• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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!