What philosophers call the problem of evil has been around as long as we have records of human thinking. But many people today think that Darwin’s proposal of evolution has made the problem harder. Is that really true? I don’t think so, for at least four reasons.
Evolution does not require death
It is often claimed by our Christian critics that evolution makes the problem of evil harder because it makes death and suffering the way God set up the world. First I’d like to note that evolution is not fundamentally about death and suffering. Critics like to quote the line “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from a Tennyson poem, suggesting this is what nature is like from an evolutionary perspective. But it is not often noted that this poem was written before Darwin published his Origin of the Species! It is not describing the evolutionary picture of nature, but rather the obvious fact that lots of creatures suffer and die. Evolution shouldn’t be specifically blamed for that.
This is a subtle point, but evolution as an explanation for the diversity of life on Earth doesn’t technically require that organisms die. If resources weren’t limited, natural selection would still occur as long as there was variation in the population. Darwin’s insight was that some things reproduce more successfully than others and pass on their characteristics to their offspring. That doesn’t necessarily require death.
Now of course when you have life evolving over billions of years, things better die or we are going to run out of room! And resources are indeed limited. But these facts are no different for Old Earth Creationists who deny evolution. They recognize the same basic progression of life forms—including all the extinctions—as evidenced by the fossil record. So evolution doesn’t make the problem any harder for Evolutionary Creationists in this respect.
God seems to be okay with using suffering and death to accomplish his purposes
Secondly, critics also charge that God would never set up a system that involves death and suffering. It is tough to read the Bible and come to that conclusion. The Old Testament claims God set up an elaborate system of animal sacrifices. And the New Testament prominently portrays the gruesome suffering and death of Jesus Christ as God’s ordained way of reconciling us to himself.
It may be difficult for us to understand why God set up a world that has death and suffering (hence the persistence of the problem of evil). But it seems beyond any reasonable doubt that God has done just that. So the fact that animals suffer and die shouldn’t count against evolution in this respect either.
It is actually special creation that makes the problem of evil harder
As mentioned above, Old Earth Creationists typically accept the same progression of life that the fossil record shows. But instead of accepting the evolutionary claim that today’s species all have common ancestors if you go back far enough, they claim that God created all the species separately in the order that the fossil record shows. That would require an extraordinary number of miraculous interventions by God (there have been millions and millions of different species).
At BioLogos we don’t doubt that God has worked miraculously outside the system of natural causes, but the overwhelming pattern we observe in Scripture is that God uses miracles as “signs and wonders” to point people to the Kingdom of God. What would be the Kingdom rationale of specially creating dinosaurs instead of letting them evolve from earlier reptiles? No one was there to see that sign and wonder.
An even bigger difficulty with the special creation view, to my mind, is that it leads to the disturbing perception that God constantly intervenes in the natural world to create at the species level, but not to protect creatures from pain and suffering. The problem of evil is more difficult to understand if we believe that God has already intervened millions of times to disrupt what would have otherwise happened “naturally”.
Evolution is not wasteful, but a lavish way to create
Finally, many people think evolution exacerbates the problem of evil because it is such a wasteful process. Why would God use a process for creating what he ultimately wants that meanders around and appears to be remarkably inefficient? Over 99% of all species that have ever lived have gone extinct. Doesn’t that make the problem of evil harder?
First of all, extinct species are a problem whether or not you accept the science of evolution. There is no debate (even among Young Earth Creationists) that the species alive today represent only a tiny fraction of those that used to live. Next, calling this process wasteful assumes that the only purpose for all these extinct species was to get to the ones we have today. That treats them as expendable and without value in and of themselves.
Instead, we can see the evolutionary process as consistent with God’s lavishness in creation. Many, many more kinds of things have lived and flourished over the vast stretches of evolutionary time than could possibly exist at one time on Earth. The fact that most of them eventually died out (some after thriving for millions and millions of years) does not take away from their unique way of reflecting the glory of their Creator for a time.
Over the centuries we have continually discovered that God’s creation is more extensive than we had previously imagined: from Western civilization around the Mediteranean, to discovering many other civilizations around the globe; from thinking Earth was the center of the universe, to discovering that we are just one planet around our sun, which is just one star out of billions in our galaxy, and that our galaxy is just one out of billions in the universe (and now some suggest there may be just as many other universes!).
Uncovering the vast stretches of evolutionary history and the multitudes of previously unknown creatures is another step in our understanding the expansiveness of the created order. It seems that God simply delights in creating lots of things. To call these millions of extinct species a waste is to massively misunderstand this aspect of what God has done. Instead, let us praise God for the wonders of his lavish creation.
The existence and persistence of evil will never be easy for us to understand—let alone to experience. These quick reasons I’ve given here don’t settle things. But I hope they at least point toward the possibility that there are legitimate ways of understanding the science of evolution in the context of a robust Christian faith.
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At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.