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.

Book Review: The Problem of Evil


Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.

Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient.  Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.

Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.