We don’t have to wonder if Paul would have argued against evolutionists—because Acts reveals the surprising answer.
We often get “what if” questions that really do not prove fruitful for discussion. After all, “what ifs” are merely speculation.
But this time I was fascinated by a question: would Paul argue against evolutionists? If we jump back to Paul and consider his missionary journeys, sermons, and epistles, he saw a great number of people and surely encountered a great number of beliefs. Taking a closer look at the Scriptures, one verse specifically “jumped” out at me, a verse that is rarely considered:
Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. (Acts 17:18)
In the greater context, we find Paul forced into a debate with Epicureans and Stoics. In fact, because they disagreed with him, they take him to Mars Hill (the Areopagus) to defend his views in front of the whole crowd of philosophers. So Paul masterfully begins his defense, which has gone on to become the basis for creation evangelism.
The specific thing that grabbed me in this passage is the word Epicureans. Most readers skim past this with the basic understanding that this group of people was obviously not Christian and held to some other views. Though this is true, it is only the half of it.
The Epicureans were the evolutionists of the day! They typically held to a belief derived from Epicurus that there were no gods that intervened in the world. They believed that these gods, like men, were made of matter and that over long ages atoms, the basic component of all matter, gave rise to life and that life gave rise to higher life such as mankind.
Sound familiar? It should because in its basic form their beliefs mimic the evolutionary worldview of today. Of course, there are some differences from the modern views of evolution (Lamarckian, traditional Darwinian, Neo-Darwinian, and so on1), but this is likely the first time an evolutionary worldview held any prominence with a group of people (from around 300 BC).
The materialistic Epicureans were known for their argument against God (and alleged gods) using the problem of evil:
God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak—and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful—which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?2
Even today, evolutionists try to use this claim without realizing that Christ himself addressed it:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24–30)
The existence of evil is no surprise to Christians, and God explains this in the Bible. In Genesis 3, God explains the origin of evil—and its final demise at the end of Revelation 20.
God will destroy evil just as he has said in numerous places, but it will happen at the time appointed by God (harvest), not on the timing or desires of humanity—as the Epicureans tried to force upon God (i.e., if God doesn’t do it now, then he can’t exist). God is not subject to man, but man to God.
In the same manner, God could have created everything in one second, but selected six days for the benefit and pattern of our work week (Exodus 20:11). So God has an appointed time for the elimination of evil for the benefit of man.3
But consider how the Epicureans would answer the question, “On what basis, in your Epicurean worldview, does evil exist?” They must borrow from the biblical concept of evil to argue against the God of the Bible! So they refute themselves by posing the very thing they believe refutes the existence of God!
You can see why the Epicureans opposed Paul! They didn’t want God to exist, and they did not want him to be the Creator. Rather, they believed that people ultimately came from matter.
Paul responded to these claims right from the start. In Acts 17:24, Paul defines God as the “God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth.” He refutes the Epicurean ideas that a relational Creator God does not exist and that there is a spiritual realm, refuting their materialistic thinking.
Then Paul says that God “does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.” He refutes the belief that God is limited to materials (idols), and this is proper, since God is spirit (John 4:24).4
Paul explains the true origin of life and refutes that atoms came together to form life of their own accord.
Next, Paul says God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” Paul explains the true origin of life and refutes that atoms came together to form life of their own accord. But notice how Paul actually goes further in a presuppositional argument here. If the Epicureans start with matter, where did the matter come from? Paul reveals that God created it (“everything”). Paul, through the beginning of verse 29, continues to explain that all people come from one person (one blood) and that person came about as a result of God. This explanation refuted their views of evolution and established God as the special Creator of mankind.
In the rest of verse 29 and into 30, Paul reiterates his devastating critique of their materialistic understanding of God. Paul also points out that mankind is really acting as the ultimate authority by worshipping man-made gods when he says, “we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked.” Then Paul gives the call to repent and presents the gospel.
Paul did not compromise his stand on Genesis (alluding to Genesis 1–11), which he used as the foundation for understanding the gospel when he spoke at Mars Hill in front of the Epicureans, Stoics, and others. He did not encourage them to mix some of the evolutionary ideas the Epicureans were espousing with the Bible, but told them to repent.
So, if Paul were around today, would he argue against the evolutionists? Well, he did!
If you are reading this and not sure what to think about Genesis and how it relates to the gospel, please take some time to read the article "What Does It Mean to Be “Saved”?"