“How could a good God create through a process that involves so much pain and death?” For many people, accepting evolution is less a scientific question than a theological one. After all, seeing evolution as God’s method of creation requires affirming that death, pain, and natural disasters are part of God’s creative toolbox instead of a result of the Fall. In this three-part blog series, I will first look at how theologians and scientists have seen the world in contrary ways, and then reflect theologically on how a world created through evolutionary means can be good.
First, let’s see how theologians have thought about our world. Theologians––academic and popular, contemporary and ancient––have almost universally affirmed the connection between sin and physical death. Drawing from passages such as Genesis 3 and Romans 5 & 8, they have argued that death came through sin. In regard to the natural world, this means invoking a Cosmic Fall scenario in which not only human death came through the Fall, but earthquakes, tornadoes, pain, predation, and disease as well.
Consider this quotation from John Calvin: “For it appears that all the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin. Nor is there any other primary cause of diseases.”1 Pretty clear, right? God did not want these “evils” to be part of the world, and the only reason they exist is because of human sin.
What’s more, theologians see the redemption by Christ on the cross as the denunciation of these natural evils. For example, T. F. Torrance writes “The Cross of Christ tells us unmistakably that all physical evil, not only pain, suffering, disease, corruption, death, and of course cruelty and venom in animals as well as human behaviour, but also ‘natural’ calamities, devastations and monstrosities are an outrage against the love of God and a contradiction of good order in his creation.”2
Scientists, on the other hand, have looked at these same natural phenomena, and have come to the conclusion that realities like pain, earthquakes, and death are in fact necessary to good and flourishing lives. How do they do this? Let’s look at two examples: earthquakes and pain.
When discussing plate tectonics3, the media tends to focus on the negative effects of our planet’s mobile plates. We hear about volcanic activity that shuts down European flight zones, tsunamis that devastate whole populations, and of course earthquakes, which have caused major devastations and cost many people their lives in Haiti, China, and Chile. How can earthquakes be good? What else does the plate cycle do?
First, plate tectonics, through the rotation of the mantle below, contributes to the magnetic field which surrounds our planet, keeping the atmosphere in and warding off deadly cosmic rays from the sun, which would destroy life if they reached the planet. Second, plate tectonic movement involves the solid plates being forced down into the liquid mantle and melting in some places, while in other places the plates separate and allow hot magma to rise and solidify. This recycling uses up heat produced by the interior radiation of the earth. This process is so effective that it uses up almost 90% of the heat produced by the Earth. In comparison, on Venus, the lack of plate tectonics means that the same heat produced by the core does not get recycled, and the pressure and heat build up so high that the distinction between mantle and crust gets lost––the whole planet goes molten. The rest of the time, surface temperatures average around 500 degrees Celsius. There are many other advantages to plate tectonics, including stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide, maintaining temperatures for liquid surface water, renewing nutrients in the soil, and keeping a distinction between ocean and continent. Life, and certainly human life in this world, simply does not have a chance without plate tectonics. I do not want to understate the great human and animal cost associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, but without plate tectonics, there would be no life at all. I would affirm that this world’s plate tectonics are part of God’s very good creation.
What about pain? If any of us were given the choice to live without pain, most of us would say an enthusiastic “yes please!” Until, that is, we saw what a life without pain really looks like. In our mind’s eye we would imagine striding untouched though hardship and peril, like a real-life Superman, able to conquer all the aches and pains that keep us from reaching our full potential. In reality, a painless life is a horror show. In reality, painlessness looks like leprosy.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, is a bacterial infection that invades the body’s pain nerves and ultimately destroys them, leaving the person with an inability to feel pain. That is, in fact, almost all that leprosy does. The subsequent damage that we associate with leprosy––fingers falling off, open wounds, and missing limbs––does not actually come from the bacteria themselves, but from the resulting painlessness. Patients burn themselves and do not pull back; they walk on broken limbs and do not notice. In the book The Gift of Pain, Paul Brand describes how in one African clinic, rats were coming in the night and feeding on patients fingers, and because they felt no pain, they slept on.4 Pain is a good thing, our ever-present protector, developed through an evolutionary process to help us live good lives. Now, this is not to say that pain never goes wild. It does, and with realities like chronic pain or torture, pain can become an enemy. But that does not undermine the fact that our ability to feel pain is a great gift; it just means that sometimes that gift becomes twisted in its expression. The solution is not to wish for a world with no pain, but for a world where pain is appropriately experienced.
Now let me insert one caveat here: in no way do I want to say that just because pain is “natural” that we have no responsibility to help relieve it. That is not what I am arguing. I would say that pain serves important purposes, which are needed for a good life. At the same time, we should look to the example of Jesus, who walked into pain-filled situations and brought healing, regardless of the cause of the suffering. It is our recognition of suffering in the other5and our responsibility of stewardship to one another that must motivate our medical ethics.
There is a lot more that we could talk about here. We could speak of predation, which encourages biodiversity and drives evolutionary innovation. We could explore how physical death is a good and necessary part of a world that has limited resources, keeping organisms from becoming cancerous (cancer cells never die on their own and are thus “immortal”). These are important, but they roughly follow the same type of argumentation as above. In my next post, I will look at the values of a world developed through an evolutionary process, or, as it is sometimes asked, “Why didn’t God simply create heaven in the first place?”
1. John Calvin, Commentaries upon the First Book of Moses called Genesis (1554) in Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Genesis, Part I, trans. J. King (Forgotten Books, 1847, 2007), 113.
2. T. F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981), 117.
3. For more about plate tectonics, check out Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, (New York: Copernicus, 2004).
4. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain: Why we hurt & what we can do about it (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 127.
5. Suffering, and not necessarily pain. Pain is the brain’s reception of the stimulation of pain nerves. Suffering is a psychological state, and can be caused by many things. Pain can be absent in those who suffer, as is the case with leprosy. We should be careful not to collapse these two distinct concepts into one and the same thing.