Book Review

"Not the Way It's Supposed to Be" by Cornelius Plantinga Jr.

Brandon G. Withrow
Cornelius Plantinga Jr.
Tuesday, November 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2007

Each issue we're looking at a book published during Modern Reformation's 15-year history, with a look to why this book was and still is significant.

It is easy to recognize sin when it is packaged in the fires of an explosion. When a car bomb ripped through the World Trade Center in 1993, and then eight years later two passenger planes brought down the twin towers com-

pletely, even some of the most ardent pacifists justified hell for the perpetrators of those crimes. From the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, to the London bombings in July 2007 and the ongoing genocide of Darfur, the effects of sin never cease to shock our sensibilities when they occur in such big ways. But sin, as Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. tells us in Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin," has a thousand faces" (9).

Plantinga's book came out in 1995, but his subject matter is a human problem nearly as old as creation itself. So though times have changed-Plantinga is now the sixth president of Calvin Theological Seminary, member of the board of editors of Books & Culture, and former editor of Calvin Theological Journal-his comments are still relevant these 12 years later. In the preface he notes that his purpose is "to retrieve an old awareness" of sin, an awareness that "used to be our shadow" but at some point turned into an "inside joke" dismissed with a "grin" (ix). In this decade, some might relegate it to a casual "my bad"; we still do not understand why it is bad.

Plantinga sets sin against the idea of shalom. Shalom, he writes, means "universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight," or "the way things ought to be" (10). In other words, sin is the anti-shalom. "God hates sin not just because it violates his law," he argues, but "more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be" (14). Shalom represents God's plan for "creation and redemption," while sin is "blamable human vandalism of these great realities," an offense against God himself (16). Plantinga calls us to understand sin not as merely a theoretical category, but as the actual state of things. Sin is more than what happens when one offends another; it is a "dynamic and progressive phenomenon" that spreads like a "plague" and if "unarrested, sin despoils even its own agents, eventually causing the 'very death of the soul'" (53). He is careful to note that though it is a universal calamity, sin is not the absolute dictator of this world. "Corruption never wholly succeeds" because "creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still" (199). Nevertheless, to miss the impact of sin is to cheapen the power of grace and the work of Christ.

If the New York Times Best Seller list is an indication, this perspective on sin is not going to be the standard anytime soon. Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great and Richard Dawkins's God Delusion argue that pain in this world is not human vandalism of God's peace but simply the natural process of evolution. Modern atheists identify these as misfirings tied to survival mechanisms-misfirings that can produce good or evil-and contra Plantinga, they argue that things are the way they are supposed to be; that is, what theologians call sin is just the way evolution plays out. The only hope for improvement in this world, according to the new atheism, is for evolution to succeed and the species to advance. The world can rest, therefore, in the fact that evolution designs to improve things.

Most significantly, Hitchens argues that these evolutionary improvements will come quicker when we put aside Christianity's outdated and superstitious views of sin and death. Religion, as Hitchens puts it, "poisons everything." It makes us feel bad for things that are natural; it is a dictator that abuses its power. For Plantinga, this concept could not be more incorrect. God is great, despite Hitchens' declaration otherwise, and it is sin that poisons everything, including religion. Plantinga puts is this way: "Evil perverts religion as well as everything else that is vital and momentous. When it does, religious beliefs and practices may mutate into a self-serving substitute for the service of God" (108).

Plantinga's book represents the classic Reformation answer to the problems of this world. It is the world upside down, where humanity has a problem that is unsolvable by any tool of science. The answer to the human problem of sin lies outside of this world and in Christ. "To concentrate on our rebellion, defection, and folly," says Plantinga, "is to forget that the center of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Savior" (199). Any view of the world that includes sin, but fails to bring in grace, minimizes "the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit and the hope of shalom" (199).

In our post-9/11 world, the question of evil is just as disturbing and perhaps more publicized than ever, yet Plantinga's pre-9/11 volume continues to offer the Christian solution, one which has given hope to millions for centuries. It points sinners to the Christ, and promises that those who hope in his redemptive work will one day live in a world that is as it is supposed to be.

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Brandon G. Withrow
Brandon G. Withrow (Ph.D.) is an adjunct professor at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama).
Tuesday, November 6th 2007

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