And God Saw That It Was Good

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June 4, 2013 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Deborah Haarsma and Loren Haarsma. You can read more about what we believe here.

And God Saw That It Was Good

Note: Yesterday and today, we're featuring two final excerpts from Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, written by BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma and her husband and fellow scientist Loren. They comprise two questions and answers from the online companion to Origins—these questions and more can be found online at the Faith Alive website as well as in Chapter 13 of the book. (Please note that you can still receive a free copy of Origins with a $50 donation to the BioLogos Foundation.)

How could God call creation good if it included destruction, pain, and extinction?

Genesis 1 doesn’t say, but the book of nature provides some insights. Negative things like destruction, pain, and extinction appear differently when considered as part of a bigger picture. For example, the explosion of a star (a supernova) is extremely powerful and destructive. Yet in its death the supernova scatters through the galaxy the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms necessary for life. Without the supernova these atoms would be trapped in the core of the star and would never be available to build new stars, planets, or living creatures. God uses the destruction of stars to create and distribute the ingredients for life.

Consider the second law of thermodynamics that says that entropy is always increasing. Entropy is a technical term used to measure the disorder of a system. The fact that disorder is always increasing sounds like something that might have been caused by the Fall. But a study of physics and chemistry tells us that it is actually an inevitable consequence of all the other laws of nature plus the fact that the universe has many, many atoms in it. When we look at the larger system, we see that this increase of entropy is built into all sorts of good processes that God has created. Entropy increases when

  • the sun converts nuclear energy into light.
  • ice melts.
  • a flower opens up, and its scent diffuses into the air so that the whole area around the flower is perfumed and bees can be guided to the blossom.
  • winds blow.
  • rain falls.
  • we breathe, and oxygen passes from the lungs into our bloodstream.
  • we see and hear things and store memories in our brains.

So on closer examination the second law of thermodynamics also appears to be part of God’s good creation and not a consequence of the Fall.

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are some of the most violent natural disasters on earth. Yet earthquakes are an inevitable consequence of plate tectonics. (The earth’s continental plates slowly move and grind against each other.) In turn, plate tectonics is an inevitable result of the motion of magma under the earth’s crust. And the motion of magma is an inevitable result of the fundamental laws of nature. As plates collide, they are pushed into high mountains, and as they separate, they create ocean depths. Over time, this system creates a variety of environments like rolling hills, flat plains, watersheds, and ocean shoals. These environments provide a wide range of habitats for life to fill, promoting a diversity of living things. In addition, the motion of the continental plates brings nutrients up to the surface from deep within the earth, nutrients on which all life depends. Without plate motion to replenish these resources, rain and wind would erode all nutrients into the ocean, and life could not exist on land. Thus, while earthquakes and volcanoes are destructive, they are a natural side effect of the important system of plate tectonics.

Mosquitoes annoy us. But consider how well they are adapted to their ecological niche. They live and adapt just like butterflies and ladybugs. Similarly, weeds that grow through cracks in sidewalks annoy us and make our property look ugly. But consider lichen and moss clinging bravely to bare rock on cliffs where nothing else will grow. By living on that bare rock, they slowly turn barren soil into fertile ground. Whenever we see lichen living on bare rock, we celebrate how robust and hearty life is. Crabgrass sprouting up through narrow cracks in the sidewalk displays that same heartiness and robustness of life, all of it operating by the same laws of nature.

The symbiosis between flowering plants and pollinating insects seems beautiful to us—each provides the other with something it needs. On the other hand, parasites, like wasps that lay their eggs inside other animals so that their larvae eat the host animal, seem nasty to us. But exactly the same laws of nature make both possible. Barring some miraculous interventions into natural processes, if we’re going to have symbiosis, we’re going to have parasites.

Genetic mutations can be harmful and cause painful disease, but they can also be beneficial and increase the diversity of life forms. Genetic mutations are an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry acting on DNA molecules. It looks like a package deal. Simply because the laws of nature are what they are, if we’re going to have DNA, we’re going to have mutations, including both beneficial and harmful mutations.

The author Philip Yancey has written about pain as a good and necessary system that God created. In his book Where is God When It Hurts Yancey describes how pain alerts us to parts of our bodies that are in danger or need attention. Animals and humans who can’t feel pain (for example, patients suffering from certain forms of Hansen’s disease) injure themselves and are not aware of the injuries, leading to further medical complications. Yancey and others who study pain conclude that pain was created as part of a finely crafted system to help us avoid injury and treat illness. The following is an excerpt from an article Yancy wrote for Christianity Today:

Pain is good. Pain is bad. Pain can be redeemed. . . . My work with leprosy specialist Dr. Paul Brand has convinced me beyond doubt that the pain system is one of the most remarkable engineering feats in the human body. Take away its exquisitely tuned warnings, and you get people who destroy themselves—the problem of leprosy, precisely. Yet pain is also bad, or “fallen.” Working in a hospice, my wife sees daily the ravaging effects of pain that no longer has a useful purpose; to the dying patient, pain warnings may seem like the jeers of a cosmic sadist. Even so, pain can be redeemed. The dying, individual leprosy patients, and people like Joni Eareckson Tada who live with permanent afflictions have demonstrated to me that out of the worst that life offers, great good may come.

What shall we make of all this? We need to be cautious about what things in nature we attribute to the Fall. It’s too easy for us to take our conception of how we would make a good creation and assume that’s how God made it. By studying God’s creation, we might learn that some of our ideas are wrong. A careful study of nature shows us abundant evidence that supernovas, plate tectonics, and the mechanisms of evolution were in place long before humans existed. These things have a destructive side, but they are part of a bigger system that is beautiful, complex, and fruitful. One way to interpret all of this is to see that God has made and used natural systems that are good and productive on the whole, but these systems contain elements that are painful or destructive. And part of what it means for us, as humans, to subdue the earth is to be stewards of these good systems while overcoming the challenges that they present.

For more questions like this one, see Chapter 13 of Origins, or see the online supplement on Faith Alive’s website. Tomorrow we’ll look at how God could call a creation that included pain and extinction “good”.

Excerpt from the online supplement to Chapter 13 of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources), 2011. Reprinted with permission. To purchase a copy of the book or e-book, call 1-800-333-8300 or visit www.faithaliveresources.org.

Want a free copy of Origins?  For a limited time, donations of $50 or more will receive a  copy of the book!


Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.
Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.

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Nick Gotts - #81625

July 4th 2013

The world is beautiful, complex and fruitful, but it is also also terrifying, vile and disgusting. If you doubt this, I suggest a few hours with a manual of parasitology. This piece, like all the responses to the problem of evil I have ever seen, fails abjectly. What sort of god would create by a method that requires the excrutiating agony of quadrillions of sentient beings? Only one that, at best, is simply indifferent to its creatures’ suffering.


Dunemeister - #81824

July 11th 2013

I too have difficulty with this kind of theodicy. It may be that in order to create a hospitable, ordered world, he needed to do so using “laws” which eventuate into good things like symbiotes and bad things like parasites. This does little to assuage the anguish of the person suffering from a tapeworm infestation.

That said, I think Gotts (81625) is wrong to reject evolution on the basis that it paints God as indifferent to creaturely suffering. The God we Christians know is not only not indifferent but goes so far as to condescend to bear our sorrows. And the stripes he bore effect our (and all of creation’s) healing. In short, this theodicy fails, as all others do, because it ignores Christ, staying on a deistic level of discourse. A shame, really.


Nick Gotts - #81828

July 12th 2013

I don’t reject evolution. I regard it as (additional) evidnece against the existence of a benevolent deity.


Dunemeister - #81830

July 12th 2013

Well, the problem with the rejection works both ways. Evolution, with all its twists and turns, may be a problem for a god deistically conceived. But it’s no problem for the God revealed in and through the Church.


Nick Gotts - #81835

July 13th 2013

There is no such god, so of course nothing is a problem for it. But Christiainty has never produced an even remotely plausible or ethically acceptable solution to the problem of evil: the universe in which we find ourselves does not look in the least like one that could have been created by a benevolent and omnipotent being.


Nick Gotts - #81973

July 21st 2013

This is a response to Eddie’s comment #81969 on “Apologetic Issues in the Old Testament 3”

I would submit that your position—that the universe has no aims or goals and that eventually every higher rational being it produces, it will snuff out—has implications that you are not dealing with, and hence that your existential response to what you believe to be intellectually true is “incoherent.”  I do not mean narrowly logical incoherence, but a deeper incoherence of life and thought.  In this respect you remind me of the Anglo-Saxon tradition (Russell, etc.), but it strikes me that the continental existentialists understood the situation more deeply.  Frankly I think you and your atheist friends are whistling in the dark.  (I am not saying that Christianity is true merely because your position is incoherent, but I do think your position is incoherent.)

You have not shown any incoherence. Your blather about “a deeper incoherence of life and thought” and “whistling in the dark” do not constitute an argument. Do you have one?


Eddie - #81981

July 21st 2013

Nick:

How can I give you an argument, when you aren’t even aware of the problem?  You don’t feel what every sensitive European thinker in the 19th and early 20th century felt, confronted by the world view supposedly revealed by modern science.  If you don’t feel the tension, there is nothing for us to argue about.  If you agree with me that the rasping, screaming voice of a Heavy Metal band’s lead singer constitutes bad singing, then we can argue about which program of voice instruction we should put the lead singer through; but if you think his voice is quite musical and pleasant, then there is no point arguing about how to fix the voice.  You don’t see an existential problem with a universe that has produced us by accident and will snuff us out by accident, so there is nothing for us to argue about.

I know why you don’t see the problem.  I can hear in your arguments and thought-patterns the Anglo-Saxon approach to theology/science/philosophy discussions that I was brought up with, and I know how it insulated me for years against existential dissonance.  But, through no merit of my own, I was introduced by teachers wiser than myself to thought (ancient and Continental European) outside of my Anglo-Saxon intellectual ghetto, and came to see that the British/American “power of positive thinking” attitude could not stand once the implications of the cosmic situation were honestly assessed, not just with the scientific mind but with the whole mind and whole soul.

“Presenting arguments” won’t do any good; you will simply process all arguments through the Anglo-Saxon positivist filter that you use now.  What is needed is reorientation to a whole new way of looking at life.  I don’t know how to bring that about in your case.  Nietzsche might help, if you didn’t make the common mistake of keeping only his atheism and missing his critique of the entire Anglo-American thought world.  Camus might help.  Dostoevsky might help.  Plato might help.  Wittgenstein might help.  Without knowing you, it’s impossible to say.

All I can tell you now is that at one point I found Russell’s A Free Man’s Worship to be a profound statement of the truth of the human condition, and now I think it false in two senses:  wrong as to the facts, and wrong in that, if the facts were as Russell supposed, his Promethean attitude would be nothing but boyish railing.   But since you accept that Russell is right as to the facts, and we will never get anywhere with that argument, all I can hope to convince you of is that your existential attitude to the facts, which is essentially Russell’s as far as I can tell, is just whistling in the dark.  Russell’s view eats away at the springs of human action.  Habit and left-over metaphysics and ethics from Christian days (and Russell’s own soul was filled with these leftovers) can conceal this, as it did with me.  But with full realization, not just on the intellectual but on the existential level, the philosophical crisis arises.


Nick Gotts - #81982

July 21st 2013

You claimed an incoherence in what I said, but you can’t specify what it is. You have no evidence whatever that I’m “whistling in the dark”, or that Russell’s view “eats away at the springs of human action”. These are empty assertions of your own superiority, nothing more.

You don’t feel what every sensitive European thinker in the 19th and early 20th century felt, confronted by the world view supposedly revealed by modern science.

Of course I don’t. The cultural context in which I grew up is entirely different from that in which they did. If your whole culture tells you that God is in charge, that meaning is and must be provided to us by something greater than ourselves, it’s unsurprising that if you come to the conclusion that there is or might be no such God or external meaning, that will be frightening and disorienting. I find it rather exhilarating.

What is needed is reorientation to a whole new way of looking at life.

No, it isn’t. Supposing I could make myself feel as Nietzsche or Camus did (incidentally I have a lot of time for Camus as a novelist, but not as a philosopher), why would I want to? I can see why you might want artheists to, so they’d run to the comfort blanket of religion. In fact, your tactic is one I’ve come across before in religious apologists: trying to convince atheists that they should feel hopeless and despairing; but I really think it’s had its day.


Eddie - #81992

July 21st 2013

Nick:

I’m not a religious apologist, and I don’t employ “tactics.”  This isn’t a game to me.  Reflection upon theological questions is my life’s work, not a hobby I do after coming home from work as a computer programmer or lawyer or whatever it is that you do for your day job.  And I’m interested in what’s true, not what will defend Christianity (though sometimes the two overlap).  I’ve already indicated to you sufficiently that I reject some formulations of Christianity.  But you don’t seem to be hearing that.

You find it rather exhilarating that you can make your meaning.  I did, too, when I was 14-22 years old.  I saw myself as a smasher of superstitions and barriers, as one who was above the common religious herd, and realized that the universe belonged to man and its meaning what only what man gave to it.  But as I grew older, gained some experience of life, and also studied more, I realized how little I knew about ultimate questions, and that my militant pose against religion was largely bluster based on ignorance.  I realized also that the idea of man conferring meaning on things was much more problematic than I had previously thought.  In short, as I’ve got older, I’m sure of less and less, even though my knowledge, as measured by worldly terms, has grown by leaps and bounds every year.

This is why I am impatient of internet discussions of philosophical, religious, and ethical questions.  Everyone is so sure that he is better informed and more logical than everyone else in the discussion, and that he has seen right through to the truth, and that others who don’t agree just don’t think straight.  And the less training someone has, the louder he seems to insist on how correct he is.  I would like to see these conversations be discussions between people who are seeking truth, rather than arguments between people who are sure they know it.  


Nick Gotts - #81994

July 21st 2013

You are a religious apologist, whether you recognise it or not.

 Reflection upon theological questions is my life’s work

Then I can understand why you don’t want to admit to yourself that theology’s a load of made-up hooey - in the sense that (in contrast to chemistry, for example) it has no reality-check.

I’ve already indicated to you sufficiently that I reject some formulations of Christianity.

I’ve yet to encounter anyone who doesn’t reject some formulations of Christianity.

 I realized also that the idea of man conferring meaning on things was much more problematic than I had previously thought.

But somehow, you’re not able to say why.

This is why I am impatient of internet discussions of philosophical, religious, and ethical questions.

Odd, then, that you seem prepared to spend time and effort on them.


Eddie - #81998

July 21st 2013

“theology’s a load of made-up hooey”

Now there’s a sophisticated line of argument.  Hume, Voltaire, and Feuerbach would all be jealous of such high-toned argumentative prose.


Nick Gotts - #82002

July 21st 2013

Of course you ignore the substantive point, as is your wont: theology has no reality check. It is therefore not a genuine field of intellectual enquiry. Of course, one can genuinely be an expert in the history of theology.


Eddie - #82005

July 22nd 2013

Well, some of the speculations in modern cosmology have “no reality check” in the sense that there are not now, and may never be, any ways of testing them empirically.  Some of the speculations are accepted (where they are accepted; by no means all cosmologists accept them) because they are mathematically derivable from currently accepted theoretical models or because they exhibit sheer “mathematical elegance” or the like.   Just as many of the metaphysical propositions of Christian theology are accepted on theoretical grounds—they harmonize with other parts of systematic theology and statements of Scripture—not on empirical grounds.  [We will never be able to confirm the interaction of the Three Persons empirically.]  So you should be somewhat skeptical of some parts of modern cosmology as well.

Yes, one can be an expert in the history of theology.  And as one who is, though not an expert, at least reasonably well-trained in that field, I can say that you don’t appear to have done justice to either the theology of the Trinity or to theodicy in your comments on those subjects.  You give the impression of superficial study combined with the desire to come to quick and easy answers to deep and complex questions.  However, I will not be so uncharitable as to characterize your inadequate critique as “hooey.”


Nick Gotts - #82009

July 22nd 2013

 So you should be somewhat skeptical of some parts of modern cosmology as well.

I am: I’ve just read Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, which argues that string theory is too far removed from empirical test. I’m inclined to agree.

Just as many of the metaphysical propositions of Christian theology are accepted on theoretical grounds—they harmonize with other parts of systematic theology and statements of Scripture—not on empirical grounds.

No part of “systematic theology” has any reality-check, because there are systematic means of avoiding such a check, which you have illustrated copiously: denying that obvious nonsense is nonsense, without giving any rational argument for that claim, and denying the relevance of empirical evidence to claims about the nature of God. As for harmonization with “Scripture” - as I’ve noted elsewhere, there are no grounds for accepting anything in a compendium of ancient works full of contradictions, absurdities, and vileness.

deep and complex questions

They’re not deep and complex: they’re hooey  (OK, complex hooey), and you have given no reason at all to think otherwise. Practically all you have done is to attempt to argue from authority.


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