“And God Saw That It Was Good”: Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 1
Note: How could a perfectly good, all-powerful God allow creatures to suffer and die for millions of years before humans ever existed? This perplexing question leads some Christians to reject the idea of evolution, and it leads other people to reject the idea of a personal and compassionate God. In this series, Keith B. Miller examines several of the proposed solutions to this problem of "natural evil", viewing them from the perspective of a geologist, paleontologist, and orthodox evangelical Christian.
This paper first appeared in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , and is used by permission.
To Mrs. Professor in Defense of My Cat’s Honor and Not Only
My valiant helper, a small-sized tiger
Sleeps sweetly on my desk, by the computer,
Unaware that you insult his tribe.
Cats play with a mouse or with a half-dead mole.
You are wrong, though: it’s not out of cruelty.
They simply like a thing that moves.
For, after all, we know that only consciousness
Can for a moment move into the Other,
Empathize with the pain and panic of a mouse.
And such as cats are, all of Nature is.
Indifferent, alas, to the good and the evil.
Quite a problem for us, I am afraid.
Natural history has its museums,
But why should our children learn about monsters,
An earth of snakes and reptiles for millions of years?
Nature devouring, nature devoured,
Butchery day and night smoking with blood.
And who created it? Was it the good Lord?
Yes, undoubtedly, they are innocent,
Spiders, mantises, sharks, pythons.
We are the only ones who say: cruelty.
Our consciousness and our conscience
Alone in the pale anthill of galaxies
Put their hope in a humane God.
Who cannot but feel and think,
Who is kindred to us by his warmth and movement,
For we are, as he told us, similar to Him.
Yet if it is so, then He takes pity
On every mauled mouse, every wounded bird.
Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.
Such is the outcome of your attack on the cat:
A theological, Augustinian grimace,
Which makes difficult our walking on this earth.
–Czeslaw Milosz,1 translated by the author and Robert Hass
The poem above communicates in a very poignant and profound way the essence of the theological problem of death, pain, and suffering in the natural world—what has been referred to as “natural evil.” As we will see, it may also point to at least one aspect of a Christian response.
I have become convinced that one of the fundamental issues underlying much of the resistance of many Christians to an ancient, evolving creation is that of the problem of “natural evil.” “Natural evil” is also very often a primary focus of those who reject a personal and compassionate God, as it was for Darwin himself. The issue of theodicy thus seems not only to drive many people of Christian faith away from an acceptance of the conclusions of modern science, but also to drive members of the scientific community away from a serious consideration of the claims of the Christian faith. The topic is important, then not because its solution is central to the validity of the Christian faith, but because it often serves as an unnecessary stumbling block to a productive engagement of both science and faith.
The tension generated by our understanding of God’s character, as revealed in the Bible, and by the reality of the natural world around us has been the focus of much theological and philosophical debate within the Christian church since the first century. This article sets out to examine critically several of the proposed solutions to this problem, viewing them from the perspective of a geologist, paleontologist, and orthodox evangelical Christian.
The theological problem of death and pain emerges from the following propositional statements:
- Scripture consistently declares the absolute goodness of God and the very goodness of his creation. Furthermore, Scripture declares God’s love and care for creation, and the glory and praise it returns to him.
- Scripture also confesses a transcendent God who is omnipotent in power, yet immanent in creation as well. God’s creative activity is not described as being confined to some past event at the beginning of time, but as a present and continuing reality. God upholds creation in its being from moment to moment, and is creatively active in its history. This understanding of God’s relationship to creation has been well articulated by Jürgen Moltmann.2
- In seeming conflict with these confessions of God’s character, we observe death, pain, and suffering as ubiquitous, even integral, aspects of the creation around us.
The apparent conflict between God’s goodness and the presence of pain and suffering is made especially acute when we consider the nonhuman creation.3 How can we accommodate the death and suffering of animals within a theology that declares both God’s omnipotence and goodness? C. S. Lewis forcefully puts the issue before us in his book The Problem of Pain:
The problem of animal suffering is appalling; not because the animals are so numerous ... but because the Christian explanation of human pain cannot be extended to animal pain. So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it.4
Because the issue of animal pain so directly impacts our understanding of the goodness of creation, I will focus particularly on solutions to the problem as posed by Lewis.
How do we then reconcile the goodness of God who is immanent and active in his creation with the death, pain, and suffering we see embedded within it? There seem to be two basic alternative approaches to this dilemma.5
- Natural evil can be attributed to something independent of God and acting against his will. This position threatens to limit God’s power and freedom.
- Natural evil can be considered a part of God’s good purpose for creation, and either directly willed or permitted by him. Such a view would seem to bring into question God’s goodness and love for his creatures.
The tension between these alternatives—and efforts to avoid their negative theological consequences—surface in many of the proposed solutions to this problem.
In part 2, we start to look at some of the proposed solutions, beginning with the idea that a perfect creation was corrupted by a fall.
1. This poem was included in a collection of poems that was one of two works by Czeslaw Milosz mentioned in a review article by Michael Ignatieff, “The Art of Witness,” New York Review of Books (March 23, 1995). I thank Carol Regehr for bringing my attention to this work.
2. Moltmann refers to this aspect of God’s creative activity in history as “continuous creation.” Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 206–14.
3. I will not address here arguments concerning the degree to which animals experience pain. This issue is considered by Robert Wennberg in “Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil,” Christian Scholar’s Review 21 (1991): 120–40. It is obvious to me that, for many animals at least, pain and suffering are a very real conscious experience.
4. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962), 129.
5. As stated by John Hick, in Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977): “For every position that maintains the perfect goodness of God is bound either to let go the absolute divine power and freedom, or else to hold that evil exists ultimately within God’s good purpose” (pp. 149–50).