Animal Suffering/Natural Evil before the Fall

This past week, in teaching at Regent and in lecturing at UBC, the same question came up in both contexts: What are we Christians to make of the evidence of animal suffering (e.g., predation and horrible death) before the Fall?

Some have suggested that the natural world did not change at the Fall, but exists now more or less as it always has, thus including what many of us call evils (such as predation, parasitism, suffering, painful and frightening death) in the original order of things. (Some used to argue that animals don’t, in fact, suffer, but merely exhibit behaviour that makes a certain biological sense—such as screaming when confronted by a threat or experiencing an injury in order to alert other members of the species to danger. We are, it is said, merely anthropomorphizing them when we sympathize with their apparent suffering—but not too many people argue that any more!)

Others have suggested that, somehow, the Fall had literal biological implications (see Genesis 3: there weren’t “thorns and thistles” before the Fall; human parturition was relatively easy), which might explain the “problem of evil” part of the issue (God didn’t make the world with bad things in it; human sin somehow caused the bad things in nature) but now poses the temporal problem of all the apparent suffering before the Fall.

Still others (including some pretty smart people, such as Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga) have surmised that the source of natural evil is the Devil. Similarly to how Satan is given license to wreak various forms of natural evil on Job and his family (from lethally bad weather to skin lesions), Satan has been allowed to afflict the natural world in general as part of God’s (generally, if not entirely, inscrutable) providence.

A colleague of mine at the University of Manitoba, a good Christian and a good microbiologist, was in anguish over this issue as I was writing the first edition of my book on the problem of evil. On several occasions he urged me to answer this question: Given what seems to be strong  evidence of millions of instances of suffering before the rise of homo sapiens, what theological sense can Christians make of it? In this, of course, he was echoing Darwin himself, for whom the problem of natural evil was a driving force in the formulation of his theory of evolution.

In my research, however, I found precious little explanation of natural evil. I found a few clues, to be sure, and I pass them on in the book, but nothing like the much more extensive discussion of human/moral evil in the theological and philosophical literatures. So I’m still on the hunt for answers and I would be glad for any help you can give. I think it is the most difficult issue remaining in the whole problematic of “evil and an all-good, almighty God.”

So what’s the best answer you’ve found? And if it’s accessible online or in print, please direct us to it!

0 Responses to “Animal Suffering/Natural Evil before the Fall”

  1. jasongoode

    This was a big stumbling block for me for a long time. I took the Livingstone/Noll class at Regent (Science and Belief from the Copernicans to the Creationists) and decided to tackle this issue for my final paper. In studying it more closely I found Scottish Theologian James Orr (1844-1913) to be helpful, along with BB Warfield.

  2. Josh

    Excellent questions! I haven’t read any truly satisfying answers yet but just wanted to chime in by saying that I’m having a hard time too believing that Tyrannosaurus Rex never ate meat before the Fall or grew the predator teeth only after the first couple sinned.

    In my opinion, the thesis that animals don’t suffer like we do doesn’t seem to square well with Paul’s remarks of creation’s groaning in Romans 8.

  3. steve martin

    Hi John,

    My own preference is John Polkinghorne’s “Free Process Defense” (FPD) which is a variation of the Free-will defense. The FPD extrapolates on human “free-will” eg. God gave humanity the ability to choose our own path – even if it is against God’s will – ie. God’s gave all of creation the freedom to explore different paths. (Note: don’t confuse FPD with “process theology” which Polkinghorne strongly rejects). Probably the best articulation of this is in Polkinghorne’s chapter on “Evil” in his book “Science and Providence”. You can get most of S&P online under google books. Here is an excerpt:

    I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defense, applied to the whole created world. One might call it “the free-process defense”. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved.

    Also recommended is Southgate’s “The Groaning of Creation”; he deals explicitly and thoroughly with animal suffering before the Fall. You may want to offer Regent grad student Bethany Sollereder a coffee and discuss her thesis “Evolutionary Theodicy from an Evangelical Perspective” with her.

    A related topic is of course “Original Sin” in the light of modern science. There are a few evangelical approaches here. There is William Dembski’s paper “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science” where he discusses the retroactive effects of the fall. (Unfortunately, a lot of the ideas in this paper have been incorporated into his new book “The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World” & he has pulled the paper from his website – I can email you a PDF copy of this if you wish). On the other hand there is George Murphy’s “Wrong Road” analogy approach as indicated in his paper “Roads to Paradise and Perdition: Christ, Evolution, and Original Sin”. George discussed this paper in this blog series with responses from three other Evangelical scholars (eg. Denis Lamoureux).

  4. jasongoode

    Of course this all assumes that we are to take Genesis 1-3 as a literal event that happened in history…

    • John Stackhouse

      Yes, I’m assuming that SOMETHING happened corresponding to the narrative of Genesis 3 so that what was created originally “very good” (Gen. 1) became something worse than that later on, and by human volition. To believe otherwise, I think, is to be at odds with too much else that I think is theologically clear and important in the rest of Scripture.

  5. poetreehugger

    I’m afraid instead of an answer, I have for your consideration another question which may be related to this discussion. “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” Gen 9:5 Does this sound like a moral expectation placed on the animal kingdom? Or does it speak to our sense of injustice at intentional killing (by human or animal ‘hand’), as an answer that God will have a justifying process that will satisfy us?
    Sorry, that’s two questions, implying even more questions.

  6. Paul Bruggink

    Neil Messer (Senior Lecturer in Christian Theology at the University of Wales) has a very good essay (“Natural Theology After Darwin”), which is Chapter 9 in the book “Theology after Darwin,” edited by Michael S. Northcott and R. J. Berry, (Paternoster, 2009). He identifies and maps the problem of evil vis-a-vis evolution, gives a summary of responses to that problem, discusses the theological difficulties with those responses, and proposes and defends an alternative solution: (1) the material world is God’s good creation, (2) the ‘struggle for existence’ is not the most fundamental reality, and (3) God’s promised good future is a deeper reality than the struggle for existence. He makes frequent references to Christopher Southgate’s “The Groaning of Creation,” which he disagrees with only in differences of emphasis.

    • poetreehugger

      The “struggle for existence” certainly seems like the most fundamental at the moment when you are running with a vicious predator about to rip you apart.

  7. Kirk Jordan

    On a somewhat comical note, I once asked my wife if she thought there were spider-webs before the Fall. She said “Yes.” Then I pointed out that webs are instruments of death. She replied: “Oh, but they weren’t sticky then.”

  8. Dave W


    I’m probably not going to say this very well but I wonder if our theological concept of God as being infinite is part of the issue. In popular language people often say that God can do anything. Certainly God can do things that are way beyond anything we puny creatures can do or even practically conceive of doing. Certainly what God does is in some sense limited by his moral attributes and possibly by other aspects of the God head. God is a god of truth and therefore I reject appearance of age explanations as some postulate.

    Maybe this world is the best that could be done to produce the kind of beings that God wanted to end up with, I don’t know but I wonder. Yes I believe that man-kind’s choice to sin has real results in the natural world and in us, at least in myself and my propensity to evil. It also seems probable that potential actions to ameliorate natural evil were foregone as George Murphy writes.

  9. Andrew Gleddiesmith


    Thinking creatively. Is there any way in which we can consider the dominion over the earth given up by humans to Satan at the Fall as being a momentus enough moment that it effects creation both before and after the event? Maybe are problem is with time. We think that Satan can only have dominion after the Fall.

    The other question that interests me is did God really make a universe in which everything would run down and eventually stop (as the law of entropy states)? Is the universe “fallen” at the level of basic physical rules?


  10. Josh

    It seems to me that in the end it all boils down to semantics and the way we choose to attribute meaning to certain terms. Is the “goodness” of God incompatible with the creation of something that can and will suffer and die?

    If we categorize terms like pain and death as exclusively “negative” or “evil” and therefore necessarily as realities that logically could not have existed BEFORE the fall, then I’m wondering how Adam and Eve could have ever understood what God meant by his warning regarding the consequence of DEATH in overstepping his command. You would expect a clarifying question in return from Adam and Eve – like: “Death? What is that – death?” Or one step further, “Tree of knowlege of good and evil? What exactly does EVIL mean?”

    And why stop the argument at the presence of the element of decay in the animal and human world? Wouldn’t a “perfect” world have included the possibility of sustenance of life without having to destroy and ingest part of plant life?

    Maybe the best thing we can do is acknowledge the tensions that do exist to our dualistic perspectives and way of thinking, and be willing to broaden our understanding of God’s goodness beyond our usual categories and preferences. This will at some level always include an element of trust which in turn often eludes the satisfaction of our scientific minds.

  11. Beth

    It’s been three and a half years since I asked you this question in class, and you STILL don’t have an answer? I’m disappointed. 😉

    Some readings we did in one of Bob Ekblad’s classes last semester have intrigued me lately. Greg Boyd’s book “God at War” defends the “gap” theory of creation, which I initially though was bogus, but I’m reevaluating. He thinks the Genesis account picks up where the Enuma Elish and other Ancient Near Eastern warfare creation myths leave off – the aftermath of a cosmic battle. Before the creation of the world, God had already created the angelic beings, to whom he seems to have granted a certain amount of freedom, choosing to limit his own sovereignty. When some of these beings rebelled against God, there was a cosmic battle. Into the chaos that remained after this battle (the tohuwabohu), God created the universe, bringing light, order, and new life, things he rightly called “good”. Yet there remained evil forces that needed to be subdued, hence his commmand that humans “fill the earth and subdue it.” Sin and the fall came about because God granted similar freedom to humans, and they chose to be unduly influenced by the already-present evil (eg. the satan represented as a serpent). God continues to contend with evil, and will ultimately defeat it, as we know from Revelation.

    So animal predation would be among the results of these evil forces at work before humans came on scene. I guess this is close to Plantiga’s idea about the Devil causing natural evil. I’m not sure if I buy all of this yet, because it does seem to limit God’s sovereignty. But I find it more compelling than other theories I’ve read. It does allow us to call evil “evil”, and makes sense of the images throughout the Bible of God warring against evil (sometimes represented as chaotic seas or great sea creatures in the OT). I guess I’d rather believe in a God who (sovereignly) chooses to limit his sovereignty than believe in a God for whom horrific suffering and death are all part of a good, sovereign, “the end justifies the means” kind of plan.

    Then again, what do I know about the beginning of time? And who cares what kind of God I’d rather have?

    I, too, look forward to reading Bethany’s thesis.

  12. Bethany


    The one problem I really have with any thesis like Boyd’s is that it completely ignores that it is after the “gap” Genesis 1:2 that God pronounces the world “very good.” There is no indication in the account, either in Gen 1 or Gen 2 that there is any kind of angelic cosmic war. In fact, the Genesis accounts of creation are likely meant to be directly contradicting those myths. God is sovereign–therefore he does not battle and struggle with creation like those lesser Mesopotamian deities!

    I spent all day finishing my thesis formatting and making small corrections. I’ll send you a copy sometime this week.

    • Beth

      Awesome. Boyd vs. Bethany. My mind is the battleground. May the best thesis win!

    • Dan Meyer

      Bethany (and others),

      I have read the section in Boyd’s, in “God at War” on “The Warfare Worldview of the OT”. Beth gave a very good run-down on some of his arguments. I am not sure if you have read Boyd’s book, but he does not argue that the Biblical Witness suggests that God is not Sovereign or that the biblical creation story/myth is not meant as an alternative to the other myths. What Boyd is arguing is that among the world views of the people in the time of the writing of Genesis there was a very common acknowledgment of cosmic warfare and evil. Boyd is simply helping us locate the Genesis creation account within the mindset and understanding of that era.

      His greater argument is that people, from the dawn of time, have never struggled with the philosophical problem of evil as we do now. When they encountered evil it was seen for what it was: evil. It did not give them a great intellectual struggle to somehow locate the evil within the greater good of God’s providence.

      As for your comment on “the gap” in Genesis I will say a couple of things. Firstly, I believe Boyd is arguing that Genesis assumes that Evil already exists before the creation of the world. This would make sense of the Serpent coming to deceive Adam and Eve. It also makes sense of God’s warning to Cain that “sin (evil) is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” I recognize this is post-fall but God gave a similar warning to Adam and Eve (pre-fall) to avoid the trees.

      Secondly, we will obviously never know exactly what happened in the past, or before creation, or at creation. All we have is the narrative accounts of the people of time (post-creation). We cannot make sound theological deductions from their writing until we first do our best at understanding their worldview.

      Boyd goes on to argue that the problem of evil is a post-enlightenment problem that became worse for believers influenced by the theology of Augustine.

      I think Boyd’s arguments makes much more sense of the evil and suffering I witness in the world than the Calvinist understanding of Providence.



  13. Cyle

    This discussion reminds me of a question I posed a to a seminary professor of mine: “Could Adam have broken his arm, by slipping (i.e., gravity), attempting to reach for the forbidden fruit?” His answer was that yes, he could have, based on God’s foreknowledge of the Fall. By extrapolation, animals would then be “red in tooth and claw” on the same basis of the forthcoming Fall. I don’t feel this answer is adequate as it insufficiently deals with the change from original creation to fallen creation. Adam would have had to already been living in the latter in order for the answer to make sense. Yet I also appreciate the answer as it is hard to imagine a world that wouldn’t cause natural evil to animals and humans–naturally. Can we picture animals surviving without water?–but water often drowns. Without sharp objects? Without gravity? There are lots of examples that naturally cause pain, suffering and death, hence, it is hard to make sense of this without postulating an original creation that was very unlike our experience and yet still containing similarities such as mother nature. I know this is pure speculation, but is it possible that Adam couldn’t have broken his arm reaching for the forbidden fruit in the same way that our eschatological bodies will be free from pain/suffering? Maybe the rules of nature (therefore natural evil) did not apply just as they will not apply.

  14. Josh


    I really don’t see why we need to attach moral terms like “evil” to something like sharp objects or gravity in the first place.

    I’m leaning more and more toward the understanding that the provision of life by taking another life in the animal kingdom is perfectly in line with the goodness of God and his purposes for this present world. Statements like the one found at the end of Job 38 and 39 make no indication whatsoever that this is a negative result of the fall but rather his original design.

    Somehow we need to take into account the uniqueness of the image of God in humans and stop making moral judgments (that are based on a morality applicable to the sacredness of human life) and drawing parrallels to what we observe in nature.

  15. ericdarylmeyer

    I’ve found the writing of Holmes Ralston III, a pastor/biologist/professor, to be most helpful in this question. Here is a good place to start:

    Holmes Ralston III, “Kenosis and Nature,” in Work of Love, ed. John Polkinghorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 43-65.

    In fact, the whole volume wrestles with closely related issues.

    By the way, the point that Andrew brings up about the second law of thermodynamics is in some ways an even more fundamental problem. The very existence of the universe as we know it is not stable, but bound up with the slow decay of entropy.

    For myself, the best answer I’ve been able to come to in this conundrum, is admittedly not an entirely satisfying one. But I find that not only does it make some sense out of the historical question, it also has an ethical trajectory that encourages us to recognize, embrace, and live trustingly within our finitude. Here goes:

    When scripture calls creation “good” and “very good” it does not report to us that creation is “perfect” (much less that creation originally matched OUR ideas of perfection). That is to say that Genesis makes no promises that created life will be free of pain, suffering, fear, and even death.

    So I’ve understood that creation is good, even very good, despite the presence of death and pain in it. That is, creation is called good, not because creatures kill and are killed, but in spite of this fact. Creation’s goodness includes pain, suffering, and predation, but isn’t predicated on them; in order words, they are accidental to creation’s goodness. In God’s wisdom, God made the world that he has made, and even in its ephemeral finitude, life in this world is a very good thing, not to be taken lightly. There are lives–like the newly hatched bird devoured before he ever leaves the nest–where this goodness is harder to see than others, but most of us have a sense that even in the present order of things, living in the world is a tremendous and unparalleled gift. Further, death is not the final word for God’s creatures, which is the intuition behind a long Christian spiritual tradition in which death is greeted as a friend, a gateway, another servant of God, rather than (in Pauline terms) the last enemy.

    Human sin, then, does not shift the whole ontological order and introduce predation into nature, but sets human beings at odds with themselves, with God, and with nature in a way that makes it harder for us to see the goodness in the world, and brings us to actively degrade the goodness that we find. The seriousness of sin is in no way diminished on this view because the alienation that enwraps the sinner threatens to make death the final word, threatens to cut the sinner off from goodness altogether.

    Any thoughts?

  16. Cyle

    Normally, I think, we don’t speak of natural interaction as directly evil (the objects are not evil), only potentially-resulting-in evil. We could enjoy canoeing in a peaceful mountain lake and arrive safely and call our experience with nature “good” or we could end up getting capsized and harmed/die by a sudden gale and call it “evil” because of the result. We can still enjoy this “cursed” (Gen 3) creation, but also be killed by it in various natural ways. I partially agree that sin has not shifted “the whole ontological order” because we still see balance in nature which includes natural evil (e.g., forest fires enable quick regeneration). God’s grace is still seen throughout cursed creation.

    Yet it seems that the problem is more than just “humans being at odds with themselves, with God, and with nature” as creation in entirety is quite other from what it was, and what it shall be (Rom 8; Rev 21). Yet it is hard to know in what sense the animal kingdom was affected. Josh, Job 38-39 indeed seems to spell out a creation inclusive of natural evil, yet maybe God was using the only creation that Job knew (cursed creation) to explain his infinite wisdom in light of Job’s simplistic retributive-theology. Even cursed creation, speaks of an amazing creator. In what sense this cursed creation is different from the original, is mere speculation; however we must maintain there were some significant differences. Maybe these differences could allow for the lack of pain, suffering, and predation among animals?

    On the other hand, maybe God was illustrating his original creation to Job? It is after all possible that predation, pain, and suffering did exist in the original creation. If this is the case then our category of “natural evil” is not helpful in this discussion, unless we qualify it to include the analogous-language of God’s declaration of “it was very good.” If this view is the case, it does not really allow for much change in the animal kingdom as we know it, and therefore begs to know in what way it was cursed (Gen 3:14).

  17. Josh

    Genesis 3:14 is a bit of a puzzling reference in this context for 2 reasons. First of all, the serpent is being singled out in this curse from the other animals (it’s not evidence necessarily for a general curse on the animal world as a whole). And secondly, you have to wonder why the serpent as an animal would be cursed when it’s nothing but the kind of impersonation Satan happened to choose at the time. Were snakes not moving on the ground before? Or is the whole thing to be interpreted in a methaphorical way where the present behavior of the animal is retroactively applied strictly to Satan (as the fallen angel, cast down to earth) alone?

    The only true curse on the animal kingdom that I can see is its suffering caused by the hand of sinful man.

  18. ericdarylmeyer

    Yes, “good” and “evil” are only partially helpful terms here because they are evaluative words that imply a perspective. The eagle’s “good” is certainly the rabbit’s “evil.”

    Cyle, I think you might be reading the “curse” of Genesis 3 too broadly, especially relative to animals. It is possible to read the passage in such a way that only the serpent is the object of God’s words of consternation. Likewise, if the “curse” on Adam refers more to his expulsion from the garden full of trees than to another punishment added on (a plausible reading in the tradition), then the “curse” is not something that happens to nature generally, but is a radical change in Adam’s relationship to nature.

    I would read Romans 8 similarly: the creation groans for the redemption of humanity, not because creation is cursed directly, but because we humans take out our accursed sin on creation, which suffers as a result. Creation is subjected to the destructive whimsy of sinful humans, not to some more general curse.

    All that to say, it’s not self evident to me that “we must maintain [that] there were some significant differences.”

  19. Josh

    I just looked up the Hebrew text of Genesis 3:14 and must say that most of our translations are misleading. There is no comparative used here (no actual words like “more” or “above” appear) but instead the emphasis is that out of all the animals, the serpent ALONE is cursed. Add that to the continued use of the image of the serpent to represent Satan throughout Scripture – what cursed creation really remains beyond the cursed ground in verse 17?

    And even there you’ve got to wonder whether the “because of you” really means that thorns and thistles never existed before or are simply a description of a life outside the garden of Eden and is just as much a description of the impact of our sinful actions on nature (as described in Jeremia 12:4) as their negative impact on us.

    • Josh

      Well … after refreshing my rusty knowledge of Hebrew, it turns out that the construction employing the prefix “mi-” COULD in fact be used in a comparative sense here, so the majority of translations using “cursed more than” is one possibility beside the literal rendering “from/among”.

      I still think the latter is more probable because of the direct link of culpable actions and their consequences for the parties involved. Each curse except for the one on the ground links directly to the perpetrator. And although the ground as such cannot sin, the effect on Adam still identifies him as the intended target of that curse.

      If the author intended to say that ALL of the domestic and wild animals are cursed and the serpent in an increased measure, one would expect a similar explaining link that answers the question why all other animals are under a curse now as well.

  20. Cyle

    It seems the Imago Dei is central to the creation narrative, where humanity was given the privilege and responsibility to carry out providential tasks including naming the animals and ruling over creation (1:26-27). My focus on the curse was more of a response to the anthropocentric interpretation of the effects of sin on creation. It seems to me it is an underestimation to merely suggest that the effects were only upon humanity therefore leaving creation to deal with man’s eco-unfriendliness. Precisely because the Imago Dei is central to creation, creation has suffered because of the rejection to uphold the fuller mandate. The ground provided the food through seeds and fruit (1:29), and then after the curse it provided painful obstacles such as thorns and thistles to harvesting food (3:17). I admit Eric that I have broadly speculated at the extent of the curse’s effects (esp., concerning animals), but have you underestimated it? There does seem to be an ontological juxtaposition in the narrative.

    Josh, I don’t think reading the animals into 3:14 is a misreading as there would be no need to mention the rest of the animals, only “Cursed are you!” It seems that God pronounced this curse on the serpent in the presence of Adam and Eve. We anachronistically read “Satan” back into this, whereas Adam and Eve only knew of the serpent. Their decision not to exercise their providential mandate and properly rule over the animal world was made evident to them through their disobedience. God’s open curse on the serpent and animals was directly related to their disobedience. (Might this text offer an example of sensus plenior as well? God not only demonstrates the extent of Adam and Eve’s sin, but pronounces the protoevangelium in the presence of Satan. I don’t know, maybe I’m way off 🙂

    • ericdarylmeyer

      Indeed, Cyle, we’re all in over our heads speculating. One of the reasons why Genesis 1-3 is such a powerful text is that its narrative is so sparse that it invites a huge range of interpretations. I think that openness is an important part of what makes this the word of God.

      One ancient Rabbi said, “This text says nothing to me except, ‘Interpret me!'” In other words, within the fixed text of the narrative, we’re all left to our own imaginitive capacity for filling in the gaps! So long as we keep that in mind as we search for the best interpretation, there’s great joy in arguing together over the text.

      From your perspective, I may have underestimated the scope of the “curse”—which I read more as an explanation of the consequences of being expelled from Paradise—but I’m still fairly convinced of my reading. Paradise, the garden that God planted, provided food for Adam and Eve without toil, but there’s no sense that the whole earth did so before Adam and Eve’s sin. Part of the deal with getting expelled from the garden is that they have to work for their food (which some of us are privileged enough to do by arguing over biblical texts!), but that has more to do with their location than with an ecological change.

  21. Josh


    If the serpent is singled out from all the other animals (with exactly THAT emphasis), that’s a perfectly good reason to mention them, necessary or not. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew text seems most accurate in its interpretation of the Hebrew grammar here by using “apo” (“from”). The best reading, in my opinion, is therefore cursed “AMONG” all other animals, not cursed MORE than the rest.

    If Adam and Eve knew the serpent just as a serpent, why weren’t they surprised by the fact that an animal started talking to them? Or is taking away human speech from serpents part of the curse in your opinion?

    And I see nothing anachronistic in identifying Satan here as the actual tempter, as the rest of Scripture does the same and as (in my opinion) animals cannot tempt anyone intentionally to evil. Then again, maybe I’ve misunderstood what you’re trying to say.

  22. Josh

    If I may throw one more tidbit in here …

    John Hobbins is also directing our attention to the features of Hebrew poetry in this text in order to better understand the pronounced curses:

    In regards to our speculations (and they are, after all, mostly speculations!) he says there at the end,

    “It is not clear if death came to the animal kingdom through the serpent’s disobedience. There are some questions the text does not address. We should not pretend that it does.”

  23. Bennett

    When I played paintball it hurt when I got shot. Physically it hurt a little. Mentally it hurt a lot within the game, because it meant I had lost. That pain was not evil though. The pain did not lead to despair because I knew it had a purpose. It was a part of the game.

    Animals are playing a game. When they get killed and eaten they experience real pain, but it is not the same as the pain we experience. The reason we equate pain with evil is because we are fallen. Animals do not like pain, but they do not spend time despairing because of its existence.

    So I would say that animal suffering before and after the Fall, is actually not evil except when it is the result of evil human actions. Further, the same is true for humans. Genesis, only says, “It was good.” There is no definition of good as a place with no crying, no skinned knees, or even no death. In fact it is assumed that Adam more or less understood God when He said, “Don’t eat or you will surely die.” So its possible that Adam understood what death meant, and saw it as a viable possibility.

    Also, if Adam had to “keep” the garden, then it must have not been perfect in the sense of “a garden greater than which nothing can be conceived”. It was a garden that needed tending even if was nothing more than making sure things were reproducing properly.

    I mean can we really imagine any place free of all possible forms of suffering? It takes effort to eat cake, but who’s complaining?

    I may be getting off topic.

  24. Josh

    “… can we really imagine any place free of all possible forms of suffering?”

    Even in the New Jerusalem where there will be no more death, crying, mourning or pain, there are apparently still tears that need to be wiped away (Rev. 21:4) and nations in need of a healing process (Rev. 22:2). Go figure!

  25. Cyle


    In regard to 3:14, is ἀπο not being used in the ablative sense (LXX)? The serpent is singled out “above” (NIV, ESV) other animals.

    It is difficult to understand why they (apparently) had no problems with a talking snake; that’s why paradise lost may have been quite different from what we now know, again, speculation. Yet I still feel the aim of the narrative is highly cause/effect, as the many juxtapositions seem to attest. A localized garden is still the only creation Adam and Eve ever knew–their expulsion from the garden is filled with the memory of the curses brought about by their sin. Eric, clearly some ground was cursed which previously had not been, and it would only make sense if it was the ground outside the garden. I think there are reasons to believe their experience with the animal world was also different (no more talking snakes for one!), though I admit I have no idea what that would look like. Our modernist minds often limit what might have been, and what will be (a New Jerusalem devoid of entropy is hard to fathom).

    If this is all wrong, which it very well could be, maybe there is something to my professor’s supralapsarian understanding of natural evil? I’m still wrestling with how best to make sense of the narrative in light of animals/natural evil. . .

  26. Josh

    No, “apo” is used here (as always) with the Genitive following, meaning “from” (denoting the origin where it came from). Hence the English translation on pg. 8 in the following LXX translation of the verse:

    ” … cursed are you from all the domestic animals, from all the wild animals of the earth …”

    And I fully agree that the aim of the narrative is cause and effect. I’m just not sure whether the question of evil in the natural world the way we are asking it today is ever even in view. It seems to me that the elements of toil, suffering and death (and humiliation and ultimate defeat in regards to Satan) are indeed linked to a volitional action in favor of mistrust towards God. This cause is entirely human in nature and possible because of the freedom within the imago Dei. Everything else (including what further changes may have happened in the animal world) remains speculation.

  27. Josh


    I have a different question that is more peripheral: do you believe that fire-breathing dragons ever roamed the earth? If not, how do you interpret Job 41:19-21? To apply those descriptions to a crocodile in a poetic way seems a bit far fetched, wouldn’t you agree?

  28. Glenn Runnalls

    while our discomfort around violence and suffering within the animal kingdom is certainly shaped by the disneyfication of the animal world, the promises in Isaiah about lions, wolves and serpents changing their eating habits seems to indicate that predation is less than ideal.


  29. brgulker

    I no longer understand the fall as a literal event in a literal past, such as a literal reading of Genesis 3 would demand (or even the more generous understanding that Dr. Stackhouse presented above, like an analogous event occurring that corresponds with Gen. 3).

    Instead, I understand the fall to be a recurring event that happens in the lives of all human beings. We have all sinned and all fallen short … as Paul puts it.

    I understand that such a position puts me at odds with a very large chunk of orthodoxy … but I haven’t found an intellectually or spiritually satisfying alternative up to this point.

    I can’t point to a single author or work that moved in that direction by itself, but I can offer “The Fall to Violence” as a very influential piece in that regard: (link to Amazon).

  30. Henry Cullihall

    Two verses from the orthodox writings have always intrigued me concerning the “Divine and Animals,:

    “Who is certain that the spirit (nephesh-life-source) of the sons of men goes up to heaven, or that the life source of the beasts goes down to the earth?” Ecc.3:21

    St. Paul:
    We know that the whole of creation has been groaning…
    … awaiting our adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (8:19-25).

    I often think of St. Francis preaching to sparrows and fishes.

    I have spent over twenty years living with a cocker spaniel, a chocolate lab, Yorkshire terrier, a cockatiel, cat, hamster and fish. I have had a special bonding, spirit to spirit. The cat and I scrap at each other a little when she claws the furniture.

    Many of us Gnostic Christians love our friendships with animals. Parenthetically I may say, so does others. I notice the bookshelves at chapters, expanding with books on relationships between animals and owners.

    Just today I read what my friend wrote:

    “The passing of Chad…proved to be a flow of blessing and grace, for our friend and neighbor is a vet and she offered to come to our home – so we could put up a shrine of the Black Madonna and Child, and could smudge and prepare the room as sacred space, and myself, Elder Michael and Elder Sarah could be present with Chad, seeing him through his transition; we held him, laid hands on him, and we prayed over him, and as he passed from life into death and the afterlife, I chanted the Blessed Name in his ear, and we performed an essential transference of consciousness with him
    We mourn his death, but we rejoice in his freedom from the suffering that had befallen him and rejoice in his being established in the Sanctuary of Grace…he has, indeed, been received in Christ, and the time of his full reception of Christ and the Holy Spirit is assured, predestined. So along with the bitterness and sorrow, there is this sweetness and joy, and along with our mourning, there is our praise and thanksgiving to God, who has received our dear friend – we were blessed to serve one another as friends, and to uplift one another. It is good – it is very good.


  31. John Stackhouse

    Wow. Thanks, everyone, for excellent contributions to an obviously vexed topic.

    My abiding sense is that the state of the arts involved–OT interpretation and paleontology, and the systematic theology that relies on both–are not far enough advanced yet to sort this all out in a clear, coherent way. I’m a specialist in neither of those primary disciplines, but I have had occasion to study the history of both disciplines. I’m content to wait for them to keep doing their good work. There have been both needless conflicts between and facile reconciliations of Biblical interpretation and science in the past, so I’m leery of latching on to The One True Explanation just yet.

    Thanks again for both stimulation and information, friends. And if you do formulate The One True Explanation, please come back and tell us!

  32. steve martin

    Well, no “One True Explanation” but a minor quibble. The art of paleontology is far enough advanced to be pretty conclusive about suffering, disease etc. much before humanity graced creation. There are lots of scientific hypothesis for which the evidence is somewhat inconclusive – but this aint one of them. (See for eg. Menninga’s Disease and dying in the fossil record in Perspectives on Science and Christian
    Faith 51, (4): 226-230).

  33. dopderbeck

    John, re: your comment #4: if you are going to insist on some physical change in creation after the fall, then there is no way you will be able to reconcile that with the truth of science — period. As smartin (#36) noted, the sciences here are quite advanced, and there simply is no reasonable doubt about death, thorns, thistles, and so on long before any time frame that could reasonably be posited for an historical fall.

    Here’s the question I would ask, assuming the fall needs to be a historical event: what would the sciences and technologies that mitigate suffering look like if human beings lived with each other and with God in perfect fellowship from the dawn of human history? Could the “tree of life” in some way represent access to all of the resources, including technologies, required to fulfill the creation mandate?

    • John Stackhouse

      Thanks for the pushback, friends–as well as for dopderbeck’s creative suggestion about our squandering via the Fall the resources by which we could have dealt effectively with natural evils (an idea with which I have considerable sympathy).

      I have no scientific reason to doubt that animal (including hominid) suffering and death preceded the Fall. I agree that the current consensus is strong on those counts, so far as I (a scientific layman) can tell.

      In the face of this evidence, the very variety of theological hypotheses advanced for the origins of natural evil shows that there is no consensus on our side of the problem.

      Did God create the natural world pretty much the way we see it today? Did God create a world without suffering and death but Satan subsequently interfered with it–yet under God’s providential control? Did human evil somehow retroactively affect the natural world (which I understand to be Wm. Dembski’s thesis)? And what do the eschatological visions of the Peaceable Kingdom have to say about the way the world was originally created, if anything?

      Y’all keep working on it, and I will, too. I look forward to this blog community sorting this out once for all…

      But in the meanwhile, of course, we do well to recall that the Bible’s focus is, on this matter as on others, not on origins/etiologies/explanations but on strategies of response: of rescue, renewal, and restoration. So by all means let’s keep puzzling over these matters while we stay mostly busy with the weightier matters of the Law.

  34. Ken Pulliam

    Prof. Stackhouse,

    Thanks for this post. The problem of natural evil, including animal suffering, is one of two major issues that caused me to deconvert from Christianity. I could find no suitable explanation for how a good God could be so indifferent to the suffering of sentient beings.

    The recent book: The Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus deals with the issue of animal suffering in Chapter Nine which he calls, “The Darwininan Problem of Evil.” He surveys eight Christian responses to the problem and finds them all wanting. I encourage you to read this essay and give us your opinion.

    You can find a summary of it here.

  35. Xavier

    Thanks for addressing this important issue.
    The problem of animal suffering as it relates to God’s good creation and the theological challenge of biological evolution has been a major concern of mine as well. One book which I found extremely helpful in my quest for “answers” in this area has been a work entitled “The Evolution of Evil”–an edited volume by Gaymon Bennett, Martinez Hewlett, Ted Peters, and Robert John Russell. This book includes perspectives from both systematic theology (e.g. Ted Peters, Christopher Southgate, John Haught) and from the philosophy of biology (Michael Ruse). I found the chapter by Joshua Moritz to be particularly interesting–especially a line of argument he develops and calls “The Free Creatures Extension” to Polkinghorne’s Free Process defense. The book is a bit pricey but worth it if you are seriously interested in this question. Also, your standard seminary library should have a copy.

  36. Brooke

    I see a lot of good speculation, but unless I’ve missed it, nothing quite like this idea:

    There are actually 3 falls described in scripture:

    1) Demons (and Satan), as described in Isaiah and Ezekiel;

    2) Nature, as described in Genesis and Romans;

    3) Humans, as described in Genesis.

    We know that 1) occured before 3), because Satan somehow got into Eden. If Satan entered Eden, then there was evil in Eden. If he came from outside Eden, then there was evil on the outside. Satan fell because of his rebellion, was given dominion over earth, and corrupted it quickly and inevitably. Eden was the last bastion of uncorrupted earth. Man, when tempted by Satan, caused Eden to be corrupted too. Now creation is subject to both Satan and man. Creation awaits the redemption of man because it will signify the end of Satan and man’s influence on it; NOT because man CAUSED the fall of creation.

    • John

      Brooke, interesting. I can’t believe I just got asked this for the first time today, and that I had not thought about it before. My knee-jerk reaction was to simultaneously cast doubt on the science (since it is the “legal method” with only *current* experimentation taking the stand) and also to propose the retroactive effect of the Fall, just as I believe in the retroactive effects of the Cross.

      But I think I’m going to ponder strands of thought emanating from your solution for a bit…. 🙂


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