In the first part of this essay, I suggested that while the Bible does depict “death” – understood in various ways over church history – as counter to the telos of humankind, it does not unambiguously present biological death as alien to the natural ends of all creation, or as something that entered into the creaturely world only recently through the sin of Adam. In the absence of an emphatic textual mandate, questioning the significant scientific evidence that death has been an integral part of life’s history on earth would seem to require a compelling theological argument along with a dearth of plausible theological alternatives. I do not believe the thoughtful and gracious essay by my colleague, John Laing, makes this case.
While science cannot take the place of revelation, both the history of the church and the teaching of scripture affirm that our understanding of and theological reflections upon biblical revelation can and ought to be responsive to observations of the natural world. Over the last several centuries—and before the idea of evolution was ever proposed—evangelical Christians have accepted scientific evidence for primordial death while continuing to affirm core doctrines of creation in a variety of ways. Indeed, the issue itself is not intrinsically tied to evolution, a fact attested to by many committed anti-evolutionists—from Louis Aggasiz in the 18th Century, to fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan in the 20th, to a variety of creationists today. While rejecting evolution, they did not and do not see a conflict between the gospel and primordial death.
Is non-human death an evil?
There are two primary ways in which this issue (or any claim of natural evil) is dealt with theologically. One is to argue that the phenomenon does not constitute an evil. The other is to argue that the evil is permissible, i.e., by developing a theodicy that plausibly maintains that the evil in question is necessary for the attainment of a fully compensatory good that would not be possible without it.
Christians have historically maintained the first view in several ways. One is simply to affirm the biblical perspective that the original creation was good and that death was part of that creation. Therefore it cannot be evil, or it cannot be evil in a way that effectively subverts the God-ordained purposes and God-declared goodness of creation. How could one claim that death was part of creation? One could, because Genesis depicts plants as given for food (sidebar), and every chomp kills. At the very least, chomping kills cells.
Of course mere cell death is not the same as organismal death, e.g., death to a fully potentiated creature or an autonomous living being. But robust herbivory—“every green plant for food”— entails real, honest-to-goodness creaturely death, not just cell death. Nearly every time a raspberry or banana or walnut or snap pea or grain of wheat or ear of corn is eaten, one or more living organisms—embryos—are killed. It is as much a creaturely death for these organisms as destroying an embryo or aborting a fetus is for the human organism.1 Moreover, many herbivores kill on an even grander scale: beavers and porcupines kill mature trees, pine beetles entire forest stands. Here too, some claim that the death of a plant is not comparable to that of an animal. But in terms of the core theological issue John raises of life being the marvelous impartation of God and death dissolving that gift, all organisms—plants included—share wondrous goal-directed characteristics that distinguish life from inanimate matter and that are eradicated by death: homeostatic self-regulation, developmental trajectory, target-oriented responsiveness, nutritive metabolism, reproductive potency.
Death is the unarguable enemy of these sublime and God-endowed ends. But apparently death is not the enemy of God’s ultimate intended ends for these creatures or the creatures that consume them. I shudder at the prospect of appearing (or being) impertinent, but God could (conceivably) have given manna from heaven as He did in the wilderness. Or He could have made humans and all creatures nectar feeders. Or commanded all to eat not green plants but milk and honey—the images of God’s blessed land—that do not entail creaturely death.2 But He did not. Death, the enemy of life yet also the requisite for other life, is utterly endemic even in scriptural images of primordial creation.
At this point a final and salient claim is that it is not death itself but the fear, pain and suffering associated with death that constitute the natural evil. Therefore death generally, and plant death in particular, are not the issue. Although animal suffering is a point that I believe deserves to be taken seriously, it actually is not the issue John raises in his essay, which emphasizes death itself and makes no reference at all to the problem of suffering.
Nevertheless, this raises a second way in which some argue that death is not an evil: it is not an evil, because it is claimed that non-human creatures undergo but do not suffer it, or do not suffer it in morally significant ways. The scriptures are admittedly ambiguous about whether and in what way animals warrant moral concern.3 And prominent figures in the history of Christian theology—from Augustine to Aquinas—have taken a comparably ambivalent or even explicitly low view of the moral significance of animal suffering.4 Of course this was scientifically formalized by Descartes, who viewed animals as machines without a conscious internal life. And although Cartesian automatism is intuitively repugnant to most of us who have intimate contact with animals, and is rejected by many cognitive ethologists, there are a variety of neo-Cartesian views that raise questions about the extent to which animals may be aware of but not conscious of pain or the meta-cognitive experience of suffering.
I am not persuaded by these views. But in highlighting the issue of animal cognition, they raise the question of at what point in evolution, and in what way, death becomes theologically salient. Is the death of worms or arthropods a theological problem, and do Christians who reject primordial death believe that no mortality to soil invertebrates ensued from hoofed animals walking across the landscape? Do fish and amphibians, which do not evidence the physiological accoutrements of emotion rudimentarily manifested by reptiles, experience fear? And if not, does death become a theological concern only with the origin of reptiles in the Carboniferous? These questions may sound facetious, and indeed they do seem silly. But if death itself is the question, on the basis of scientific testimony and scriptural imagery, it was present in organisms from the origin of life on. And if the capacity for suffering is the question, it is actually not an evolutionary but a phylogenetic issue. It would seem that positing an intrinsic contradiction between God and evolution on this basis is errant. The problem is not with evolution, but with the nature of vertebrate life from, perhaps, the Cretaceous on. Or chronology notwithstanding, from higher vertebrates “up.”
Finally, it can be claimed that animal death is not an evil for the very reason that life is a good gift from God in whatever measure He chooses to bestow it. The fact that it is not of infinite duration does not diminish either the value of the gift or the goodness of the gift-giver. In many places scripture claims that God provides prey for the beasts (Ps 104:21; Job 38:39-41, 39:27-30) and sovereignly confers and withdraws breath from creatures (Ps 104:27-30) without identifying this as evil, linking it to human sin, or providing an exculpatory rationale of any kind for God’s prerogative. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away: blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Is non-human death a permissible evil?
But for many of us, it is not easy to be so sanguine while watching a loved one die or—beyond human death—seeing a lion rip a fetus from the birth sac of a pregnant wildebeest. We just intuitively construe death, even non-human death, as wrong. Theodicy takes the issue seriously by acknowledging death as evil while exploring ways in which a good God could permit it.
One of the oldest Christian theodicies of course is the Adamic Fall perspective to which John attributes death’s arrival as enemy. However, although this proposes a causal genealogy for death, it is actually not entirely clear how it functions as a theodicy. While freedom for each human moral agent to pursue life over death as a consequence of freely choosing right over wrong may be a good that is not attainable apart from the possibility of death, it is not clear how structuring the natural world so that manifold evils accrue to countless human and non-human creatures from one act of a single individual entails a compensatory good—one that could not be attained apart from the fragility of creation and the massive evils that ensue.5
The Bible does not explain this. But if one takes the general form of this theodicy as sufficient or at least helpful, then a kindred yet more recent variant is made possible: that of the disordering effects of a Satanic Fall.6 This view shares many features—both benefits and liabilities—with the Adamic fall in attributing various evils to the impacts of moral wrongdoing. However, it is entirely reconcilable with a primordial view of death.
There are numerous other attempts to construct theodicies for primordial death or animal suffering that mirror the range of approaches to human suffering. The possibility of pain may be requisite to that of fulfillment, or death may be conjoined to life as a function of metaphysical, logical, or biotic necessity. Death and its pains may be fully consoled, and necessary for the experience of consolation, in a life to come. The existence of death, in a finite world, may be a necessary form of “taking turns” so that both the number and the diversity of creatures that experience and manifest life are maximized. The capacity for pain and the possibility of relinquishing life itself may present the option—even to animals—for the most morally salient and fullest expression of life’s goodness: caring for others to the point of sacrifice. None of these approaches is problem-free, though neither does it appear that any may be dismissed out-of-hand. However, one recent approach that seems utterly untenable is the unnanced claim that evolution constitutes “salvation for theology” because it “emancipates religion from the shackles of theodicy” in making itself, and not God, responsible for the disordered features of life.7 As both John and I (and indeed any Christian) would affirm, God is responsible for whatever means of creation He chooses to use. Evolution does not “get God off the hook.” But for the above reasons it is not clear that evolution puts God on the hook in any way that is not generated by the long-recognized, wondrous-though-uncertain testimony of creation itself.8 As Blaise Pascal noted,
If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ, and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these two truths. All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity…9
Editorial note: Tomorrow, Jeff Schloss concludes his response to John Laing by addressing the specific roles of death and natural evil within the evolutionary framework.
1. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting there are no significant differences—even differences in kind—between humans and other creatures. I am also not suggesting that eating a walnut is the moral equivalent of killing a human embryo or aborting a fetus! But the important point here is that an embryo is an organismic being, a living creature with all the attendant biotic potentialities. It is not just a mass of cells like a wart or tumor; neither is it merely a functionally-integrated organ like a plant leaf.
2. Actually, we don’t know this. There may be ultimate theological or brute energetic reasons why this could not be. A BioLogos FAQ on death and the Fall claims that death is and was an ecological necessity. But the truth is, we don’t really know which counterfactual ecosystems are trophically viable or divinely acceptable. What we do know, is that existing ecology and the testimony of scripture affirm the primordial place of death.
3. The Old Testament teaches that “the righteous man has regard for the life of his beast” (Prov 12:10) and humans should not muzzle the ox (Deut 25:4). But Paul seems to argue that this is not for the sake of the ox but for humans: “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (I Cor 9:9-11).
4. According to Augustine, “Christ himself shows that to refrain from the killing of animals and the destroying of plants is the height of superstition…judging that there are no common rights between us and the beasts and trees.” [The Catholic and Manichaean Ways of Life, cited in Mary Midgley, Beast and Man. 2007. Taylor & Francis, Page 153.] Aquinas famously argued that animal suffering was not in itself a legitimate object of moral concern, though scriptural injunctions against mistreatment of animals were morally salient insofar as mistreatment inculcated indifference to human cruelty or economic loss for others. [Summa Contra Gentiles, iii., discussed, e.g., in Richard Ryder, Animal Revolution: Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism. 2000. Berg.]
5. More concretely: while giving Adam and Eve the freedom to choose to disobey God might require that God permit them to commit moral evils, there is no clear connection between their having the good of moral freedom and the consequent physical pain and suffering of trillions of organisms throughout the subsequent history of the world. Allowing Adam’s sin to precipitate such consequences does not provide a justification, but seems itself to require one.
6. E.g., C. S. Lewis explores this in The Problem of Pain (HarperOne, 2001) and Alvin Plantinga develops a more general case in God, Freedom, And Evil (Eerdmans, 1978).
7. Avise, John. (2006). Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107(Suppl 2):8969–8976
8. Murray, Michael & Jeffrey Schloss. 2012. “Theism and Evolution.” In Routledge Companion to Theism. Charles Taliaferro, Victoria Harrison, and Stewart Goetz eds. Taylor & Francis.
9. Blaise Pascal. Pensees. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Grand Rapids. [Pensee #556, page 90]