What is Theistic Evolution?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Theistic evolution is the idea that classical Jewish, Christian, or Muslim religious teachings about God and creation are compatible with the scientific understanding of Darwinian evolution. Theistic evolution claims that God created the universe but that he uses evolution and natural selection to generate its biological complexity. Adherents of theistic evolution vary in the degree to which they postulate intervention by God -- some might say he intervenes personally to create new types of species, others that he just set the initial conditions and lets things run pretty much on their own. Terms largely synonymous with theistic evolution include "Christian Darwinism" and "Evolutionary Creationism."

Theistic evolution began to gain popularity after Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was accepted by the scientific community.
Theistic evolution began to gain popularity after Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was accepted by the scientific community.

Though theistic evolution has gained popularity only with the introduction and adoption of Charles Darwin's theories on evolution and natural selection, it is based on the older idea that the creation story in the book of Genesis is allegorical rather than literal. This concept appears in the Christian writings of St. Augustine (4th century) and the Jewish writings of Philo of Alexandria (1st century), Maimonides (12th century) and Gersonides (13th century). Modern adherents of theistic evolution point out that the Bible was written in a pre-scientific age for the purpose of spiritual instruction, and it would be a mistake to take it as scientifically literal. Other Christians and Jews disagree and argue that the creation story in Genesis should be taken literally, with man created on the sixth day of the universe's existence.

There are many Christian, Jewish, and Islamic denominations that are accepting of or at least neutral towards biological evolution. One example would be the Roman Catholic Church -- Darwinian evolutionary theory is commonly taught in Catholic schools. However, the Catholic Church has been somewhat vague about its positions in official pronouncements. Of the four major denominations of Judaism (Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), three accept theistic evolution, with parts of one, Orthodox Judaism, especially ultra-Orthodox Judaism, rejecting it. There is great debate on theistic evolution within Orthodox Judaism, where many recognize the Talmud as scientific truth. In Islam, theistic evolution is accepted among the more liberal camps.

Though there are thousands of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scientists who believe in theistic evolution, no amount of arguing or persuading is likely to convince the millions of believers that regard Genesis as a historical and factual scientific account of the creation of the earth. The diverse interpretations of Genesis used by these believers can be found in our articles on Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@croydon - I think people should be allowed to believe whatever they want.

But I also think that god doesn't exist. Full stop.

I think gods were invented as a way to explain the workings of nature, and then when we got to the point where people were gathering into clans and tribes someone realized saying "because god said so" was a good method of controlling folks.

I think these sorts of ideas, like theistic evolution, is just people inching their way forward to a place they've never been. A place without a god. And the sooner they do that, the better, to my mind. Religion has done some awful things in this world.


@pastanaga - I suppose I've always thought it was actually making God seem smaller to say that he must have created the world in six days like that.

The idea that he or she, or it, somehow knew the whole of existence, including the fact that I am writing this now, back before the big bang happened and arranged it all to occur... now that's power. That's creativity. That's something awesome.

But then the people who try to argue that evolution doesn't exist almost always seem to believe in quite a petty god who cares far too much about what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms.

I prefer to think of a god that really does exist everywhere, all through space and all through time. I don't think something that large would be interested in nitpicking over every little sin.


I was raised Catholic although I would call myself more agnostic now, but I've always been pleased with the fact that the Catholic church doesn't seem to dispute the theory of evolution.

My mother teaches at a Catholic school and she has never felt like there was any pressure on her to introduce the Genesis stories as complete fact, rather than allegory.

I suppose we do subscribe to the idea that the bibles were written by people who could not have possibly understood the way the universe and the world actually came into being. So, if they are describing that act, they would have to be doing it in metaphor.

And as an agnostic I suppose I think theistic evolution is possible. I absolutely think evolution exists, but I don't think its existence disapproves the existence of God.

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