Alvin Plantinga (1974) quite rightfully, points out that Leibniz’ view (his lapse)—that an omnipotent God could have created/actualized just any world God pleased is false; this is taken to mean, according to this reasoning, that God could not have created a world in which there was neither natural or moral evil. This world, as is ‘painfully obvious’, contains states of affairs that are considered to be rather bad states of affairs—states of affairs that, it can be concluded are brought about by both ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ evil. However, this world is, nevertheless, the best possible world, in that it is in this kind of environment in which the freedom of the action of carbon-based-life and (even) none-carbon-based-life expresses itself—and in which the actions of both men and angels have both good and bad outcomes. Moreover, it is this world that God has created so that both freedom and justice may obtain i.e. the freedom of the ‘will to do’—of Angels and of Men. And, moreover, the freedom of an omnipotent and benevolent God—so that God may bring about a just state of affairs in accordance with God’s perfect governance i.e. God’s plans and purposes to ‘tabernacle’ with the Jewel of his creation—the imago Dei.
If God were to create a world in which there existed only good outcomes, it would not be a world in which freedom could, in real terms, express itself because neither action or an outcome would have moral veracity as both would be neutral—neither good or bad. I hasten to add here that the question of ‘free-will’ is crucial both to the goodness of God and to God’s reason for Creation. Moreover, it does not, in spite of objections, bring into question the ‘Sovereignty of God’. It is in this, the best of possible worlds, that the first part of Polkinghorne’s (2002) two-stage act of God’s creation plan can be actualized: The first-stage being the present scenario—subject to the effects of entropy, and the second-stage following on from the eschaton—‘new heavens and earth’. Polkinghorne’s scenario though does not offer a defense for God’s use of the evolutionary process but rather brings a focus on a future (eschatological) finality where all may be considered ‘well’, i.e ‘an eschatological just so story’.
Listed in what he refers to as the core of his approach, Christopher Southgate states that there is a strong likelihood that, “…an evolving creation was the only way in which God could give rise to the sort of beauty, diversity, sentience, and sophistication of creatures that the biosphere now contains.” Southgate qualifies this by stating that this is, indeed, an ‘(unprovable) assumption’. Southgate’s assumption is, indeed, unprovable. Given that the overwhelming consensus of both science and philosophy is that evolution is the most likely means through which all carbon-based-life came into existence, it is extremely likely that, from these perspectives,Southgate is correct in his assessment. However, it is not ‘just’ that an evolutionary ‘creative’ process has, seemingly, been the only way through which such a rich tapestry of life could have developed. It is also the case that (because of the biospheric potentiality) the evolution of creatures with the potential for higher-order-thought (the emergence of the creature with the physiological potential for becoming the creature that reflects God’s image) has, according to this view, been possible. From this perspective, it may be said that it (evolution) has been the means through which God has brought about the best possible outcomes—for His [good] purposes. It is assumed, therefore, that God does bring about his created objectives—even through what appears (presently) to be random processes.
Dennis Alexander (2008) poses the question of how a good God could choose to bring about all of the biological diversity, including us—by such a long and wasteful process—a process that involves so much death and suffering? As has been mentioned elsewhere Alexander comments,regarding the positive side of nature’s cycle of: predation, parasitism, plague etc., that we are living in an incredibly dynamic world in which there is what Alexander refers to as ‘a huge amount of daily coming and going—the dead of all kinds are constantly making room for the living; all of life is Interdependent’. Alexander holds that the God of all creation is also the great naturalist who enjoys all the richness and diversity of the natural world that he has brought into being—including its ‘impressive carnivores’. However, Alexander’s picture of the ‘great naturalist’ enjoying the sight of one section of his handiwork tearing apart the other is not one that speaks of benevolence, rather of a sort of divine utilitarianism.
If the process is simply a means to an end, what end might that be?
In terms of the ‘end-game’ being a ‘redeemed’ version of our amazing ‘planet earth’, it is difficult to imagine this ‘new order as an environment wherein the physical laws don’t continue to have the same deleterious effects—especially when reconciling the biospheric marvel that has taken billions of years to evolve—with that of an earthly paradise (or even a garden to work in) that will (with God’s intervention) evolve out of the present (post-industrial revolution) model—into the paradise in which there shall be ‘no more crying and no more dying’. How would it be possible to reconcile this with an ‘earthly’ heaven? Then there is the possibility of the occasional collision of large meteorites and subsequent ice-ages—or, more likely the opposite. Of course, God may well bring about a different state of affairs wherein God protects his new creation from all the other potentially, i.e. the big crunch’, heat-death or ‘freeze out’. There, I suggest, has to be a better option for an Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Benevolent Deity.
As one of the theological problems with which this book wrestles is that of suffering within evolution, it is my intention not to ‘muddy the waters’ with ‘fine sounding arguments’ that have no substance—at least no substance when it comes to the defence of Christian belief and practice. Christopher Southgate notes that the problem of suffering (aka ‘natural evil’) within a ‘theistic evolutionary paradigm’ has several aspects one of which is that if God created this system, which is full of suffering, then the goodness of God seems to be in question. Another is the question raised previously in respect to Alexander’s ideas:
Did God use suffering within evolution as a means to ‘the divine ends’?
Alister McGrath (2011) brings the issue into focus by noting that Darwin’s model of evolution envisages the emergence of the animal kingdom as taking place over a vastly extended period of time, involving suffering and apparent wastage that go far beyond the concerns of traditional theodicy. McGrath notes that Darwinism intensifies existing concerns with the problem of suffering. With evolution comes suffering and death—they are a part of the same package. If God is able to create all the necessary material and has the wherewithal to envisage and bring into being the best possible world—and yet has, seemingly, failed to accomplish his objectives without huge concomitant suffering, then there are bona fide reasons for seeking answers as to why this seems not to be the case. But, is it the case at all? What if there is far more going on than God’s desire to create ‘a best of possible worlds’? As has been stated previously, the prevailing view, of both science and philosophy, is that a system of biological evolutionary development is the only way through which all the ‘values’ of all the creatures that have ever existed could obtain. Ergo: predation, pain, parasitism, plague and (obviously) death, are all instrumental in the processes that produce the values to which Christopher Southgate refers, i.e. That a Universe (world) in which complexity emerges in a process governed by thermodynamic necessity and (Darwinian) Natural Selection—is the only sort of universe that could give rise to the beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced. If Southgate is correct—and if the New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17,66:22; 2 Peter 3:13 & Revelation 21:1) are ‘of the same stuff’—and under the ‘jurisdiction’ of the same physical laws, then there would be no reason to expect anything much different than that of a reconditioned planet earth. It is not that this world is not the best of possible worlds. But, it is the case that the notion of ‘a best possible world’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the idea that God could not have achieved his creation objective without such a protracted system of biological evolution. On the contrary, this is not the best of possible worlds in which the God of the Bible would bring into being: New Heavens and a New Earth’—as if at the end of billions of years of evolution there would appear a world in which there would be no: crying pain or death. But, this is the best of possible worlds in which justice would ultimately obtain—a world in which Christ would offer the greatest sacrifice and a world in which God would bring to justice—both men and angels. For the wages of sin is [indeed] death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’ (Romans 6:23) It is for this reason alone that this present world is the best possible world. To suggest that God is limited to the present model will have ‘missed the point’. How would predation, parasitism, plague not be a part of a ‘future world’ in which the same physical laws prevail?
There is more to the narrative than any (theistic) evolutionary just-so-story would have us believe? I can fully accept that it is not possible to know whether or not the evolution of the earth’s biosphere was God’s only way to bring about God’s planned intentions—even though the standard response from theistic evolutionists would be that it was, most likely, God’s only option. That God might have had the ‘one option’ does not preclude the likelihood of God’s omnipotence i.e. that God, by divine fiat could not have commanded the whole of nature to appear at once or even over the course of a few thousand years—or even over a twenty-four-hour-period. Of course, should either of these options have been actual-events then creation’s rich tapestry of life would never have existed or would not have reached its ‘zenith’. However, it might be the case that God is an ‘underachiever’—not at all ‘all powerful’ and ‘all knowing’.
If God were to be considered so inept a deity, God could hardly be described as omnipotent—this though would depend on the end (telos) of God’s purposes rather than the beginning.
In contradistinction to arguments given by some Theistic Evolutionists, my argument is that God’s desire was to bring about a state of affairs that allowed for the ‘arrival’ of carbon-based life forms—in particular the imago Dei—with independent characteristics allowing for the ‘arrival’ of free-will—the interaction of ‘mind’ and body. Some may object, and talk of ‘fairies’ or even ‘magic’—‘fairy stories and magic’ indeed. With regards to the notion of free-will (aka the extraordinary consciousness/ability that the human race has over and above that of other creatures) the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote the following regarding its alleged evolution:
Since I am conscious and you are conscious, we must have conscious selves…How can this be? To see how such an extraordinary composition job could be accomplished we need to look at the history of the design processes that did all the work—the evolution of human consciousness. We also need to see how these souls made of cellular robots actually do endow us with the important powers and resultant obligations that traditional material souls were supposed to endow us with (by unspecified magic). (2003)
Magic’ apart, though it has to be said that ‘naturally’ driven evolutionary coincidences provoke thoughts of magic—of ‘magicians’ and of ‘just so stories’. It is the question of the notion of the evolution of consciousness—of its ‘evolving’ freedoms from a source other than Natural Selection that, seemingly, divides opinion in evolutionary interpretation. Clearly, from a materialist perspective, any idea that the ‘none material’ can interact/interfere with the ‘material’, the ‘physical’—the biological is a non-sequitur. However, from a theistic perspective, there need be no such tension—as John Turl points out when he writes that, “…whether or not we can postulate a reasonable method of interaction, for Christians the basic datum is that pure spirit can interact with matter.” (2010) Turl offers the following examples:
- God, who is spirit, created the universe, which is matter (John. 4:24; 1:3).
- Angels have communicated with humans (Hebrews.1:14; Luke 1:13,28).
- The Holy Spirit affects human minds (John. 14:26; 16:8)
In his conclusion Turl points out the following: “It seems difficult if not impossible to construct a non-reductive monism; reductive monism seems unacceptable philosophically and theologically. Scripture does not favor monism in preference to a dualistic account of man. It is not necessary to assume that physics is hostile to the existence of an ontological soul.” From a theistic perspective, Turl’s conclusion is entirely reasonable—and indeed plausible. This may seem somewhat of a paradoxical state of affairs as we appear to be referring to both a process of evolution that is unguided and a deity that is able, in ways indiscernible to any sophisticated microscope, to somehow, within the biological process, bring about changes in line with some teleological objectives. The point here is that there are outcomes that may be predicted and outcomes that may not. Even if such a world as ours has arisen via an evolutionary process: Would it ‘really’ have arisen through an unguided natural process? i.e. a process that could guarantee nothing more than the survival of the ‘best adapted biological systems’—however these ‘systems’ may ‘turnout’. One can imagine though that, should a God-ordained process begin again, it would produce exactly the same results—precisely because it is a part of the Telos of the mind of God—the Goal of Creation.
Should God so work within the Cosmos it has to be admitted that there is little evidence of God ‘actively’ pursuing paths that ease the suffering of the ‘products’ of such a state of affairs. However, should the evolutionary process have been left completely to its ‘own devices’, there would be no guarantee of a good outcome—especially regarding the free-will choices of lesser beings—and the emergence of the imago Dei—the incarnation, the victory of the Son of God over these principalities and powers. Moreover, it is also the case that Scripture offers a better outcome than the predictions of speculative (theoretical) physics: either ‘the big crunch’ or the ‘big freeze’—an outcome that God has purposed from before the creation of the world—even the Telos of God.
Derek J. White