Book Review: The End of Christianity

End of Xianity

William A. Dembski is a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design. But in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World he makes an interesting foray into theology, specifically the question of theodicy. Dembski holds to the standard age of the cosmos as accepted by the scientific consensus. Nonetheless, he also holds to the divine inspiration of the Bible and thus he seems to accept the literal existence of Adam and Eve as the parents of modern humanity. He also maintains the orthodox Christian belief in the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden which he also seems to accept as a literal event in a literal place in the Genesis account of origins. But like other old earth creationists, Dembski holds that animal death, parasitism, disease, and natural calamities like tsunamis and earthquakes occurred prior to the Fall. These affirmations set up the dilemma Dembski seeks to solve in this book. Dembski believes that the Fall of Adam and Eve, which constitutes a collapse into moral evil, is responsible for natural evil (i.e. death, disease, calamity, etc.). Again, this is standard Christian orthodoxy. But since Dembski believes that natural evil existed prior to the Fall then how can he hold that the Fall into moral evil is responsible for pre-existing natural evil? This is the problem he seeks to solve (46).

Dembski proposes some novel moves to make the case that moral evil is the cause of pre-existing natural evil. He sees the effects of the Fall acting retroactively. In other words, the effect occurred before the cause (50). He points to the retroactive saving work of the cross to prove his point (50, 110). Jesus’ death was not only an atonement for sins that occurred after the fact, but also before the fact. This event in time and space transcends time and space and has a retroactive saving impact upon Old Testament saints (Rom. 3:25-26). Both historical situations are possible due to the transtemporal nature of God who is unbound by time (50). Because God is unbound by time He can rewrite the story of history “while it is being performed [like a play] and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed—that includes past, present, and future. An infinite God who transcends time can redeem a botched performance by acting in creation so that those effects, though attributable to the Fall, come temporally prior to it. In other words, the effects of the Fall can be retroactive” (110).

Dembski is critical of young earth creationism even though he acknowledges that this has been the position of the Church historically (55). He asks, “Within young-earth creationism, all divine compensatory action to redress humanity’s sin occurs forward in time from the Fall. But why should God be limited in that way?” (111). His solution to the problem is a self-conscious attempt “to preserve theological orthodoxy regarding the Fall and scientific orthodoxy regarding [modern] geology [among other indicators of an old earth]” (111).

In making his case, Dembski argues that natural evil is not morally significant prior to the Fall. It only takes on moral significance once humans experience it (78-81). In this regard, he holds that hominids likely existed prior to Adam and Eve who represent the first true ‘humans’ (i.e. homo sapiens). With their existence, God’s breathing life into them (Gen. 2:7) is not a supernatural act of imparting physical life into the couple, but rather the life of God’s image (154-55). In other words, this event signifies the moment God created human beings which are primarily marked by giving them “cognitive and moral capacities” to match His own intelligent moral identity (158). After such moral creatures come into existence pre-existing natural evil suddenly takes on moral significance.  Presumably hominids had no moral sense and therefore could not experience the discomforting existential realities of pain and suffering that come with a less than perfect world.

Divine transtemporality is important in Dembski’s view that God acts retroactively in history. He appeals to Newcomb’s Paradox for scientific support of this view (128-29). In this respect, “divine omniscience [i.e. specifically foreknowledge] and omnipresence means that God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131). Retroactive answers to prayer seem to confirm this belief. He explains further:

Because God knows the future and can act on this knowledge by anticipating events and directing their course, divine action follows not a causal-temporal logic but an intentional-semantic logic. This logic treats time as nonlinear… and sees God as acting in the world to accomplish his purposes in accord with the meaning or significance of events. The causal-temporal logic underlying the physical world and the intentional-semantic logic underlying divine action are not at odds—they neither contradict nor are reducible to each other. Notwithstanding, the intentional-semantic logic is ontologically prior to the causal-temporal logic. God has always existed and acted on the basis of intentions and meanings. The world, by contrast, has a beginning and an end. It operates according to the causal-temporal logic because God, in an intentional act, created it that way. Divine action is therefore a more fundamental mode of causation than physical causation (132).

Dembski furthers this line of thinking by appealing to two uses of words for time in the Greek. The term chronos refers to chronological time as in a succession of events in a linear cause-effect relationship (125). This corresponds to his notion of causal-temporal logic in the physical world (142). Whereas, the term kairos is the “ordering of reality according to divine purposes” (126). It speaks of that which is eternal and invisible (i.e. immaterial, metaphysical reality) and relates to the intentional-semantic logic of God’s perspective (142). Dembski’s appeal to lexical sources for these distinctions is not very convincing. It is doubtful kairos has this sort of specific meaning in any Biblical passage.

Dembski employs these distinctions to the creation account of Genesis 1-3. The predominate time markers in the account are not speaking of literal time (as in young-earth or other old-earth accounts – i.e. chronos) nor are they metaphorical literary devices, rather they speak of “episodes” in God’s mind when he intended to create (142). In order to make this case, Dembski has to really generalize. He does not explain such specific time markers like “evening-morning” or the use of ordinals to describe the “days” (i.e. Hebrew yom) of creation. How this language fits the very specific definition he gives to kairos is left unexplored.

What shall we make of Dembski’s thesis? I believe it is unconvincing for several reasons. First of all, Dembski’s affirmation of pre-existing natural evil resulting retroactively from the Fall means that Adam and Eve never really experienced the “good” creation God initially made. In fact, it seems in Dembski’s scheme there never was a “good” creation to begin with. Furthermore, the first humans had to suffer the consequences of their sin prior to committing that sin. Dembski anticipates both these problems.

With regard to the first, he says God creates a kind of double creation. “God, in Genesis 1, creates a perfect world…. As a conceptual act by a perfect God, it cannot help but be perfect.” This is the first creation. “In Genesis 2-3, we find the ‘second creation,’ which starts off great but quickly ends in ruin” (111). Dembski does not elaborate, but it seems that his notion of the initial creation as perfect is only a conceptual reality corresponding to his motif of God’s intentional-semantic logic. God conceptualizes a perfect world in his mind, but the causal-temporal reality is something less than ideal. This is like some bad Platonic dream, where perfect concepts exist in the mind of God, but reality fails to match up to those ideal notions.

When it comes to the problem of Adam and Eve suffering the consequences for their sin retroactively, Dembski supposes that the Garden of Eden was a specially protected environment untouched by the natural evil that existed elsewhere in the world. Because Adam and Eve’s existence was confined to the garden, they never actually experienced animal violence, death, disease, natural calamities and so forth. The traditional view of the creation account is that the whole world was created in a state of perfection. But Dembski asks “why God would need to plant a garden in a perfect world untouched by natural evil? In a perfect world [such as young-earth creationists posit], wouldn’t the whole world be a garden? And why, once humans sin, must they be expelled from this garden and live outside it, where natural evil is present?” (151). As long as the couple stays in this “island of sanity” (152) they are untouched by natural evil. Once God expels them from the garden they experience what the rest of the world has already experienced for millions of years (151).

This is highly speculative at best. There is nothing explicit or even implicit in the Genesis account to suggest Eden was some haven in the midst of an otherwise evil world of death, violence and calamity. Over and over we are told the whole of the creation was good. This is not a conceptual reality in God’s mind, his “good” intention, but a physical reality. Nor is God’s “good” intention confined strictly to Eden (153). His good intention extends to the whole of the cosmos, not a tiny fraction of it. Dembski must engage in extreme exegetical and theological gymnastics in order to affirm that the Evolutionary paradigm that rules science cannot abide by a such a perfect primordial world. Furthermore, what about the serpent in this scenario? How did he penetrate this island of sanity undetected by God? Or did God’s permissive will allow him to enter? If so what was the purpose? That is the bigger question of theodicy and Dembski never attempts to ask or answer it.

Dembski’s reconstruction of the creation account undermines the whole storyline of Scripture traditionally outlined as Creation-Fall-Redemption. Since his conception of the whole of creation was already cursed from the beginning, it calls into question the goodness of God. Confining the good creation to a tiny spec in the cosmos called Eden will not do. Romans 8:18-22 will not admit of any such reductionism.  The whole of creation was created good and then temporally subjected to futility according to the most natural reading of Genesis 1-3. In other words, there was no strange kairotic (to quoin a Dembski-like term) transtemporal time tricks going on here. This is not to deny God’s transtemporality. It is simply to say that there is no exegetical or theological warrant to employ it with regard to the creation and fall of man. Furthermore, if the creation was not wholly good then Christ’s redemption work whereby he restores “all things” (Acts 3:21) loses its meaning. There is no good to restore. It was largely corrupted from the get-go.

Dembski’s scheme wreaks a great deal of havoc upon the storyline of Scripture in his effort to save the Bible from what he regards as the more sure interpretation of science. Dembski is willing to force a dubious interpretation upon Scripture because its plain meaning cannot stand up to the infallible pronouncements of the scientific establishment. This is not disparaging the scientific enterprise. The Christian worldview is not anti-scientific. Rather it questions the many presuppositions that have entered the debate on origins when that matter was highjacked by an avowed anti-supernatural agenda. Modern science in the guise of Darwinian evolution (in its various manifestations) has an axe to grind with Biblical Revelation and too many believers have been duped by its unquestioned pronouncements about the natural world and its origins.  The fact remains, no matter how much energy is poured into theorizing about origins, science has no absolute way to make pronouncements about it. We simply cannot reconstruct it. The only way to know how it all came bout is to have a reliable witness. The Genesis record, in the plainest of terms, gives just such a witness—from the perspective of the Creator Himself. That record never came under question until the powerful priests of Darwinism pronounced it null and void.

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Are We Alone in the Universe?

I recently read some interaction on a blog site in which some Christian responders were wondering if the discovery of life on other planets should cause our faith to be shaken since the Bible seems to assume that God created life only on earth. The consensus was that such a discovery would not be so earth shattering (!).

Andromeda_galaxy

This got me to thinking. Should we have any reason to expect that God created life elsewhere? Actually, I think the question needs to be more focused. Do we have any reasons to reject the idea that “intelligent” life exists elsewhere?

First, we must understand what is meant by “intelligent” life. What most people think of as intelligent life is some sort of beings that are human-like. We usually have in mind sentient beings with self-awareness, complex systems of language and communication, and the capacity to grow in wisdom and knowledge. Intelligence involves imagination and complex creative skills that are put to use in various aesthetic pursuits and technological advances.  Such intelligence requires the capacity for problem solving in a multitude of disciplines. Others of course would add that intelligent beings are moral beings, those who have a conscience and are endowed with some sort of free agency. It includes the ability to express a wide range of emotions. We expect such intelligent creatures to form intimate personal relationships on a small scale and complex societies and governing structures on a large scale. Other things could be added, but you get the picture.

When the Bible speaks of such intelligent life it is centered on the creation of human beings. We humans are distinguished from all other living creatures by the existence of these features. But some may ask about angels. Certainly angels (fallen and unfallen) are endowed with many of the components of intelligence, but they differ from humans in two ways. (1) They are incorporeal beings, and (2) they do not procreate. Thus, they do not fit the biological conditions of the rest of living creatures that we associate with the possible existence of life on other planets.

But there is another feature that distinguishes humans in the Bible. The creation narrative in Genesis points out that humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Theologians generally have two concepts in mind when they speak of the Imago Dei. It indicates not only our essence—bearing some of the characteristics of God—but also our function—that is, we are God’s representatives on earth. In fact, the creation account clearly indicates that the earth is the central theater of God’s glory and we were placed here to make use of the resources of earth to magnify God. In fact, the whole tenure of Scripture places the earth at the center of God’s most important activities. This does not necessarily mean that the earth is the physical center of the universe (however, there is evidence that our galaxy is. See here). Nonetheless, it is certainly the center of the conceptual universe the Bible paints. Our planet is unique and at the center of its existence resides the pinnacle of God’s creation—human beings. Even angels are at best secondary and in fact function in part to serve God’s purposes in the lives of earth-bound humans.

This geo-centric focus is especially clear when we consider what the Bible describes as God’s greatest work—the redemption of human beings. Furthermore, this work is most magnified in the incarnation of Christ. When Christ took upon himself the specific flesh and blood of a human being it happened upon the earth alone—in the little town of Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. The incarnation culminated in his death and resurrection in the city of Jerusalem 33 years later. God’s greatest work is not centered anywhere else in the universe and of course it is not centered on any other intelligent creatures except those He created to inhabit the earth. Christ is forever the God-man—the second Adam (Rom. 5:14). Adam was originally designed and created to rule and represent God only on earth. His failure set up the plan of God to redeem His fallen creatures through the promise that a descendant would arise from the seed of Eve—a human redeemer with a divine origin (Gen. 3:15). This is why Luke traces the genealogy of Christ back to the beginning as the “son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). He died once and rose again once on earth for earth bound humans. He lives forever as the glorified God-man and the center of his eschatological rule will be upon the restored “new earth” with His redeemed earth-bound human creatures.

What is the significance of this for our question about extra-terrestrial life? Some Christians like to say that if God created intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that He has a redemptive plan for them as well. But it obviously could not involve the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, God’s only Son, since those are unique consummative events clearly accomplished once for all. The Bible pictures Christ as forever tied to his incarnation as a human being with the present and future earth being the center of all His activity. Thus, I do not see how it is possible for God to have any kind of focus upon intelligent creatures elsewhere. I suppose it is possible that non-intelligent life could exist elsewhere and that such a discovery would not shatter our faith in the Biblical worldview. However, I think there is good reason to suppose that intelligent beings reflecting the image of God exist only on earth.

Review: Starlight, Time and the New Physics

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Starlight, Time and the New Physics by John Hartnett is an important book in the world of Creation Science literature.  Hartnett is an avowed Young Earth Creationist who believes the creation account in Genesis is to be taken at face value.  As such, he seeks to deal with the thorny problem of distant starlight in a young universe. Hartnett earned his B.Sc. and his Ph.D. from the Department of Physics at the University of Western Australia. He works with the Frequency Standards and Meteorology research group, and is a tenured Research Professor at his Alma Mater.

As far as the intriguing and fascinating concepts of this book, it is superb. However, as far as readability and clarity, it is a bit tough going. Unless you have some familiarity with concepts in cosmology and astrophysics you will have trouble reading this book, and I am not talking about the technical appendices. Furthermore, it is not always clear how Hartnett is making his case for solving the problem of distant starlight in a young universe.

The first 2 chapters are easy enough and do a good job of explaining some background to the book. Hartnett was inspired by the more well known work by Russell Humphreys and his book of 1994 entitled, “Starlight and Time.” Humphreys was the first YECer to propose a theory for the starlight problem using a time-dilation model. Hartnett points out that most YECers have been reluctant to use such models because they have historically preferred theories that assume time is absolute. However, I think Hartnett is right that time-dilation models are profitable for pursuing answers to the problem of distant starlight. His book takes this approach.

My problem with the book started in chapter 3 and continued through the end to chapter 7 before the technical appendices. It was never clear how the concepts presented in chapters 3-7 connected together to answering the basic question of how we see distant starlight in a young universe. Chapter 3 deals with debunking dark matter as a sort of ‘god of the gaps’ for the naturalist scientist. Fair enough, but how does this contribute to the basic question? It is not clear.

Chapter 4 deals with the implications of Moshe Carmeli’s application of Einstein’s laws of relativity. Hartnett’s model seeks to employ Carmeli’s theories and apply them to the distant starlight question. Carmeli holds that relativity theory applies to the grand cosmic scale and introduces what he calls “Cosmological Special Relativity” and “Cosmological General Relativity.” Somehow I missed how these theories apply to the question.

Chapter 5 made the case that our galaxy lies close to the center of a bounded universe surrounded by a set of concentric spheres of other galaxies. Convincing observational evidence was given for this and I found it to be one of the more fascinating parts of the book. However, it only later became clear how it contributed to the problem in chapter 7. It would have been nice to see a hint of that though in this chapter.

Chapter 6 deals with the scriptures that indicates God stretched out the heavens. Here we get a more direct indication of Hartnett’s solution. He states that on day 4 of creation, “God stretched out space, by some enormous factor, and spread out the parent galaxies that he then caused to eject more galaxies as quasars in ongoing creation episodes during the course of day 4” (p. 95). He then explained this using the analogy of a firework explosion that sends out smaller sub-explosions. He then supplies evidence from the studies Halton Arp conducted indicating that quasars are associated with active galaxies nearby that have have ejected these quasars from parent galaxies. He contends that this ejection mechanism is where new galaxies were formed. Harnett interprets the visual evidence of Arp’s work as what actually happened on day 4 as we can see it now. This is all very fascinating, but I was unable to follow his arguments for making the case.

Finally in chapter 7 he seeks to make the case that earth clocks on day 4 ran slower than clocks in the cosmos (running normally) using Carmeli’s theories again. This took place apparently when the galaxies were moving rapidly outward from the ‘central’ location of the Milky Way galaxy (thus the reason for chapter 5). I saw 2 problems here. I still am unclear about Carmeli’s theories and how they actually apply to Hartnett’s time-dilation theory. I just felt he had not explained it very well. Secondly, I wondered about his interpretation of the clock issue. He indicates that the earth clocks ran slower than the cosmic clocks on day 4 which ran normally; and then later they both ran at the same normal time (if I understand correctly). If this is the case, then is he saying that day 4 was not a normal 24 hour period from the perspective of earth time? There was no clarification here, but it sounds something like what Gerald Shroeder (A Jewish Physicist from MIT) has proposed. Shroeder accepts Torah (i.e. including the Genesis account of creation). However, he also accepts the standard billions of years history for earth, but suggests that the cosmic clocks amounted to six 24 hour days during creation while the earth clocks ran in the billions.

I would like for Hartnett to bring greater clarity to these issues. I think what would have made this book much easier to digest would have been a chapter summarizing Hartnett’s basic argument without appeal to the evidences and detailed scientific explanations. Even though the chapters were not as full of as many equations as the technical appendices, they were technical enough that I believe the average intelligent reader with a basic science education will still have a hard time following contrary to what other reviewers have said.

I like the fact that Hartnett is seeking to supply us with an explanation of the current problem without appealing to an instance of extraordinary providence (i.e. a miracle, such as the light in transit model). Although it is clear that any understanding of the creation week must employ extraordinary providence, the aftermath of the creation week begins a pattern of ordinary providence (i.e. a normal pattern of governing laws) that is only occasionally interrupted by instances of extraordinary providential events. This means that however we understand the billions of light year distances of the stars, it should require some appeal to a natural explanation using the laws of physics we either already know or hopefully will sometime discover. This is obviously a critical issue for YECers and there is not a credible theory yet that has garnered widespread acceptance. If Hartnett’s theory is plausible (and I think it might be) then it would behoove someone to help us neophytes understand it better.