William Dembski, in other respects an incredibly brilliant leader of the Intelligent Design movement (sporting a Ph.D. Mathematics and another in Philosophy), has proposed an intriguing solution to the problem of natural evil. Natural evil here is distinguished from moral evil, which is typically apologetically explained with the logic of an Augustinian Theodicy. Now, the issue for many fundamentalist groups along with other factions of ‘Christendom’ with the old age of the earth or with evolution is principally that it seems to entail that natural evil did not or could not arise as a catastrophic-cosmic consequence of original sin, since the original sin occurred after Adam and Eve were both created, but, according to an evolutionary narrative of biological origins, that was not before other animals and species existed all of which experienced natural evil. Therefore, it is thought, if any such-like evolutionary account of origins is correct, then natural evil cannot plausibly be explained by referring to the fall of man.
A number of interesting solutions exist theologically for this puzzling dilemma. For instance, C.S. Lewis reminds us that prior to the original sin in the garden of Eden, there was already a true ‘original sin’ in the heavenly realm which plausibly had cosmic consequences (namely, Lucifer’s fall from Grace and rejection of the beatific vision). I think that this solution accords best with my intuitions about the Christian story of sin, free will, and especially angelic theology (as angels are typically understood to have a natural connection with the natural order of the world, often being taken as patron saints of physicists).
There are other solutions, such as ways of reading Genesis such that the Garden of Eden was in no strict sense ‘material’, and that only when God gave Adam and Eve ‘the skins of animals’ did Adam and Eve receive a physical animal form. This view is less attractive to me because it generally presumes a platonic cosmology according to which the difference between an immaterial thing and a material thing is merely how ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ it is, and thus the fall represents a sort of ‘cooling-off’ and hardening of the spiritual material. Of course, there may be ways to make sense of something like this in a different system I’d be more inclined to accept (like Leibniz’ monadology), but generally it isn’t the way the Church Fathers/Mothers have been inclined to read and understand the Genesis narrative (I note that there may be some exceptions, like the profound Church Mother Macrina).
In any case, another solution which can now be added to these aforementioned solutions (among others I haven’t bothered to mention here), is the recent proposal of William Dembski that perhaps one can accept an evolutionary story of origins (or something, for our purposes, relevantly similar) and yet retain an uncompromising Augustinian Theodicy, according to which Moral and Natural evil are both to be explained with reference to the act of original sin. What he proposes is that causality can work backwards as well as forwards, and thus that the act of Original Sin before it happened was precisely the action which ’caused’ the cosmic catastrophe of Natural evil. I used to have several problems with this view which I have since come to think are not good objections. For instance, I thought that God applying the consequences of the fall prior to the action of the fall would make the fall appear to be a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’; in other words, because God allowed the conditions under which the action of the fall, which ’caused’ the effect of those conditions, to pre-exist the action, it also seems to make the action inevitable. In a world which has the nature of a fallen world, how could Adam or Eve have had a significantly free choice to choose to not sin? This objection, I now realize, is actually confused. Or, perhaps I should at least say that it is is patently an objection which presumes an A-theory of time. I used to employ this objection when I was more inclined to accept an A-theory of time, but having come to affirm a B-theory of time I find such-like objections to be much less persuasive. Moreover, it isn’t obvious that just because the cosmos had suffered the effects of original sin, that the conditions under which Adam and Eve had the choice of whether to commit the sin determined any outcome – maybe the Garden of Eden was created as a small slice of paradise in such a way as to not involve (obviously or otherwise significantly) any of the effects of the fallen state. Thus, it becomes even more clear that what made such objections persuasive at all was really the presumption that causality cannot work backwards precisely because time actually ‘flows’, not just phenomenally from the perspective of a subject existing in time, but actually, objectively and ontologically.
There remains, however, one seminal objection which I both used to have, and which I continue to maintain today. I objected to this view, when first I heard it, precisely because I thought that for God to allow the effects of a cosmic catastrophe to exist ‘prior’ to the act of Adam and Eve actually committing Original Sin was unbecoming of how God chooses to relate with, and exemplify his justice to, man. In other words, mankind learns what God is like by the example of experiences in which God ‘inter-acts’ with us in such a way as to be intelligible to us. In other words, we would have a very different notion of God altogether if we experienced God applying punishments, or even rewards, prior to the actions deserving of them transpired from the perspective of the subject(s) whose actions (will) deserve the punishment or reward. Indeed, imagine what the world would look like, how unintelligible reward, punishment, or justice itself, would be to us, if God were in the habit of applying rewards and punishments to our actions in such a way that we would not naturally make the inference to a ‘causal’ connection. We would have no sense of justice, no sense of consequences at all (at least not in the moral realm). It seems as though imposing a punishment ‘before’ a crime is committed is a terrible way for God to go about exemplifying his justice, love or mercy to us.
This objection, I think continues to hold sway, and I find it difficult to accept that God either acts this way generally, or would be inclined to do so in this ‘special’ situation.