“And God Saw That It Was Good”: Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 1

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November 21, 2012 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Keith Miller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

“And God Saw That It Was Good”: Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 1
John James Audubon (1785-1851). Plate 16 of Birds of America (1838): “Great-footed Hawks” or Peregrine Falcons preying upon a Green-winged teal and a gadwall

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 Problem

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Notes

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).


Keith Miller is research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University in the United States. He is editor of Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003), an anthology of essays by prominent evangelical Christian scientists who accept theistic evolution. He is also a member of the executive committee of the American Scientific Affiliation, an association of Christians in the sciences, and a board member of Kansas Citizens for Science, a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes a better understanding of science.

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Seenoevo - #74609

November 21st 2012

“The apparent conflict between God’s goodness and the presence of pain and suffering…”

Does not this perennial preoccupation have an element of human arrogance? Does not the incessant interrogator harbor some hubris - that his empathy, his sensitivity, his heart, are greater than God’s?

Does not any reasonable adult – from the pagan to the pious – realize that it is what it is? That, in this life, we will unavoidably experience pain, suffering and death? Aren’t these things obvious and empirically certain?

Why is not more attention paid to what is not yet certain, specifically, to whether one will glory in heaven or grind his teeth in hell?

Considering again the questioning of God’s goodness in the face of “natural evil”, what about a good God in the face of the supernatural, eternal evil of hell? Doesn’t Scripture indicate that earthly travails will pale in comparison to the suffering of the damned?

Why is not more attention paid to the fact that Scripture and the Saints say that the majority of human beings will go to hell, that comparatively few will be saved?

Should we not be thankful that we still have a chance?

 

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” - Saint Ambrose

Happy Thanksgiving.


robynhood - #74964

December 4th 2012

Seeking to know God and understand His true nature has nothing to do with human arrogance. It is quite the opposite in fact.  And seeking an answer to the question of “natural evil” is vitally important because the answer will determine our view on many other contingent issues.  Furthermore, asking this question stems not from any notion that we are more compassionate than God, but from our certainty that God must be immeasurably more compassionate than any human.  This certainty compels us to understand how God’s compassion can be in harmony with natural evil.

 If we determine that a loving God is fundamentally incompatible with the world full of pain and suffering we observe around us, then we must either give up the belief that God is loving or conclude that there is no God at all.  (Alternatively, we could conclude that God is loving but simply lacks the power to prevent suffering.  That view has some merit with the idea of free will, but its rather weak when it comes to the topic of natural evil.  It’s also just as un-Biblical as an un-loving God.)

Of course, if we give up the idea that there is a God, then there is very little point in worrying about questions like eternal salvation.  Atheism is the ultimate “it is what it is” philosophy.

 Alternatively, if we give up the idea that God is loving, we are in no better shape.  If God is not loving, then why would he care about insignificant creatures like us?  What would motivate a loveless God to save anyone or even to create us in the first place?

 That is why the question of natural evil is so important and we should not be quick to dismiss it.  If we cannot reconcile a loving Creator with His own creation, then the hope of Christianity itself is lost.

 I, for one, am thankful to the author for devoting his time and energy to addressing this key issue.


Dunemeister - #74847

November 29th 2012

From my perspective, there isn’t a problem of hubris in the question. For a great many people, it simply presents itself with such force that it is impossible to ignore.

The problem is that people insist on a rational answer. There isn’t one. Lawlessness is a mystery (2 Thess 2:7). Of course, the mystery of 2 Thess 2:7 is that of moral lawlessness, but it seems connected to what Paul refers to as the “groaning” of creation as it awaits the “revelation” of the sons of God (Romans 8:22). In the end, asking the question of the origin of evil, or how evil relates to God, is a worthwhile question to ask. But in the end, we have to realize that the question does not permit a rational answer. Instead, the only answer Christianity can give is the further mystery of the creator come to his own, only to be rejected and hung on a tree. So we solve a mystery by appeal to a mystery.

The bottom line is, can you trust God? Behold God on the tree. Behold Him in the Eucharist. If after so beholding Him, you still cannot trust Him, there is nothing else that can be said.


wesseldawn - #75005

December 5th 2012

I have been reiterating this over and over…the Bible does not say that God is the creator of this world but rather that Satan is the “god of this world” and thus the reason why pain and suffering exist.  How can any intelligent person believe that a loving God could/would produce such agony. To even equate God with cruelty and suffering is to undermine his good character.

Certainly there are good things (for those living in nice circumstances) but for those living in hardship I’m quite certain they would not refer to this as good! Many people that live in good circumstances seem to have a very narrow view of the world and forget that a large part of the world’s population lives in distress every day.

Not that I think that anyone should feel bad because a person has it good. I that we should not be lulled into the falsehood that God is somehow responsible for suffering, otherwise you give the world a message that God’s is contradictory.

I wish my children all the best, I hate to see them suffer. Would a good God do any less? If you answer that it’s God’s way of strengthening your character then please go tell that child that had nothing to eat today that God is making them strong by starving them to death!


robynhood - #75044

December 6th 2012

Reply to wesseldawn:

I fully agree with your intent to defend God as a completely good and loving being.  I personally could never believe in a God of cruelty either.

The trouble is that appealing to Satan as the source of all evil and suffering does not solve the apparent conflict between a loving God and a world filled with suffering.  It only introduces a ‘middle-man’ into the equation.

If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why would he allow a being like Satan (who the Bible implies was also created by God) to corrupt his perfect creation?  If God is all-powerful, why would he yield that power to Satan and allow him to become “god of this world” in the first place?  By way of illustration, it would be as if the owner of a company knew that one of his top managers was committing horrible abuses to his workers, but did nothing to stop it.

I doubt any of us, who believe in a loving God, would be quick to say that God causes suffering, but I don’t see any rational way of avoiding the conclusion that he at least allows it. Perhaps that is by allowing a being like Satan to roam freely and cause trouble or by allowing free-will in mankind to do the same. I tend to favor the free-will explanation of evil and maybe the laws of nature represent another type of freedom that God allows in creation which can result in ‘natural evil’ as well as ‘natural good’.  In any case, it is a truly difficult question with no obvious answers, at least none that I have found.


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