Where’s God When the Animals Suffer?

There is no doubt that humans have inflicted an unimaginable amount of suffering upon the beautiful creatures God has given us to share the Earth. From constantly filled animal rescue shelters to endangered species the victim of wildlife trafficking to the use of the dark web to peddle animal torture videos, the evidence is overwhelming. However, how is animal suffering to be explained that is not a result of humankind? Is it possible to reconcile the God of the Bible with the daily death of untold numbers of innocent animals? By examining several key Biblical texts and exploring various responses by Christian thinkers, it may be shown that animal suffering does not contradict the existence of the God of the Bible.

Philosophers and theologians often categorize evil into two types: moral and natural. Philosopher Garrett Deweese writes that “‘Natural Evil’ refers to the pain and suffering caused by natural processes, in contrast to ‘moral evil,’ the wicked acts of morally responsible persons.”[1] Animal suffering that is the result of any human action or inaction can be explained as a result of moral evil; man’s fallen nature and sinfulness causes animals to suffer. Christian or not, few will argue that humans have not been the best steward of God’s creatures. The more difficult challenge is reconciling animal suffering with natural evil in a world created by an all-loving and infinitely good God.

The Age of the Earth Matters

The challenge of natural evil and animal suffering for some Christians is explained relatively straightforward if one holds to a literal six-day creation account of Genesis that occurred approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, commonly known as young-Earth creationism. Genesis 1:31 reads, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good [emphasis added].” A young-Earth creationist would argue that part of the good of creation was that there were no natural disasters and no animal death. Upon the Fall into sin of Adam and Eve, as described in Genesis 3, animal and human death entered the world. Most cited is Genesis 3:17 – 18 as God speaks to the now sinful Adam saying, “…cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you….” The cursing of the ground was natural evil entering the world. Therefore, both moral and natural evil resulted from the Fall, and humans and animals have been suffering ever since.

However, a Christian does not need to hold to a literal six-day reading of Genesis. Understanding the creation account in Genesis to be a narrative of undefined periods, a commonly accepted and legitimate reading of the text, a Christian may accept the science that the Earth is approximately four billion years old. Further, old-earth Christians generally are divided either as proponents of theistic evolution or intelligent design regarding the formation and development of life on Earth. While there are significant differences between the two, both agree that before modern man came to exist, there were millions upon millions of years of animal death that cannot be attributed to the fall of humankind described in Genesis 3.[2]

Regarding the text in Genesis 3, William Lane Craig says “…there’s nothing in the Bible that suggests that animal death is the result of the fall of man. In the book of Genesis the Earth was cursed to bare thorns and thistles, woman was given pain in child-bearing, but there’s no suggestion in Genesis that animal death is the result of the Fall, that’s simply not there.”[3]  St. Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.) commented on Genesis 3: 17 – 18 that “…we should not jump to the conclusion that it was only then that these plants came forth from the earth…it is reasonable to suppose that they became one of the means of punishing him.”[4] Augustine, as do others, note it is not that the thorns and thistles came into being because of the Fall (as well as natural disasters, predatory animals, etc.), but that their relationship to humankind and vice versa had become corrupted. Again, commenting on Genesis, he writes, “…one animal is the nourishment of another…governed by a hidden plan that rules the beauty of the world and regulates each according to its kind.”[5] He does not argue that this was the result of the Fall, implying instead that there existed an order and governance to the created world that happened to involve animal death. Augustine, of course, recognized rightly that the Fall of man did change human-animal relationships, suggesting that pre-fall, any predatory animals would not have been a threat to humans.[6]

St. Athanasius (296 – 373 A.D) also noted this created order writing, “Moreover, nothing in creation had erred from the path of God’s purpose for it, save only man. Sun, moon, heaven, stars, water, air, none of these had swerved from their order, but knowing the Word as their Maker and their King, remained as they were made.” [7] Such a theme that St. Athanasius raises can be seen throughout the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 8, 19, 96, 104). Nature, as God’s creation, is consistently praised as good, declaring God’s glory and majesty. If nature’s operation had been radically changed because of the Fall, why would nature remain so praiseworthy (as opposed to a post-fallen man who is not praised as such in Scripture)?

None of this is to say that the Fall of man did not affect the natural world. The debate becomes how much affect, and to what extent? Romans 8: 20 – 22 is a familiar passage to examine as it says, “For the creation was subjected to futility,” that it “will be set free from its bondage to corruption” as it has been “groaning together in the pains of childbirth.” Theologian R.C. Sproul argues that the effect of the Fall on creation was that man failed as good rulers over the Earth, and now there are consequences. He writes, “Man was established as the king of this environment, and when the king, or the ruler, falls, the effects of his sinfulness spill over and harm the subordinates of the king.”[8] However, an order remains as previously described by St. Athanasius. Sproul notes that “The birds fly south in the winter when they are supposed to fly south in the winter, and they don’t exercise rebellion against their Creator.”[9] As explained by one of the defenses that will follow, part of that order may also involve animal death and suffering by natural means.

Regarding the groaning of creation, several commentators have argued it is not one of equal shared suffering, as in both man and nature suffered the same consequences of the fall of man, but sympathy towards redemption. Theologian Sam Storms writes, “The groaning here is not so much because of the burden of sin as it is groaning for the glory of heaven…not death pangs but birth pangs…physical creation and all Christians join together in a virtual chorus of groaning, a symphony of sighs, as it were, as we agonize in anxious expectation of that final day of redemption.”[10]Creation is experiencing an anxious longing for redemption alongside man. However, there are no passages in either the Old or New Testament which indicate animals were meant to live forever as man and would not suffer natural deaths, including by predation.

According to fossils, animals have been discovered in the stomach of animals, indicating predatory relationships before modern man existed.[11] Evidence of cancers, arthritis, and other diseases have also been discovered. As briefly explained, the Bible does not expressly prohibit an understanding that animals suffered death by various means before the Fall. Therefore, the issue of animal suffering becomes more complicated for the old Earth Christian who cannot attribute all natural evil and animal suffering to the Fall of man. Old Earth Christians may find themselves alongside the skeptic asking why God allowed animals to suffer for so long and continues to allow it today? As when asking why God allows moral evil, answers are complex, and often several defenses work together to show that the existence of evil, moral or natural, does not disprove God.

Spiritual Warfare in Nature

C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, brings to attention that “Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity.”[12] He attributes this suffering of animals not to the Fall of man, but of Satan. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who robustly developed the free will defense regarding moral evil, also agrees with this approach.[13] The Bible does not tell exactly when Satan and the angels that followed him fell, and an old earth view of creation expands the possible time frame greatly. Satan’s rebellion could have occurred before Earth was even created or at any point before Satan tempted Eve. Lewis argues for “Satanic corruption” of the natural world that affected animals which occurred after Satan fell but before man did.[14] This defense by Lewis seems to even fit into man’s original design to have dominion over animals and to subdue the Earth, as stated in Genesis 1:28. If it is true that animals had been corrupted prior, then man was to bring peace and order to their world.[15]

Worth considering is that the Bible tells us the fallen Satan had been given some control over the world, and Jesus named Satan as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:13, 14:30, 16:11). It is possible that his apparent influence over man also extends to the natural world. However, it is not clear the extent of his influence, if any, before God cursed the ground. While one should consider the spiritual warfare aspect of natural evil, specifically with regards to animal suffering, if Satan was ruining God’s creation in such a demonstrative way, then why did God call this creation “very good?” Other defenses would need to be considered alongside Lewis’ argument.

Free Process in Nature

Deweese, in his contribution to the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, proposes a defense that eventually incorporates Lewis’ view. Deweese’s argument rests on the validity of chaos systems existing in a dynamic world; a world, “which is open, exchanging energy with its environment…sensitively dependent on initial conditions.”[16] Chaos Theory is a valid science, with roots dating back hundreds of years, but is officially attributed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Edward Lorenz, who demonstrated that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil could trigger a tornado in Texas (commonly known as the Butterfly Effect).[17] Within a dynamic world, the existence of chaos systems create a world of free process (i.e. turbulence across a wing, neurons in the brain, fluctuation of the stock market), which may also be understood as the free will of nature.

Deweese convincingly argues that God would want to create a dynamic world as it would be the only one where genuine creativity could exist. Because of chaos systems then, natural evil becomes a possibility but is better than a static world in which no natural evil would be present. Deweese mentions systems that depend on chaos systems, such as medical evidence that our heart and brains depend on chaotic behavior of neurons and electrical charges. Other positives are the aesthetics of unpredictability and that chaos systems allow most for invention. The science of chaos theory, contrary to the name, reveals there is much order in the systems along with disorder events. Therefore, “chaos systems are not necessarily chaotic; rather, chaos systems entail the possibility of chaotic behavior.”[18] This critical distinction removes the possibility of God being the author of natural evil.

Animals then suffer the consequences of a dynamic world of free process where natural evil is not necessary, but only made possible as initial conditions are affected in chaos systems. For beings to live morally, there has to be consequences established by natural law or there could be no genuine moral good.[19] Animals, residing in this natural world, may then suffer natural evil as part of those consequences. God created the world as an open system of cause and effect, allowing nature to operate according to the laws he designed.[20] Deweese then incorporates Lewis’ defense by suggesting that Satan’s fall could have been the “initial perturbations into the dynamic system that God had created in equilibrium.”[21]

The Need for Regularity in Nature

Philosopher Peter Van Inwagen bring possibly the most compelling argument in line with Deweese’s. In his book The Problem of Evil, he argues well that a designed world that would be very good is one ordered by natural laws.[22]Philosopher William Rowe famously proposed a scenario in which a fawn burns to death in a forest fire to demonstrate that a God who allows such a creature to suffer in such a way does not exist.[23] Could God stop the fawn from dying? He could, but by what mechanism? God would have to stop the burning branch from falling on the fawn, maybe by turning it into cold water in mid-air, or by transforming the fawn’s lungs to breathe in smoke, or by other miraculous means.

Therefore, God would have to continually change the natural order of the world to defend every creature, creating a very confusing and irregular world. A possible weakness in Deweese’s argument is that it seems to say that animals suffer natural evil because free process is necessary for humankind’s moral good. While true, Van Inwagen adds to such an argument by stating that regularity also brings value to the life of animals, not just humans. He accomplishes this by arguing that a “massively irregular” world would be a defect to all creatures residing in it that would bring forth more suffering than a world with regular natural laws that creates the possibility for natural evil.[24] The value of regularity also allows humans to have dominion over the world as God’s original design was intended. Van Inwagen asks how could God hand over a world that was not made up of regular natural laws?[25] While at times suffering the consequences, a regular world is also of benefit to animals such as the ability to find food, reproduce, and protect their offspring. A world where nothing is predictable would be chaos and the suffering which would result would be higher than a world with order and natural laws, albeit one, as Deweese argues, natural evil becomes a possibility. There is a higher value in the world being regular, for humans and animals, even if natural evil becomes possible.

Natural Evil as not Evil

Theologian Bethany Sollereder, who specializes in issues of biology and evolution, approaches the challenge of animal suffering from a strict theistic evolutionist view which means she holds true to the mechanics of Darwinian evolution, a process initiated by God. In her book God, Evolution, and Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall, she gives a robust exposition of Scripture to show that nothing in the Old or New Testament prohibits animal death and suffering before the Fall of man. Although she handles the Hebrew text well and her exposition is certainly worth a thorough read, she concludes that there was not any sort of cosmic fall of all of creation (she does explicitly affirm the Fall of man and Satan). She explains that the curse of the ground declared by God in Genesis 3 was only temporary and lifted upon the covenant made by God with Noah after the flood. Therefore, nature, while suffering because of man, is not fallen in a similar sense as man.[26]

Her primary argument with regards to animal suffering is controversial as she implies that animal death by natural means is not evil at all. She reasons that natural animal suffering is the result of the freedom God has lovingly bestowed upon the natural world and part of the mechanics of evolution necessary to operate appropriately (such as natural selection). Deweese argues that defenses beholden to Darwinian evolution, such as Sollereder’s, makes God directly responsible for evil.[27] However, Sollereder claims that the natural suffering of animals is not evil because, if God uses it as part of evolution to create, then natural animal death is not in opposition to God’s very good design, and cannot be called evil.[28] Ronald Osborn, who presents a similar defense as Sollereder, shares the same idea. Discussing parasitic creatures, he writes that they “play a vital role in the cycles of life and death, the great economy of nature in which nothing is ultimately wasted, purposeless or ‘selfish’ insofar as all creatures must die and in dying make it possible for other creatures to live.”[29]

The idea that natural animals suffering, including predation, is part of God’s good creation may not be too removed from Scripture, however. Consider some passages in the book of Job, which may have the most to say about the animal world in Scripture. It is God who provides the “prey for the lion” and “the raven its prey” (Job 38:39 – 41). Moreover, it is at God’s “command that the eagle mounts up…on high” so that it can spy its prey so that its “young ones suck up blood” (Job 39:27 – 30). Much else in the last four chapters of Job demonstrates God’s control and display of his might within the animal world. Such passages might seem out of place if animal predation was only the result of the Fall of man.

Conclusion

The arguments above all contribute to an aspect of understanding that animal suffering by natural means does not contradict God’s existence. Whether animal suffering is a direct result of Satan’s influence, a possibility of the free process of nature, a consequence of the need for regularity in natural laws, or a combination of them as well as other defenses, the issue has not been ignored by Christians and well-reasoned defenses exist.

While Sollereder’s argument may be more difficult to consider, she does emphasize that ultimate redemption is not just for humans, but for the natural world as well. While we can logically overcome reconciling God with animal suffering as demonstrated above, we may be left with the emotional problem as it can be gut-wrenching to think of innocent animals suffering painfully. Jesus, whom all things were created through (John 1:3), does not abandon his good creation as He cares for it intimately (Matthew 6:26, 10:29). Finally, Jesus’ resurrection guarantees what Romans 8 describes all of creation is anxiously longing for. Not just a return to Eden, but a new Heaven and Earth in which all creatures fulfil their purpose in praise of God forever, which the Apostle John beautifully describes in Revelation 5:13:

“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them saying,

To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb

Be blessing and honor and glory and

Might forever and ever!”

 

 

Notes

[1]  Garret Deweese, “Theistic Evolution and The Problem of Natural Evil,” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, ed. by J.P Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 684.

[2]  An exception is William Dembski’s argument that animal suffering before the fall was still a result of the fall. God knew the fall would happen and therefore applied suffering to the natural world before the events of Genesis 3.

[3]  William Lane Craig, “Questions about Animal Death before the Fall of Man,” Reasonable Faith (MP3 podcast), January 6, 2013, accessed April 1, 2020, https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/questions-about-animal-death-before-the-fall-of-man/.

[4]  St. Augustine, St. Augustine: The Literal Meaning of Genesis, ed. Johannes Quasten, Walter J. Burghardt, and Thomas Comerford Lawler, trans. John Hammond Taylor, 41st ed., vol. I, Ancient Christian Writers (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982), 93 – 94.

[5]  St. Augustine, Meaning of Genesis, 92.

[6]  Ibid., 91.

[7] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), 61.

[8]  R. C. Sproul, The Gospel of God: An Exposition of Romans (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 140.

[9]  R. C. Sproul, The Gospel of God, 140

[10]  Sam Storms, Biblical Studies: Romans (Edmond, OK: Sam Storms, 2016), Ro 8:23.

[11]  Manja Voss, Mohammed Sameh M. Antar, Iyad S. Zalmout, Philip D. Gingerich “Stomach contents of the archaeocete Basilosaurus isis: Apex predator in oceans of the late Eocene,” PLOS One, January 9, 2019, accessed April 4, 2020, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0209021.

[12]  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996), 137.

[13]  Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 58.

[14]  Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 138.

[15]  Ibid., 140.

[16]  Deweese, Theistic Evolution, 691

[17]  Christian Oestreicher, “A History of Chaos Theory,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, September 9, 2007, accessed on April 19, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3202497/.

[18]  Deweese, Theistic Evolution, 693.

[19]  Deweese, Theistic Evolution., 697.

[20]  Ibid., 699.

[21]  Ibid., 700.

[22]  This may seem contrary to chaos systems; however, it is not. Chaos systems are part of the ordered natural world and a mechanism which allows the world to have free process.

[23]  Rowe, William L. Rowe, The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1979): 335-41. Accessed May 1, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20009775.

[24]  Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures in the University of St. Andrew in 2003 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006), Kindle loc. 1747.

[25]  Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil, Kindle loc. 1884.

[26]  Bethany N. Sollereder, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall (New York, NY: Routledge, 2019), 28 – 29.

[27]  Deweese, Theistic Evolution, 685.

[28]  Sollereder, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering, 5.

[29]  Osborn, Ronald E., Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014), 134.

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