This is the first of a series of blogposts exploring theological and philosophical reflections on the new creation. The format is the following: each week, we’ll have one blogpost (of about 800 words) where an author pitches a new, thought-provoking idea. The other participants as well as the wider internet community can then join in and write comments, to which the author can respond. We hope many readers will participate! The next weeks on Thursdays we will have essays by Trent Dougherty, Kevin Timpe, Beth Seacord and John Schneider.
This week, we have Cara Wall-Scheffler, Associate Professor of Biology at Seattle Pacific University. She considers whether there would still be evolution in the new creation.
As a biological anthropologist, I am interested in human adaptations and variation that chart the evolution of Homo sapiens. In particular, I see to explain how human characteristics (e.g. long limbs, pelvis shape, sexual dimorphism) emerged within different geographical areas and ecosystems.
As a Wesleyan, I am further interested in a theology of sanctification; that is, how, through attentive interactions with the Holy Spirit, faithful humans might form a more ‘in tune’ relationship with the Creator, with other creatures, and especially with one another. Because Scripture claims and the Church confesses that a sovereign God loves and cares for every creature that God as made (e.g. Job 38-42), and because this world is filled with organisms that continue to evolve, I see no reason why this dynamic interaction between the Creator and the created will not continue to exist in New Creation.
Because I understand Scripture’s narrative of First Creation’s relationship with God as ‘very good’ but clearly not ‘perfect’ in a static sense (so Genesis 2:18-20), I hypothesize that New Creation will be a place—an ‘ecosystem’—in which creatures will continue to evolve beyond which a world that already has evoked God’s joy and good pleasure. Furthermore, Scripture claims that New Creation will occupy the same “geographical area” as the First Creation. Whilst an apocalypse of full salvation decisively marks the transition between the two, New Creation continues from the First Creation.
In this regard, I propose the following research question: what will characterize the evolution of Homo sapiens in New Creation?
In the First Creation, nearly anything that gets us something ‘good’ comes with a potential for disarray: mutations lead to novelty and new strategies, but can also lead to disease and death; multi-cellularity leads to complexity and complex functioning, but also the potential for cancer; bacteria make human life possible, but can also take away human life. Since the expectation of New Creation is that the Creator will turn off this potential for dysfunction, a future intention already disclosed in Christ’s resurrection, what might be some of the mechanisms for keeping what is good for the world but getting rid of the bad?
Importantly, from a biological perspective this tension between good and bad is occasioned from the relationship between an organism and its niche. For example, a potentially deleterious allele like that for sickled hemoglobin provides an advantage in a niche that contains Plasmodium. An allele that increases a person’s interest in exploring and moving around—likely detrimental if that person is required to sit in a chair all day!—provides an advantage in a niche that has non-predictable or sparse food and water. In this way, many of the diseases and concerns we have today are caused by mismatches between some alleles and our environment and niche. We might suppose, then, that in New Creation, there will be no mismatch, and each person’s genome will be expressed to its utmost potential.
What about the other potential dysfunction that clearly are not from any niche mismatch? I see a few mechanisms that might act to buffer the potential for disease and decay. John Polkinghorne envisions a new form of matter, one that is better able to keep entropy in check. This seems reasonable, because I do not think that entropy will completely cease to exist. (According to the Gospels, Jesus did eat food after all following his resurrection!) Matter, Polkinghorne suggests, with “strong organizing principles” would aid in keeping telomeres from being lost, chromosomes functioning, and neurons firing. Additionally, canalization mechanisms, which organisms currently use to buffer the problems caused by both genetic and environmental perturbations during development, would provide the ideal mechanisms for maintaining cellular functioning even in the face of mutation.
However, neither of these two mechanisms suggests a loss of diversity, particularly at the molecular level, and in fact, by opening up niches to increase the functionality of creaturely flourishing, an increased amount of diversity would plausibly exist in New Creation. Additionally, the restoration of Creation as laid out in Isaiah 65-66, Jeremiah 31-33, Hebrews 8-12, and also 1 Corinthians 15 (and related Pauline texts) suggests that many parts of New Creation will be recognizable to us based on our experiences in the First Creation, including critical phenomena such as birthing new life (Isaiah 65:20). It is then reasonable to predict based on present human experience that since there will be babies in New Creation, they will be born into their diverse heritage, thus changing the allelic frequency of the population. It is also unlikely to see selection at play, at least among humans (hopefully later offerings to this dialogue will play out other creatures for us), but other mechanisms of evolution, including mutation, migration, and drift, will all potentially be at work in New Creation.