The End of Christianity: A Review by Stephen Ashley Blake
Today's entry was written by Stephen Ashley Blake. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.
Introduction by Darrel Falk
Several months ago, I read two books recently put out by Senior Fellows at the Discovery Institute. I have already commented on the first, Signature in the Cell, by Stephen Meyer. Although I was disappointed with it, I found the second, The End of Christianity, by William Dembski, intriguing. My theological background is Wesleyan. Theological scholars in the Wesleyan tradition are rarely troubled by death before the Fall. It’s a non-issue for most Wesleyans, but it is an issue for many evangelicals. In fact, this one concept may be the most significant barrier blocking many evangelicals from accepting an old earth and coming to grips with the reality of evolution. Dembski, in this book, leaves the realm of math and biology. This time he dons his theological hat and lays out a view that ought to generate much conversation among those troubled by death before the Fall.
BioLogos exists to show that mainstream science and Christianity can exist in harmony. Bill Dembski has written a book that may help many theological conservatives see that the two need not occupy separate realms. Although theologically I resonate more with the sorts of things that N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, and Peter Enns have said in previous BioLogos postings, we seek ways of fostering conversation. Bill Dembski’s book ought to foster conversation.
My friend and lay advisor, Steve Blake, has written two fine posts for Science and the Sacred that describe his journey to harmony between faith and science. Steve, a highly informed conservative layperson, explains why The End of Christianity stands to impact and generate substantive discussion among his fellow evangelicals.
Review by Stephen Blake
In The Consequences of Ideas, RC Sproul writes: "We need to reconstruct the classical synthesis by which natural theology bridges the special revelation of Scripture and the general revelation of nature. Such a reconstruction could end the war between science and theology." Though a dizzying number of syntheses have been proffered in recent years, William Dembski's The End of Christianity is a watershed in Christian theology, a robust, landmark contribution that bridges the faith-science divide with a refreshingly high regard for biblical integrity that, as an evangelical, I find all-too-rare. In this treatise on how the records of Scripture and nature harmonize, Dembski engages in a rigorous, deeply probative, exceptionally well-reasoned discourse of the kind we're used to encountering in the church fathers, and of the sort one might wish were more prevalent today.
To set up the issue: Evangelicals have long held the Bible as asserting that all evil in the world - not only moral evil (stemming from human misdeeds) but natural evil (stemming from impersonal acts of nature) - is the result of Adam's sin against God. In this view, the earth and its living populations, as initially created, were completely free of all suffering, death, and danger until the first man succumbed to temptation and defied the will of God, an act of rebellion that brought divine chastisement upon himself, his future progeny (i.e., all of mankind), and the world over which he had been appointed master and covenant head.
Vigorously challenging this view are modern scientists, who dismiss this chronology and assert, based on a myriad of corroborative evidences from various disciplines, that life-claiming natural disasters and diseases were already present on animal-occupied earth long before the first humans existed. Many evangelicals find this not only anti-biblical, but also antithetical to the notion of a loving God who called His new creation “very good.” Today, particularly in the United States, this clash of perspectives is playing out in epic proportions, and it is into this debate that Dembski, a theologian and professor of philosophy as well as mathematician and statistician, steps engagingly.
In its opening chapters, The End of Christianity (“End” as in “purpose” OR “aim”) affirms key traditional Christian doctrines involving the origin, quality, implications, and future of natural evil: Natural evil is indeed truly evil, not merely the inevitable result of God bestowing freedom upon atoms and tectonic plates; Man is fully culpable for the presence of natural evil on earth; Beyond mere punishment, God demonstrates a loving purposefulness towards man in bringing about severe natural consequences in response to Adam’s disobedience; Still, God does not abandon us in our suffering, but commiserates with us in the person of Christ; Through Christ’s triumphant Resurrection, God has effected the ultimate vanquishment of all suffering and all evil of every stripe.
Certainly, the average evangelical would be right at home with this theology. Yet Dembski then turns to examine the two most prevalent science-faith syntheses within evangelicalism, Young- and Old-Earth Creationism, and finally dismisses both as fatally flawed on theological grounds. If, then, man is culpable for all natural evil, yet natural evil preceded the appearance of man on earth, and if both Young- and Old-Earth Creationism fail, where does the solution lie?
Enter Dembski’s theodicy, which he calls “backward causation.” He begins by challenging our core instincts about the workings of cause and effect within time, specifically our assumption that human sin cannot have caused evil in the world unless it temporally preceded it. “Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always [chronologically] precede effects? Clearly, such a Creator could act to anticipate events that have yet to happen. Moreover, those events could be the occasion (or "cause") of God's prior anticipatory action." Hence, all natural evil is indeed the direct consequence of Adam's sin (per traditional Christian theology), yet God brought these consequences to bear upon creation long before that pivotal event temporally occurred (a chronology demanded by science). He argues that we should understand the corrupting effects of the Fall retroactively: “In other words, the consequences of the Fall can also act backward into the past. Accordingly, the Fall could take place after the natural evils for which it is responsible."
Dembski points out that the Bible clearly depicts God as unbound by time, "declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done." In demonstrating the consistency of this line of thinking with Christian orthodoxy, he cites the long-held belief that "many an answered prayer requires that God have prepared the answer before the prayer was actually offered." He buttresses this point by discussing "the saving effects of the Cross, which are held to act not only forward in time but also backward. Christians have always attributed the salvation of Old Testament saints to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross at the hands of the Romans, even though Old Testament times predate Roman times by hundreds of years. In this way, an omnipotent God unbound by time makes a future event (Christ's sacrifice) the cause of an earlier event (the salvation of Old Testament saints). Likewise, an omnipotent God unbound by time can make natural evil predate the Fall and yet make the Fall the reason for natural evil." The chapters that follow compellingly flesh out this view from theological, philosophical, and scientific perspectives.
Dembski then revisits Genesis 1-3 and interprets these widely-debated chapters from the vantage point of God's eternal intentions and the non-chronologic time of His realm. What follows is an intriguing, well–reasoned examination of the need for God to relocate Adam from the fallen world-at-large to the pristine Garden of Eden ("a segregated area in which the effects of natural evil are not evident") and to then erase the effects and memory of the fallen world from his being and breathe into him the breath of life, so that when Adam later falls from grace into sin, it is from a state of true spiritual and experiential innocence and not the brokenness that the evil-filled world would have been inflicting upon him since birth (as it does us). As for who "Adam" actually was, Dembski stresses that "the theodicy developed in this book is certainly compatible with a literal Adam and Eve. But it does not require a literal Adam and Eve," after which he proceeds to explain the first humans in a macro-evolutionary context.
Solidly grounded in traditional theology and the obvious product of deep biblical reflection, The End of Christianity is, in my view, a must-read for theologians, pastors, elders, scientists who speak on faith-science issues, and laypersons alike. No other theodicy I have studied more uncompromisingly or with greater integrity reconciles Scripture with scientific discovery. In fact, it resonates with such fundamental simplicity and theological elegance that its emergence seems to ring with an air of inevitability. Indeed, the reasoning found here is not merely Christian but patristic in quality, scope, and intent. Still, on balance, in considering The End of Christianity one has the sense that its ideas are but a runway, a launch point for far more extensive explorations and discussion yet to be undertaken (and sure to follow). But it is a fantastic starting point.