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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More on Animal Suffering

In a prior post, I discussed chapter nine in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails which dealt with the probem of animal suffering. (By the way, there is a bonus chapter from The Christian Delusion, entitled, The Bible and the Treatment of Animals by John Loftus which is available here.). Andre commented on that post and directed me to the website of Professor John Stackhouse. Stackhouse (Ph.D., Univ. of Chicago) is an Evangelical and the Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of a book on the problem of evil entitled, Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil (1998).

In a recent post on his blog, he discussed the particular problem of animal suffering. He writes:
What are we Christians to make of the evidence of animal suffering (e.g., predation and horrible death) before the Fall?. . . In my research, however, I found precious little explanation of natural evil. I found a few clues, to be sure, and I pass them on in the book, but nothing like the much more extensive discussion of human/moral evil in the theological and philosophical literatures. So I’m still on the hunt for answers and I would be glad for any help you can give. I think it is the most difficult issue remaining in the whole problematic of “evil and an all-good, almighty God (emphasis mine).
After 38 comments on his blog Stackhouse writes:
Thanks for the pushback, friends–as well as for dopderbeck’s creative suggestion about our squandering via the Fall the resources by which we could have dealt effectively with natural evils (an idea with which I have considerable sympathy). I have no scientific reason to doubt that animal (including hominid) suffering and death preceded the Fall. I agree that the current consensus is strong on those counts, so far as I (a scientific layman) can tell. In the face of this evidence, the very variety of theological hypotheses advanced for the origins of natural evil shows that there is no consensus on our side of the problem (emphasis mine). Did God create the natural world pretty much the way we see it today? Did God create a world without suffering and death but Satan subsequently interfered with it–yet under God’s providential control? Did human evil somehow retroactively affect the natural world (which I understand to be Wm. Dembski’s thesis)? And what do the eschatological visions of the Peaceable Kingdom have to say about the way the world was originally created, if anything? Y’all keep working on it, and I will, too. I look forward to this blog community sorting this out once for all
Natural evil, including animal suffering, is a vexing problem for evangelical Christians (the ones who think about it). Many will take the easy way out and say that God created the world in six days and that initially everything was perfect, there was no natural evil and no death, not even animal death, until the fall of Adam. R. C. Sproul, recently shifted his position from Old Earth Creationist (OEC) to Young Earth Creationist (YEC) because of his inability to reconcile natural evil with his belief in an omni-benevolent God.

However, many evangelicals recognize that YEC is not scientifically respectable, and thus, they are forced to deal with the issue of God creating the world with natural evil as part of it. In an article by John C. Munday, Jr. entitled, "Creature Mortality: From Creaton Or The Fall?" (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35/1 [March 1992] 51-68), the argument is made from Scripture and Science that animal death preceded the Fall of Adam. Munday writes:
Since animals do not have the moral capacity to sin, their death cannot have arisen because they sinned, as in the above prescription. Therefore either animal death came with creation or it arose indirectly through the Edenic curse. Calvin apparently thought the former, because in commenting on creation he said that "all things were liable to corruption" and that some populations (of animals) were bestowed with "a power of continuing their race, so preventing it from perishing at their own death ." Ramm believed likewise: "Ideal conditions existed only in the Garden. There was disease and death and bloodshed in Nature long before man sinned. "

If Adam was not immortal by nature (see earlier discussion), there is no reason to expect that the first animals were immortal by nature either. Moreover the animals, like Adam, were created with physical sensitivity to pain and suffering as well as susceptibility to death. Unlike Adam, however, the animals were not offered access to the tree of life. This is especially so for beasts outside the Garden. Therefore they had no possible way to achieve immortality. On such considerations one may conclude that animals were created mortal by nature.

The consequences of deciding in favor of original animal immortality are enormous. The main one is the view that the fossil deposits of the geologic record, which preserve a history of animal death, must have occurred in their entirety after the fall of man. Only one post-fall Scriptural passage can encompass such an immense record, and that is the account of Noah's flood. Pre-fall animal immortality is coupled by its advocates with the fossil death record and a Scripturally argued young-earth position to produce the view known as flood geology. In this view, all or nearly all the world's present-day fossil and stratigraphic sequences were deposited during and soon after Noah's flood.

By contrast, those who reject original animal immortality will usually be found also rejecting young-earth age and consequently rejecting flood geology. In addition to reasoning from Scripture in favor of original animal immortality and flood geology, Morris rationalizes that evolution, described by Tennyson as "Nature, red in tooth and claw," is a "heartless process" inconsistent with a loving God. He "could never be guilty of such a cruel and pointless charade as this!" For Morris, millions of years of animal death constitute "tortuous aeons."

In response: Eons of death may be offensive, but that is hardly grounds for contrary belief. After all, human death itself is extremely offensive, described in Scripture as an enemy, but it still is a fact. We cannot protest; God, after all, pronounced the death sentence. But he also sent his Son as our Redeemer.
Rev. Lee Irons, in an article on apologist Hugh Ross' website, entitled, Animal Death Before The Fall: What Does The Bible Say? also argues that the biblical position favors animal death before the fall. He examines a number of passages commonly thought to teach that death, including animal death, came as a result of Adam's fall (Rom. 5:12-14; 8:18-21; Gen. 1:29-30; 9:1-4; Isa. 11:6-9; 65:25; Psa. 104:19-28; 1 Tim. 4:1-5) and concludes that they do not in fact teach that position.

So, if the Bible and science teach that natural evils, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, disease, parasites, and animal death and suffering, have been present on the earth since its beginning, how can one still believe in a perfectly good God? When it is all said and done, the only conclusion an honest evangelical can draw is, as Stackhouse says, "I don't know."
My conclusion? There is no omnibenevolent deity.


  1. I won't even try to say it better than Alvin Plantinga :

    "And here I must remark that many of the attempts to explain why God permits evil - theodicies we might call them - seem to me shallow, tepid and ultimately frivolous."

    (full quote available)

    And guess how Stewart Goetz answers the question of "beasts and the problem of evil" in Blackwell's NT?

    "With regard to this issue, it is reasonable for the theist to be a defender and answer these questions with "I do not know," because the matter is one that lies outside our cognitive purview."

    (Quote details available)

    Well, cough, ahem, yes.

  2. "R. C. Sproul, recently shifted his position from Old Earth Creationist (OEC) to Young Earth Creationist (YEC) because of his inability to reconcile natural evil with his belief in an omni-benevolent God."

    This kind of thing floors me. How can someone actually change his or her beliefs based on a necessity somewhere else in the system? Is such a position really a belief at all?

    As a libertarian, my appeals to the Founding Fathers would benefit had Thomas Jefferson never owned slaves. What if I took the stance that Jefferson never owned slaves, just so my political ideology would be more cohesive? Of course, I could never convince myself of it -- i.e., "believe" it -- because I'd know my inner motives.

    Aren't these guys introspective enough to know what they're up to?

  3. Ken, I think the word "omnibenevolent" in your last sentence is signal. There cannot be good without evil (duality). All pairs of opposites (good and evil, light and dark, up and down, etc.) must arise from a common source, the Absolute (Brahman, God, Self, etc.). Therefore, the true "God" cannot be all good only (unless "good" is understood as non-dual)

  4. Ken,

    What about the plants...don't they die?

  5. John,

    Yes but I don't think they can feel pain. I am talking about sentient beings.

  6. Let me ask this:

    Where in the Bible does it say that there was no death? Now I know christians may claim that. But where does it say in the Bible? I don't believe I've seen it.

    Hence, if there was death, this is moot.

  7. Ken,
    Thanks for opening up this whole area of animal suffering, death, etc. I hadn't given it much thought, but find it interesting that it may indeed be one of the more (or most?) troublesome areas for theists.

    As to RC Sproul, thanks for that tidbit, which is interesting indeed, as SteveJ comments on. Steve, maybe your q. is rhetorical, but no, I doubt there is much ability for introspection in such people. I think introspection (of deep and honest type, anyway) is sacrificed along with ability to deal objectively (within reasonable expectations) with data when one becomes any kind of apologist. And that begins, at some level, once a person has made a "faith commitment." It is only built up and reinforced thousands of times over by long-term serious apologists like Sproul.

    The last time, a few years ago, I had much exposure to the YEC-OEC debate included a fascinating observation. I attended 2 lectures sponsored by a megachurch in my city (Escondido, CA), one featuring Dr. Hugh Ross on OEC and the other a PhD of some kind (not a hard science as I recall) from the nearby Inst. for Creation Research (or similar name).

    Though I did and still do disagree with most of the conclusions (theologically, particularly) of Ross, I thot he clearly "blew out" the YEC position, biblically and scientifically, despite the disadvantage of being first (it was not meant to be exactly "debate" format). The YEC guy was not nearly as compelling or complete/logical in presentation. Yet, the audience and the PASTOR, a bit surprisingly to me, as this had been my parents' church and I knew it fairly well, clearly favored the YEC position and questioned the arguments of its rep less stringently. It was like they were willing to listen to Ross, but their minds were made up already. Of course, there may have been some there who WERE persuaded without my knowing it... I didn't get any official survey results or such.


  8. John,

    some interpret Rom. 5 to mean there was no death before the fall of adam. However, if as you seem to believe, there was death, then how do you explain a good God making the world in such a way? Isn't suffering and death bad, even for animals?

  9. The Bible doesn't say that murder is bad for the reason that "people really don't like getting murdered". The only reason I'm aware of is that we were created in God's image, therefore it is wrong. Since the "imago dei" claim is exclusive to humans, it wouldn't seem to apply to animals.

  10. As our DNA is only about 3 percent different from that of other animals, which chromosomes are created "in God's image"? We are animals too. Is God a species of ape?

  11. @Clare - Whether or not Christians are right about humans uniquely bearing "imago dei", and what exactly constitutes "imago dei", is open for debate. However, the fact that Christians do believe in this distinction, and use it as the only documented rationale for prohibition of murder, is not debatable. That is all I was pointing out. People have suggested that animal predation is a "problem" for Christianity, since Christians claim that God is good, and killing unjustly is "bad". I am just pointing out that the Bible does NOT seem to endorse any such concept of justice in the killing of animals.

    If anything, the Bible thinks it is a "good" thing to slaughter the purest and most innocent animals to wash away human sin. Ken has complained that penal substitution in the crucifixion gives him the moral heebeejeebees, which is a reaction that many people also have to the animal sacrifice reported in the Bible.

    Now, we *could* discuss whether Christians are right about humans being the unique bearers of imago dei, or whether there is anything significantly different that separates man from the beasts, but that's a different conversation.

  12. Ken,

    I'm not a theologian, but from reading Rom 5, it could mean spiritual death. I think as far as the animals are concerned, since we assume they don't go to heaven due to no morality, then how can we impose the problem of suffering on them? We are speaking about the animals from our perspective, but we have a moral conscience.

  13. Joshua,
    If there is no significant difference between men and beast -and there isn't, why is this discussion relevant? Are men morally superior to animals? I don't think so. Animals may or may not have a system of morality -we really dont know enough about animal cognition, but we know how they behave. As I said before, we are all animals-humans just have slightly bigger brains.

  14. John,

    I would agree so the question still remains: If, there was animal death before the fall, then how do you explain a good God making the world in such a way? Isn't suffering and death bad, even for animals?

    If You say that animal death came as a result of the fall, then you have two problems: 1) you are not consistent with scientific facts; 2) you have God punishing the animals for something that man did--is that just?

  15. Ken,

    As I stated, I don't see how death in general came after the fall. I would perhaps consider an exception in garden of Eden (but I am no expert here).

    I see animals as dying as part of the natural cycle in nature. That they suffer, as I stated, is something troublesome for us. However, they do not have a moral conscience, nor are they afraid of death in the way we are. I think for us to torture animals (ie dog fights) reflects badly on us, but animal behavior is not a problem in itself. We are animals ourselves, but God also gave us a moral conscience and hence we do not in general act like them. Our sin nature sometimes resembles them.

  16. John,

    You say: are they afraid of death . I don't know if you have been around animals much but they are afraid of suffering and death. One of the hardest things I have ever done is to have my 16 year old Cocker Spaniel put to sleep. I held him in my arms as the doctor euthanized him. He was very smart and I believe he knew what was coming. He was trembling. I felt terrible because he looked to me for protection and here I was having him put to sleep.

    If you have ever watched the Animal planet or any of the shows on TV about animals, you know they can feel pain and they are terrified when being chased by a predator. Yet, according to you, this is the way God made the planet. It seems merciless to me. It seems God cares about as much about animals as most of us do about ants or mosquitoes. That is the problem!

  17. Of course animals are afraid of death just lie us. That is why the "flight or fight" biochemical systems are present in both man and other animals. How do you know that animals do not have a moral conscience? Because you read it in the Bible? The Bible is just another book, and the science in it is bronze or iron age in nature. Its just not a reliable source regarding what animals think or feel.
    Original sin is a ridiculous idea anyway. Why should we be punished for something that a fictitious Adam and Eve did?

  18. Ken,

    First, in my post I said that animals don't fear death as we do. Having said that, I truly understand that animals suffer and experience fear. In fact, I can't even watch Animal channel, I am that sensitive about it (once I saw a fawn take a rabbit's little one as I was driving and it tore me apart to watch).

    Anyways, I believe that we experience fear like the animals. However, there is an added dimension due to our moral conscience. We seek a deity thru this life as we are continually aware of life's finality. As far as I know, animals do not seek any higher being and as long as there is no danger, do not think about death.

    Why would God create animals with that type of suffering you ask? Well this is the age old question of suffering. I don't like it, but I can't say that God doesn't exist as a result of it. I will tell you this though-I think we are the only creatures who are concerned about it, and there is a reason for this.

    Clare: As Christians, we believe in the Bible as God's word (no matter when it was written). But I would like to ask you, what evidence do you have that any animals have a moral conscience?

  19. Actually, there is considerable evidence that at least some species are cognizant of their mortality - elephants, dolphins, the great apes.

  20. John, I do not know if animals feel guilt or not for sure, but some dogs certainly have a guilty look in thier eyes when they have peed on the carpet! There was a video on the internet about a dog who risked its own life to rescue a wounded dog from the middle of a busy highway. Maybe some other readers can come up with something else.