The End of Christianity: A Review by Stephen Ashley Blake

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May 14, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil

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.

The End of Christianity: A Review by Stephen Ashley Blake

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.


Stephen Ashley Blake is a filmmaker and President of Realm Entertainment in Los Angeles. After making his mark as a music video Director and independent feature and television Director of Photography, he is now gearing up to produce a slate of motion pictures of a variety of genres that tell powerful stories from a distinctly Christian worldview.


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JKnott - #13804

May 15th 2010

Or for a lack of love, for that matter.


Steve Blake - #13808

May 15th 2010

Chris,

Thanks for your posts.  Regarding the perception of God’s kindness, let me modify your analogy to make a point: There would be a difference between a parent bringing a child into a dangerous world that they didn’t create (which is precisely what we as humans do; after all, if one wants to have children, there’s no alternative to bringing those children into the only world that we know to exist), and, say, a parent who builds a house from scratch but deliberately ladens it with weak flooring, hollow stairs, frayed ceiling fixtures, flimsy banisters, and exposed electrical wiring, and then moves his family - including little children - into that house.  The latter would, I think universally, be perceived as cruel.  And this exactly what Christians have to think on in resolving the idea of God as an omnipotent Creator who could have presumably designed the universe any way He wanted, and the idea of God as loving, who would never deliberately expose electrical wiring in the house where He has appointed His children to play.

cont’d…


Steve Blake - #13809

May 15th 2010

cont’d…

In my view - and I must say that this is an extremely important point - modern theodicies tend to (for lack of a better word) “compromise” one of these two aspects of God, if sometimes by seriously redefining the terms.  While who knows, Dembski’s theodicy may or may not hold any place in serious discourse, it strikingly and robustly preserves both of these crucial attributes of God, and is both consistent with traditional understandings of theodicy and faithful to science.

cont’d…


Steve Blake - #13810

May 15th 2010

cont’d…

In our past, Church councils have reached conclusions about key theological matters (I could include here even the doctrine of the Trinity) that, as codified, would have struck prior generations as odd or unintuitive (Nicea was a very messy affair).  So in my view, we can’t let the fact that an idea is odd or new or unintuitive or even initially distasteful keep us from giving it earnest thought and consideration.  In my view, the criteria should be: Does this perspective comport with what God has revealed to us through science, and does this comport with what God has revealed to us through Scripture?  (By the way, let me be clear that for this very reason, although some of the modern theodicies do strike me as stretches, I am constrained - and do indeed endeavor - to likewise give them a fair hearing, engage them substantively, and not to dismiss them because of how they initially “come off” to my mind.

Steve


Steve Blake - #13811

May 15th 2010

Hi, JKnott

Thank you, too, for your comments.  My earlier post actually wasn’t addressing your post, but I will here.  You wrote:

I think the theodicy problem is real, but I want to get completely away from the idea that this universe is, or ever was, the best of all possible worlds.  Why would you need to teach your kids to stay away from fire if fire did not exist, or if it was not dangerous to us?

cont’d…


Steve Blake - #13812

May 15th 2010

The problem here is that Genesis 1 depicts God calling creation “very good,” and although it’s true that He removed Adam from the “outer world” into the idyllic Garden, there is nothing in the text to explicitly indicate that the outer world was at that time fraught with death and peril.  The traditional reading of this, along with Paul’s assertions about death and the fallen created order in Romans and 1 Corinthians, is that Adam’s sin is what caused the fallenness of our world.  There’s no getting around it: As even accommodationists would be quick to point out (and I count myself among their number), this view of how evil came into the world is what the Church has for most of its history believed.

cont’d…


Steve Blake - #13813

May 15th 2010

And this is why, in the larger discussion, the notion that the world was – in some way – initially free of death and suffering (and in the discussion of Dembski’s theodicy I specifically mean free of death and suffering in the mind of God, not physically) must be at least engaged, just as it was right for the scientific community to consider the radically different sides of the views of quantum indeterminacy.  Just as various disciplines in physics, previously thought to be discrete, were in the 19th century realized to be deeply connected, and as a result the theories unified – yet not without labor (and again, Nicea was intensely laborious), we likewise need to be inclined to vigorous engagement in this critical issue.

cont’d…


Steve Blake - #13814

May 15th 2010

As for your question…

The question is, would we be us if transplanted, as it were, into a place without natural evil or without the moral evil of others?  If not, God “had” to create this fallen world, not because of a lack of power.

…Not to be dismissive, but I question how this bears on the substance of our discussion.  The issue at hand is not whether we would be us in a different world (God has never been obligated to make us, or us as we know ourselves), but rather could God have made a world free of natural evil within which He would have also created (by whatever means) and sustained human beings, whoever those human beings might be?

Thanks again for your post!

Steve


Steve Blake - #13817

May 15th 2010

Correction: in that last post, I meant to write:

The issue at hand is not whether we would be us in a different world (God has never been obligated to make us, or us as we know ourselves), but rather could God have made a world free of natural evil within which He COULD have also created (by whatever means) and sustained human beings, whoever those human beings might HAVE BEEN?


JKnott - #13818

May 15th 2010

Steve,

On the contrary, I think it is pertinent.  That is, if the world in which we are born, live, etc., must be fallen in order for US to be us (and not some other, however “human” people) then in order for God to save us, this world would have to be fallen.  I did not say God was “obligated” to create us or save us or anything.  I only assume God chose to save us. And only if you say it would be wrong for God to save unworthy people can you then fault God for doing what is necessary for those people to be saved, and thus to exist.  Therefore there will be no need to either deny, or re-define, or to explain natural evil as the result of a future action or actions of as-yet nonexistent people. Neither would this question God’s love or God’s power.  I’m not attacking your (Dembski’s) theodicy, just offering another one and defending it from critiques, real or potential.


JKnott - #13820

May 15th 2010

Perhaps it would be better to say, in contrast to my above words, that this would not logically contradict God’s love or power.  By trying to answer the questions I’m at least acknowledging their legitimacy.


JKnott - #13821

May 15th 2010

One more quick point:  Of course, a builder adding fire hazards or taking away safety measures from an otherwise safe house would be cruel.  But is that what I’m saying God may have done?  I don’t think so.  Rather, God created a fundamentally dangerous world, this world, in order to save it.  The alternative would have been to create another world.  That is not as obviously cruel.


JKnott - #13822

May 15th 2010

Instead of a builder analogy, consider an “author” analogy.  An author imagines a character in distress, and then writes the story of how that character got in this situation in order to write the happy resolution of the problem.  Is that author cruel for “creating” the problem?  If God imagines lost, sinful, broken us and then, in His pity, decides to rectify these problems, how is God cruel in making the situation real in order to do so?


Steve Blake - #13825

May 15th 2010

JKnott,

My post using the building analogy was actually in response to Chris Massey’s earlier post.

I’m not sure if I’m reading your last post correctly, but your position would seem to be akin to the traditionalist position, no?  Church tradition would generally affirm that early chapters of Genesis record a character “in distress” (Eve, then Adam) who got into a bad situation, which via God’s response brought about widespread brokenness (all forms of evil), which God then remedies through His Son.  Tradition places blame for this squarely on man, so that God (whose inherent righteousness necessitates a radical response to sinful disobedience) is not seen as cruel.  Of course, the problem that has faced Christian thinkers in recent times is how this squares with the picture of a world in which natural evil long preceded man’s arrival upon the scene, an issue that this book deals with.


Unapologetic Catholic - #13836

May 15th 2010

An unfavorable review of Dembski’s work form a conservative Christian perspective is here:

http://oursovereignjoy.blogspot.com/2009/12/book-review-william-dembskis-end-of.html

The commnets were wiped after Dembski was declared a “heretic” and a closet evolutionist inthe comments boxes.  He repsonded pointing out that he wa an old earthc creationist who belived inthe special creaiton of Adam and Eve—orthodox, although minority, positions in his denomination.  That statement was not enough to get him aquitted of combox heresy.

Bilbo’s comment at 13767 is excellent.


Chris Massey - #13838

May 15th 2010

Steve,

I certainly agree with your house analogy. But the reason I chose the parent/child analogy was precisely because the parent has no choice about the sort of world that his/her child will be born into. You had raised two objections to the idea of God creating a world with natural evil (without a retroactive curse) - God’s omnipotence and God’s kindness - and I was trying to isolate the kindness issue only.

Assume for a moment that the omnipotence objection is satisfactorily answered. And the thinking here is probably along the lines of what JKnott has been saying - that for reasons yet to be fully explored, a world with natural evil is the only sort that God could make if he wished to achieve his purposes. At a very simplistic level, one could argue that if God wants creatures who (a) reproduce and (b) live in finite space, then he must allow those creatures to die. The arguments are far more nuanced than this, but you get the drift.

...


Chris Massey - #13839

May 15th 2010

...

If one concludes that a world with natural evil is unavoidable, THEN my point is that it would not be abusive for God to create such a world and inhabit it with creatures. Because God, like parents, could conclude that life with joy and pain is better than no life at all. Thus the true objection is with the omnipotence side of the equation. And I think you tacitly acknowledged that by changing the analogy into one in which the parent had control over the environment (dangerous house). The argument about kindness only works if the argument about omnipotence works. Is that fair?


JKnott - #13845

May 15th 2010

Chris,

You and I are arguing for similar points, but let me put forward a clarification.  I would want to say that, treating world and salvation history as a whole, the point is not, for me, that a life with pain and suffering is preferable to no life at all, but that a story with problems that are then solved is preferable, at least arguably, to one in which no problems exist.  Therefore, I would have no objection to the statement that God could have created a perfect world, even overcoming any problems, but that regardless, he chose to create a problem situation so as to solve the problems. Why? Because he foreknew and foreloved the inhabitants of this problem-ladden world.


JKnott - #13846

May 15th 2010

Steve,

I see I got confused because I commented on the theme of fire and then you answered Chris’ earlier comments on it.

As for the “traditionalist” position, I think on this as on many issues there is much value in it, but as you say there are new challenges and some reformulation is necessary.  I think the value in the tradition can be upheld without shying away from the conclusion that the world was fallen before humanity did anything that could be called responsible for the problem. The question, of course, is whether Dembski’s solution is necessary and/or helpful, and whether other options exist.


JKnott - #13847

May 15th 2010

(cont.)

And what I’m trying to say is that we need not say the world was retroactively messed up by later human sin, because we can conceive of God creating an already fallen world in order to save it, which certainly does not contradict God’s power (he could have done anything else he chose), but neither does it contradict God’s love, because, as I’ve tried to suggest, we in our particularity simply ARE inhabitants of a fallen world. So God’s love of US (and not anonymous beings) required that WE exist so that WE could be saved. How, in this conception, can we question God’s love?


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