Question 17

return to questions


October 1


William Dembski is best known for his work on Intelligent Design.  His 2009 book ‘The End of Christianity’ addresses the problem of evil in the world. A perfect God unable to prevent an imperfect world is one of the strongest atheistic arguments against religious faith.  Dembski’s solution is ingenious, reconciling modern science with traditional theology. But how many people will understand it, or believe it?







William Dembski’s ‘The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World’ examines the problem of how a good God permitted the universe to be plagued with evil. Theodicy has proposed three possible causes:


1)      God


Many Christian theologians have rejected every suggestion that God is the cause of evil.  They believe that God created a perfect universe which was designed to remain perfect. To defend God’s perfect goodness, the cause of evil must be located outside God.


2)      Satan


Some Christian thinkers have identified Satan as the cause of evil because the first rebellion took place in celestial realms. The theodicy is rejected on the grounds that it suggests Satan is as powerful as his creator.  


3)      Man 


Since the 5th century, human rebellion in Eden has been identified as the cause of all sin, suffering, death and evil in the world.


Early Christians understood selfish, destructive behaviour as sin; salvation was understood as freedom from sin. The causes of sin were not a mystery to the Early Church, although believers did wonder why an almighty God did not prevent humans from causing other people to suffer.  Early Christians reasoned that personal experience was necessary for autonomous beings to choose between good and evil. 


A child could live in eternal innocence, never struggling with lust or rage; but an adult needs to understand the nature and consequence of sinful behaviour in order to overcome it.  Pagans and Jews had dealt with sin in similar ways, offering sacrifices as atonement. Christianity offered a different form of salvation: freedom from sin via the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.  This freedom was not instantaneous. The process of sanctification required both self-discipline and surrender.  


The Early Church understood the story of Eden as the beginning of human freedom and responsibility. Adam and Eve initially lived in paradise, sheltered and protected, as innocent as children. They lived with moral purity but without true virtue.  An inanimate object that does not steal, lie or murder is not virtuous. Virtue requires conscious choice.


This understanding of freedom, responsibility and salvation was turned on its head in the 5th century by Augustine.  For him, Original Sin began with two historical people (Adam and Eve) who fell from grace by eating forbidden fruit circa 4000 BC.  Augustine’s God of Wrath flew into a rage because mortals ruined His carefully prepared plans. 


William Dembski is determined to preserve this ‘traditional’ theology of the Fall, because it is the only way he can conceive of a theodicy that does not ‘blame’ God for evil in the universe. To blame God would be blasphemy. He takes thought experiments to the root of the problem: Was it possible for humans to ‘avoid the Fall’? Given Augustine’s views of a sinless, deathless Eden, what did carnivores eat? How would exponential reproduction not have led to massive overpopulation of the planet, accompanied by immeasurable suffering?  The short answer Dembski offers is that ‘In the mind of God, creation always presupposed the Cross, humans always sinned…’   This is a departure from theodicy which blames man alone for sin.  


Dembski allows that God always knew that sin was inevitable. The Fall was built into the plan of creation and salvation, as was the Cross. From the beginning God expected sin to come into existence.  Yet the theodicy of Augustine, Calvin and Dembski makes God wholly innocent of evil, and fully justified in His undying wrath. Dembski clings to the ‘traditional’ belief that the cause of evil, sin, suffering and death can be traced directly to two humans in 4,000 BC.  The reader is puzzled by Dembski’s position because many of his views are far from traditional.


Dembski does not share Augustine’s belief that original sin of fallen mankind filled God with such implacable wrath that unbaptized babies are ‘excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.’  Nor does Dembski agree with Luther and Calvin that God predestined who will be saved and damned, and did so for his own pleasure. Dembski recognizes the necessity for freewill and personal responsibility in salvation.  It is not unilaterally imposed on an elect few, but is offered to all.


Although Dembski is deeply committed to blaming Adam and Eve for all sin, he is critical of strictly literal interpretations of Genesis.  As seen in part one of this answer, Dembski rejects young earth creationism as seriously flawed.  In chapter 22 he states that ‘a face value chronological reading (of Genesis 4-11) requires acceptance of highly dubious claims...’  He then mentions the following:

-          that Noah’s flood occurred around 2,400 BC (at a time when known civilizations were flourishing and were not obliterated);

-          that an arc much smaller than many cruise ships housed all animals for a year without access to outside food;

-          that eight people populated not just the earth but whole civilizations within 400 years of the flood, with Noah’s death (at the age of 950) and Abraham’s birth virtually coinciding.


Dembski concludes that Noah’s flood ‘though presented as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local flood (e.g. a catastrophic flood in the Middle East).’ How does Dembski reconcile his non-literal views of creation and Bible interpretation with a rigid defence of Eden as the cause of sin? 


The solution Dembski proposes is retroactive wrath. Augustine and Calvin convinced multitudes of Christians that God has been wrathful ever since the rebellion in Eden. Dembski accepts that animals lived and died long before 4000 BC. He is quite willing to concede that suffering occurred in the world millions of years before the Biblical story of Eden.  But if Adam and Eve are responsible for all suffering and death, how could the ‘effect’ precede the ‘cause’?  


By virtue of retroactive wrath, Dembski’s God did not have to wait for sin to occur.  God has been wrathful ever since the dawn of time, but his wrath is justified by Eden in 4000 BC.  Dembski knows he is stepping far outside the bounds of Bible-based theology and fact-based science. Retroactive wrath is part sci-fi, and part theo-fantasy. To explain how God can anticipate the future and change the past without altering the future, Dembski cites time-warping films such as Minority Report, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Timecop, as well as philosophical conundrums like Newcomb’s Paradox and the mathematical Theory of Communication.  Dembski understands the theoretical problem of playing with time. ‘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.’  In what way can Adam and Eve have lost paradise if the world they inhabited was already been filled with suffering and death?


The mind-warping incomprehensibility of Dembski’s solution is its greatest strength.  Only the mind of God could grasp such diametrically opposed scenarios simultaneously. Mere mortals must accept them by blind faith. This has always been the frontline of defence for the Gospel of Wrath. Augustine never expected anyone to understand why God would condemn unbaptized babies. Luther never expected anyone to understand why multitudes were created in eternal bondage to sin. Calvin never expected anyone to understand why God took pleasure in the eternal damnation of innocent humans. Dembski does not expect anyone to understand retroactive wrath, but he plays with the idea sufficiently to convince the reader that it would make sense to a God of Wrath.


Most Christians have a hard time understanding Augustine’s ‘traditional’ doctrine of Original Sin.  It diminishes humans by making us helpless victims of original sin rather than responsible agents of personal sin. It also diminishes God because his original plans are foiled and his only response is wrath.


Dembski has made it his mission to defend the indefensible. He does so by throwing both science and theology out the window to create an imaginary universe where effect precedes and anticipates cause.  (p 140) ‘Think of God’s infinite dialectic as follows: God’s actions make a difference in the world and therefore induce novel events. But this requires that God act to anticipate novel events induced by His prior actions (priority here conceived not temporally or causally (chronos) but in terms of the intentional-semantic logic (kairos) by which God orders the creation). Such actions by God now induce still further novel events… Because this causal history of the world is extremely fragile, the infinite dialectic is ever in danger of spinning out of control, degenerating into positive feedback loops in which divine anticipation needs to rectify problems provoked by (logically) prior acts of divine anticipation.  Consequently, only an infinitely wise God can pull off the infinite dialectic.’ What does this mean?  It means that it is possible for God to change the past without changing the future, but impossible for us to understand how it could be done. 


The ‘traditional’ interpretation of Eden places Adam and Eve in a perfect paradise. Dembski does not believe that the world around Adam and Eve was a perfect paradise because of retroactive wrath.  But if Adam and Eve were born into a fallen world, how were they any different than us?  How can they be responsible for the Fall?  What would they have lost? Even the most clever Hollywood screenwriter would shrink from the challenge of making this mind-warping storyline believable. 


Dembski understands the problem. (p 151) ‘This seems to raise a difficulty, however, because humans who have yet to sin come into a world where natural evil (death, disease, disaster) is already raging. Starting their material existence in such a world puts them at a disadvantage, tempting and opposing them with evils for which they are not (yet) responsible.’ Dembski knows that Adam and Eve must be sheltered from evil (and suffering and death) in order to be responsible for evil.  ‘The Garden of Eden, as a segregated area in which the effects of natural evil are not evident (one might think of it as a tropical paradise), provides a way out of this difficulty. The essential point of the Fall is not the precise physical backdrop against which Adam and Eve play out their drama but rather their phenomenological experience of turning against God. To understand this, think of the movie The Matrix. People inside the Matrix are fed experiences that are not real but feel real.’


It is a rare book on theology that uses science fiction analogies to illustrate its theories. For a sci-fi movie script, Dembski’s private garden is as plausible as the Matrix. However, the makers of the film did not try to convince viewers that they were describing the actual world in which we live.  Dembski is dead serious about the parallel universe of this private Eden.  (p 153) ‘In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve simultaneously inhabit two worlds which intersect in the Garden. In one world, the world God originally intended, the Garden is part of a larger world that is perfect and includes no natural evils. In the other world, the world that became corrupt through natural evils that God brought about in anticipation on the Fall, the Garden is a safe haven that in the conscious experience of Adam and Eve (i.e. phenomenologically) matches up exactly with their conscious experience in the perfect world, the one that God originally intended.’   This is a clever hypothesis which almost makes sense of how Adam and Eve could have been blissfully unaware of evil until they rebelled and became responsible for future evil as well as retroactive wrath, which can now be fully revealed to them as they are cast out of the Garden.


But is this clever hypothesis more credible that the young earth creationism ‘solutions’ reviewed last week?  Dembski dismissed theories that require mental gymnastics and lack evidence.  Let his own words judge the validity of retroactive wrath and secret gardens. ‘But showing that there are theoretical models ... is hardly the same as showing a real phenomenon.’ ‘A good reality check is to ask yourself what would believe if you didn’t feel the need to square (the idea, in this case original sin) with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11.’


Dembski has skated far out onto very thin ice.  Does the Bible provide any support for this clever hypothesis of retroactive wrath?  None whatsoever. Does science provide any support?  Even less.  What evidence can Dembski muster to bolster his hypothesis?  ‘The duality, in which the Garden of Eden simultaneously touches heaven and earth, is mirrored in myth and legend.’  Dembski calls upon Eldorado, Shangri-La, Tithonus and Eos.  The ideas are clever, intriguing and desperate.  Dembski is desperate to defend a theodicy that blames Man while leaving God innocent.


Consider the ‘traditional’ theology of fallen man.  Augustine claimed that Adam and Eve were created perfect in a perfect world. Their disobedience ruined paradise, bringing sin, suffering, evil and death into the world. The post-Edenic world was evil. The post-Edenic nature of man was evil. Augustine insisted that children were born evil and would be condemned eternally unless ‘saved’ from original sin.  This understanding of Original Sin led Luther and Calvin to conclude the fallen nature of man was so depraved that we lacked the wit and will and freedom to choose salvation. Therefore only the predestined elect could be saved by the choice and will of God alone.


Given this ‘traditional’ interpretation of the depraved nature of Fallen humans, how could the innocence of Adam and Eve have been restored simply by shielding them from visible evil?  Why could every child not be raised in a sheltered environment and live sinlessly?  Augustine, Luther and Calvin would have rebuked Dembski for denying that sin is inherent to human nature. No matter how carefully children are sheltered from corruption, sin is not bred in the bone. 


If God is innocent and humans are wholly to blame for evil, then the theology of Augustine, Luther and Calvin must be taken very seriously.  Original Sin changed the universe in every way. Adam and Eve had to be literal, historical characters. In the first part of his book, Dembski demonstrates that ‘traditional’ beliefs about Original Sin are contradicted by all available evidence.  In the second part of his book, Dembski seeks to substantiate the guilt of Adam and Eve by showing that contradictory evidence ( i.e. suffering and death pre-dating 4,000 BC) could support Original Sin if God had subjected the pre-Edenic world to retroactive wrath.  It is a big if.   


Dembski rejects most of the theology of Augustine, Luther and Calvin: infant damnation, predestination, limited atonement and the utter depravity of the human will.  Dembski’s situation calls to mind Moses who led the Israelites out of captivity and through the desert for 40 years - all the way to the border of the Promised Land - but was not permitted to enter. We do not think less of Moses’ heroic journey because he failed to travel the last few kilometres across the river Jordan.  Nor should we think less of William Dembski because he has traveled so far but is unable to let go of ancient theodicy.  His intention of defending God is laudable. The consequence of pinning all the blame for all evil in the universe of mankind is regrettable.


Are we born hopelessly depraved as Augustine claimed?  Are we slaves to sin as Luther called us? Does God take pleasure in our suffering as Calvin claimed?


Dembski would disagree with all of this. Our nature is capable of evil, but also of good. Every child is born with this dual capacity. So were the first humans.  Dembski is correct in believing that good and evil were present in the mind of God – and in the world – from the very beginning.  The state of innocence is simply the absence of knowledge of good and evil.  The moment we acquire the knowledge, we are free to choose one or the other or both.  This is the human experience.  


The doctrine of Original Sin blinds us to the problem of personal sin. The wrath of universal condemnation blinds us to the possibility of universal salvation. Original Sin exaggerates both the depravity of the ‘unsaved’ and the sanctity of the ‘saved.’  A few drops of baptismal water or a few words of the sinner’s prayer might atone for Original Sin. Personal Sin is not so easily cured.


This is the beauty and power of salvation. The Cross was not an improvised solution forced on God because mankind unexpectedly introduced evil into the world. The Cross was always part of the plan of salvation because God always intended sin and suffering to enter the world. Granting freedom of will to humans made this inevitable. This is why Augustine, Luther and Calvin were adamantly opposed to freewill.


The same freewill that causes us to experiment with evil, and become slaves to sin, allows us to turn away from sin and surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. Augustine would disagree. So would Luther and Calvin. Dembski has demonstrated why the ‘traditional’ interpretation of Eden is either wrong or requires drastic rethinking.


Thanks to William Dembski’s thought-provoking, trail-blazing and bold examination we have travelled a long way from the Augustinian Gospel of Wrath. It is not heresy to believe that God desires all to be saved from sin and suffering. It is not blasphemy to believe that God gave us freedom of will knowing full well that sin and suffering must inevitably result. It is temporary. The remedy is freely available.  


Comment or Question?


Tags: William Dembski, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Evil, The Matrix