William Dembski, who was recently elected as the new Vice President of the EPS, released his latest book earlier this month from Broadman & Holman Academic, titled, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). We interviewed Dembski about his book and its implications for Christian work on the “problem of evil.”
What’s the main point that you are trying to communicate in this book? What is the “end of Christianity” that you speak of in your title?
My book attempts to resolve how the Fall of Adam could be responsible for all evil in the world, both moral and natural IF the earth is old and thus IF a fossil record that bespeaks violence among organisms predates the temporal occurrence of the Fall. My resolution is to argue that just as the salvation of Christ purchased at the Cross acts forward as well as backward in time (the Old Testament saints were saved in virtue of the Cross), so too the effects of the Fall can go backward in time. Showing how this could happen requires extensive argument and is the main subject of the book. As for my title, “End of Christianity” involves a play on words – “end” can refer to cessation or demise; but it can also refer to goal or purpose. I mean the latter, as the subtitle makes clear: Finding a Good God in an Evil World.
How did this book come about for you? How does the “problem of evil” intersect with your other professional and personal interests?
My main work has been in the field of intelligent design. The problem of evil looms large there because if the world and life are designed, the question arises what sort of designer would allow all the malevolent designs that we find in nature. In referring such evil designs to the Fall, however, one runs into a problem if they predate the Fall, as is required with an old earth: How can future events influence past events? So this question is at the heart of the debate between young and old earth creationists.
What do you think often lacking or neglected in “problem of evil” discussions among philosophers and theologians? How does your book contribute to filling-in-the-gaps in the contemporary literature on this topic?
Philosophers tend to approach the problem of evil generically, asking whether God, conceived without specific references to Christian revelation, could be good despite the existence of evil. Such an approach falls under philosophy of religion. It’s fine as far as it goes, but it does not address specifically Christian concerns. My book falls more properly under philosophical theology – I analyze philosophically the content of Christian theology on the question of evil and of the Fall. Moreover, I make a positive proposal for how the Fall is possible in light of advances in modern science, which suggest that natural evil must have predated humanity by millions of years.
In five parts, you lay out your twenty-four chapters. Can you briefly describe the flow of this book and help us understand the larger argument in light of the parts of your discussion?
Part I describes the essence of human evil, the Fall, and God’s solution to our predicament, namely, the Cross. Part II addresses how natural evil can be a consequence of the Fall. The chapters here contrast a young earth view, in which natural evil comes after humanity’s Fall, with an old earth view, in which natural evil comes before. Part III lays out a theological metaphysics that provides the theoretical underpinnings for the retroactive view of the Fall that is the heart of my book. Part IV lays out this retroactive view of the Fall in detail, showing how the Fall can come after the natural evils for which it is responsible. Part V ties together loose ends, notably what to make of evolution as well as the existential problem of evil (it’s one thing to discuss evil intellectually, it’s another thing to deal with it in experience).
In the introduction, you help the reader to pay attention to the reality that we live and think in a particular “mental environment.” What is that mental environment? Why does it matter for doing theodicy work?
Mental environments are more powerful than what typically are understood as worldviews. A worldview can be thought of as a collection of propositions to which we assent. But a mental environment adds conviction to a worldview. How strongly do we hold to certain principles and values in our worldview, and how does that make a practical difference in our lives? A mental environment controls, among other things, our plausibility structures – what we find reasonable or unreasonable. In the current mental environment, given that it holds to an old earth, it becomes very hard for people to accept that the Fall affected the physical world (and, in particular, induced natural evil). My theodicy attempts to redress this obstacle posed to the Fall by the current mental environment.
As you say in the introduction, “Christian theodicy” often does deal with the fact of (1) God’s wise creation of the world out of nothing and (2) God’s particular providence in the world. But what is often missing and yet considered preposterous for some is the claim (3): All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin. Why is that preposterous for some given our mental environment?
If the earth has been around for millions of years and if animals have been killing each other, getting sick, and going extinct all that time, how can all that suffering be a consequence of humanity’s Fall when humans have been around only a minuscule portion of that time? Without a retroactive view of the Fall, in which God by anticipation allows natural evil in consequence of the Fall, the Fall and its physical effects seem crazy.
Would you say that if there is a failure to account for or be acquainted with the knowledge that is involved in claim (3), then a Christian theodicy that results from claims (1) and (2) will be inadequate?
A denial of (3) does not entail a denial of (1) or (2). Still, as a practical matter, without a classical view of the Fall as given in (3), theologians and scholars seem to find (1) and (2) less plausible. The problem is that (1) and (2) suggest that God is very close to the creation, getting his hands dirty in it and therefore responsible for much that happens. Without passing the blame for evil to humanity, as in (3), that blame then naturally falls on God – unless, that is, God’s role in the world can be diminished, which is precisely what the denial of (1) and (2) involve and which is why process and open theism are now the rage.
The importance of claim (3) would seem to speak to the importance of divine revelation about the human condition and a theology of the heart that takes seriously that revelation as knowledge about reality. Would you agree? If so, how might greater Christian philosophy and theology work on the “problem of evil” result from taking seriously claim (3) in light of claims (1) and (2)?
My book arose out of an essay titled “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science.” I take seriously that the Scripture is God’s special revelation to humanity and that, as such, it is likely to contain layers of meaning that only become clear as our knowledge of the world increases. Far from scholarship undercutting the Scriptures, I see it as opening new vistas within the Scriptures. Thus I certainly see revelation as giving us knowledge about reality, knowledge that will agree with other sources of knowledge, such as science. As for the relation between claims (3) and claims (1) and (2), I see it as mutually reinforcing, where claim (3) renders the other two as more plausible and vice versa.
You are also working on a future project related to the topic, “being as communion,” which is also the title of chapter 13. Can you tell us about that project, including how is that project related to The End of Christianity? How is chapter 13 a microcosm of that larger project?
Actually, Part III, and not just chapter 13, which is within that part, is a microcosm of that larger project. “Being as Communion” attempts to provide a metaphysics of information that is conducive to Christian theism. It depends, however, on a prior science of information, which has been the subject of my research now for over a decade. My most current work here may be found on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab website (http://www.evoinfo.org/). There are still a few more mathematical results I need to publish before I’m ready finally to write a full-length treatment of the metaphysics of information.
What is your view about the reality of the Kingdom of God’s power and presence in our midst? How does that view figure into your treatment of suffering?
Evil, as I treat it, is never purposeless. Rather, God uses evil to bring us to our senses by making us face the consequences of our rebellion against God. The ultimate expression of evil and of God’s redemption from it is signified in the Cross. The Kingdom of God’s power is thus seen in God reversing the effects of evil through the Cross. God’s goodness, our hope and thanksgiving, and the full extremity of suffering are found in the Cross. For this reason, the first chapter in my book is devoted to the Cross – it is titled “The Reach of the Cross” and argues that the Cross is indeed enough to redeem the whole of a fallen world.
William Dembski is a Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. More about his work can be found at DesignInference.com and at his highly-trafficked group blog, UncommonDescent.com.