Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 3
Note: In this series, Keith B. Miller explores "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. This is a major stumbling block for Christians who are considering evolution, as well as for non-believers who are considering the Christian faith.
In part 2, Miller evaluated the view that natural evil is the result of a human or angelic fall, and in today's post, he considers three alternative explanations.
This paper first appeared in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , and is used by permission.
Natural “Evil” as God’s Good Purpose
In what way can we view the death and pain that are part of animal existence as part of God’s good creation? One approach can be seen in the arguments of Augustine. Influenced by Greek philosophy, Augustine viewed the eternal God as the only perfect good by virtue of absolute immutability. All of creation is transitory and subject to change, and thus of lesser goodness. However, all things God has made are good. The good of mortal creatures is to be seen in their created natures and in their places within the whole of the created order. If we fail to see the goodness of the whole, it is because we are embedded within it. Augustine argues,
It is, in fact, the very law of transitory things that, here on Earth where such things are at home, some should be born while others die, the weak should give way to the strong and the victims should nourish the life of the victors. If the beauty of this order fails to delight us, it is because we ourselves, by reason of our mortality, are so enmeshed in this corner of the cosmos that we fail to perceive the beauty of a total pattern in which the particular parts, which seem ugly to us, blend in so harmonious and beautiful a way.1
All natures, then, are good simply because they exist and, therefore, have each its own measure of being, its own beauty, even, in a way, its own peace. And when each is in the place assigned by the order of nature, it best preserves the full measure of being that was given to it.2
Those beings designed to die promote the good of the whole by fulfilling their part in God’s plan for governing the universe.
This view of the goodness of creation subsumes the experience of pain and suffering of the individual animal life into the goodness and beauty of the creation as a whole. Out of this Augustinian theodicy came the argument of Leibniz that God brought into existence only “the best of all possible worlds.”3 However, this appeal to the goodness of the whole does not address the real core of the theodicy problem with respect to natural evil. It is the suffering of the individual creature that provokes our questions of God’s goodness. As pointed out by Christopher Southgate,
The crux of the problem is not the overall system and its overall goodness but the Christian’s struggle with the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering.4
The suffering of individual creatures is brought into even greater focus by the testimony of Scripture that God is not distant from creation, but immanent within it.5 Augustine avoided this tension by making God, the eternal and unchangeable good, unable to be negatively affected by his mortal creation. But if God does indeed care for the sparrow, then the suffering of the individual created life must matter to God and not just to us.
Creation Given Freedom as an Act of Divine Love
In contrast to the Augustinian view described above, the “free-process” defense for natural evil takes the immanence of God within creation very seriously. As an expression of divine love, God has given the creation freedom in its own creative process. While God actively upholds the processes of nature, the specific consequences of those processes are not dictated. The implication is that the “free-process” defense for natural evil is analogous to the “free-will” defense for moral evil. John Polkinghorne has stated this as “God accords to the processes of the world that same respect that he accords to the actions of humanity.”6
To give such freedom requires that God has limited his own controlling power over creation and made himself vulnerable to it. The nonhuman creation can act in a manner that grieves God. As emphasized by W. H. Vanstone in his book The Risk of Love, authentic love is characterized by the very qualities of self-giving, vulnerability, and precariousness. This “self-emptying” love is central to God’s very character—to who God is—and is fully expressed in Christ. Thus, according to Vanstone,
The activity of God in creation must be precarious. It must proceed by no assured programme. Its progress, like every progress of love, must be an angular progress—in which each step is a precarious step into the unknown; in which each triumph contains a new potential of tragedy, and each tragedy may be redeemed into a wider triumph ...7
Nature in its freedom includes pain and suffering, yet these “tragedies” are redeemed. Vanstone states,
Where the destructive potential is activated, we see the tragedy of nature: and we also see, on occasion, that endless inventiveness of nature which, out of the material of tragedy, fashions the possibility of a new kind or level of triumph.8
The destructive processes that are part of the created order make possible new life—even biological novelty and a richer, more diverse biosphere. The suffering and death embedded in creation provide the opportunity for new creative possibilities, and so are redeemed. This point is emphasized by Holmes Rolston III who argues that the world is a place of suffering, of “pathos,” and that it is through that suffering that the creation is advanced to “something higher.” Furthermore, “this pathetic element in nature is seen in faith to be at the deepest logical level the pathos in God. God is not in a simple way the Benevolent Architect, but is rather the Suffering Redeemer.” Nature is “cruciform” because the Creator is the Crucified. Suffering creatures participate in the divine pathos, and “... God too suffers, not less than God’s creatures, in order to gain for the creatures a more abundant life.”9
George Murphy has similarly argued that Christian theodicy must begin with the cross. Our understanding of God’s voluntary self-limitation is grounded in the theology of the crucified. As a consequence, we recognize that God shares in the cost that is necessary to secure creation’s freedom and integrity. God suffers with the world from the evil taking place within it—“The world’s pains are God’s stigmata.”10
Our world, with its seemingly inseparable qualities of astounding beauty, bursting creativity, and innocent suffering, can perhaps be made theologically intelligible by seeing it as the loving creation of a self-emptying God who has entered into that creation and shared in its suffering. As stated in the poem that began this essay, “the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.” Nonetheless, we still, rightly or wrongly, desire to see some purpose to innocent suffering that has meaning at the level of the individual creature’s life.11 Is there not something more that can be said?
Creation as an Environment for Human “Soul-Making”
C. S. Lewis argued that a “law-governed” universe with regularity and predictability, and the possibility of suffering and death, is a logical necessity for a world of free embodied souls.12 It has been further suggested that the hand of God must be largely, but not entirely, hidden for true freedom to be exercised.
Robert Wennberg has pursued this line of thinking by stating that the presence of animal pain and suffering contributes to the creation of an environment in which human free decision-making and “soul-making” can best occur. He begins with the assertion that God’s purpose in creating was to “bring into existence spiritual-moral agents capable of freely coming to know and love God.” He then argues that an environment in which God’s power and glory were overwhelmingly present, and all threat of pain and suffering eliminated, would not give adequate “space” for the exercise of fully free choices. Conversely, a world devoid of pointers to God and yet filled with pain and suffering would make commitment to a loving God “difficult beyond measure.” What is required is a middle way,
an ambiguous world, with pointers to God, yet with features, such as physical evil including animal pain, that give us pause, that make one wonder, an environment that does not dictate or coerce what one believes—an environment that makes room for an appropriate human freedom.13
This “soul-making” theodicy is probably best articulated by John Hick in his book Evil and the God of Love. God created not only an environment for individual freedom, but also an environment for the development of our God-centered humanity. Humankind was not created in a complete state of perfection, but rather as “raw material” for God’s further work of molding us into his image and likeness. Thus, God’s purpose was not to make a hedonistic paradise but an environment for “soul-making.” Hick states,
... we have to recognize that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain cannot be the supreme and overriding end for which the world exists. Rather, this world must be a place of soul-making. And its value is to be judged, not primarily by the quantity of pleasure and pain occurring in it at any particular moment, but by its fitness for its purpose, the purpose of soul-making.14
Humankind is perfected through a life of moral choices and challenges, and the struggles and sufferings of life bring out human potentialities.
Hick further challenges us to consider the consequences of a world in which pain not only did not occur, but could not occur. His argument here is worth an extended quotation:
One of the most striking features of such a rearranged world would be the absence of any need to comprehend nature and to learn to predict and manipulate its movements ... Again, in a painless world man would not have to earn his living by the sweat of his brow or the ingenuity of his brain. For in banishing all pain we banish violent hunger and thirst and excessive heat or cold, and in excluding these we make needless all those activities ... by which men have staved off those painful conditions. Human existence would involve no need for exertion, no kind of challenge, no problems to be solved or difficulties to be overcome, no demand of the environment for human skill or inventiveness. There would be nothing to avoid and nothing to seek; no occasion for co-operation or mutual help; no stimulus to the development of culture or the creation of civilization.15
Our human virtues and moral potentials are made manifest through our struggles in this creation. The Christ-likeness to which we are called as his image-bearers (self-sacrifice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness) is expressed in the context of the needs and suffering of others. I would suggest that even physical death itself is part of our “soul-making.”
However true, human soul-making does not seem an adequate basis for a theodicy of animal pain. It justifies animal pain only from the perspective of human good. At the same time, the idea of “soul-making” may contain the seeds of a possible approach to addressing the meaning of suffering in the nonhuman creation that has relevance to the individual animal life.
In the final post in this series, Miller focuses on animal suffering, proposing how it might be part of God’s plan for his creatures and how, in light of that, humanity is called to embrace our role as image-bearers.
1. Vernon Bourke, ed., St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Doubleday, 1958), Book XII, chapter 4, 249.
2. City of God, Book XII, chapter 5, 250.
3. Leibniz’s theodicy is discussed by John Hick in Evil and the God of Love, 154–66. Hick quotes the following from Leibniz: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them” (p. 158).
4. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.
5. John Polkinghorne, in his book Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala New Science Library, 1989), has put it this way: “The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread existence of evil within it.” (P. 59)
6. Ibid., 67.
7. W. H. Vanstone, The Risk of Love (New York: Oxford Univer- sity Press, 1978), 62–3.
8. Ibid., 85.
9. Holmes Rolston III, “Does Nature Need to Be Redeemed?” Zygon 29 (June 1994): 205–29.
10. George Murphy, The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 87.
11. Christopher Southgate raises another problem with trying to apply the concept of a cruciform creation to the experience of suffering by the individual creature. In book The Groaning of Creation, he states, “It is important too to see the profound differences between the Passion of Christ and the “passion play” of evolution. First, the cruciform life was chosen by Jesus, and from this choice came the saving power of his love. The plight of the “casualties” of evolution, who have suffering imposed on them by God for the longer-term good of others, is very different. The suffering of the myriad casualties of evolution is not freely chosen.” (P. 50)
12. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 34.
13. Wennberg, “Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil,” 137–8.
14. Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 295.
15. Ibid., 342–3.
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.