Plantinga begins his chapter on the Fall with an interesting contradiction. Rather than simply focusing on the world’s brokenness, and on human suffering and pain, he quotes the first verse of the hymn, This Is My Father’s World, which lauds the beauty and magnificence of God’s creation. Even after the Fall, creation is still good—we see that goodness in blue skies and warm, sunny days, in soft snow and pouring rain that nourishes the earth, in trees and grass and sand and stone. And there is also goodness in human life—health, friendship, kindness, even selflessness. The horror and difficulty of the Fall is not that it introduced evil into the world as an entity separate and isolated from everything else. Rather, evil is a corruption, a failure of what is good. It is parasitic; Plantinga describes it as “burrowing” into the heart of things—relationships, dreams, political systems—and intertwining itself so closely with the good that it becomes nearly impossible to dig it out. My professors said, “Goodness is the soil in which evil grows,” and it’s not hard to imagine it as a seed—just a small, contained thing which, given water and a little time, will send out roots in every direction and, like a tenacious weed, survive until each last one is pulled out.
Someone once told me that Christian Reformed thinking was Augustine and Plato, Plato and Augustine—and while that’s obviously not entirely true, it’s fascinating to see just how many ideas presented by Plantinga and by Lewis can be traced back to one of those two thinkers. (Lewis wasn’t Christian Reformed, but he did admire John Calvin’s teachings.) The idea of evil as a corruption or shortcoming of good, rather than an independent force is very much Augustinian. So is the idea of original sin presented later in the chapter. As Plantinga defines it, original sin is humanity’s collective addiction to sin, our “habit” that we no longer have the power to break free of on our own, begun by Adam and Eve in the garden. Thus, sin is not merely isolated incidents of wrong-doing, but a general pattern of behavior that reaches across all times and places.
But who is to blame for sin? With such a view of original sin, it might seem easy to blame Adam and Eve—after all, they started it. However, just underneath this question of “Who’s to blame?” lies a much stickier, much harder question to tackle—if God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why does He permit sin and evil to exist at all? If God is immanent in creation—that is, intimately involved in everything that happens, big or small—how can anything happen that is contrary to His will? Does God ever use sin to accomplish His purposes (for example, through the temptation, torture, and execution of the innocent Christ)? How can sin be a part of God’s plan for the world’s redemption, and yet against His wishes, His designs, His commands?
This is often called the “problem of evil,” and Plantinga doesn’t consider it in much depth. He asserts that “God is perfectly holy and therefore hates sin,” and moves on. Certainly, this is true. God is holy, and God does hate sin. But this doesn’t answer the question at hand. If we didn’t accept that God was holy and hated sin, there would be no question at all.Historically, philosophers and theologians have dealt with the problem of evil in a variety of ways. Fortunately I left all my notes from last semester at home, so I won’t go into depth about them here. There are two ways that I think deserve mentioning, however—and, ironically, both come from former Calvin College philosophy professors! The first, pioneered by Alvin Plantinga (brother of the Plantinga who wrote Engaging God’s World) is called the Free Will Defense. Very, very briefly stated, it says that because it is better to be free than not to be free, God desired to create beings who possessed free will. However, in order to have free will one must have the ability to choose to do good—and therefore must also have the ability to choose not to do good. Thus, though God created human beings with the ability to sin, this was actually part of the world’s original goodness. The blame for sin is entirely in human hands.
The second way is not so much a defense as an acceptance of the fact that the existence of sin and suffering is a mystery—something that we, as human beings, are incapable of answering or solving on our own. Last semester I read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son, a collection of reflections on his grief over the death of his son, Eric. When faced with the problem of evil and its very close, personal presence in his life, Wolterstorff responds by pointing out God’s silence—and His suffering. God does not tell us why He permits sin and evil to exist, but, as Wolterstorff notes, He does not simply stand by, a passive observer of human misery. Rather, in Christ God freely enters into our sadness and desperation and makes it His own. He suffers alongside us, as one of us, until, finally, He dies for our sakes. God, too, Wolterstorff realizes, knows the pain of losing a beloved child.We may not understand why God allows there to be sin and evil in the world, why He allowed the Fall, but we can clearly see His response to sin—a response that He calls us to emulate: mercy and compassion, grace and forgiveness, and self-sacrificing love.