Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 2
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 BioLogos believes here.
Note: In the first part of this series, Keith B. Miller introduced "the problem of natural evil"-- the tension between our understanding of God's character as revealed in the Bible, and the fact of widespread pain and death among creatures on our planet. Today, Miller considers the assertions that natural evil is the result of a human or angelic fall.
This paper first appeared in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , and is used by permission.
Creation Corrupted by the Fall
A fundamental theological commitment of those advocating a young-earth position is that all death, pain, and suffering were a direct consequence of the Fall, and were absent from the originally good creation. For example, theologian John C. Whitcomb, who co-authored the book The Genesis Flood with Henry Morris, argues that “there could have been no death in the animal kingdom before the Fall and the curse” because all physical death is a consequence of Adam’s rebellion. Furthermore, he envisions the kingdom of God that is to be established by Christ at the second coming as a restoration of the pre-Fall earth. Whitcomb states,
During the Kingdom age, which our Lord taught us to pray for (Matthew 6:10), “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb ... and the lion shall eat straw like the ox ... and they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain (=kingdom; cf., Isaiah 2:2): for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9) ... These characteristics of the coming thousand-year Kingdom of Christ (cf., Revelation 20:2-7) show us clearly what the animal kingdom was like in the pre-Fall world.1
In this view, an original creation devoid of pain and death would have had to be radically transformed, even remade, as a consequence of human disobedience at the time of the Fall. This position is a difficult one to support from Scripture. Firstly, the consequences of the Fall described in the second chapter of Genesis involve the corruption and distortion of humans’ relationship with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Where once there was a relationship of caring stewardship and loving lordship, now there was an adversarial one of selfish exploitation and forceful subjugation. No mention is made in Genesis of any ill effects of the Fall directly to creation itself.
Secondly, Scripture declares that creation as it is now, not a pre-Fall paradise, gives glory and praise to the Creator.2 The creation described in Scripture is our own familiar world, with lions, eagles, crocodiles, and jackals. Even more significantly, God is described as caring for and feeding the lion and its cubs, and the birds of prey (see Job 38–41). A “fallen” creation undermines this scriptural understanding of God’s continuing creative and sustaining action in nature.
What is the place of natural revelation in the context of such a “fallen” creation? Since all of nature would have been so completely transformed from its original state of “perfection,” the natural world could no longer be a source of praise to God or a revelation of God’s character. It would imply that we should be repulsed by the “fallen-ness” of creation, rather than moved to worship the Creator. Yet the spirits of the prophets and psalmists were moved to wonder and praise.
Creation itself provides overwhelming testimony against a pre-Fall creation without death or pain. Death and pain are more than part of creation; they are woven into its very fabric. Reproduction, the care and protection of offspring, defense, escape from predators, and the pursuit of prey are defining forces that shape the biology and behavior of animal species. Furthermore, the long history of life on Earth clearly demonstrates the existence of death and pain before the advent of humanity. The fossil record documents that the same ecological relationships and organism interactions (e.g., carnivory, parasitism, scavenging, decomposition, disease) we observe today were fundamental aspects of biologic communities throughout Earth history. Hundreds of millions of years of Earth history saw not only the death of individuals, but also the extinction of species and whole taxonomic groups. The view that death and pain in the human creation began with the Fall simply cannot be reconciled with the preserved record of life on Earth.
Beyond its severe theological and scientific flaws, the attribution of all death and pain to the curse resulting from the Fall fails to address, in any way, the problem as set forth by Lewis. This view makes God the direct cause of animal suffering while providing no answer to the question, “Why?”
Creation Corrupted by an Angelic Fall
If natural evil did not first enter the universe with the disobedience of humanity, then the objections raised by the geological and biological records are largely avoided. A number of authors have thus concluded that creation was corrupted by an angelic fall before humans appeared. Supporters of this perspective call upon the existence of fallen angelic beings before even the material universe was brought into being. These evil forces, intent on opposing God’s will, are understood to have been at work twisting God’s creative activity from the very beginning. This preserves the view that pain and suffering were introduced into the creation through the disobedience of free moral beings while recognizing the existence of pain and suffering before Adam’s Fall.
Such a position was advocated by C. S. Lewis. After arguing for the plausibility of an angelic fall, he states,
It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene: and that when man fell, someone had, indeed, tempted him.3
Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, when reflecting on the devastation produced by the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, invoked free spiritual forces acting in defiance of God’s will.4 Michael Lloyd has further argued for the theological necessity of a cosmic angelic fall that was responsible for the corruption of the originally good creation that God intended. According to Lloyd, if the present creation is as God intended, then there would be no need for a salvation that encompasses all of creation.5
However, as pointed out by Robert Wennberg, the attribution of suffering and death in creation to an angelic fall does not in itself provide a solution to the problem of “natural evil.” Rather, it is primarily an attempt to distance God from being its direct author—to move God’s role from directly willing animal pain to permitting it in the interests of some greater good. Wennberg states,
To trace the existence of physical evil back to the destructive operations of rebellious Satanic forces is not, however, to provide anything approaching a justification of physical evil; it is only to provide a causal account, not an apologetical one. “Satan did it,” we are told, but the question that must be answered is “why did God allow Satan to do it?”6
While the argument for an angelic fall is not inconsistent with the Bible, finding direct scriptural support is difficult at best. Attributing animal suffering and pain to the actions of such fallen powers is more difficult still. In fact, it runs into many of the same theological problems as the tracing of natural evil to the consequences of human disobedience. A satanic corruption and distortion of God’s creative activity is very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the goodness of creation proclaimed in Scripture. What does the repeated pronouncement of “And God saw that it was good” over creation mean, if that same creation also bore the corrupting imprint of rebellious spiritual powers? Such a creation could not fully represent God’s good and perfect will—so how could it be declared good, in fact, “very good”? In what way could that distorted creation give praise and glory to God?
A serious theological problem is also raised by effectively attributing all manifestations of death and pain in the natural world to the forces of evil. Satan would be given a power over creation that Scripture places exclusively in God’s providential hands. All natural processes and events are undergirded by the creative and sustaining power of God. Rain or drought, plague or harvest, storm and earth- quake are all part of God’s providential action (see Amos 4:6 ff.).7 More than this, God is understood in Scripture as intimately and actively involved in the continual cycle of death and new life we observe in the natural world.
These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. (Psalm 104:27–30, NIV)
If God is thus involved in the death as well as the life of his creatures, how can this death at the same time be attributed to the spiritual forces of evil? Scripture does not seek to distance God from the ongoing death and pain present in the creation, and neither should we.
The Fall Impacts All Time—Past and Future
There are approaches that seek to preserve the view that human disobedience was the cause of natural evil, while recognizing that death, pain, and suffering in the natural world preceded the appearance of humans on the earth. One way is to argue that the consequences of the Fall extended both forward and backward in time.
One recent proponent of this position is William Dembski. Dembski takes as a beginning for his theodicy that all evil in the world (personal moral evil as well as physical death, human suffering, and natural disasters) traces back to human sin. This is seen as a nonnegotiable claim rooted in “traditional theology.” Dembski seems not to distinguish theologically between natural and moral evil in developing his response to the problem of evil. He states that “... sin propagates through nature and brings about natural evil, so that the disordered state of nature mirrors the disordered state of our souls.”8
Although Dembski’s view of the consequences of human sin is similar to those holding a young-earth view, he accepts the overwhelming scientific evidence for an ancient universe and earth, and a long biological history with its concomitant suffering and death. He then asks, “Without a young earth, how can such natural evils be traced back to human sin?” His response is that the answer lies in God’s foreknowledge and omnipotence. “An omniscient and omnipotent God who is able to act preemptively to anticipate human actions will certainly do so to anticipate so momentous a human action as the Fall.”9 God thus preemptively acted in creation to form a world appropriate for a fallen humanity. But why must that world contain natural evil?Dembski argues that the effect of sin must be evident in creation as a testimony to human rebellion.
For redemption to effectively deliver humanity from evil therefore requires humanity to be clear as to precisely what it has consented to in rebelling against God and embracing evil. To achieve this clarity humanity must experience the full brunt of the evil that it has set in motion, and this requires that the creation itself fully manifest the consequences of humanity’s rebellion against God.10
He thus argues that God preemptively brought about natural evils in creation for the purpose of making us realize the gravity of our sin. However, no argument is given as to why natural evil is necessary, or even effective, for this task. Are not the evident multifarious consequences of moral evil sufficient?
In this theodicy, God’s activity in creation is focused exclusively on providing a home for fallen humanity. Nowhere does it address the problem of natural evil from the perspective of the nonhuman creation. What benefit arises (either individually or corporately) to the innocent creatures suffering pain and death over hundreds of millions of years before the appearance of humanity? There is nothing here to answer the original challenge made by C. S. Lewis.
In Part 3, Miller considers alternative explanations for the presence of natural evil in a world created by God.
1. This is from an essay by John C. Whitcomb published by the Institute for Creation Research on June 1, 2003 and entitled “Progressive Creationism.” It is available at the ICR website at http://www.icr.org/article/121 (last accessed March 17, 2011).
2. See chapter 8 of Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984). I have also discussed these points in K. B. Miller, “Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45, no. 3 (1993): 150–60.
3. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 134–5.
4. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005). He states, “it is clearly the case that there is a kind of 'provisional' cosmic dualism within the New Testament: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles; but certainly a conflict between a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God on the one hand and the saving love of God in time on the other.” (Pp. 62–3)
5. Michael Lloyd, “Are Animals Fallen?” in Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (London: SCM Press, 1998), 147–60.
6. Wennberg, “Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil,” 134.
7. I discuss “natural hazards” as part of God’s renewal of the earth and life in K. B. Miller, “Natural Hazards: Challenges to the Creation Mandate of Dominion?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 53, no. 3 (2001): 184–7.
8. From the online essay by William Dembski, “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,” (2006): 3–5. Published on the website of “Uncommon Descent” and now available at http://standfirmfortruth.com/wp- content/uploads/2010/01/2006.05.christian_theodicy.pdf. Dembski has expanded the arguments in this essay in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (New York: Broadman and Holman Academic, 2009).
9. Dembski, “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,” 22, 23.
10. Ibid., 19, 29.
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 prominent board member of the Kansas Citizens for Science, a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes a better understanding of science.