William Dembski - ‘The End of Christianity’ Young Earth Creationism

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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?

 

SF

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Dear SF

 

William Dembski’s ‘The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World’ has provoked a lot of interest.  Theologians and Christian authors thought it could ‘resolve the young-earth old-earth debate’, and that it was a ‘tour de force that weaves together science, philosophy and theology to generate profound insights on old problems’. The terms ‘thought provoking’, ‘trail blazing’ and ‘bold’ have frequently been employed to describe the book. One professor proposed that ‘this is the most important contribution to the question of good and evil since Leibitz defined it nearly three hundred years ago.’

 

William Dembski is a Research Professor of Philosophy and currently Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, best known for his work on Intelligent Design. His academic papers are available on his Design Inference website.

 

http://www.designinference.com/

 

The main focus of ‘The End of Christianity’ is theodicy, the branch of philosophical theology that wrestles with the problem of evil. Dembski is to be credited with making a complex subject relatively accessible, and for doing so in a relatively slender volume (196 pages plus 30 pages of notes).  The theodicy formulated by Dembski ‘attempts to combine credibility in the current mental environment with faithfulness to Christian orthodoxy.’  Dembski is also to be credited with having the courage to follow the evidence where it leads - at least up to a point - and this book leads into surprising areas.

 

Theodicy has proposed three possible causes for the existence of evil

 

1)      God

 

Many Christian theologians have rejected every suggestion that God is the cause of evil.  They argue 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 idea is rejected on the grounds that it suggests Satan is as powerful as God. To defend God’s omnipotence, the cause of evil must be located elsewhere.

 

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. Original Sin begins with two historical people (Adam and Eve) who were responsible for a literal rebellion circa 4000 BC.

 

Prior to the 20th century no one had cause to seriously challenge the ‘young earth’ theory of creation on the basis of history or cosmology, although the God of Wrath portrayed by Augustine and Calvin has been severely criticized as irreconcilable with a God of love and justice.  Science in the 19th and 20th century has provided increasingly compelling evidence that human beings lived and died long before 4,000 BC and that animals suffered and died millions of years before 4,000 BC. ‘The End of Christianity’ provides a thorough review of the evidence for and against young earth creationism by a scholar who is a conservative, Evangelical believer in Biblical inerrancy.

 

Dembski reports that Russell Moore, Dean of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (where both men work) has converted from an old-earth to a young-earth view because the Bible ‘properly interpreted’ teaches that ‘all evil in the entire created order arises from human sin and demands a young earth’.  Christian apologist R.C. Sproul, after a long career as an author and teacher, has also undergone an 11th hour conversion from old-earth to young-earth creationism.  Sproul explains his reasoning: ‘According to Reformation hermeneutic, the first option is to follow the plain sense of the text.’ 

 

Kurt Wise, who pursued undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago with Dembski, articulates the intractable young-earth creationist position. ‘If all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the word of God seems to indicate.  Here I must stand.’

 

Given his background, William Dembski would be expected to agree with Kurt Wise, Russell Moore and R.C. Sproul that young-earth creationism is the only credible position for Bible believing Christians.  Instead, Dembski spends two chapters demonstrating that young-earth creationism is neither good science nor good theology. His critique of young-earth creationism is extraordinarily thought-provoking, trail-blazing and bold.

 

Dembski states his position in the first paragraph of chapter six. ‘I myself would adopt (young-earth creationism) in a heartbeat except that nature seems to present such strong evidence against it.’  Rather than attack Christianity or young-earth creationists, he is calling us to think clearly about what the evidence suggests.  

 

In the 1850s, when the age of the earth was being recalculated by geologists, Philip Gosse proposed that God had created the universe with the ‘appearance’ of age. For example, Gosse argued that geological evidence of millions of years of sedimentation was merely a divine illusion. Gosse’s most memorable example of divine illusion-making was that Adam was created with a belly button to simulate the mark of an umbilical cord that never actually existed.  Hardly anyone was satisfied by Gosse’s theory which portrayed God as more of a trickster than a creator. If the young earth was real why would God have gone to so much trouble to confuse humans and sow doubt in their minds about it?

 

In 1920s, astronomers Edwin Hubble and Georges Lemaitre observed that the universe was expanding, which led to the theory that the universe had burst into existence at a precise moment in time, out of nothing.  Almost every major cosmologist of the day preferred an eternal steady state universe, and several physicists complained that any theory implying ‘the beginning of time’ imported religious concepts into physics. During its early decades the Big Bang theory was far more acceptable to religious thinkers than scientist as an explanation for creation. However a small number of Christians understood that original sin would lose all legitimacy if suffering, evil and could death could not be traced directly to human actions in 4,000 BC. They have relentlessly defended young-earth creationism and turned it into a religion versus science conflict.

 

The natural explanation for our ability to see stars that are billions of light years away is that light has travelled from them to us for billions of years.  In the 1970s, Henry Morris updated Philip Gosse by speculating that God created not merely the stars, but also the shafts of light that connected them to us.  Dembski notes, ‘God in his omnipotence could presumably have done things that way and the theory cannot be ‘factually’ contradicted. But absence of contradiction is about all that can be said in its favour...  It is difficult to reconcile such a God with a God of truth.’

 

Barry Setterfield in the 1980s attempted to get around the problem of light created ‘in flight’ by theorising c-decay.  In Einstein’s famous relativity equation (E=mc2) ‘c’ is the constant speed of light (186,000 miles per second). Setterfield theorized that light previously traveled much faster so that it could have traversed the universe in a few thousand years rather than billions, and the reason that light travels so much more slowly presently is that the speed of light has decayed.  Dembski notes, ‘The idea that light might be ‘getting tired’ or ‘running out of steam’ has a certain plausibility if one is committed to a young earth. But difficulties arise as soon as one asks for independent evidenced of c-decay.’

 

In the 1990s Russell Humphrey proposed a new theory using Einstein’s relativity to resolve the problem of distant starlight. Humphrey set up a relativistic model in which the rate that time passes varies dramatically in different parts of the universe.  Thus, what appears like 6,000 years on earth may correspond to billions of years elsewhere.  Mathematician Edward Fackerell has tested Humphrey’s claims. Despite ‘three different attempts to substantiate this claim of differential aging, Humphrey has been unable to get his numbers to come out right.’ Physicists Samuel Conner and Don Page (Page is an Evangelical Christian and a world-class relativist who has worked with Stephen Hawking) have also analysed Humphrey’s model and found it defective. Dembski notes, ‘But even if the numbers in Humphrey’s model could be made to come out right, we would still be a long way from confirming that this model accurately reflects the true state and history of the universe.’

 

The Institute for Creation Research attempts to explain contradictions between young-earth interpretation of biblical dates and old-earth scientific dating by speculating that radioisotopes previously decayed at much faster rates. Accelerated nuclear decay would reconcile young-earth with apparent evidence of an old-earth, however neither science nor the Bible provides any evidence that accelerated nuclear decay is a fact.  Dembski notes, ‘The need to tinker with nuclear decay rates reflects a larger difficulty confronting young-earth creationists: to preserve a young-earth interpretation of Genesis, they must abandon the constancy of nature... When young earth creationists question the constancy of nature, however, typically it is not because they have independent evidence but because their belief in a young-earth requires that nature behave inconstantly.’

 

Geophysicist John Baumgardner has defended the young earth theory that tectonic plates could have moved at speeds of miles per hour rather than the observed speed of centimetres per year without causing intense friction and producing catastrophic heat. Baumgardner has theorized that silicate minerals could have produced ultralow friction forces.  Dembski notes, ‘But showing that there are theoretical models in which catastrophic plate tectonics can avoid horrendous destruction of the earth is hardly the same as showing that catastrophic plate tectonics is a real phenomenon.’

 

Much young-earth science is based on finding anomalies or loopholes rather than proposing a complete, testable theory.  After observing that young-earth creationists seem less interested in understanding nature on its own terms than in devising loopholes to support an otherwise untenable position, Dembski adds, ‘But as an expert in logic and critical reasoning, I find this mode of argumentation troubling... A good reality check is to ask yourself what age you would estimate if you didn’t feel the need to square the age of the earth with a young-earth interpretation of Genesis 1-11.’

 

Dembski is critical of the ad hoc special pleading that infects young-earth models. ‘It only takes a few sips from an ocean to realize it is salty. The persistent failure of young-earth creationists to account for the appearance of age in the universe should therefore give us pause. Young-earth creationists, it would seem, hold on to recent creation not because of but in spite of the evidence.’

 

Dembski believes young-earth creationism has hit a dead-end.  What does an old universe mean to Christian theology?  Many Christians are willing to admit the universe might be millions of year old and some dinosaurs might have lived and died a long time ago, but  as recently as 2008, 44% of Americans believe that ‘God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.’ Young-earth creationists are committed to a ‘Biblical’ history in which dinosaurs and Eden coexisted around 4,000 BC. The issue is not young versus old dates, or science versus religion: the only thing at stake is the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin.

 

Original sin for Augustine meant that unbaptized babies and all unbaptized pagans were ‘excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life’. Subsequent theologians and the vast majority of Christians have disagreed. Original sin for Luther and Calvin meant that God predestined who would be saved and who would be damned. Many theologians and many Christians have disagreed.

 

No one in the modern world has a second thought about defending the old Christian belief that the sun revolves around the earth.  It was a flawed interpretation of scripture. There is simply too much evidence that the earth revolves around the sun. A heliocentric solar system has no effect on the daily struggle with sin and salvation.

 

William Dembski makes a strong case that young-earth creationism is based on a flawed interpretation of scripture. There is simply too much evidence that earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts and plagues were striking the planet - and that carnivorous animals were killing their prey - long before 4,000 BC. What conclusion does Dembski draw from the evidence? He presents an ingenious through experiment to manipulate time, history, philosophy and logic in order to prove that Adam and Eve are still guilty.

 

A few days ago a man was executed in Georgia despite considerable evidence that the testimonies used to convict him were unreliable or false.  It is puzzling that the governor of Georgia preferred to have Troy Davis executed as a guilty murderer rather than re-examine the evidence and consider a new verdict. It is equally puzzling why William Dembski prefers to condemn Adam and Eve as guilty for all the sin, evil, suffering and death in the universe rather than re-examine the evidence against a Gospel of Wrath interpretation of Eden.  Most of the Augustinian/ Calvinist doctrine of Original Sin has been rejected along with infant damnation and double predestination.  Dembski agrees with all of this and agrees that young earth creationism is unsubstantiated by evidence, yet he continues to hold Adam and Eve wholly and solely responsible for evil, even for natural evil which occurred millions of years before they were created. Dembski’s solution is so complex and incredible – except as a defence of Original Sin - that it merits thorough investigation next week.

 

Comment or Question?

 

Tags: William Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kurt Wise, Russell Moore, R.C. Sproul, Edwin Hubble, Georges Lemaitre,  Philip Gosse, Henry Morris, Barry Setterfield, Russell Humphrey, John Baumgardner, Troy Davis.