Can the consequences of sin occur before the actual sin takes place?
I had never heard of such an idea until recently, when Jim Morse, a retired pulmonologist and good Baptist in Starkville, Mississippi, sent me an abstract of a presentation by Intelligent Design advocate William Dembski. Dembski, a Southwestern Seminary professor whose concern with “hostile websites” I mentioned in a recent post, spoke at Baylor University on August 3 during the annual meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christian scientists.
The published abstracts of the meeting are available as a PDF download here (click on “Abstract Book”); Dembski’s abstract is on page 10. Here’s his summary of the presentation, entitled “The Retroactive Effects of the Fall”:
A longstanding assumption in Christian theology is that human sin must precede any appearance of evil in the world for which it is responsible. That may seem axiomatic, but it can legitimately be questioned. Why, in the economy of a world whose Creator is omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal, should causes always precede effects? Clearly, such a Creator could act to anticipate events that have yet to happen. Moreover, those events could be the occasion (or “cause”) of God’s prior anticipatory action. To tacitly reject such backward causation is to insist that the corrupting effects of the Fall be understood proactively (in other words, the consequences of the Fall only act forward into the future).
By contrast, I argue that we should understand the corrupting effects of the Fall also retroactively (in other words, the consequences of the Fall can also act backward into the past).
In consequence, the Fall could take place after the natural evils for which it is responsible. Such “retroactivity” has theological precedent. Take the saving effects of the Cross, which are held to act not only forward in time but also backward. Christians have always attributed the salvation of Old Testament saints to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross at the hands of the Romans even though Old Testament times predate Roman times by hundreds of years.
Accordingly, an omnipotent God unbound by time makes a future event (Christ’s sacrifice) the cause of an earlier event (the salvation of Old Testament saints). Likewise, an omnipotent God unbound by time can make natural evil predate the Fall and yet make the Fall the reason for natural evil.
If I understand correctly, Dembski’s “Intelligent Design” view of how life came about allows for the earth to have a much longer history than the 6,000 years allotted by young-earther creationists, but he still appears to assume that all sin (and its consequences) are due to the actions of a literal Adam and Eve, who came along long after bad things often attributed to “the fall” — disease, animal suffering, and natural disasters, for example. So, he argues, bad things that predate humankind’s surrender to temptation must been caused retroactively by the later fall.
Does that argument seem feasible to you? In the first place, I don’t think one must assume that Adam and Eve had to sin before untoward earthly events could occur. The whole idea strikes me as an awkward and unnecessary attempt at marrying scientific speculation and biblical literalism.
Dembski’s comparative corollary of the view that Old Testament saints were saved retroactively through the later work of Christ likewise strikes me as unconvincing: if God is as “omnipotent, omniscient, and transtemporal” as Dembski suggests, then I would think God’s ability to redeem who God will is not limited by human theories of atonement and whether it could act retroactively.
I acknowledge that theology is not my specialty, and I don’t really expect that either I or anyone else can hope to fully understand God or God’s ways — either proactively or retroactively.
But what do you think?