Beyond the Dome of Eden: a Part Review of Stephen H. Webb’s Theodicy

This article is a (part) review of the (2010) work of Dr.Stephen H. Webb .

The Garden
“A river watering the garden flowed from Eden;” (Genesis 2:10)

In his book entitled, ‘The Dome of Eden ( A New Solution to the problem of Creation and Evolution) Webb, whilst majoring on a particular interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts, nevertheless offers something of an apologetic for the goodness of God—in the face of the evidence from ‘Natural Evil’. My review concentrates on this particular part of Webb’s thesis.

Angelic Intrusion

Webb’s book, The Dome of Eden (A New Solution to the Problem of Creation and Evolution) is not primarily offering an account of ‘Falls’ as a defence but gives a significant amount of space to the question. In Webb’s opinion (p. 96) theologians who argue that this world is the only world that God could have created run the risk, in their attempt to justify God’s relationship with natural evil, of ‘portraying’ the world as thoroughly and necessarily evil: “That is, if there is no possible world that God could have created that would have been without evil, then the very existence of matter is thoroughly saturated in and inseparable from evil. If evil is built into nature, however, it is God who put it there.” (p. 96)

Webb makes an interesting point (p. 97) when he says that evil (in the natural world) is real whereas entropy is: ‘what one would expect to find at the level of physical processes. Evil is, from this perspective, a malevolent factor whereas entropy is, simply, the consequence of certain physical conditions. Webb points out that even though the temptation to equate evolution with evil is understandable he nevertheless maintains that equating nature with evil runs counter to the Christian tradition, most notably the claim found in Genesis that nature is good—which for Webb means ‘moral’ rather than ‘utilitarian’. Indeed Webb reminds us that groups that considered nature evil (Manicheans and Cathars in particular) have always been considered heretical. He maintains (p. 127) that any adequate theological account of evolution has to explain how God—as the source of all that is good in nature—bears no responsibility for evil evident within the evolutionary cycle of life. For Webb the answer to the problem of evil has to be located outside of the evolutionary paradigm rather than within. This is, indeed, a sentiment with which I concur. Webb’s views further advance my own personal research into the problem of ‘Evolution and the Goodness of God’–a project that I have been ‘engaging with since around 2002–in both undergraduate and post graduate work studies in Philosophical Theology.

The Theses

Webb’s theses (pp. 141-142) can be summarised as follows:

  1. That the ‘abrupt’ transition between the first two verses of Genesis indicates that something has gone terribly wrong in the world—as a consequence of the fall of Satan prior (time span unknown) to the creation of Adam and Eve.[1]
  2. The world of Satan’s (a.k.a Lucifer) fall was not the Garden of Eden. Satan fell into the world we know—the world of plague, parasitism, predation and death—‘not Eden which we know only through the biblical revelation.’
  3. Eden was a real place though not real in the sense that we can ‘plot its coordinates on the space-time continuum that we experience today. If Eden is a real place, and if Satan tries to battle God in nature from the very beginning of creation—then there has to be some kind of ‘reality’ that divides Eden from the rest of the world. Evil had to cross into Eden in order to disrupt it and to corrupt it.
  4. That the reason for Satan’s fall to come full circle is the same reason for creation as a whole—as well as the reason why human nature cannot be reduced to its biological components. ‘God created the world because God the Father had already determined to take the form of God the Son, and the form God the Father gave to the son is the same form in which we were created. ‘The world and all that is in it is a gift to the Son from the Father.’

Webb view maintains that we are who we are because the Father wanted free creatures who could decide to share in the Son’s love of the Father: ‘Jesus Christ is the reason for the world, and we were created to be rational companions of him. God did not become incarnate as a response to the fall. Rather the incarnation is the revelation of that which God determined to be from the very beginning. Satan, however, opposes God’s planned intention because Satan was jealous of Jesus Christ, the form that God the Father had determined to grant the Son. Jealousy, then, from Webb’s perspective, is the route of all evil, not power, pride, or greed.’ (p. 142)

A Biological Interpretation of Spiritual Warfare

Webb makes clear that he is not arguing that what Satan may have done is ‘evolution per se’—evolution, as described by most biologists. Webb notes,’…it is too creative to be attributed to an evil origin and too complex to be reduced to a single negative portrait.’ (p. 147) However, he does want to argue that Satan’s activities are very much connected to the cruelties in nature that were observed by Darwin and therefore have to be the opposite to ‘good’: ergo evidence against the work of an omnibenevolent designer. I agree with Webb’s sentiments here—that: should such creatures as ‘fallen angels’ be allowed then who can gainsay their ability to introduce unnecessarily pernicious changes to the creative ideal? Webb though goes further and introduces the ‘battleground’ scenario—that is, ‘Satan is as responsible for natural evil as he is responsible for moral evil, and evolution is to natural evil what freedom is to moral evil. Evolution in nature, like freedom for humans, is one of the battlegrounds upon which the struggle of good and evil takes place.’  (p. 147)

Webb is aware, as I am, that most conservative evangelical theologians tend to refer to Satan most often with reference to the apocalypse or the eschaton, and admits that Satan tends not to feature too specifically in relation to the Fall narrative—or indeed to Genesis chapter one. Nevertheless Webb suggests (p. 148) that it makes perfect sense that God would have been reticent in revealing Satan’s role in the beginning of the universe, and that God could not have included technical information (that is part of scientific worldview) in an age that would have been uninformed[2]. Webb though points out (p.149) that the fall of Satan does have ‘deep roots’ in the Jewish tradition—especially in the Second Temple period—much of the speculation about fallen angels centring on the story in Genesis 6 about ‘sons of God’[3].

In his second thesis Webb refers extensively to the New Testament accounts of Satan’s (personal) appearance—citing John 8:4 in which the author of the gospel reports Jesus as saying that Satan was a murderer from the beginning and that he was ‘the father of lies’.

Regarding evolution Webb states that:

Evolution works under divine permission—as does everything that happens on earth—but evolution is in some sense a work of Satan, not God…Evolution leaves a trail in history that is marked by blood and anguish. It makes death the necessary precondition of life…Evolution is the song of death. It is a powerful song, and not one without its creative effects, but it is not the song the faithful will sing in heaven to the glory and praise of the Son. It is a song that could have been sung only by the Son’s chief competitor. It is the terrible sound of Satan[4]. (pp. 151-152)

Webb’s is a bleak view of evolution: that, somehow, God’s creative sovereignty has been undermined—that there had been interference with the essential laws governing the physical cosmos. Webb is correct in his assessment of the observable results of the Darwinian model of the survival of the fittest—who would disagree? The spectacle of the hyena pack gorging on the ‘still living’ zebra does not bring to mind the most adoring of hymns. However, there may well be more to ‘this’ than meets the eyes of 21st century humanity.

Hyena kill

Christological Interpretation of the Imago Dei

Webb makes the point that: if God chose this world as the stage for the incarnation, and the human species as its form, then there must be something unique about both planet Earth and human nature.

The vision of Ezekiel affirms the uniqueness of the Earth by depicting the dome in a sheltering role, and it puts humanity at the centre of the cosmos by what Ezekiel sees atop the Dome. On the Dome is ‘something like a throne’ (1:26) that looks like it is made of sapphire. On the throne is seated ‘something like a human form’…to Christian ears, it is obvious what Ezekiel saw on the throne. The only person with divine status who has a human form is, for Christians, Jesus Christ. (pp. 73-174)

Webb notes that, in spite of all the past objectors, who held that Christ did not/could not have had a body prior to the incarnation in the stable at Bethlehem, ‘Old Testament theophanies were nevertheless a standard trope of Christian apologetics directed at the Jews’ (p.175) and that, as such, they had a profound impact on Christian theology. He refers to the work of Griffin & Paulsen (pp. 97-118) who had shown how common it was before Origen to interpret the pinnacle of mystical ascent, as well as the beatific vision promised to all believers in the end time, as a vision of God. Webb argues, as has already been stated, that one of the corollaries of Christ’s primacy is that humans have the form (and image) precisely because God intended to give a human form to Christ from the beginning and states that the Old Testament has not only an anthropomorphic view of God but also a ‘theomorphic’ view of humanity—i.e. that humans take the form they do because God has the form he has. Webb makes it clear that sceptics will view his position as anthropomorphism (in the most negative of terms). He understands the reason for the critique well enough but points out that they are mistaken to claim that Christians think of everything from a human perspective—and suggests that God made the world with us in mind, to become friends of the Son and to accompany him in praise forever. (p.179) This is a view that is biblical and that I adhere to personally.

Web opines that, should Jesus is left out of Genesis, then all we’ have is the first half of a typical tragedy (the fall, with the second half, the climatic resolution, coming in the New Testament), rather than decisive revelation of the truth of our origins. (P.180) This is absolutely crucial for any comprehensive theological work that is truly Trinitarian.

Webb’s attempt at theodicy is, I believe, innovative and could conceivably ‘participate’ within a composite theodicy but, standing alone it does not, in my opinion, obtain e.g. it does not offer a defence for [the sovereign] God’s culpability in allowing the state of affairs, brought about by Satan, to prevail. But it is not, as far as I am concerned, too far off the mark

Derek White [ 2017]

[1] Webb points out one can hold to the fall of Satan without thinking that this fall is indicated by a gap in the Genesis text but adds that the textual gap makes for what he terms ‘a striking defence’ (2010, p. 140).

[2] Gregory Boyd (Boyd, 2001, p. 47)points out that the second century apologist Athenagoras considered Satan to be the ‘the spirit which is about matter who was created by God, just as the other angels were….and entrusted with the control of matter and the forms of matter. (a.k.a. Gnosticism)

[3] According to Genesis 6 these ‘Sons of God’ (verses 2 & 4) fathered children. Bruce Waltke (Waltke, 2001, pp. 115-117) notes that the term ‘sons of God’ is problematic but points out that, ‘the view that angels had sexual relations with mortals is extremely ancient.’(p.116)  Waltke also points out that the notion that angels ‘married’ humans contradicts Matthew 22:30 and Mark 12:25.Waltke’s conclusion is that ‘angels’ is well established and that (later) interpretations could be used alongside ‘sons of God’.

[4] Webb qualifies his view of Satan—stating that it would be easy to exaggerate Satan’s role in the events of creation and that, Genesis does not give Satan any credit for what God has done. ‘Satan is the author of evil, but because we see evil all around us, it is tempting to think that Satan has more power than he does. Satan can manipulate what God has created [as modern man attempts to], and he can alter life forms through his mimicking of God’s creativity, but Satan cannot create anything out of nothing, which is the theological lesson of Genesis.’ (Webb, 2010, p. 150)

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