Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Finding a Good God in an Evil World

I) William Dembski has written a new book: The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (B&H 2009).

The book is adorned with a number of glowing blurbs by the likes of John Collins, Stephen Davis, Doug Groothuis, Gary Habermas, Hank Hanegraaff, William Hasker, Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, J. P. Moreland, and Don Page.

In one respect, these kudos are superfluous. It’s not as if Dembski is a debutante who needs to be introduced to the world. He’s an established figure in Evangelicalism. He has a following. I assume any major book he publishes would already have a preexisting constituency. But that’s a minor point.

More to the point is what some of them actually say. Moreland says it “towers over” the competition in “profundity and quality.” McDowell says it’s “groundbreaking.” Hanegraaff says it “may well prove to be a Copernican breakthrough,” while Montgomery says “Believers have badly needed the kind of compelling case for biblical theodicy provided in Dr Dembski’s new book.”

One of the problems with all this hype is the insinuation that Christian theodicy was in truly dire straits before he came along to save our bacon. You’d think that, up until now, we were utterly dumbfounded in the face of evil.

My own assessment is rather different. Reading his book is like watching a cinematic failure by a great director. Even if the film falls short of the high aims it set for itself, it still has memorable moments which a more successful film by a lesser director wouldn’t approach. A flawed masterpiece contains touches of greatness you won’t find in a flawless, but pedestrian piece of work.

Likewise, Dembski’s new book is one of those productions in which the parts are greater than the whole. Odd lapses of judgment punctuated by flashes of insight.

I also have a quibble with the subtitle: the world we inhabit is not an evil world. Rather, we inhabit a fallen world. Our world contains a lot of evil, but it’s also a world that contains a lot of common grace and special grace. So it’s deeply misleading to say our world is evil. There is both good and evil. Moreover, the good will out.

II) There are different ways of evaluating a work like this. One criterion is whether he succeeded in solving the problem he posed for himself. In that respect, I think Dembski’s book is only a partial success. I’ll have more to say about that shortly.

But perhaps a more fundamental issue is whether he’s giving us the right answers to the wrong questions. I just don’t see the problem of natural evil the way he does. Apparently he regards that problem as either evident or even self-evident. So he goes straight to the next step. But to me he’s expending a lot of ingenuity in solving what is more often than not a pseudoproblem. For example, here’s one way he states the issue:

“But animal death and suffering as it exits now and as it appears to have existed throughout the fossil record bespeak a cruelty and perverseness that only exacerbates the problem of evil” (210n6).

Let’s make some preliminary observations before delving into the various permutations of his position. There are two broad aspects to the problem of natural evil:

a) The problem that natural evil poses to human victims of natural evil.

b) The problem that natural evil poses to subhuman victims natural evil.

These are distinct and separable issues. I don’t think they require the same treatment.

1) Concerning (a):

i) I think that even a sinless world would contain natural “evils.” That’s because I think natural evils are generally natural goods. What makes them “evil” is if they’re evil to you. If they do you harm. They’re only “evil” in the relative sense that if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, then they pose a threat to your life or wellbeing. But, in general, many natural “evils” are actually beneficial to the ecosystem. Indeed, essential to the balance of nature as we know it.

I think what the Fall effects is not the existence of natural evil, but a liability to natural evil. It exposes us to dangers which, in a sinless world, we’d be immune to–in one way or another.

There’s a difference between a dangerous world and a world which endangers you and me. A world with mountains and streams is a dangerous world inasmuch as you can fall off a cliff or drown in the river. I think the difference between a pristine world and a fallen world is not so much the presence or absence of natural evils, but whether we are put in harm’s ways. Is the potential for harm actually realized?

ii) I also assume that part of the cultural mandate is to tame the wilderness. We start in a garden, then we extend the garden. Cultivate the wilderness. Domesticate animals. Found towns and cities.

I think God has posed certain natural challenges for us to overcome. We need these raw materials to exercise our God-given creativity.

In a fallen world, that becomes an occupational hazard. But I don’t view the underlying principle as essentially different for an unfallen world.

iii) This is not to deny that some natural evils are second-order evils which reflect our fallenness. Scientists develop treatments for STDs. STDs are a natural punishment for sin. The STDs then adapt by developing a resistant-strain to the conventional treatment. So some natural evils to presuppose the Fall.

iv) And, of course, to the extent that some natural evils are penal sanctions for sin, they require no special justification.

2) Concerning (b):

i) Seems to me the so-called problem of animal pain is greatly overrated. For one thing, surely we need to draw some distinction between higher and lower animals. To say a dog can suffer doesn’t mean a millipede can suffer.

ii) Likewise, it seems to me, from my observation, that animals have a high pain threshold, not to mention a high pain tolerance. Haven’t we all seen veterinarians inject horses and dogs? When the needle goes in, they don’t even flinch.

Likewise, what looks painful may be painless. We know from survivors of shark attacks, bear maulings, and the like, that the victim often goes into shock. He feels nothing at the time.

If he survives, he may be in excruciating pain, but of course, the victim is ordinarily killed and eaten.

iii) It’s demonstrable that predation, parasitism, disease, aging, death, and even extinction serve a natural purpose in the ecosystem. Although we classify natural disasters as natural “evils,” they hardly a gratuitous evil. While I regard human mortality as a result of the fall, I don’t regard subhuman mortality as a result of the fall.

iv) Beyond functionality, I think God has another purpose in this respect. We live in a “sacramental universe.” God has designed the animal kingdom to mimic good and evil. There are “good” animals and “bad” animals. Bestial heroes and villains.

You can see this in Scripture itself, where animals serve as moral and spiritual metaphors. They also symbolize good and evil in world literature, as well as many popular idioms.

3) At a specific level, this is how Dembski frames the problem of natural evil:

“We can imagine a world far more violent than ours in which many more people die annually of natural disasters. Alternatively, we can imagine a world far more halcyon than ours in which no one dies of natural disasters because the whole world is a serene tropical paradise…As suggested earlier, why didn’t God simply place us on a less dangerous planet where earthquakes don’t ravage human life? Or was this not an option for the Creator, and if not, why not?” (30).

On the other hand, he makes statements like this.

“…in the real world, there are no causally isolated events. Everything hangs together with everything else. The slightest change in one thing changes everything…Thus, by a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, a hurricane is averted in Miami…The lesson of chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics is that even the slightest physical changes ramify and eventually change the history of the entire world…The slightest change in any event makes everything different (if not immediately, then soon enough). That’s why films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Frequency, and Timecop (in decreasing order of excellence), which chart different possible futures but keep too many features of the world constant, make for entertaining fiction but are completely unrealistic” (139-40).
“The standard possible-worlds semantics for these conditionals (see David Lewis, Counterfactuals) depends on a similarity metric on possible worlds: the counterfactual if A, then B is true if in the worlds closest to ours where A is true B is also true. Such measurements of closeness among possible worlds, however, fail to respect the multidimensionality of similarity–along which dimension(s) do we gauge similarity?” (215n14).

But if imponderables like the butterfly effect and the incommensurability of possible worlds prevent us from being able to say whether one world is better than another, or being able to say whether a merely conceivable world is, in fact, a live possibility, then how can Dembski appeal to some imaginative ideal in we have a tropic paradise devoid of natural evils? Is that actually feasible?

Wouldn’t changing one variable trigger a series of mutual adjustments? You might have to trade down in one respect to trade up in another respect.

4) Likewise, Dembski says:

“All three forms of God’s will seem to be involved in the disordering of creation via natural evil. Genesis 3:17-18 suggests that God actively wills thorns and thistles (which symbolize the material effects of the fall…Vipers, viruses, and vermin seem more appropriately attributed to God’s permissive will, the permission going to Satan. On this view Satan ravages the earth prior to the Fall but is permitted to do so because of his success in tempting the first humans, a temptation that itself required God’s permission” (146).

A couple of problems:

i) It begs the question to say that thorns, thistles, vipers, viruses, and vermin represent natural “disorders.”

ii) Dembski is ascribing an extraordinary degree of power to Satan. Satan becomes a mad scientist or criminal genius with the power to reengineer the natural world. Create vipers, viruses, and vermin in his laboratory. That borders on the radical dualism which he finds so objectionable in Gregory Boyd’s worldview.

5) Moreover, “Biologists have since discovered even nastier critters. I leave to the reader to study the emerald cockroach wasp (which stings the brain of a cockroach twice, first turning it into a zombie and then into a vegetable)…Did God, in making the creation defective on purpose, specifically design such features into the natural world?…One possibility worth exploring is to what extent such instances of perverseness in nature can be explained as a subversion (by Satan? By evolution?) of an originally good design” (149).

A couple of problems:

i) That’s a trick question. To ask if God made the creation “defective” on purpose begs the question of whether natural “evils” like the cockroach wasp represent a design flaw or “subversion” of the natural order.

ii) To describe the “subversion of an originally good design” is ambiguous. Does he merely mean that sin results in certain diseases, genetic defects, &c.? Or does he mean that God had an original plan, as well as a backup plan in case the original plan fell through? Does the fall scuttle God’s original plan? Does God have to “respond” with a fallback plan?

iii) The example of the cockroach is blatantly anthropomorphic. In what sense can a cockroach suffer? What’s its level of awareness? Isn’t this a case in which Dembski is simply projecting himself into the “brain” of a cockroach? Isn’t he, in effect, saying to himself, “If I were a cockroach, I sure wouldn’t want that to happen to me!”

But, of course, if he were a lowly cockroach, he wouldn’t have that imaginative faculty in the first place. Dembski, from his human viewpoint, is implicitly asking himself what it feels like to be a cockroach. But if he were a cockroach, he wouldn’t share the human viewpoint which forms the basis of that empathetic projection. Does a cockroach even have a viewpoint? It’s a complete illusion to think that we can identify with the plight of a cockroach. I’m puzzled by what so many otherwise bright, sophisticated thinkers fall into this trap.

iv) I’d also add that, from the perspective of a human observer, animals seem to be pretty content with their lot in life. Do chipmunks suffer from clinical depression?

6) Furthermore, “The worry now arises whether the ‘genius’ who subverts an original good into a natural evil is God. Theological determinists, who think that every detail of the world is planned and executed by God, counter this worry by simply admitting that any such subversion of the original good must be God’s doing” (150).

That’s a tendentious way of putting it. Calvinists, for one, don’t think God “subverted” his own plan. Rather, the fall was instrumental to a greater good. That was part of the plan all along.

7) Finally, “In the Garden of Eden, the originally intended perfect world borders the Fall-corrupted imperfect world. In the originally intended world, there were no pathogenic microbes and, correspondingly, there is no need for Adam and Eve to have an immune system that wards off these microbes” (153).

i) Once again, this way of putting things borders on open theism. On the one hand, there is what God originally intended. On the other hand, there’s what actually played out-–which falls short of what God originally intended. Did his plan go awry?

ii) It’s true that absent pathogens, there may be no need for an immune system. But what if pathogens are a form of population control for the animal kingdom? And if Adam and Eve needed an immune system of shield them from that potential side-effect, is that a natural evil-–or a natural good?

III) But let’s waive my reservations to the way he’s chosen to frame the problem. Given that framework, is his solution successful? His answer involves the “retroactive” effects of the fall. That, of itself, could be a promising response depending on he defines his terms and develops his thesis. Unfortunately, his treatment suffers from some crippling confusions and equivocations.

1) I’m not clear on what metaphysical machinery underlies his thesis. For example, sometimes he resorts to the language of retrocausation. I don’t know if he’s speaking literally or figuratively. For example, you can use time-travel scenarios to illustrate a point even though you don’t believe in time-travel.

If he’s serious about retrocausation, then, of course, his position is saddled with all the paradoxes of retrocausation. Not only is that self-defeating, but it’s also unnecessary–since I think it’s possible to recast his solution in ways that sidestep the metaphysical baggage.

2) His equivocation may be due to a deeper problem. He speaks as though natural evils are part of a contingency plan after God’s original plan disintegrated on contact.

A more elegant solution would be to say the Fall was a part of God’s original plan, as a means to a higher end. And with that in mind, God frontloaded his creation with natural evils as a proleptic penal consequence of the Fall.

Why he avoids that solution, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a bit too Calvinistic for his bloodstream, and he’s trying to hit on a mediating solution which strikes the right between Calvinism and neotheism.

3) On a related note, he appears to be torn between deontologism and consequentialism. On the one hand, Dembski seems to reject the possibility of a greater good defense:

“The difficulty of this suggestion, which is made throughout the old-earth creationist literature, is that natural evil becomes simply a tool for furthering God’s ends rather than a consequence of human sin. Old-earth creationism thus opens God to the charge of inflicting pain simply to advance a divine agenda” (79).
“Thus, according to Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm, God creates a world of suffering not in response to human sin but to accomplish some future end (i.e., ‘the Master’s plan’). But this, again, makes human suffering a means to an end. And even if this end is lofty, we are still being used. Used is used, and there is no way to make this palatable, much less compatible with human dignity. That’s why Kant taught that we must treat fellow human beings not as ends in themselves. And that’s’ why, unless human suffering is permitted by God because we have, in some way, brought it on ourselves. Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm becomes a cynical manipulation of means to justify otherwise high ends” (79).

But there are some problems with this objection:

i) It takes Kantian deontologism for granted. Where’s the supporting argument?

ii) It fails to distinguish between culpable and inculpable agents. Suppose, all things being equal, that men are entitled to be treated as ends rather than means. So far so good. But what if a man happens to be a criminal or wrongdoer? Is it not possible, in that moral condition, for him to forfeit certain rights and immunities he enjoyed as an innocent man? In that case, it might be permissible to treat him as a means rather than an end. Shouldn’t Dembski at least consider that objection?

iii) It also seems to contradict other statements in which Dembski apparently endorses some version of the greater good defense:

“But why was the Cross necessary at all? If there was a rift between God and humanity, why was suffering–Christ’s suffering on the Cross–the key to healing it? In a fallen world, the only currency of love is suffering. Indeed, the only way to tell how much one person loves another is by what that person is willing to endure for the other. Without the cost incurred by suffering, love among fallen creatures becomes cheap and self-indulgent. Suffering removes the suspicion that the good we do for one another is for ulterior motives, with strings attached, a qui pro quo…Moreover, only such a full demonstration of God’s love enables us to love God with all our heart. The extent to which we can love God depends on the extent to which God has demonstrated his love for us, and that depends on the extent of evil that God has had to absorb, suffer, and overcome on our behalf…But note, for us to love God also depends on our seeing the magnitude of our offense against God and gratefully receiving the forgiveness that God’s suffering, in Christ on the Cross, has made possible. The principle at issue here is stated in Luke 7:47; those who realize that they have been forgiven much love much; those who think that they have only been forgiven little love little” (24).

This [O felix culpa] tradition redresses the Fall by pointing to the great redemption in Christ that the Fall elicits. In that tradition, just because a good outweighs an evil does nothing to make the evil less evil. Yes in the end we will be better off because Jesus saved us from evil rather than because we happened to be descendents of an Adam and Eve who escaped evil by never sinning. But their sin and its consequences must, even in the O felix culpa tradition, be viewed as a tragedy” (30).

But wouldn’t that “manipulate” the situation to “advance a divine agenda”?

4) “What were humans doing before they received the divine image and entered the Garden of Eden?…In the theodicy I’m proposing, these hominids initially lacked the cognitive and moral capacities required to bear the image of God. Then, at the moment they entered the Garden, they received God’s image and became fully human.” (158).

On the one hand, we accept the narrative description insofar as we continue to take the Garden to be a real place in time. On the other hand, we reject the narrative description insofar as we take the process by which they were made Adam and Eve to be unreal unreal. Isn’t that a makeshift explanation?

Why are we still using the Edenic paradigm if we no longer believe the original story? In that event, why keep tweaking the same old paradigm? If we don’t believe the original story, isn’t it time to scrap that paradigm and move one? Start from scratch? Why cling to an obsolete paradigm when you’ve lost faith in the paradigm?

Mind you, Dembski doesn’t seem to be speaking for himself. From what I can tell, he’s basically an old-earth creationist. So he’s pointing out that his theodicy is neutral with respect to the theistic evolutionist/old-earth creationist debate. I wonder, though, why he’s more accommodating to theistic evolution than young-earth creationism. Even if he regards young-earth creationism as mistaken, is this a graver mistake than theistic evolution?

5) “What environment would God have arranged for us if Adam and Eve had not sinned?…In Gen 1, God tells humanity and the other organisms to reproduce and fill the earth. Once the earth is adequately filled with a given type of organism, and supposing organisms of that type do not die, what is the point of continued reproduction? It makes sense to think that a homeostatic mechanism actives when a population has adequately filled an environmental niche, maintaining the stability of population numbers and thus preventing overpopulation” (172).

Even at a purely speculative level, I don’t find this conjecture very plausible.

i) For one thing, there’s more to human sexuality than making babies–although that’s undervalued nowadays. Human sexuality is also a fundamental form of emotional bonding. A way of giving and receiving affection.

ii) Aren’t sex hormones a part of physical maturation? Wouldn’t adolescents in a pristine world still have a sex drive?

iii) On this view, there would be a final, albeit immortal, human generation. The final generation wouldn’t mate or beget. But that would deprive the final generation of the emotional fulfillment which comes from pairing off and having kids.

iv) I can imagine several other scenarios which partially or fully address this hypothetical question:

a) At that point, God might preserve the human sex drive, but render couples infertile.

b) Human beings might colonize the universe.

c) Dembski is also assuming the coexistence of the human race. But perhaps human beings, even immortal ones, could occupy different segments of the timeline–past or future. Even now, there’s some evidence for timeslips. The best-known case (but not the only reported case) involved the celebrated claim of Annie Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain.

d) In a world where everyone is immortal, it’s not as if you have to have all your kids in the first 10 years of marriage. You can space things out. You have time to spare.

IV) “As a consequence, the doctrine of divine omniscience entails a paradox: to know everything, God must know by acquaintance the full measure of human experience and thus must know what it is not to know since not knowing (what we call ‘ignorance’) is a basic feature of human finiteness (19).

Several problems with this claim:

i) That would, indeed, be a paradox, and Dembski states the paradox rather than resolving it. But that’s unsatisfactory in this context. It won’t do to say that in order for God to be omniscient, he must also be ignorant. You can’t say, on the one hand, that knowledge by acquaintance is a necessary condition to render God omniscient, then say, on the other hand, that knowledge by acquaintance imposes a limitation on God’s knowledge. At that point, what does your argument amount to? How does that solve the problem you originally posed for yourself?

ii) There’s another problem with Dembski’s contention. Must God, to be omniscient, experience what it feels like to be a sadist or serial killer or pedophile? If a sadist finds it plesant to torture little children, but God find that pleasant as well? Must he experience whatever the sadist or serial killer or pedophile finds appealing? Know what it’s like to like evil? What it’s like to give into sin? What it’s like to take satisfaction in evil for its own sake?

This would cast God in the role of the criminal profiler who, to get inside the mind of the killer, is slowly seduced by evil. Begins to identify with the killer. Empathize with the killer.

iii) Moreover, if knowledge by acquaintance is a necessary condition of omniscience, then God is not omniscient. The incarnation hardly acquaints God with the “full measure of human experience.” At best, it would only acquaint God with some cultural universals–along with the unique life-experience of one particular individual. But everyone’s life experience is unique. To experience one is not to experience another.

In addition, that would still leave God unacquainted with the experience of the entire subhuman order. To become a man doesn’t acquaint God with the inner experience of a squirrel.

iv) Let’s illustrate the distinction between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description. A color-blind ophthalmologist is the world’s leading authority on color vision. He knows everything there is to know about the physiology of color vision. That’s knowledge by description.

Yet there’s one crucial and elusive bit of information he doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what it’s like to actually see colors. That’s knowledge by acquaintance.

Is this applicable to God? No. The fact that we frequently experience color as a physical sensation doesn’t mean that color is essentially physical. For example, we may dream in color, but we’re not actually seeing sensible objects. The dream is a simulation reality. There’s no external stimulus producing this sensation.

Color is ultimately an abstract universal. God’s exemplary idea of different colors. Different shades of color. The sensible colors we perceive when we see a sunset or rainbow or flower garden is a concrete property instance of God’s insensible idea. God doesn’t have to experience the sensible exemplum to know the insensible exemplar. God doesn’t need to reproduce our finite mode of knowledge to know what we know.

“God’s knowledge includes knowledge of the future. When God becomes man in Jesus Christ, however, he sets aside divine omniscience. The point of God’s becoming man is for God to identify with the whole human experience, and this is not possible if Christ retains all his divine privileges (20).

i) This sounds like the Kenotic heresy. One wonders why a statement like that didn’t raise red flags for a confessional Lutheran like John Warwick Montgomery or a countercult apologist like Hank Hanegraaff or Doug Groothuis.

ii) It also turns on a particular theory of the atonement–Dembski’s disclaimer notwithstanding (cf. 204n5). If you subscribe to penal substitution, then that was not the point of the Incarnation. And penal substitution doesn’t require the Redeemer to “identify with the whole of human experience.”

V) Dembski uses anachronistic answers to prayer (51; 127-28) as a paradigm case of retroactive effects. Depending on how we define our terms, there is nothing wrong with this example. However, we don’t need retrocausation to explain anachronistic answers to prayer. A prayer can affect the past without changing the past. If God foreknew (much less, if he predestined) our prayer, then the answer to can be built into his plan for the world. He doesn’t have to rewrite the plan while the program is running to answer our prayer.

“God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131).

i) I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Seems backwards to me. Is God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say that God is able to respond to events and human actions before they occur because he can anticipate their occurrence?

ii) More to the point, why is God “responding” to events before they occur? Are the events inevitable? Is God a first-responder? He can’t prevent it–he can only deal with it, as a fait accompli?

VI) On the one hand, Dembski scornfully rejects open theism, and variants thereof:

“Contemporary strategies for redressing the Fall consistently run aground because they attribute at least some of the evil that humanity suffers to factors other than human guilt. In such approaches, God lets humanity suffer evils of which it is entirely innocent–evils for which it is not responsible and which it therefore does not deserve. For a good God to permit such evils thus presupposes a limitation on God’s power and knowledge. For presumably, if God’s power and knowledge were up to the task, he would be both able and morally obligated, as a matter of justice to prevent evils of which we are innocent from afflicting us. This is why process and openness theologies have become increasingly attractive. They give us a God who means well but is limited in stemming the tide of evil,” ibid. 32.
“Such a God wrings his hands over the world’s evil and, like an ineffectual politician, tries haltingly to make the world a better place. To our hardier theological forebears, this God would have seemed pathetic (to say nothing of heretical). But each age constructs gods in its own image, and in this touchy-feely age, a diminished God who shares our vulnerabilities and weaknesses is all the rage,” ibid. 34.
“Gregory Boyd, a proponent of open theism, has in fact written an entire book on the evils that may, in his view, properly be ascribed to Satan: Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. In that book, Boyd shifts to Satan the responsibility for natural evil. Yet, in making that shift, Boyd embraces a dualism that Lewis would have rejected. Because open theism contracts the power and knowledge of God, God does not have Satan on a leash as he does in classical theism. Thus, for Boyd, Satan becomes an independent center of evil activity. This is not quite a Manichean dualism, in which good and evil are ontological equals (Satan for Boyd is still a created being). But it’s close. Moreover, it’s not clear how Boyd’s theodicy absolves God of evil since as Satan’s Creator, he must have realized the possibilities of evil inherent in his creation,” ibid. 38-39.

On the other hand, Dembski stakes out a position which seems to be functionally equivalent:

“All things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation of all things.’ Creation always starts with an idea and ends with a thing. Anything achieved must first be conceived. Creation is thus a process bounded by conception at one end and realization at the other…All this is unproblematic so long as the second creation fulfills the promise of the first. But what if the two creations don’t match up? What if the second creation doesn’t achieve anything like the goal set by the first Creation? God, who is perfect, cannot make mistakes in the first creation. The first creation is creation as a conceptual act and is therefore completely under divine control” (107-08).
“Thus, if divine creation miscarries, it ahs to miscarry at the second creation. But how can a prefect first creation end in failure at the second creation? The short answer, of course, is rebellion of the creature–in a world, the Fall. Rebellion of the creature sabotages the second creation by preventing the first creation from fulfilling its purpose” (108).
“God writes our story and, when we fall, rewrites it…God can rewrite our story while it is being performed and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed–that includes past, present, and future…Once humanity falls in Genesis 3, God must act to undo the damage.” (110-11).

Doesn’t this make God seem to be a shortsighted Creator who’s having to improvise in light of unforeseen variables or unintended consequences?

On a related note, he says:

“God has to deal with a sin-ridden world and all the messiness that entails. There are no neat solutions for dealing with a fallen world. Even God faces difficult decisions…The problem is that in a fallen world, no decision, when executed, has prefect consequences. A fallen world is a world of costs and benefits. It is a world of tradeoffs and compromise. The challenge for God is to pick the best compromise among competing objectives that procures the greatest good” (173-74).

i) He makes it sounds as though all possible worlds are fallen worlds. God can only choose between one fallen world and another.

ii) He also makes it sound as though tradeoffs only occur in fallen worlds. But it seems to me that cost/benefit considerations apply more broadly. Different possible worlds may exemplify incommensurable goods. A sinless world may be better in one respect, but deficient in another–if it can’t include certain second-order goods which presuppose evil.

VII) Demski has a whole chapter on YEC. And, even beyond that, YEC is a running foil throughout his book. I have two basic problems with his treatment of YEC:

1) If I were defending YEC, I wouldn’t go about it the way he describes it. So his criticisms, even if valid on their own level, are counterarguments to arguments (or specific formulations, thereof) I wouldn’t use in the first place, if I were making a case for YEC.

2) If you’re going to attack a position, then you need to give it the amount of attention it demands to get the job done. Dembski’s attack on YEC is far too cursory.

The proper way for him to do this would be to quote the most astute representatives of YEC (e.g. John Byl, Jonathan Sarfati, Kurt Wise), then offer a sustained critique of their position. This would also have to go beyond stuff they write for popular consumption. It would involve contacting them directly. Posing questions for them to answer.

I don’t see that Dembski has done that. In his acknowledgements, he thanks people like Don Page, Hugh Ross, David Snoke, the ASA list, and so on. But names from the YEC camp are conspicuously missing. There’s no evidence of direct, personal interaction with them. They don’t seem to be his conversation partners or even his sparring partners.

Likewise, he incorporates email communications in his book. But, once again, there’s nothing from the YEC camp.

So I don’t know quite what he’s trying to accomplish. Is he trying to dissuade young-earth-creationists? If so, he can’t very well talk them out of their position unless he does a lot more to engage the argument.

Now I realize that he may not wish to get sidetracked. But if he can’t give YEC the space it requires in this book, the least he could do is to write some lengthy reviews of books and articles by Byl, Sarfati, Wise, &c., and then refer the reader to his reviews for more detail. And his book reviews could also incorporate personal correspondence.

Or he could write a separate article on the subject. He has a website where he posts a lot of his shorter writings.

All in all, I prefer Dembski’s book for some of the side dishes rather than the main course. And I also like some side dishes better than others.


  1. Very minor (and tangential) quibble:

    "Aren’t sex hormones a part of physical maturation? Wouldn’t adolescents in a pristine world still have a sex drive?"

    I'm not sure I can fathom a sex drive that didn't have some object in mind with which to satisfy that desire, even if said object was an amalgam of various people known and not a real person.

    Doesn't this constitute "lust" which is condemned as surely as adultery is?

    Technically, I'd agree with you, but most of Christianity seems to find the drive as an unfortunate manifestation of sinful human nature.

  2. ii) It’s true that absent pathogens, there may be no need for an immune system.

    Nuh-uh. Without an immune system, the harmless microbes which perform so many useful functions in the world—including in our own bodies—would rise up and destroy us.

  3. John said...

    "I'm not sure I can fathom a sex drive that didn't have some object in mind with which to satisfy that desire, even if said object was an amalgam of various people known and not a real person. Doesn't this constitute 'lust' which is condemned as surely as adultery is?"

    No, because I think Scripture defines illicit "lust" as adulterous lust. An imaginary amalgam is not someone's spouse.

  4. dude, thnx so much for this! i needed some clarity on some issues. BTW, can u recommend some othr resources that contribute to this problem of evil? im guessing ur gonna recommend Frame right? i got his stuff. maybe u can name some othr resources? i would be veeery thnkful.

  5. Here are two good resources on theodicy:

  6. "i) This sounds like the Kenotic heresy. One wonders why a statement like that didn’t raise red flags for a confessional Lutheran like John Warwick Montgomery or a countercult apologist like Hank Hanegraaff or Doug Groothuis."

    I agree with practically everything else in your post, but I think that in light of Matthew 24:36 we have to hold to some form of kenosis, unless we want to say that the Son and the Holy Spirit didn't participate in (and indeed weren't privy to) God's decree.