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.


 

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.

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