Theologians don’t get more sophisticated than Alvin Plantinga, philosopher of religion (emeritus) at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He’s loaded with honors, and was once president of the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association. He’s written a gazillion books, many of which say the same thing, and I’ve posted about his bizarre defenses of Christianity several times before (e.g., here, here, and here).
My latest incursion into Sophisticated Theology™ involves reading Plantinga’s new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (2011, Oxford University Press). His thesis is, as usual, that there is no conflict between science and religion, but a profound one between science and naturalism. I won’t reprise his argument except to say that involves the specious claim that natural selection could not have given us senses that enable us to reliably detect the truth, so that ability must have been conferred by God (see my post on that argument here).
Today I want to highlight one bit of bizarre apologetics that Plantinga offers in his new book. It stems from the oft-made criticism that the existence of “natural” evil—that is, evils like childhood cancers and deaths by tsunamis—conflicts with the idea of a loving and all-powerful God. Lately this argument has been applied to the idea of natural selection: why would God use a process of creation that would lead to the suffering of so many animals? Couldn’t God have done it otherwise? This argument is part of Philip Kitcher’s “Enlightenment case against supernaturalism” in his excellent short book Living With Darwin. As Kitcher says there (p. 127):
When you consider the millions of years in which sentient creatures have suffered, the uncounted number of extended and agonizing deaths, it simply rings hollow to suppose that all this is needed so that, at the very tail end of history, our species can manifest the allegedly transcendent good of free and virtuous action.
Well, Plantinga, who can explain anything using his convoluted apologetics, has an answer on pp. 58-59 of his book. It is so stunningly absurd, even humorous, that I must convey it in full. Read this to get the full import of Sophisticated Theology™:
The same [why God permits suffering] goes for processes in the natural world that cause pain and suffering. Various candidates for these reasons have been suggested. . .
God wanted to create a really good world; among all the possible worlds, he wanted to choose one of very great goodness. But what sorts of properties make for a good world? What are the good-making properties for worlds? Many and various: containing rational creatures who live together in harmony, containing happy creatures, containing creatures who know and love God, and many more. Among good-making properties for worlds, however, there is one of special, transcendent importance, and it is a property that according to Christians characterizes our world. For according to the Christian story, God, the almighty first being of the universe and creator of everything else, was willing to undergo enormous suffering in order to redeem creatures who had turned their backs on him. He created human beings; they rebelled against him and constantly go contrary to his will. Instead of treating them as some Oriental monarch would, he sent his Son, the Word, the second person of the Trinity into the world. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He was subjected to ridicule, rejection, and finally the cruel and humiliating death of the cross. Horrifying as that is, Jesus, the Word, the son of God, suffered something vastly more horrifying: abandonment by God, exclusion from his love and affection: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This overwhelming display of love and mercy is not merely the greatest story ever told; it is the greatest story that could be told. No other great-making property of a world can match this one.
If so, however, perhaps all the best possible worlds contain incarnation and atonement, or at any rate atonement. But any world that contains atonement will contain sin and evil and consequent suffering and pain. Furthermore, if the remedy is to be proportionate to the sickness, such a world will contain a great deal of sin and a great deal of suffering and pain. Still further, it may very well contain sin and suffering, not just on the part of human beings but perhaps also on the part of other creatures as well. Indeed, some of these other creatures might be vastly more powerful than human beings, and some of them—Satan and his minions, for example—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. (Some may snort with disdain at this suggestion; it is none the worse for that.)
And that, brothers and sisters, is the best that modern theology has to offer. It is the kind of theology that people like Dawkins and I are accused of ignoring—or of not taking seriously.
No wonder Plantinga notes that this argument “is unlikely to become popular among secularists”! It not only claims that animals have to suffer because Jesus did, as well as we miserable sinners, but floats the idea that “Satan and his minions” also have a bit part in the creation of suffering. Eagles, lions, ichneumon wasps—all the sufferings inflicted on animals by other animals? They come from Satan! And why, exactly, did God allow Satan to do that? What is the purpose of animals suffering unnecessary pain? (Naturalistic evolution, of course, explains all this: pain is an adaptation to detect damage, and predation the inevitable result of a new food supply.)
I could go on and on about the argument, but what’s the point? Despite Massimo’s caution, I aver that Plantinga’s idea is simply silly and laughable. Satan indeed! Must I take this seriously and discuss the evidence for The Hornéd One?
If I may be allowed an observation, I think that Plantinga has been driven mad by Christianity.