Red in Tooth and Claw (pt. 2)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt. 2)

Jesus is like a mother hen (Matt 23:37).

I’ll come back to that insight about two posts from now.

For now, the plan is to move forward from the question posed in “pt. 1” of this series on creaturely suffering and divine love (“Red in Tooth and Claw”). Does the massive amount of animal predation and pain speak against the goodness of the Creator?

On this question, John Wesley seemed sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Darwin (around a century before the famous biologist).

In a sermon called “The General Deliverance,” Wesley considered whether there might be

a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that had never sinned to be so severely punished…

Having acknowledged the question, however, Wesley then claims that

the objection vanishes away, if we consider, that something better remains after death for these creatures also; that these likewise shall one day be delivered from this bondage of corruption, and shall then receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.

There you have it.

Wesley thinks that your arthritic house cat might enjoy eternal bliss. And especially if you ever fed her vegan pet food. In that case, “Whiskers” will be closer to the throne than you. Selah.

But is it sufficient to assume that “animal heaven” would answer all questions of non-human suffering and divine goodness? Not everybody thinks so (including Wesley). In light of those remaining questions, my goal in this post is to lay out all the different answers to the theological “Who done it?” of animal pain, predation, and mortality.

I’ll save the footnotes for the book (I’m currently working on a chapter that dives into this debate), but here is my version of the various options:

I. NOBODY DID IT
II. WE DID IT
III. GOD DID IT
IV. EVIL SPIRIT(S) DID IT
V. “DON’T DO IT!”

ANSWERS ON THE ORIGIN OF ANIMAL SUFFERING

I. NOBODY DID IT

This is, of course, the Dawkins option. But it might also be the claim of those who hold that the material world is simply eternal. Both views are out of bounds for Christian orthodoxy.

II. WE DID IT

This was the most common Christian answer prior to the modern era. And it remains popular with so-called “young-earth creationists” (YECs). The idea is that while animal suffering may be both real and tragic, it did not occur before the fall of Genesis 3. It is a result of Adam’s sin; it does not precede it.

Despite scientific objections, the view might seem to accord with Paul’s claim that “death” entered the world because of “sin” (Rom 5:12) just as the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; cf. James 1:15).

This perspective may also seem to get God “off the hook” for what Darwin dubbed “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals.” But it is also seen, at least by some, as falling afoul of not just science but the Scriptures. (Since it may be the most well-known Christian position, I’ll spend a bit more time in showing why it is not the only option.)

Even amongst evangelical scholars (like those who trained me), many believe that the sin-wrought “death” of which Paul speaks is either of (1) an exclusively human variety or (2) of a spiritual kind that points to our salvific lifelessness apart from God’s grace. After all, Adam and Eve do not physically “die” on the literal day they that they eat the fruit, despite the prior warning that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17 ESV). This fact leads many to see the “death” as spiritual in nature. If this reading is correct, then the presence of animal mortality before the fall of Genesis 3 would not necessarily contradict any aspect of biblical theology.

Scripture sometimes depicts the predation of the animal realm as part of its God-given glory. When Yahweh speaks to Job from the whirlwind, he gives no hint of seeing carnivores as a sad byproduct of sin. The Creator himself gives meat to the ravens (Job 38:41); he commands the eagle to “build its nest on high” to “feast on blood” (39:29–30); and he provides prey for the lions (38:39–41). In response to this bowel-shaking tour of creaturely life and death, Ronald Osborn claims that Job’s “Creator takes full responsibility for animal predation, and there is no hint that it is anything other than very good.” To claim otherwise is therefore to risk the rebuke of yet another question from the whirlwind: “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (Job 40:2 NASB).

III. GOD DID IT

If the sovereign and holy God is seen to be the “Designer” of the creaturely circle of life and death, then one or more of the following caveats are sometimes used to show why God is not “evil” or cruel to have designed things this way.

A. God is BEYOND good and evil.
B. Animal predation (or at least some of it) is NOT evil.
C. God is UNITED with the process, suffering in and with it.
D. Animal predation serves to bring about some GREATER GOOD(S).
E. God designed predation, but only with the FOREKNOWN HUMAN FALL in view.

I’ll skip the commentary on all these for now and return to them in a later post. Suffice it to say that I find some of them more credible than others.

IV. EVIL SPIRIT(S) DID IT

The claim of the early Gnostics was that a lesser deity (the demiurge) was responsible for the shoddy workmanship of the material world. Hence their great hope was to “leave this earthen dumpster fire forever” (exact quote from Basilides [not really]) and live as disembodied spirits. Irenaeus brought the smack-down against this view in the 2nd c. AD.

The more common version of the evil spirits argument—as entertained by C. S. Lewis and many others—was that the rebellion of certain angels (Satan included) brought about a violent and disordered world, and that this realm of animal predation existed long before humans ever came upon the scene.

V. “DON’T DO IT!”

This last view holds that the very attempt to answer the question of animal suffering is an example of unholy and unhelpful speculation into matters that are simply too lofty for us (see, e.g., Job 38–41, Isa 55:8).

Something like this answer might be extrapolated from the late John Webster when he warns against the “vice” of curiosity, and against the tendency to subordinate theology to apologetics. In so doing, his claim is that we must stop focusing on the “problem” of evil and instead shift our eyes to God (the only answer to the problem of pain).

CONCLUSION

My goal here has not been to say which, if any, of these options helps answer the questions of Wesley and Darwin. I’ll write more on that in a subsequent post.

But remember: Jesus is like a mother hen.

And also: John Wesley believed in “puppy heaven.”


 

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Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

“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.

Eden and elephants
Me, with friend and former student, Eden T.

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.

giraffes
Before the stampede.

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.

false charge
Elephant, telling us to “Back away!”

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.

dinosaur
Picture I took of a crocodile/dinosaur, snacking on some hippo meat.

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.

DARWIN’S DILEMMA

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).

Stay tuned.


 

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Mozart in hell

Mozart in hell

One of the most controversial Christian doctrines concerns the reality of hell.

Yet while almost the whole of the tradition (not least Jesus) maintained belief in a form of post-mortem judgment, there are many different views on what that means.

One of these diverse perspectives comes from North America’s most famous preacher of fire and brimstone: Jonathan Edwards.

jonathanedwards_byjosephbadger_yale_detail-56eabd815f9b581f344de989
Jonathan Edwards, mensch.

In a prior post (here), I was critical of Edwards’ treatment of the subject. But in this piece, I’d like to examine an aspect of his thought that is, at least, intriguing.

For Edwards, hell is the presence of God himself.  And so is heaven.

He builds this view on Scripture.  Revelation 14:10 speaks, for instance, of a torment that takes place “in the presence of the Lamb.”

On the one hand, this portrait could be taken as a macabre depiction of a sadistic Christ who derives pleasure from watching the torture of those who worshipped “the beast.” This makes Jesus look like a rogue CIA agent who begins to enjoy the sight of waterboarded prisoners; or like a mafia goon who gets a thrill from plucking toe-nails from his enemies.  And this Jesus seems hard to square with the merciful Lord who walks the pages of the Gospels.

But there is another way of reading Edwards’ claim that God is the substance of both hell and heaven.

One word: Mozart.

AMADEUS AS THEOLOGY

In the movie Amadeus, we are shown two different reactions to the breathtaking beauty of Mozart’s compositions.

In the audience, there are those who hear this music and experience pleasure, worship, and a moment of transcendent union between the author and the audience. Perhaps you can relate. A concert can be a foretaste of heaven.

Yet in Amadeus, there is another figure in the audience who experiences the music differently.  To Salieri (Mozart’s jealous rival), this same music, in this same theatre, from this same orchestra feels like nothing less than torture. Not because it is terrible, but because it is perfect.

Salieri wants to be Mozart. Or kill him. And in the end, he chooses the latter.

A PARABLE

Amadeus is a parable of hellacious experience.

As sinful humans, we want to be God. Or kill him. And on Golgotha, we chose the latter.

Yet as with Salieri, the music gets louder after its composer dies. It rises from the grave. And the same song strikes us as either ecstasy or torture. Not because it’s terrible, but because it’s perfect.

I have no idea whether this is a good analogy to help one grasp the Christian concept of the afterlife.

I’ve never been dead.

And I don’t listen to Mozart.

It is however, a call to cultivate not only “ears to hear” the music of God’s holy love, but the “taste” to find it beautiful. Heaven is a party thrown for Prodigals, and an invitation to experience the Father’s presence in a way unlike the “tortured” elder brother.


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Till death?

Till death?

On marriage and the resurrection.

As Jonathan Edwards lay dying from a corrupted smallpox serum in 1758, his final words were for his wife.

Near the end, he asked the physician to tell Sarah Pierpont Edwards that their “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that he hoped it would “continue forever.”

Edwards is, undoubtedly, the greatest theologian to ever hail from North America.  His sermons helped to launch The Great Awakening.  And with names like Wesley and Whitefield, he helped create the movement later known as evangelicalism (till its meaning was corrupted by a political “serum”).

To some, however, Edwards’ hope for his “forever” union might seem to clash with something Jesus said.

“WHOSE WIFE WILL SHE BE?”

On one occasion, Christ was asked a loaded question by the Sadducees about a hypothetical widow who had lost not one but seven husbands (speaking of potential poisonings!).

The last six of these marriages were done in fulfillment of an Old Testament law of “Levirate marriage,” a command meant to preserve a husband’s name by having his brother marry the widow (Deut 25:5–10; Matt 22:23–33; Mark 12:18–27; Luke 20:27–40).

At the end of this imagined narrative, the religious leaders ask the Lord:

“At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” (Mark 12:23)

To be clear, the Sadducees’ concern was not with marriage at all; their desire was to trap Jesus into admitting one of two unsavory realities. Either:

  1. There is no embodied afterlife at all (the Sadducee position), or
  2. Resurrection entails some Jerry Springer-like disputes.

Not surprisingly, Jesus opts for “Neither, dumb-dumbs.”

“Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:24–25). 

The response proved effective (see Luke 20:40)

But to those of us, like Edwards, who deeply love our spouses and our Lord, the statement raises questions.

Why must marriage end completely at the border of this life?

Or, is there another way to understand Christ’s statement?

ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATIONS

Alternatives have been suggested.

One option sees Christ not as denying the eternality of all married unions, but only the kind described by the Sadducees: namely, the “Levirate” arrangements that would force an arbitration in the Eschaton about who “gets her” (Oh, the chivalry!).

A second (though related) suggestion sees Jesus as objecting primarily to the “taking” and “being given” part of the scenario, since it might seem to treat women especially like a kind of heavenly property rather than as full-fledged persons (see again the chivalry).

Are these possibilities convincing?

For those of us (myself included) who would love to think of our marriages as lasting forever, both alternatives seem appealing. Which might be the problem. After all, one should usually be wary of adopting an interpretation of an ancient text simply because it “looks nice” and “fits” our modern tastes.

Exegesis isn’t dress shopping.

Or suit shopping.

Or… shopping.

LIKE ANGELS?

A crucial bit of Jesus’ reasoning seems to connect our resurrected life to the current habits of angelic beings, since we “will … be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25).

The idea seems to be that since Gabriel’s crew aren’t planning heavenly bridal showers and jockeying for spouses, neither will we.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Yet all this still leaves questions:

Was Edwards wrong (biblically speaking) to expect that his “uncommon union” was of such a “spiritual nature” that it might “continue forever”?

What about us?

And what about the many wonderful persons who have lost spouses to death and remarried later (a decision Scripture clearly sees as honorable)?

Are such questions merely an engagement in unhelpful speculation (like the Sadducees), or might they be the kind of thoughtful use of biblical imagination that demonstrates a belief that both marriage and the resurrection matter?

I’m interested in your thoughts.

What do you make of Jesus’ words on marriage in the “resurrection”?

(And why does Brianna keep memorizing this one passage from the Gospels?)

Leave a comment below (however tentative or undeveloped).

I may write a second installment to this post in the future, but for now I simply haven’t done the necessary homework.


* Please don’t be a “Sadducee” / Jesus-jerk by critiquing the comments of others.  As you might guess, issues concerning death and marriage are deeply personal.


 

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On spiders

On spiders

“Of all insects, no one is more wonderful than the spider.”

That, at least, was the opinion of America’s greatest ever theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758).

I’ve been reading Edwards over Christmas break (since “Puritans for Christmas” seemed as good an oxymoron as any); and I came across a passage today in which he links God’s goodness to the pleasure He delights to give to even the most “despicable” of creatures.

As a boy in colonial New England, Edwards marveled at how spiders could sail at will upon the wind by releasing filament in just the right amount to catch the breeze.

“And without doubt, they do it with a great deal of … pleasure.”

He wrote a scientific paper on the subject at the youthful age of sixteen, but Edwards’ true focus was always theological.  As he watched the spiders sail magnificently overhead, he mused that

We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable (WJE 6:154–62).

This is, it seems to me, a beautiful portrait of divine love (however accurate it is of “insects” [sic.]).

SPIDERS IN THE HANDS OFGOD

Yet Edwards is more famous for another spider reference.

In his famous sermon, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God,” he piled lurid image upon image to frighten congregants with the idea of God’s hateful wrath.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors [hates/loathes] you, and is dreadfully provoked…

The sermon proved effective. But at key points (and despite good intentions), Edwards’ imagery went a good bit further than the Scriptures.

For this reason, it might be good to balance one “spider passage” with another.

The idea here is that the same Creator who judges evil in accordance with his holy love, is also the God who (according to Edwards) takes delight in granting “unnecessary” pleasures “to even the most despicable” of creatures.

Speaking of which… the view from my laptop:

beach

 


 

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Free Videos for “Long Story Short”

Hey friends, the video curriculum for Long Story Short is now available at Seedbed.com (here).

As a sample, they’ve even made the videos for Creation (Ch. 1) and Jesus (Ch. 4) available for free.

I’m hoping that the video curriculum–along with the discussion questions and Bible readings at the end of each chapter–will serve churches and small groups well as they dive into the book (and more importantly, the Bible) in fresh ways.

Enjoy my occasionally creepy eye-movements and the one polo shirt that I apparently wear for all such videos 😉

Chapter Four: Jesus: “Why Directors Should Wear Makeup”

Chapter One: Creation: “Why Sugar-Momma Had to Die”

 


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Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Separating boldness from shrillness in the age of outrage.

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for asking me to be part of their new “Voices” blog.

Here is the first installment in a multi-part series I’ll be doing on how to differentiate “prophetic boldness” from “dogmatic shrillness” in the age of outrage.

Read here.

Part two to come!


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