Death and Pain in the Created Order, Part 4
Note: In this series, Keith B. Miller has explored "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 vexing problem has been debated within the Christian Church throughout its entire history.
In parts 2 and 3, Miller evaluated several proposed solutions to the problem of evil, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Today he suggests a possible synthesis that is faithful to what we know of God theologically, and of the world scientifically.
This paper first appeared in the American Scientific Affiliation’s journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith , and is used by permission.
Toward a Possible Solution
Taking into account all of the theodicies we’ve explored so far, the question that continues to arise and needs to be addressed is this: How might death, pain, and suffering accrue to the benefit of the individual animal life?
In my opinion, Austin Farrer comes closest to directly facing this issue. Farrer focuses on the experience of the individual animal life and its relationship to God. God cares for the life and activity of the individual animal—so God really does care for the sparrow. “God does not want his creatures for any ulterior aim; he wants them to be, for their sakes, not his.” The life of each individual animal is a work of God. So how does God care for the sparrow? Farrer responds:
God loves his animal creatures by being God to them, that is, by natural providence and creative power; not by being a brother creature to them, as he does for mankind in the unique miracle of his incarnation.1
What role then does pain and suffering have in the life of an animal? Farrer explains that
Animal existence is beset by goods and evils, things needing to be shunned and things asking to be embraced. But animal action is the shunning of the one, and the embracing of the other; and while the animal survives, it is successful rather than the reverse ... Living is its own justification, its own good.Furthermore,
the God of nature gives his animal creatures pains out of love for them, to save their lives ... Again, out of love for them, God moves his creatures to shun their pains and mend their harms, so far as their sense or capacity allows.2
God is not just interested in the future of species, but is a participant in the lives of individual creatures. But I would argue that this is not the end of the matter. The “soul-making” theodicy provides a model for considering the fulfillment of animal existence. Like Hick, we can ask, “What would animal life be like in the absence of death and pain?”
It can be argued that it is the presence of death and pain that makes possible the fulfillment of individual animal lives. Death and pain are integral to the functioning of all ecological systems and animal lifestyles. Defense, protection, camouflage, pursuit of prey, and so forth are major forces that shape both animal biology and behavior. The drive to reproduce is one of the most fundamental features of life, yet would not be possible in the absence of death. Without the continued loss of individuals to disease, predation, or injury, the carrying capacity of the environment would be quickly reached and continued reproduction would become impossible. Consider how much of an animal’s life is devoted to reproductive activities such as attracting mates, defending territory, preparing nests, caring for young, etc.
What would remain of an animal’s life without the search for food, pursuit of prey, need for defense, or the drive to reproduce? In short, essentially all meaningful animal activity and interaction would be rendered meaningless or impossible if death were not a universal certainty. It can thus be reasonably argued that it is the presence of death and pain that make possible the fulfillment of individual animal lives. Natural “evil” thus seems to be a necessary component of the environment for “soul-making” in both the human and nonhuman creation.
The concept of animal fulfillment is one that Christopher Southgate also used in trying to develop a theodicy that applied at the level of the individual creature.3 Southgate argues that animal lives can be seen as “fulfilled,” “growing toward fulfillment,” “frustrated,” or “transcending self.” He defines “fulfilled” as “a state in which the creature is utterly being itself, in an environment in which it flourishes, with access to the appropriate energy sources and reproductive opportunities.” “Frustrated” animals are held back in some way from fulfillment, and animals that “transcend self” have explored new possibilities of their being.
Southgate envisions God delighting in the fulfillment of creatures, and “inviting” them toward transcendence. This is similar, I think, to Farrer’s view of God wanting creatures simply to be who they are. But what about those creatures whose lives are “frustrated”? Here Southgate speculates that “all that the frustrated creature suffers, and all it might have been but for frustration, is retained in the memory of the Trinity.”
Finally, many authors see a final and complete answer to the problem of suffering of the nonhuman creation only in the promise of a new creation in which all creation participates. The eschatological hope of a new heaven and a new earth points us to the final redemption of all things in Christ.
So what does all of this mean for us? How do we respond practically to the challenge of theodicy? I draw the following implications from this contemplation of the God-given character of the non-human creation.
- Creation is good, and the death and pain embedded within it are part of God’s will and purpose for it. Creation is not a fallen thing to be conquered and controlled, but a divine gift we are to serve and rule and enjoy as God’s stewards.
- Rather than focusing on the presumed fallen-ness of creation as the result of past disobedience, we need to recognize our present abuse of our creation mandate. We need to fulfill our calling to serve and care for creation as God’s image bearers.4
- Since the sole task of animals on this earth is to be, and when they die they can no longer glorify God in this manner, it is our task as stewards not to inhibit, but rather to aid them in being what they are. We are to encourage the fulfillment of animal existence.
- Most human suffering due to natural events or processes is a consequence of our free moral choice, or our disregard for natural processes.
- For the nonhuman creation, pain and suffering provide the context in which animal lives can be rich and fulfilled. For us, physical death, pain, and suffering are opportunities for the expression of Christ-like character. This is not to argue that we are to embrace death and suffering; rather, it is in the struggle to understand and overcome them that our most Christ-like and meaningful thoughts and actions are expressed.
- The crucified God participates in the suffering and death of his creation. God is not distant, but with us in our life’s journey toward becoming like him, and with the creature in its journey toward fulfillment.
It is this last point which I think is the most important. God is present with us, and with all creatures, as we each live out God’s call in our lives. It is only in that journey of life, including especially its pain and struggle, that God’s purpose for his creation (human and nonhuman) can be expressed. And most profoundly, God is a participant with us, and with the sparrow, in that struggle of life. “Then the universe for him is like a Crucifixion.”
1.Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961), 91–3.
2.Ibid., 74, 92.
3.Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, 64–5.
4.The concept of actively “imaging God” in creation is developed by Douglas John Hall in Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1986).
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.