) old superstitions can be done away with. We are left to marvel at those who embrace Jesus Christ. For they leave old ways, and follow a new path of peace and joy with a nobility which even the old baboon and the courageous monkey could not imitate. We see that in individuals which Mr. Darwin would have known in Down, Kent, and we see that in entire cultures, including his own. 

Britain was a most embarrassing place to live prior to its transformation by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In each of its kingdoms: Mercia, Northumberland, East Anglican, Essex, (Mr. Darwin’s own) Kent, Sussex and Wessex one could witness the very inhuman, ungodly things that Mr. Darwin so, rightfully, detested. St. Aiden established Lindisfarne and preached the Gospel to the English sometime in the 500s. He was followed by the more decisive work of the missionary Augustine, whose Gospel preaching converted the King of Kent and established Christian leadership at Canterbury and Rochester around 597. The detestable in Man did not evolve into something better, but was suddenly, quite amazingly and most wonderfully, created then and there. It was observable, measurable, and recorded (as Beda Venerabilis did thereafter), which is something that I think scientists prefer in a study. 

All of this simply reveals the fact that Darwin (and his supporters) and believers in the supremacy of the Scriptures are talking about the same thing, but that thing is not science. As Mr. Darwin sticks to observing creation, we applaud him. As he applies that philosophically, for which he is remembered, we distance ourselves from him. At least we say,

“No, you are wrong. The monkey is not nobler than the Man, despite Man’s sin. We believe not only that God created the world, but also that a terrible thing happened in the world, which explains the things you detest in Man. But even more gloriously, we believe that a Man, Christ Jesus, has come. He is at once God and Man, born of a Virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilot (observable history), was crucified, dead and buried, descended to the place of the dead, and this Man rose again from the dead. He was seen by over 500, many who remained alive as the witnesses began to propagate their observations all across the Roman Empire, even to the highest places in that culture. We believe that this God-Man offers new life, eternal life to all who will trust in Him and repent of trust in self or in old superstitions. We believe that whoever calls upon Him will be saved. We believe that this Christ who ascended into the heavens, seen by men, will return again, to be witnessed by all. We believe that there will be a resurrection from the dead and a gathering up of His eternal flock in the sky, in order to come with Him, as a wedding party, to see both the old order pass away and a new heavens and a new earth.”

Now. What is nobler than this faith? It has produced the greatest humanitarian movements in the history of the world. It has produced the art of Albrecht Dürer and the music of Bach. It has produced the most glorious architecture and it has produced benevolent kings and happy subjects who are free to explore and discover, even as Mr. Darwin did.

I finished reading the obituary of Charles Darwin thinking on these things. And as the Church is supposed to be bringing Darwin and the Church together this weekend I think that Mr. Darwin might be amused to think that we bothered. He probably would be content to stay in his study and work on the heredity of, say, the bees of southern England. Perhaps he would give an interview to say that he found bees much more interesting than people. And the church bells would ring in Down, the Gospel would be read, and those who respond to the reading with “Praise be to Thee, Lord Christ!” would be as far from Darwin’s laboratory then as they and as we are from his radical philosophies today. 

Sometimes it is best to leave the distance as it is, and rather than chasing after the approval of a science which is at odds with itself over evolution, after all of these years, just let the dead bury the dead.

I put the obituary of Darwin down and tried to imagine what in the world could we add to what was said. And after all of these years I couldn’t imagine a thing, except to say that Darwin’s devolved body remains undoubtedly dead while Christ’s gloriously resurrected body remains verifiably alive. And because of that I would advise, in the future, to  just go ahead and have church without Darwin.


Copyright ©2009 Michael A. Milton

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About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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