Is Animal Suffering Part of God’s Good Creation?
If God is good, how can we account for the enormous amount of suffering caused by predation, disease, and natural disasters?
The Bible teaches that God is good, and loving, and powerful. We see these characteristics reflected in the good world God has created. But we also see instances of suffering and evil in the world. Often our hearts are moved by these, and we wonder why God doesn’t prevent them. People have pondered this question for centuries—long before modern science. But our scientific understanding of the world raises the question in new ways.
Some of the suffering and evil in the world is clearly the result of human sin: genocide, rape, and countless other acts of evil. These are sometimes called “moral evils” because they are caused by our intentional actions. As such we have moral responsibility for them. Such evils are very difficult for us to experience, but are not as problematic to reconcile with a good Creator, since they are caused by us, not by God.
There are other “evils” which are not the result of human activity—things like parasites, cancer, hurricanes, and animal predation. These can cause tremendous pain, suffering, and death to creatures (both humans and non-humans). Human decisions may have a role in some of these: smoking, which causes cancer, or burning fossil fuels, which affects the climate. But many of these “natural evils” just seem to be the way the world works.
When we look back at the history of life on our planet, we see that it has always included natural disasters, predation, and disease. These have caused animal suffering through pain, death, and even extinction.
Did God make the world this way? How could natural evils be part of God’s good creation? These are difficult questions, and humans have wrestled with them for as long as we have records.
We will outline two basic approaches to the problem of natural evil. The first is to say that God did not make the world with natural evils: either God doesn’t exist, or God’s original creation was catastrophically corrupted by human or angelic rebellion. The second approach affirms that the world—natural evils and all—is as God intended it to be: either animals don’t really suffer, or some level of suffering is necessary or important for the kind of creation God wanted to make.
One approach: God didn’t create the world this way
The problem of evil—including animal suffering—has led many people to question the very existence of God. They say that the idea of a perfectly good and loving God is inconsistent with the way the world is, so there must not be such a God.
The problem of evil is hard, but we at BioLogos don’t find atheism compelling. We believe the evidence from Scripture, reason, tradition, and personal experience provides reasonable grounds for belief in God.
Many Christians argue that natural evils, like moral evils, are ultimately to be blamed on human sin. They claim God didn’t make the world with parasites, cancer, hurricanes, and predators. Instead, these natural evils only came to exist after the first humans began sinning.
We at BioLogos also reject this view. We recognize the strength of scientific evidence available to us about the vast age of the Earth and the animals that existed before human beings. This evidence clearly shows that animals lived much the same as they do today. There were parasites, animals killed and ate others, animals got cancer, and natural disasters destroyed them.
An angelic fall
What if, instead of blaming human sin for all the bad things in nature, we look to fallen angels as the source of natural evil? Perhaps fallen angels actively thwarted God’s intentions in creation. This possibility was put forward by leaders of the early church. In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis suggested this option (though he didn’t insist on it). And there are others today who defend versions of it.
A major difficulty with this position is the timeline required. Since we have evidence of natural evils occurring for as long as there has been animal life on Earth, an angelic fall would have to have happened very early in our planet’s history. In that case, how can we understand the refrain in Genesis 1 that creation is good? Furthermore, granting creative powers to fallen angels seems to undermine Paul’s statement that all things have been created through Christ and for Christ (Colossians 1:16).
Another approach: God made the world this way—animal suffering and all
Instead of arguing that the natural world is not the way God intended it to be, the other approach is to claim the natural world really is good the way it is—that God made the world knowing that animals would eat each other, suffer in other ways, and even go extinct. Here too there are several ways of making this claim, all of which are open possibilities for us at BioLogos.
Animals don’t really suffer
Some people accept that suffering is an inherently evil thing, but they question whether non-human animals actually suffer. Clearly animals can be in pain, and we should work to prevent that pain as much as possible. But perhaps they lack the kind of consciousness required to experience the suffering we take to be evil. If that’s true, we might claim that animals are just automata or machines. Then their “suffering” and death is no different in moral status than the “suffering” of a phone when it is dropped and broken.
Few people think that bacteria suffer in a conscious way similar to our experience of suffering. But as we move up the scale of mental ability, that becomes more difficult to maintain. Maybe worms still have no suffering, but what about birds? And when we get to mammals, the similarity of brain structures to our own seems to suggest that they have the capacities (though perhaps in a reduced way) to experience suffering. Supporters of this view admit the physiological similarities, but they typically claim that humans have, in addition to physical brains, an immaterial mind or soul that is lacking in other animals, which is necessary for the conscious experience of suffering.
While some people are comfortable with this position, others find it deeply problematic to deny that any animals suffer. Wherever one lands, it is clear from Scripture that God’s concern for animals does not allow us to discount their welfare.
Only way or greater good
Others acknowledge that animal suffering is real and evil, but attempt to reconcile it as a package deal with the good that comes from it. On this view, the only way God could bring about the kind of creation God wanted was for it to have these effects. For example, a world with no hurricanes and earthquakes would be a sterile, lifeless planet. The fact that these sometimes cause suffering and death is tragic, but it is outweighed by the greater good of life itself.
Furthermore, it may be that a long evolutionary process is the only way to bring about some characteristics God desired for creatures. For example, we see hints and precursors of the moral responsibility humans have in other animals. Perhaps placing organisms in challenging environments is how these abilities developed, just like the speed and grace of the gazelle came from generations of outrunning the lion.
Critics of this view acknowledge there are greater goods to consider, but they question whether pain and suffering is really the only way an all-powerful God could bring those goods about. Couldn’t God just snap his fingers and create those things immediately? Maybe. Or maybe not. There are some things that even an all-powerful God can’t do, like make a square circle. It is difficult for us to say definitively what God could or couldn’t do. But we can say with considerable confidence how God did in fact bring about the diversity of life on Earth.
Extensions to the greater good argument
Pushing even further into these ideas, let’s consider two additional proposals, each of which may be thought of as an extension of the Greater Good argument.
Freedom for the natural world
Advocates of this view claim God created certain systems with a degree of autonomy and integrity. Again, to sustain life, the planet needs some dynamic systems like plate tectonics and weather patterns. These sometimes result in painful death and suffering for creatures, but God does not typically (or ever, according to some) intervene and prevent the natural properties of water from drowning creatures or fire from burning them. If God were to constantly intervene to prevent such suffering, this would result in a chaotic world without stable or predictable features.
Supporters of this view emphasize that God loves his creatures and therefore does not coerce or dictate. Insead, God gives them a kind of freedom to explore their world and develop—even when this causes pain and suffering to themselves or other creatures. Most importantly for this perspective, the capacity for genuine love in humans has developed over evolutionary history through the more limited capacities of other creatures. The raw materials of our physical, mental, and emotional lives were built up in other species that responded to the challenges of their environments. What we inherited from them was transformed, through relationship with God, into the genuine capacity for loving God back.
Critics charge that this approach seems too hands-off, or even deistic. In what sense is God sovereign or in control of creation? Does love never constrain? On the other hand, supporters of this view believe that sovereignty can be understood as God ultimately getting what God wants—not that he dictates all the details of that process.
Cruciform nature of reality
Like other views under the general approach of “God made it this way,” the Cruciform view says things are on track for what God wants. Yes, there are difficult and painful aspects of how the natural world works—even what we would call evil. But the Cruciform view goes further, taking its cue from the greatest revelation of God’s nature to us—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not just that these difficult and painful aspects are necessary or unavoidable evils. Rather, God has determined unambiguously to use suffering and death to bring about new life.
According to this view, death and suffering are the processes God has decided to use to bring about what God wants for the world. That doesn’t mean death and suffering are really good, but that there is a purpose to them. Just as God uses trials in our lives to bring about spiritual maturity (James 1:2-4), we might look at natural selection in the evolutionary process and see in it the purpose of producing creatures like us. That doesn’t mean all those creatures that lived and died were just means to an end and therefore expendable. Even the species that went extinct (more than 99% of all species that have ever lived) have inherent worth because God made them. Some people claim that extinctions are only wasteful and can’t be good. But it can be argued that there is also tremendous good that comes out of this process. Over the eons of evolutionary development, many, many more species were allowed to exist and flourish for a time. This is not a wasteful creation, but seen over the perspective of deep time, it is an unbelievably lavish and fruitful creation.
A difficulty with this view is that it challenges our intuitions about how an all-powerful God ought to accomplish his purposes. In response to this criticism, though, we might only get the answers Job got—which were not really answers to his questions, but further revelation of God and his works (Job 38-41).
None of these “solutions” to the problem of natural evil is fully satisfactory. Nor are they all mutually exclusive—elements of one may be combined with those of another. In the end, we must admit that now we see through a glass darkly and do not completely understand. Yet we have hope: as Christians, we are committed to the belief that God will redeem all of creation—that ultimately all things will be what God intends them to be (Isaiah 35; Romans 8:19-22; Colossians 1:20).
In the meantime, we believe God has partnered with us—God’s image bearers—to be stewards of creation. Perhaps, then, we should respond to the natural evils we encounter not as an intellectual puzzle to be solved, but as opportunities to reflect God’s image. We ought to respond in accordance with God’s loving and just purposes to make the world a better place, even as we wait on God’s ultimate redemption.
Finally, when we encounter the anguish of suffering, we can stand strong in our faith. Our pain is not necessarily caused by sin (John 9:2-3), nor does it always happen for a discernible reason. Instead of trying to explain away the suffering, we can enter into the pain. We can weep with those who weep. We can take comfort in the fact that God suffers with us and will redeem the suffering of the whole creation in the end (Romans 8:18-25).
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