Evolutionary Thought and Spiritualism

Evolutionary Thought and Spiritualism

Darwin’s original evolutionary idea has itself evolved significantly over the years

Kwabena Donkor

The Darwinian/neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has had a sweeping influence on contemporary thought. Its influence on the sciences has spilled beyond biology to chemistry, geology, physics, and engineering. In the humanities, it provides the model for understanding historical, social, and political change.

This theory has also influenced religion, but there the relationship has been less than friendly, since it makes claims that stand in direct conflict with the teaching of some of the major world religions. Hence, “despite the long theological dialogue with evolutionary theory, many people continue to view evolution as inherently antitheistic and inseparably wedded to a worldview that denies God and objective morality.”1 In Christianity, the flashpoint has frequently been the idea of creation, the notion that reality as we know it has its cause in the activity of a creator God. The debate, then, centers on issues regarding origins.

As important as the theory’s impact on issues of origins is, there are equally pertinent issues regarding eschatology in evolutionary thinking. More specifically, evolutionary thought has impacted contemporary spiritualism. The Bible predicts an intense period of spiritualistic activities as the world’s history draws to a close, and evolutionary thinking seems to provide the needed framework for these phenomena.


Two Popular Contemporary Themes

Evolution and spirituality are two topics that receive considerable scholarly and popular attention in contemporary culture. As to the influence of evolutionary thinking on both science and the humanities, recent polling in America, for example, shows that higher education consistently correlates with belief in evolution. “In the general population, 46 per cent of Americans believe that God created humans just as they are about 10,000 years ago, but only 25 per cent of people with a postgraduate degree believe this.”2 Equally significant is a CBS 2005 study, showing that a majority of Americans believe that it is possible to accept evolution while believing in God. Only 29 percent rejected the claim.3 The story is not significantly different in the popular media, where evolution is roundly presented as the truth.

Regarding spirituality, several authors have noted contemporary Western culture’s fascination with the subject. Christopher Partridge writes extensively on the phenomenon of occulture, a term coined to depict the situation in which “Western societies, while becoming increasingly secular on one level are also permeated by a vast reservoir of spiritual ideas, beliefs, and practices drawn from a variety of traditions and places.”4

Others, such as James A. Herrick, write about a New Religious Synthesis that has been occurring for the last three centuries, blending strands of religious thought and spawning in the United States alone between 1,000 and 2,000 new religious movements in the 20th century. There is also a rise of “an eclectic mix of religious and spiritual ideas, beliefs and practices” at the level of popular belief, notes Wade Clark Roof, providing as evidence the “widespread belief in angels and reincarnation; the appeal of religious and quasi-religious shrines, retreat centers, and theme parks; interest in metaphysical and theosophical teachings; prosperity theology and ‘possibility thinking’; and large proportions of Americans reporting mystical experiences.”5

It is legitimate to ask why the focus appears to have shifted to spirituality. Typically, spiritualism is connected with the belief that the living can conduct conversations with the spirits of the deceased, while spirituality addresses the concern of human beings with their spiritual relationship to the cosmos. But the connection between contemporary spirituality and spiritualism becomes immediately apparent when one recalls that modern spiritualism arose in the United States at the end of the 1840s as part of the larger culture’s effort to reconcile science and religion. In the 19th century in the United States and Europe, the intersection of matter and spirit had been explored in experiments with mesmerism.

Since the 1960s, there has been a revival of spiritualism under the banner of what is called “synthetic spiritualities,” such as the New Age Movement. And it is precisely in its new garb of contemporary spirituality that spiritualism draws close to evolution. Ellen G. White took notice that “spiritualism teaches ‘that man is the creature of progression; that it is his destiny from his birth to progress, even to eternity, toward the Godhead,’”6 thereby seeing the connection between evolution and spiritualism. True to their roots in modern spiritualism, the new spiritualities seek to construct a worldview that integrates and harmonizes science with religion. Evolutionary thought has contributed to this constructive effort, and thereby forged an alliance between evolutionary thinking and spiritualism.


 Spiritualism and the End Time

The Book of Revelation is the main apocalyptic writing in the New Testament and thus provides the natural place to look for end-time phenomena. The book’s insights on spiritualism are set in the context of an overall eschatological conflict of cosmic proportions between good and evil, God and the devil. A key aspect of the devil’s strategy in the conflict is the use of imitations and counterfeits designed to deceive God’s faithful followers. For example, the divine Trinity introduced at the beginning of the book (Rev. 1:4, 5) has its satanic counterpart in the middle of the book (Revelation 12 and 13) consisting of the dragon or Satan, the sea beast, and the beast out of the earth. Similarly, an imitation of the lamb is also found in the sea beast.

Against this backdrop are found evil powers such as the dragon (Revelation 12), unclean spirits (16:13), and demons (18:2) as well as evil activities such as sorcery (9:21; 18:23), signs and wonders (13:13; 16:14; 19:20), and deception (2:20; 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 20:3, 8, 10).


The Dragon

The great red dragon, the brain behind all the evil powers, is also called the serpent of old, the devil, and Satan. The dragon deceives the world directly as well as through his ally, the land beast (12:9; 13:14), in association with an unclean and demonic spirit coming out of his mouth (16:13). This is going to occur in the last stages of earth’s history, namely in connection with the seven last plagues. The depiction of the dragon as serpent requires a brief comment. The evil horses of the sixth trumpet have their power in their mouths and in their tails, which are like serpents (9:19). Since in both Egyptian and Persian religions, snakes had demonic force, the presence of a snake at the tip of the tail “injuring” people suggests a universal picture of demonic activity.


Unclean Spirits and Demons

Unclean spirits are mentioned in Revelation 16:13 and 18:2, where they are connected to Babylon. The description of the drying up of Babylon’s Euphrates in Revelation 16:13 is part of the sixth plague, and in Revelation 18:2 demons and unclean spirits inhabit Babylon. Revelation 16:14 depicts these unclean spirits as demons that perform miraculous but counterfeit signs, messengers with a “deceptive message” whose aim is to lead people into worshiping false gods by means of their counterfeit miracles. “For the end-time, this would point to a strong role for spiritualism unifying the world for a common cause.”7


Evil Activities

Prominent among the evil activities occurring toward the end of time is sorcery. The word family for this activity occurs strongly in the Book of Revelation (four times) with the only use elsewhere in the New Testament found in Galatians 5:20. Lexical definitions of the term associate it closely with magic. Magic is the science of the occult, the art of bringing about results beyond human power by superhuman agencies. Revelation 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; and 22:15 evidence widespread practice of sorcery at the end time. Closely connected to sorcery are the workings of signs and wonders associated with both the false prophet and the land beast (19:20), and with demonic spirits (16:14). Ultimately, the practice of sorcery and miraculous signs and wonders in Revelation has the goal of deception. Thus the great signs that the land beast performs (13:14) deceive the inhabitants of the earth and are mentioned again in Revelation 19:20. These signs are described in terms of occult activities.


Evolution and the Occult

It is certainly impossible to spell out in great detail the forms that the Book of Revelation’s predicted occult phenomena might take in the time of the end. But contemporary evolutionary thinking clearly has a noteworthy affinity to the occult. This contemporary connection between evolution and the occult has a long, checkered history that cannot be fully developed here.

But to give a needed brief account: Darwinian evolution arose out of the ashes of a long, deconstructive frontal attack on the Christian worldview. Renaissance scholars such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) were known for their deep interest in occult Greek and Egyptian teachings contained in mystical works. Among the emphases in mystical teaching that filtered through Western culture and shaped popular thinking about the supernatural were the following: a pantheistic view that saw divinity in everything and an unspeakable and indescribable view of divinity that made mysticism the highest spiritual experience.8 Equally relevant was the mystical view of humankind as the product of a long spiritual evolutionary process.

Together with a developing interest in Kabbalistic teaching, there began a curiosity in a mystical/magical worldview, which in turn received a boost from Neoplatonic philosophy already becoming influential among European humanists and intellectuals. Neoplatonism taught that even spirits could sometimes reveal the secrets of the cosmos to the diligent seeker of truth. This intermingling of science and magic, fueled by Neoplatonism, became evident in the flourishing interest in astrology and alchemy during the 16th century. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were key figures in these developments.

One significant consequence of the blending of Neoplatonism and science was the development of a sense of a primitive core of all religions, and a search for a universally harmonious theological system. Hence the basis for religious pluralism was born, and with it the subsequent development, during the modern period, of biblical criticism through the influence of such persons as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704), and David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874).


Evolution and Pantheism

In the wake of biblical criticism during the modern period, the biblical view of origins was one of the first casualties. Following modernity’s critique of the Bible and its worldview of creation, fall, and redemption, it was evident that a new explanation of the human condition would be needed. Charles Darwin’s evolutionary thoughts in The Origin of Species(1859) provided a watershed moment in the West’s understanding of life’s origins and development.

Darwin’s early defenders had a clear spiritual vision for evolution. T. H. Huxley (1825-1895), Francis Galton (1822-1911), and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) all read into Charles Darwin’s theory a humanly directed evolutionary spiritual future for the human race. T. H. Huxley’s grandson, Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975), carried the religious implications of Darwin’s theory much further with his “transhumanism” project. Here, humans will control the evolutionary process to transcend themselves and create a new humanity capable of enhanced aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual experiences. Spiritually, Huxley’s transhumanism was “to teach people the techniques of achieving spiritual experience (after all, one can acquire the technique of dancing or tennis, so why not of mystical ecstasy or spiritual peace?).”9

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), with whom Julian Huxley corresponded, is deemed to be perhaps the 20th century’s greatest advocate of spiritual evolution. His interest in both science and religion led him to pursue relentlessly a program in which “religion and evolution should neither be confused nor divorced. They are destined to form one single continuous organism, in which their respective lives prolong, are dependent on, and complete one another, without being identified or lost. . . . Since it is in our age that the duality has become so markedly apparent, it is for us to effect a synthesis.”10

Teilhard’s commitment to promote a new understanding of holiness after World War I meant for him that Christians needed to learn to recognize and revere the sacredness of matter and the cosmos. As he saw it, “the experience of the cosmos is a necessary dimension of human experience that must be integrated into the Christian faith.”11 The core of Teilhard’s mysticism is a “communion with God through earth,” based on a new synthesis in which “the human being is united with the Absolute, with God, by means of the unification of the universe.”12

David Lewin observes, “Rather than supposing that the spiritual life supersedes the material, the historical and the experiential dimensions of being, Teilhard points to their confluence in a unity that establishes the irreducible meaning of every moment and every place. God is thus all in all.”13 Essentially, we arrive in a universe in which there is only one substance, which is at once God and nature, body, and spirit (or matter and energy). Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) include the distinguished list of thinkers who embraced some form of monistic, pantheistic thinking.


Evolution and Spiritual Consciousness Today

The monistic, pantheistic influence of the modern period set the stage for the new face of spiritualism—the new spirituality. The pivotal role of evolution in this process has not been missed.

“Synthetic spiritualities, such as those found in the New Age movement, seek to construct a world-view that integrates and harmonizes science and religion. Evolution becomes an overarching concept that incorporates the sense of deep time and imbues the development of a global spiritual consciousness as an evolutionary advance for the cosmos. Many here are prompted by the visionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin. . . . Others in the New Age movement seek to integrate the mystery articulated in Hinduism and Buddhism with advanced discoveries in physics, such as indeterminacy and quantum theory.”14

An amazing confluence of evolutionary thought, Eastern mysticism, and physics is what has been unfolding before our eyes. A few quotes will illustrate the point. Paul Davies, a well-known physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist remarks:

“In the first quarter of this [twentieth] century two momentous theories were proposed: the theory of relativity and quantum theory. From them sprang most of twentieth-century physics. But the new physics soon revealed more than simply a better model of the physical world. Physicists began to realize that their discoveries demanded a radical reformulation of the most fundamental aspects of reality. They learned to approach their subject in totally unexpected and novel ways that seem to turn common sense on its head and find closer accord with mysticism than materialism.”15

Similarly, James Herrick refers to scientists who believe that when physicists and astronomers probe the deep recesses of the universe, they find an indefinite and apparently infinite field of energy—a vacuum or void. Quantum physicists who speak of this void or vacuum see it as similar to the Buddhist concept of Sunyata and conclude: “The ineffable vacuum or void is, moreover, the ground of all true religious experience. . . . The void, then, is that ultimate and divine ground of being experienced by mystics.”16 Herrick quotes scientists Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall who conclude that the vacuum has the same characteristics as consciousness, and therefore, believe that religion’s perennial question of who humans are has received a scientific answer: “Each one of us is an excitation of the vacuum, an individual being on the sea of Being.”17 Furthermore, from the perspective of particle physics, these two authors suggest that of the only two sorts of particles that make up the universe, bosons and fermions, the former must be the spiritual or mental particles. 



Darwin’s original evolutionary idea has evolved significantly over the years. Besides the changes within the field of biology itself that led to neo-Darwinism, evolutionary thinking has expanded to the point that it now underlies several academic disciplines in the sciences and humanities. The relationship between evolutionary thinking and physics in particular is potent. In the process, evolutionary thought has spawned a speculative, pantheistic metaphysics that sees mind, nature, and society to be one and the same. In the realm of religion, these developments have given rise to renewed interest in mysticism and spirituality, providing a new and respectable face to spiritualism.

For Christians, and Seventh-day Adventists in particular, these developments are remarkable in view of the Book of Revelation’s predicted rise in spiritualism at the time of the end. In this regard, one cannot help wondering at the near-simultaneous appearing of Darwinism, modern spiritualism, and the Advent Movement around the middle of the 19th century!


Kwabena Donkor, Ph.D., is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.



1. Keith B. Miller, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 5.
2. See Gallup poll, May 10-13, 2012: http://atheism.about.com/od/American-Beliefs-Evolution/a/Educated-Americans-Evolution-Creationism.htm. Accessed August 2015.
3. See http://atheism.about.com/od/American-Beliefs-Evolution/a/Believe-In-God-And-Evolution.htm. Accessed August 2015.
4. John Walliss, “The Re-Enchantment of the West,” Nova Religio 10 (2006):126.
5. Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 37, 38.
6. The Great Controversy, p. 554.
7. Jon Paulien, Armageddon at the Door (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2008), p. 173.
8. James A. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003), p. 40.
9. Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism,” in In New Bottles for New Wine (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), pp. 13–17.
10. Teilhard de Chardin, Writings in Time of War (London: Collins, 1968), p. 87.
11. James W. Skehan, “Exploring Teilhard’s ‘New Mysticism’: ‘Building the Cosmos,’” Ecotheology 10:1 (2005):18.
12. Ibid.
13. David Lewin, “Mysticism, Experience and the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin,” Modern Believing 49:1 (2008):36.
14. Ted Peters, “Contributions From Practical Theology and Ethics” in Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 381.
15. Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1983), p. vii.
16. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality, op cit., p. 172.
17. Ibid., p. 173.