Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A New Type of Theodicy: Dembski on Natural Evil

I suspect that some will say that I've been overly harsh with William Dembski. Perhaps so. But even if I have not been overly harsh, let me now be unabashedly enthusiastic. Dembski has authored a quite extraordinary piece in which he attempts to square the claims that (i) natural evil long predates the Fall, and (ii) the existence of natural evil depends upon the Fall. It is here: Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science. The style is crisp and conversational with no sacrifice made to clarity. It is at once both insightful and creative. It should be read by all who take an interest in theodicy. I do hope that it has the effect that it deserves.

Dembski provides a short summary of his view in the passage below:

God does not merely allow personal [i.e. moral] evils . . . to run their course subsequent to the Fall. In addition, God also brings about natural evils (e.g., death, predation, parasitism, disease, drought, famines, earthquakes, and hurricanes), and lets them run their course prior to the Fall. Thus, God himself disorders the creation . . .. God disorders the world not merely as a matter of justice (to bring judgment against human sin as required by God’s holiness) but even more significantly as a matter of redemption (to bring humanity to its senses by making us realize the gravity of sin).

In his argument he relies upon the view, held in common by such diverse thinkers as Augustine, Thomas and Calvin, that in the 'moment' of God's creation of the world, He knew all that would happen within it. (I scare-quote 'moment' because it does not signify a moment within time but an, as it were, all-at-once creative act in which the world and all its contents come to be.) God thus knew that humans would fall. He thus knew the necessity that He would have to act so as to reconcile fallen humanity to Himself. The plan to reconcile was two part. He would send Christ so that fallen humanity might be restored to the perfection it enjoyed before the Fall. But He would not do only this. He would also make the world such a place that the 'gravity of sin' would be manifest in the world about us, and in this way humanity would know the necessity that it cleave to Christ for its redemption. How must the world be ordered so that the gravity of sin would be manifest? It must be a world of death and destruction, of failure and pain. It must be a world of injury and disease, of hurricane and earthquake. It must be, in short, a world of great natural evil. The necessity of natural evil is a pedagogical necessity.

Let us be clear. God did not at the time of the Fall so transform a perfect world that it would thereafter make the gravity of sin apparent to us. Rather He set the world up so that from it's very start it would contain those natural evils (or potential for natural evils) that, after the Fall, would make clear to us the gravity of sin and our need for a redeemer. The the taint of the Fall does not enter the world when the Fall occurs. It was there all along.

We do here have a species of what metaphysicians call 'backwards causation'. Events at a certain time - Adam and Eve's fall - bring about a state of affairs at a prior time - a world shot through with natural evil. But they do not do so directly. Rather between the first and the second in the explanatory chain lies God and His desire to make known to us the wages of sin. The explanatory chain is this. Our world is such that, at a certain time and place, humanity will fall. God thus knows this, for God knows all things, now, before and to come. Thus God, since all-good, so ordered the world that humanity might be reconciled to Him. A world able to bring humanity to the realization of a necessity for reconciliation must contain great natural evil. Thus God so ordered the world that it contained great natural evil. Finally, in His wisdom God found it best to allow natural evil free reign even before the time of the Fall.

Note that this explanatory sequence is not a sequence of temporal succession. What comes first in it does not come first in time. Rather it comes first only in the logic of explanation.

So ends my little explication of Dembski's views. In a later post, I'll comment a bit. For now, let me say only this: I am skeptical that a world in which natural evil is given free-reign before the Fall is better than one in which natural evil enters the world only after the Fall. (Also I'm skeptical that Dembski does the views of John Hick justice. Indeed we'll see that Dembski's view, like so many other types of theodicy, likely collapses into a kind of Hickianism.)

1 comment:

Jim said...

I'd be curious to learn your professional opinion of my own musings on Dembski's work.