Scripture, science, and evil

I much enjoyed Alvin Plantinga’s important book, Where the Conflict Really Lies:  Science, Religion, and Naturalism. It’s a chance to read the premier Christian philosopher at the top of his game, in a winsome style that is accessible to anyone. If you had difficulty wading through the analytical arguments of Warranted Christian Belief  and God, Freedom, and Evil, then this book is for you. Plantinga still gives some crisply detailed arguments, but he puts them in pages of small print, much like what Barth did with his excurses and exegesis, so you can skip them if you wish.

Plantinga continues his offensive against naturalistic materialism, and though he is generally gracious, it is comforting to hear his take on the new atheists. In regard to a point from Daniel Dennett, Plantinga observes that “I’m sorry to say this is as bad as philosophy (well, apart from the blogosphere) gets; Christian charity, perhaps even good manners might require passing silently by the embarrassing spectacle, eyes averted” (p. 45).

Plantinga’s main argument is that theism does not have a conflict with science per se but only with naturalism. He thinks that the Christian faith is compatible with theistic evolution, just not with the mainstream, naturalistic variety.

This raises several issues, such as whether Plantinga believes that death, which accompanies the natural selection mechanism that drives all forms of evolution, is part of how God naturally constituted the world. I think he should have made this point clear, especially given the current debate in his denomination and alma mater. I wish he had said more, or at least made clear that death is a consequence of Adam’s Fall. Instead, he offered a broader defense for suffering and evil by declaring that these things are required to make ours one of the best possible worlds.

Plantinga states that “perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement.” And since atonement requires sin to be atoned from, it was necessary for God to allow sin and suffering, otherwise he could not demonstrate his love by saving us from it. And how did this suffering enter our world? Plantinga doesn’t directly fault Adam’s sin, but suggests that “Satan and his minions…may have been permitted to play a role in the evolution of life on earth, steering it in the direction of predation, waste and pain” (p. 59).

Plantinga describes his view as supralapsarian, which is surprising given his Arminian sympathies. I don’t think his defense works in the big picture, for it seems to imply that God suffers from Munchausen Syndrome—making his children sick so he can rescue them. I also don’t think it works in the details, for a biblical defense for the problem of evil cannot omit Adam’s Fall.

Despite this significant reservation, there is still a lot to learn from this dean of Christian philosophers, even when you think you disagree.

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