I have written before that I regard the problem of evil as essentially a decisive refutation of Christianity. It’s not quite logically impossible to reconcile an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God with the sheer quantity of evil and suffering in the world, but it’s pretty close. So when William Dembski posted a 48-page essay entitled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,” I was intrigued. The word “theodicy,” pronounced to sound like a certain epic poem by Homer, generally refers to the problem of reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil.
The problem of evil is easily stated:
- An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would not permit evil and suffering to exist unless that evil and suffering were logically necessary to bring about some greater good.
- Evil and suffering exist.
- At least some of that evil and suffering is not logically necessary for bringing about some greater good.
- Therefore, there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.
Now, this argument is logically valid. If you accept the three premises you must, as a matter of logic, acept the conclusion as well. So the task of theodicy can be viewed in part as the task of showing that at least one of these premises is false.
There are theodicies that proceed by rejecting premise two. Humans falsely perceive certain events as evil beause of their limited perspective on God’s purposes. I suspect, however, that most people wouild not choose to go down this road. It certainly is not a very satisfying rseponse to the problem of evil, and really amounts to little more than an unwillingness to grapple with the facts of the world as we know them.
Some theodicies proceed by accepting my argument as sound, and concluding that God is not omnipotent after all. God would like to curtail evil and suffering, but for whatever reason is unable to do so. This certainly solves the problem of evil, but only at the cost of seriously compromising Christian orthodoxy. A God limited by something other than an inability to do that which is logically impossible is not the God of traditional Christianity.
If you’re inclined to reject premise one outright, then you will have to explain to me what the words “omnipotent” and “omnibenevolent” mean. Premise one, it seems to me, can be viewed as a definition of those terms.
The Christians with whom I have discussed this issue generally take refuge in premise three. They do not deny that genuine evil and suffering exist, but they do deny that any of that evil is ultimately gratuitous. I find that hard to accept, and to make things concrete I like to focus on birth defects. The day a Christian theologian can explain to me the greater good that can only be obtained by afflicting babies with torturous diseases and horrible deformities is the day I will consider Christianity a live possibility.
Dembski spends much of the first half of his essay finding fault with previous theodicies. Unsurprisingly, I liked this part quite a bit. So what is Dembski’s own solution?
All this is sound Christian theodicy as far as it goes. But a Christian theodicy needs to go further. It needs aditionally to make peace with three claims:
- God by wisdom created the world.
- God exercises particular providence in the world (e.g. miracles, answers to prayer, and prophecies.)
- All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin
Mainstream theology regards the first of these as plausible, the second as problematic, and the third as, frankly, preposterous. I’m going to argue that all three claims are true and can be situated within a coherent Christian theodicy.
Right off the bat we see two problems Dembski’s theodicy must overcome. The first is that paleontology and geology have revealed to us that natural evil and suffering long predate the arrival of humans on the planet. How can human sin be the cause of this suffering if it was going on for hundreds of millions of years prior to humanity’s existence? The second is that it is unclear that the sheer quanitity of evil and suffering in the world is really a morally appropriate response to the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Most of Dembski’s essay is given over to explaining away the first problem (unsuccessfully, as I shall argue). He barely addresses the second one at all. He does assert that only by attributing evil to human sin can we avoid the conclusion that God is a monster. But he does not explain how to avoid that conclusion even if evil is a consequence of human sin.
Of course, the young-Earth solution to the problem is simply to deny what paleontology and other branches of science tell us about the history of the Earth. But Dembski accepts that the Earth is very old and that life has a long history of suffering and death upon it.
So how does he get around the problem? Well, he begins by taking it for granted that God has absolute knowledge of all future contingent propositions. In particular, he knows well before the fact that the Fall is coming. So how should God deal with this fact? Allow me to present a few quotes that I believe capture Dembski’s reasoning here:
In answer, then, to the question why a benevolent God would permit evil, tolerate its continuation, and even invent a form of it (i.e. natural evil), it is to manifest the full consequences of human sin so that when Christ redeems us, we may clearly understand what we have been redeemed from. Without this clarity about the evil we have set in motion, we will always be in danger of reverting back to it because we will not see its gravity. Instead, we will treat it lightly, rationalize it, shift the blame for it – in short, we will fail to recognize the enormity of Christ’s suffering on the Cross to redeem us. In consequence, we will not be moved to repent of our sin and return to God in trust and humility (Page 27).
Christian theism has traditionally regarded God as omnisicient in the sense of possessing perfect knowledge of future contingent propositions and as omnipotent in the sense of being able to act effectively in the world to bring about any result that is not logically possible. Combined with Newcomb’s paradox, divine omniscience and omnipotence now yields an ineresting insight into divine actions, thereby guiding creation along paths that God deems best. In fact, it would display a lack of love and care for the world if such an omniscient and omnipotent creator God did not act preemptively in the world. (Page 31-32)
God’s immediate response to the Fal is therefore not to create anew but to control the damage. In the Fall, humans rebelled against God and thereby invited evil into the world. The challenge God faces in controlling the damage resulting from this original sin is how to make humans realize the full extent of their sin so that, in the fullness of time, they can fully embrace the redemption in Christ and thus experience full release from sin. For this reason, God does not merely allow personal evils (the disordering of our souls and the sins we commit as consequence) to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God also brings about natural evils (e.g. death, predation, parasitism, disease, draught, famines, earthquakes and hurricanes), letting them run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself disorders the creation, making it defective on purpose God disorders the world not merely as a matter ofjustice (to bring judgment againsthuman sin as required by God’s holiness) but even more significantly as a mater of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin). (Page 39)
I think the reference to Newcomb’s paradox is meant to explain the idea that if there is an agent who has perfect knowledge of all future contingent propositions, then we can meaningfully say that events in the future are the cause of the events in the past. Thus, since God knows humanity will Fall, we can meaningfully say that human sin caused all the suffering and death that preceeded it in time. Dembski spends a great deal of time on Newcomb’s paradox, but as far as I can tell it contributes absolutely nothing to his argument.
So let’s see. God knows humanity will Fall and takes measures to prepare the world for humanity’s ultimate redemption in Christ. As part of this preparation he has to make sure that the consequences of sin are sufficiently terrible that we will be sure to appreciate what we are being redeemed from. But how does it follow, from that starting point, that it is reasonable for God to create six hundred million years of natural evil and suffering in anticipation of the Fall?
If God wanted to impress upon us the awfulness of sin, surely he had a more reasonable course open to him. He could have behaved in the manner clearly implied by Scripture. Specifically, he could have created a perfect world free of suffering and death. Then, when and only when humanity sinned, he could have allowed that primordial perfection to be rent assunder, thereby showing us clearly the effect of sin.
Imagine what that would look like to paleontologists and geologists as they dug deeper into Earth’s past. They would find a long history utterly free of the natural horrors so familiar today. There would be no evidence of major catastrophes or mass extinctions. No evidence of predation or carnivory or one species hunting another to extinction. If we take literally the Biblical injunction against pre-Fall death, then there would be no fossils. Otherwise, we might see just enough fossils to allow for new lives to come into being without having the planet overrun by geometric population growth.
Then, very late in this sequence humanity appears. And almost contemporaneous with this appearance we see paleontological and geological evidence of natural suffering and evil. That would be powerful testimony to the awful consequences of human sin. That would be clear evidence that something of genuine cosmic significance happened when humanity arrived on the scene.
But God didn’t do that, according to Dembski. He talks a lot in his essay about how God is not bound by our normal ideas about cause and effect, and that his perefect knowledge of the future allows him to act preemptively in the past. The fact remains, however, that what He actually did creates so strong an illusion that human sin is not the ultimate cause of natural evil, that a whole lot of smart, sincere Christians, desperate to understand God’s will, have felt the need to abandon significant portions of Christian orthodoxy in order to account for it. Countless others (myself included) have been driven to atheism as a result of this manifest evidence that the world is not superintended by omnipotent, omnibenevolent God.
Indeed, the situation has become so confused that Dembski felt compelled to write 48 pages explaining the issue, in the course of which he had to make use of Newcomb’s paradox, subtle distinctions between chronos and kairos (Greek words for different notions of time), an inversion of the usual logic of cause and effect, and numerous other bits of esoterica, just to make his point.
According to Dembski, God had clear motives and intentions in creating natural evil prior to the Fall. The actions He took, again according to Dembski, were completely illogical with respect to those motives. They’re effect has been nearly the opposite of what God intended. He also passed up a perfectly sensible way to behave, one that would have achieved the goal Dembski laid out.
This post is already a bit long, so let me just briefly mention what I described earlier as the second problem with Dembski’s theodicy. He takes it as self-evident that human sin is so terrible that it justifies the sheer quantity of evil and suffering in the world. He is a little unclear about how to interpret the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. For much of the essay he seems to treat Adam and Eve as real people who performed a specific act that initiated the Fall of man. Elsewhere he seems to reject that interpretation.
But if the Adam and Eve story is true then it looks to me like God’s reaction is out of all proportion to what actually happened. God placed a fruit in the garden and forbade Adam and Eve, without explanation, from consuming it. He didn’t make it something ugly and undesirable, something they wouldn’t have wanted anyway. Instead he made it, as far as can be determined from the Bible, no different from all the other fruits which they were allowed to eat. Still, for some time Adam and Eve resisted. But then the serpent came along and promised them great things if they ate the fruit. And that was when they experienced a moment of weakness. Genesis 3:6 (KJV) describes the situation well:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
Come on! That’s the reason God allows baby torture? That’s why God countenances tsunamis killing a quarter million people at a pop? It was the anticipation of that that led God to create hundreds of millions of years of relentless natural awfulness? For heaven’s sake, the legal term for what happened in Eden is “Entrapment” and it’s considered a legitimate defense in criminal trials.
I don’t understand how a morally healthy person could seriously claim that the punishment fits the crime in this case.
There is much more that I find objectionable in Dembski’s essay. He suggests a reading of the early chapters of Genesis that strikes me as completely unjustified Biblically. And some of his remarks about free will strike me as overly simplistic, to say the least. Perhaps I will address those points in a subsequent post.
For now let me just say that Dembski’s theodicy is a nonstarter. It requires you to believe that God behaved in ways that make no sense given His motives as Dembski describes them, it gives insufficient attention to the question of whether human sin is even in principle a sufficient explanation for the evil and suffering in the world, and it rests on a tortured exegesis of Scripture.
Even the most cogent theodicy in the world must compete with the alternative hypothesis that the evil and suffering in the universe reflects nothing more significant than the universe’s indifference to evil and suffering. Who can believe that Christian theodicy provides a more satisfying explanation for the facts of the world than simple atheism?