“It’s like the garden of Eden.”
That’s how a friend of mine described the Chobe National Park, near the Okavango Delta.
I first went to Africa in the early 2000s. But it was not until a later trip that I saw Chobe. It is one of the few places left where one finds lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, impala, and myriad other species in their natural environments.
I took some students there in 2010.
At one point, our African guide drove the Land Rover alongside a herd of giraffes, and the creatures took flight around us. “Flight” is the best way to describe it—for whatever it was, it wasn’t running. Their spindly legs moved in slow motion though they were more than pacing our speeding vehicle.
Later, we sat in a pontoon boat while a massive herd of elephants swam around us, moving from one side of the river to an island in the middle. Their trunks bobbed like fleshy periscopes. At the bank, we pulled close by the herd—too close in fact—and a mother elephant expressed displeasure with a false charge, a shaking of her head, and a trumpet blast of warning. Eden-like.
Or was it?
Now for a second Africa story:
On an earlier trip, in the lake region of Zambia, I sat in a wobbly canoe (much smaller than the pontoon boat) as a local fisherman shoved us away from shore. Then the realization hit me: There are probably crocodiles in here.
There were, in fact, (the villagers had told frightening stories of attacks; and I had seen a child scarred across his legs). One father even told of racing into the water to try to pull his son out of the crocodile’s mouth. The canoe had been a gift from my father-in-law, to help the fishermen build a business that did not depend (quite literally) upon the hand-hewn boats that were more vulnerable to local wildlife.
THE GRANDEUR AND THE GROANING
I bring up those two African experiences (Okavango and the “Croc canoe”) to make a point about the animal realm.
It is both blessed and bloody. There is grandeur and there is groaning. It may seem “like the garden of Eden” in Okavango, but it is fueled by a carnage of almost unimaginable proportions. It can even seem, says theologian David Bentley Hart, “as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory.”
“We know,” says the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation has been groaning … until now” (Rom 8:22, ESV).
Speaking of crocodiles, Ronald Osborn, a former missionary kid from Africa, highlights the possibility that the “Behemoth” of Job 40 may actually be a crocodile, described in one translation as “chief of God’s works” even as he “devours cattle as if they are grass” and “crunches all wild beasts” in his jaws (NEB, vss. 15–34).
Then Osborn goes on to ask how Job’s endorsement of this crocodilic carnage matches up with his own experience.
“I have seen crocodiles on the riverbanks of Masai Mara in Kenya, near the end of the wildebeest migrations, their bellies distended from feasting. It is said they continue to kill even after they are engorged, without any interest in eating their prey.”
In the face of this seemingly wasteful bloodshed, Osborn concludes with frankness:
“These are the realities we must add our ‘Amen’ to if we grant the God of the whirlwind who glories in the Behemoth and the Leviathan the final word” (Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 157).
In the famous words of Tennyson: “Nature [is] red in tooth and claw.” So while we trust that “God is love indeed,” the violence of the natural realm can seem to “shriek against his creed” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.”).
And this bloody reality contributed to Charles Darwin’s loss of faith.
One of Darwin’s haunting questions pertained to what he called “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.”
On the one hand, Darwin seemed open to the idea that human suffering might serve the good of “moral improvement” within God’s sovereign plan. But the number of humans seemed like nothing “compared with that of all the other sentient beings” (animals) that “often suffer greatly without any moral improvement” (Darwin, Autobiography, 90).
Darwin’s question was straightforward: Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?
This inquiry led to his most (in)famous pronouncement on the subject:
“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” (Letter to Hooker, July 13, 1856)
For Darwin, this was not a minor issue. By his own account, the issue of animal suffering was one of the deciding factors that led him to away from orthodox Christianity and toward agnosticism.
“Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers … for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality” (Autobiography, 85).
But in time,
“the very old argument from the existence of [animal] suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause [was indeed] a strong one” (Autobiography, 90).
THE ROAD AHEAD
In the next few blog posts, I want to consider the problem of animal suffering in relation to the Christian belief in a loving, holy Creator.
My question is this: How do those two ideas fit together: the groaning and the grandeur; the beauty and the bloodshed?
Or was Richard Dawkins right to say that,
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites…
The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (River out of Eden, 132).
If you’re interested in understanding the big story of the Bible, check out my most recent book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.
Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).
I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.