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Theodicy attempts to resolve how a good God and evil world can coexist. The neo-atheist view in this debate has dominated recent bestseller lists through books like The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens), and The End of Faith (Samuel Harris). And their popularity illuminates a changing mental environment wherein people are asking harder questions about divine goodness. Surprisingly, these books please intelligent design champion William Dembski, because “They would be ...
Theodicy attempts to resolve how a good God and evil world can coexist. The neo-atheist view in this debate has dominated recent bestseller lists through books like The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), God Is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens), and The End of Faith (Samuel Harris). And their popularity illuminates a changing mental environment wherein people are asking harder questions about divine goodness. Surprisingly, these books please intelligent design champion William Dembski, because “They would be unnecessary if Christianity were not again a live issue.”
Entering the conversation, Dembski’s provocative The End of Christianity embraces the challenge to formulate a theodicy that is both faithful to Christian orthodoxy and credible to the new mental environment. He writes to make peace with three claims: (1) God by wisdom created the world out of nothing. (2) God exercises particular providence in the world. (3) All evil in the world ultimately traces back to human sin. In the process, Dembski brings the reader to a fresh understanding of what “the end (result) of Christianity” really means: the radical realignment of our thinking so that we see God’s goodness in creation despite the distorting effects of sin in our hearts and evil in the world.
"The End of Christianity towers over the others in profundity and quality . . . I have read very few books with its deep of insight, breadth of scholarly interaction, and significance. From now on, no one who is working on a Christian treatment of the problem of evil can afford to neglect this book."
—J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Biola University and author of The God Question
A thought-provoking and well-worth reading book by a brilliant evangelical thinker on the perennial and puzzling problem of how to explain physical evil in the world before the Fall. I could not put it down. It has so much intellectually stimulating material in it.
"Believers have badly needed the kind of compelling case for biblical theodicy provided in Dr. Dembski's new book-grounded, as it is, not in traditional philosophical arguments (often not merely obtuse but irrelevant in today's scientific climate), but in intelligent design, of which Dr. Dembski is the world's foremost academic proponent."
—John Warwick Montgomery
"William Dembski is a first-rate scholar who has focused his attention on the perennial challenge to Christianity: Why does God allow such evil and cruelty in the world? While staying well within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, Dembski offers fresh insights that can truly be described as groundbreaking. Whether you end up embracing his solution or not, The End of Christianity is a book all Christians-and even non-Christians-need to wrestle with. We enthusiastically recommend it."
—Josh and Sean McDowell, co-authors of Evidence for the Resurrection and More Than A Carpenter
God's goodness in creation begins and ends with the Cross of Christ. So Christians have always believed. In 1 Corinthians, Paul underscores the centrality of the Cross:
I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:1-2)
Why did Paul, in his ministry to the Corinthians, focus so exclusively on the Cross? Why has the Cross played such a preeminent role in Christian theology? Why, in the iconography of the Church, is the Cross absolutely central? Why did George Bernard Shaw, himself a religious skeptic, think that Christians ought to rename themselves "Crosstians"?
In the Cross, the eternal Son of God enters fully into the human condition, takes on himself the totality of human sin and pain, and once and for all extinguishes the power of evil over our lives. To accomplish so great a salvation, Christ paid the ultimate cost, undergoing rejection, humiliation, physical torture, psychic torment, and death. Out of love for humanity, he laid down his life for ours, thereby securing our redemption. And then, through his Resurrection, he defeated death and gave us eternal life. As the ancient Easter hymn exults,
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Truly, there is no greater suffering or triumph of love than Christ's sacrifice for us on the Cross.
The last paragraph is traditional orthodoxy. We've heard it before. Sermons repeat it endlessly. But do we really believe it? And if we do believe it, should we? Consider James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, who sees the Cross not as God's means of redemption but as an excuse for Christians to persecute Jews (for their complicity in Christ's crucifixion). 3 Granted, the history of anti-Semitism includes the persecution of Jews by persons claiming to represent Christianity. But persons claiming to represent Christianity have committed all manner of heinous crimes. The question, therefore, is not what people do in the name of Christianity, but what Christianity is essentially. Jesus himself was a Jew, as were the first Christians who spread the good news of God's redemptive work at the Cross. To fault the Cross because it has been misrepresented is therefore itself to misrepresent the Cross.
A more troubling worry about the Cross comes from a diary entry by Anna Williams, a medical researcher active in the early part of the twentieth century. The Cross gave her no comfort. As she saw it, Jesus knew that his anguish would be momentary and that in exchange he would save the world. As she wrote in her diary, "This knowledge ... if we were sure, oh! what would we not be willing to undergo." Williams implies that anybody would willingly endure the Cross once the costs and benefits are properly weighed-the costs being minimal compared to the huge benefits.
How should we respond to Williams? Is it relevant that Christ was sinless and thus, unlike all other persons in history, utterly undeserving of any punishment he received (see Heb 4:15)? Does it help to note that crucifixion was the ultimate form of torture in the ancient world? Was Anna Williams therefore taking the sufferings of our Lord too lightly? As a cosseted ivory-tower intellectual, what did she know about suffering anyway? Didn't Christ on the Cross suffer more than she ever did in her little bourgeois world? Instead of complaining about the Cross not being enough, shouldn't she have gratefully accepted the redemption that could be hers only through the Cross?
Such questions miss the point. Williams wasn't comparing her personal sufferings to those of Christ. Rather, she was asking about the reach of the Cross. Specifically, she was asking whether Christ's suffering on the Cross could adequately encompass the full extent of human suffering. Williams suggests that Christ got off cheap. Christ's passion, after all, lasted only a matter of hours. By the standards of the day, his time on the Cross was short, beginning in the morning and ending in the afternoon. Yes, his scourging must be factored in as well. But crucifixion was common in the Roman Empire, and most crucifixions lasted days rather than hours before the victim expired. The physical suffering of our Lord was no more than that of many others brutalized by Rome. Thus, for Williams, Christ's Cross seemed like a small price to pay in exchange for the redemption of the whole world.
I don't mean to make light of our Lord's physical suffering, but it seems that Williams has a point. She underscores why a movie like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ does not convey the full measure of what Christ, in securing our redemption, endured on the Cross. Mel Gibson, a master of movie violence (going back to his early Mad Max days), was clearly in his element in portraying the cruelty that Jesus experienced at the hands of the Romans. But by focusing so one-sidedly on the physical violence surrounding Jesus' crucifixion, Gibson missed the far deeper suffering of our Lord, for which the Cross was but an outward expression.
Let's be frank. If the entirety of Christ's suffering was the physical pain he endured on the Cross, then Anna Williams is right: Christ's suffering on behalf of humanity has limited reach. Perhaps it can reach well-fed, heavily sedated, incessantly entertained Westerners whose main afflictions are stress and disillusionment. But can it reach the whole of humanity and the worst of its afflictions? Many forms of death, degradation, and torment seem far worse than the few hours that Christ suffered at the hands of the Romans. Off the top of my head, here are three:
1. Locked-in syndrome, in which the body is completely without ability to move or respond but the mind remains fully conscious. Imagine your body being in this state, a living coffin, for decades. 2. Being a long-term subject of Josef Mengele's medical experiments at the Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz. 3. Being raped and tortured over a period of months by one of Saddam Hussein's sons for refusing his advances and then finally being torn apart by his Doberman pinschers.
Ask yourself, If faced with such horrors, what comfort you would find in the Cross if it meant only that Jesus suffered a few hours of scourging and crucifixion. What comfort would you find in his words "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt 28:20) if, for all you could tell, his suffering was markedly less than yours? The Church father Gregory of Nazianzus stressed that Christ cannot redeem what he has not taken on himself. The usual theological formula for stating this is "That which is not assumed is not redeemed." How can Christ overcome the sin of the world if his experience of the consequences of that sin are at best partial-if he has not fully drunk the cup of God's wrath against sin?
The brief time into which Christ's Passion was compressed is not the only problem we must consider. In anticipating the Passion, Jesus gives every impression of knowing exactly what is to happen and when it is to happen. Everything seems scripted. Everything seems to happen on cue. In John's Gospel we are told that Jesus knew that Judas would betray him from the start (John 6:64). On the Cross, Jesus exclaims that God has abandoned him (Matt 27:46). The terror of that abandonment, however, ends no more than six hours later when Jesus utters, "It is finished," and gives up the ghost (John 19:30). Moreover, leading up to the Cross, Jesus has been continually assuring his disciples that he would rise again from the dead on the third day (Mark 9:31)-a prophecy he fulfills, once again, right on cue (Mark 16:2-6).
Most of us, when in the throes of suffering, however, don't have the luxury of having our tribulation so neatly choreographed. We don't know exactly what to expect when, and when the suffering will be over, if at all. Often we see no end to the suffering, and we don't know how things will turn out. Uncertainty about the course of suffering makes suffering doubly hard. And yet, by his knowledge of the future, our Lord seems to have avoided this aspect of suffering. Statistician David Bartholomew even goes so far as to ask whether "Jesus was truly human" since he seems to have escaped the experience of uncertainty and risk that "is part of what it means to be human."
What, then, is the reach of the Cross? Is it enough to embrace the totality of the human condition? I submit that it is. But to see this, we need to look beyond the physical agony of the Cross. The Cross points to a deeper reality of divine suffering that gets largely lost in films like The Passion of the Christ. How can we see that the reach of the Cross encompasses the full consequences of the Fall, including the full extent of human suffering? I'm not sure that our finite minds can fully comprehend the reach of the Cross. Nonetheless, we can catch glimpses of it.
Certain biblical images indicate that the suffering of the Cross cannot be confined merely to the few hours of Christ's earthly passion. After Jesus is resurrected, he appears to his doubting disciple Thomas and has him place his fingers in the wounds that were inflicted on the Cross. Ask yourself, Why would a resurrection body show marks of crucifixion? And why, in the book of Revelation, is Christ portrayed as a lamb that was slain? There's no indication in Scripture that in eternity the redeemed of Christ will exhibit any marks of suffering from their life on earth. And yet our Lord bears these marks in eternity, and is referred to, in Rev 13:8, as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." Clearly, then, the sufferings of Christ transcend his torture by the Romans.
Another factor to consider in probing the reach of the Cross is Christ's complete willingness to embrace it. Most of us, when in pain and sorrow, look for a way of escape. Indeed, if there were a button we could press to make our troubles disappear, most of us would press it. But seldom is such a button available. Yet, when Jesus gave himself up to be crucified, he could at any time have halted the proceedings. He makes that clear in the Scriptures. Thus, he informs the disciples that no one takes his life from him but that he lays it down freely (John 10:17-18). He adds that at any time he could call on more than 12 legions of angels to rescue him (Matt 26:53). According to a hymn sung on Good Friday, "He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross." Instead of the Cross holding Jesus, in reality Jesus upheld the Cross. What does it say about our Lord that he chose, on our behalf, to experience the utmost agony even though at any time he could have called it off?
Still another way to see how the reach of the Cross exceeds our first impressions comes, perhaps surprisingly, from the doctrine of divine omniscience. God knows all things. But if God knows all things, does God know-really know from the inside out-the full conscious experience of human suffering? In particular, does he know what it feels like to experience the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of suffering?
The philosopher Bertrand Russell, atheist though he was, offered a useful distinction when he differentiated two forms of knowledge: knowledge by description versus knowledge by acquaintance. I have knowledge by description of what it is like to climb Mount Everest. I have that knowledge because the climb up Mount Everest has been described to me. But I have no knowledge by acquaintance of climbing Mount Everest. I've never actually climbed a mountain and have no plans to do so.
Now consider God and his knowledge of human experience. Does he know human experience simply by description? Or does he also know it by acquaintance? And if by acquaintance, how deep is his acquaintance? If God only knew human experience by description, he would be like a fabulously wealthy king gazing serenely on emaciated subjects who are dying of starvation. Even if this king eased the plight of his subjects and even if he assured them of how bad he felt on account of their pain, his role as comforter would be hopelessly compromised because he himself had never felt hunger.
That's why missionaries who live in mansions when the bulk of the local population lives in hovels are never very impressive. As human beings, we have a fundamental need to be known, and being known means being known by acquaintance and not merely by description. Knowledge by description is available from books. But knowledge by acquaintance means getting your hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of human experience. On the Cross, Christ has done exactly that. He has fully embraced the human condition. He knows it by acquaintance.
As a consequence, the doctrine of divine omniscience entails a paradox: to know everything, God must know by acquaintance the full measure of human experience and thus must know what it is not to know since not knowing (what we call "ignorance") is a basic feature of human finiteness. We know that Jesus himself experienced this limitation since the Scriptures teach that the boy Jesus grew not only physically but also mentally (Luke 2:52). Moreover, we find the mature Jesus telling his disciples that there are things the Father knows that he doesn't (Mark 13:32).
Note that I am not here advocating openness theology, or open theism. On that view, the future is taken to be indefinite and therefore not knowable even by God. Openness theology flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy. Christianity's clear teaching throughout the ages has been that God fully knows the future. Yes, this teaching is under dispute, and a growing literature disputes it. But the incompatibility of openness theology with Christian orthodoxy becomes evident on reflection. In particular, strict uncertainty about the future means that God cannot guarantee his promises because the autonomy of the world can always overrule God. Of course, we could try to get around this by saying that God can step in when things get out of hand, but that defeats the point of openness theology, which is to limit God and thereby absolve him of evil.
God's knowledge includes knowledge of the future. When God becomes man in Jesus Christ, however, he sets aside divine omniscience. The point of God's becoming man is for God to identify with the whole of human experience, and this is not possible if Christ retains all his divine privileges. Christ does not set aside every divine privilege. Quite the contrary, he retains the ability to heal people at command, raise the dead, expel demons, and calm storms. He refuses only those privileges that would prevent his subjection to our misfortunes. In particular, Christ on the Cross identifies with the whole of human suffering, and this includes the ignorance and uncertainty that intensify human suffering.
But how can this be? How can God in Christ so fully identify with humanity that he fully knows the full extent of human suffering (albeit without himself sinning)? Can Christ look each of us in the eye and honestly tell us that because of what he endured on the Cross, he knows what each of us is going through even better than we do ourselves? As Christians we want this to be true and, in our heart of hearts, we know it to be true. But how can it be true? A mystery exists here that our finite minds will never fully comprehend. Nonetheless, let me offer two considerations that may help.
First, we need to see the Cross as a window into a much deeper reality of divine suffering. For instance, the Scriptures teach that with God a day is as a thousand years. But if a day is as a thousand years, then each day in a thousand years is itself a thousand years. Thus, if you run the numbers, a day with God is also as 365 million years. Follow the math to its logical conclusion, and with God an instant is an eternity. For this reason the mere six hours that Jesus hung on the Cross is no obstacle for God's taking upon himself the full sufferings of humanity.
Second, in the Incarnation, and especially on the Cross, Jesus identifies with humanity at the deepest level. In Col 3:4, Paul teaches that Christ is our life. In Gal 2:20, Paul describes the believer as being crucified with Christ. In Philippians 3, Paul rejoices to share in the sufferings of Christ, so much so that our suffering becomes an expression of Christ's suffering. It's not that Christ vainly tries to imagine what we are suffering; when we suffer, Christ is suffering.
Excerpted from THE END OF CHRISTIANITY by WILLIAM DEMBSKI Copyright © 2009 by William Dembski. Excerpted by permission.
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The book was a fairly light read, easy to get through, yet deep and informative at the same time. I would recommend this to those who are somewhat familiar with modern cosmology, geology, and theological exegesis. If you are an adamant young earth creationist you will either dislike this book or be engaged to find more answers (which ultimately he believes to be untenable). To state the theodicy in a nutshell, both natural and personal/moral evil is a result of the Fall and God acted in anticipatory manner, though retroactively, to show the gravity of sin. I appreciate Dembski's attempts to reconcile evil with sin and to exalt God's grace and glory in the midst of suffering and evil.
The only objections I had:
1. Dembski continually refers to the pre-fall creation [or prior to the effect of sin] as "perfect." I don't find this to be a biblical description of creation, rather God calls physical creation "good" (i.e. the end of the fourth day Gen. 1.25). The best thing God labels in creation is the creation of man, that creation is "very good" (Gen. 1.31). I constantly took note of this throughout the book. I would be interested to see if this would effect his theodicy at all.
2. I disagree with Dembski's philosophy of time (though I can't be certain from reading this book). Dembski seems to align himself with the [seemingly] majority of Evangelicals by claiming God is "outside of time" [B-theorist, static theory]. I may part way with this as I am an ardent A-theorist [dynamic theory]. I don't see this as effecting his theodicy at all though. He uses it to show the retroactive effects of sin from the initial beginning of the universe. That doesn't seem to necessitate an omnitemporality of God, rather middle knowledge [or even mere foreknowledge].
3. I disagree, exegetically, with his interpretation of Romans 5.12. I believe that "death" only refers to human death. I think to read in all death [to plants and animals] one must do leaps and bounds.
In the end, I find Dembski's theodicy to be plausible (no need for exegetical gymnastics either!). I find it complementary to a free will defense, and appropriately so (I appreciate his dismissal of Hick's soul-making). I hope that Dembski writes another book expounding on more details behind the core argument (as well as incorporate anything related to my three objections, though not pertinent to the actual argument).The book is also seeker-friendly in the sense that those who hold the problem of evil as an intellectual or emotional hurdle in believing in God or allowing a closer relationship to him may find answers.
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Posted August 11, 2009
The mental climate in which we live has embraced a scientific and naturalistic explanation for just about everything. In that climate, the problem of evil is a compelling reason to refuse belief in God. Dembski sets out to address both the climate and the problem. "The challenge of this book is to formulate a theodicy that is at once faithful to Christian orthodoxy and credible to our mental environment." (From the Introduction.)
The reader unwilling to follow Dembski's line of reasoning will quickly run into trouble. This book will pique the indignation of those for whom any variance from Young Earth Creationism is a drift into wrong theology. Readers insistent on staying clear of anything that smacks of "evolution" will be tempted to put it aside (but probably form a judgment about it anyway). Minds unwilling to explore what it might mean that God's thinking and acting transcend time, will probably doze off before getting to the good part.
So, what's in it for those who see it through?
. Continuity in understanding the comprehensive impact of sin on the creation and the comprehensive efficacy of Christ's atonement across all time,
. A credible understanding and articulation of current scientific thinking without abandoning sound evangelical, theological basics, and
. A breadth of theological, philosophical, and scientific reference that seems to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of his objective.
What you won't find is a necessarily easy read, or a proposal that will instantly find its way into your comfort zone. No reader is obligated to agree with his conclusions, but unless you grasp the core of Dembski's reasoning, I'm confident you won't fully understand your own view very well either.
Reviewed originally for Pulpit Helps Magazine & Online
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Posted December 18, 2009
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