The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation: Engaging Ronald Osborn's "Death Before the Fall"
The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation: Engaging Ronald Osborn's Death Before the Fall J. Richard Middleton I’ve been interested in the question of how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering for a long time. This is sometimes called the theodicy problem—from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Many writers through history have tried to “justify” God in light of the reality of suffering. My own interest in this question is based both on theology and personal experience. First of all, I am drawn to the Bible’s theological vision of a good creation. Having written quite a bit about God’s creational intent for the world’s flourishing (in articles and books), I am keenly aware of the need to grapple with the reality that the world does not at present match up with that ideal. But it isn’t just that the world (out there) doesn’t match up to this ideal. Around the time I was coming to fully embrace a positive biblical vision of a good creation (having just completed a book on the Christian worldview), my life began to experience serious dissonance from this vision. As a result, I found it difficult over a period of some months to trust in God’s goodness. (I’ve recounted some of this story on my personal blog.) During this time, I was introduced to the psalms of lament as a powerful resource for renewing trust in God in the midst of suffering. One outcome of this experience was an essay I wrote on the problem of suffering and evil that contrasted the attempt of classical theodicy to “solve” the problem with the more experiential approach of the lament psalms (Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense). Another was the book that Brian Walsh and I wrote on Christian faith in a postmodern world. The Question of Evolution and Evil I’m now being pressed to think further about suffering, given what I’ve come to understand about the evolutionary processes uncovered by various sciences (including paleontology and genetics). I am interested in how we might think about the Bible’s presentation of origins (origin of the world, of humans, of evil) in light of cosmic, biological, and human evolution. One facet of this issue is the reality of death and suffering prior to the origin of human beings. It seems undeniable to me that that biological death, animal predation, and natural disasters all predate humanity. We are latecomers on the scene, and plants and animals (from bacteria to dinosaurs) were subject to death by extinction, predation, accident, disease, or simply old age (if they were lucky) long before us. This means that we can’t reasonably attribute these factors to the results of human sin (a “curse” on nature). Indeed, my own re-reading of Genesis 3 and other biblical texts has helped me realize that the common Christian assumption that nature was systemically affected by human sin isn’t clearly supported in Scripture. (I’ll get to the origin of this idea later.) Even with this realization, questions remain. This is where Ronald Osborn’s thoughtful new book comes in. With vivid prose and an engaging perspective, Osborn addresses the problem of animal suffering for Christians, whether of “creationist” or evolutionary persuasions. The book is tendentious (in the best sense of that term), arguing both for and against particular positions with passion and verve, yet it does not in the end come to a clear or unambiguous position on its primary topic, namely animal suffering. But the book certainly made me think, which (in my opinion) is high praise. Osborn on Literalism There are two prongs to Osborn’s argument, which make it, in effect, two books, or at least a book with two purposes, and two audiences. Part 1 (nine chapters) attempts to help conservative Christians move out of narrow literalism in their reading of the Bible’s creation narratives (by literalism he means an approach to the text that assumes a simple correspondence between what the Bible says and concrete realities in the external world); this approach tends to be associated with a young earth and treats the Noahic flood as the explanation for the fossil record. Osborn is uniquely qualified to address this sort of literalism, since he was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Although he doesn’t go into details about this, it was the founder of the SDA church (Ellen G. White) who popularized the view that flood geology (and not deep time) decisively explained the current fossil record (this having been revealed to her in a vision, in which she claimed to have actually observed the flood). This interpretation of the fossil record (along with its assumption of a young earth, and the lack evolutionary descent) informed the hermeneutics of William Jennings Byran, the famous prosecutor in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Byran had read SDA literature on this topic). To this day, many in the SDA church are principled defenders of young earth creationism. Since I do not count myself among those who read the Bible this way, I was less interested in part 1 of Osborn’s book. Nevertheless, there are some good chapters there. These include chapter 2: “Unwholesome Complexity,” which shows just how certain creationist readings end up tying the reader into interpretive knots, and chapter 6: “The Enclave Mentality,” which is perceptive about absolutism and the demonization of the other often found in fundamentalism. I was particularly taken with the author’s characterization of the anxiety of a literalist reading of Scripture as “a high-stakes game of Jenga” (p. 45), where if you touch one of the bricks near the bottom the entire theological edifice might collapse. However, Osborn’s rhetoric in this section of the book can be dismissive at times, and might put off some readers who need to grapple with the important issues he raises here. Osborn on Animal Suffering and Death In the five chapters of part 2 of Death Before the Fall, Osborn finally gets to his advertised topic—animal suffering. Osborn explains that the critique of literalism in part 1 “is to a large extent prolegomena” to part 2, which addresses “the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (p. 19). Osborn correctly notes that this is a problem for both creationists and evolutionists. Although creationists often object to the implication of an evolutionary account of the world since it involves millions of years of the suffering and death of animals (through extinctions, disease, carnivores preying on herbivores), even creationists need to account for why God would allow animal suffering (especially through predation) to be so pervasive in a young earth. If this is due to the Fall (human sin) as most creationists claim, doesn’t this seem like unjustified suffering? Since most creationists affirm that animals were vegetarian prior to the Fall, this means that carnivores are a post-Fall phenomenon. Does this mean that today’s carnivores were previously herbivores who suddenly grew (or evolved) canines? Or did pre-Fall carnivores use their canines for eating vegetation? And beyond all these crazy theories, creationists still need to answer the question of why animals have to suffer for human sin. Earlier, I noted that Osborn’s background in the Seventh Day Adventist church equipped him for addressing young earth creationism. In a similar manner, his approach to the problem of animal suffering is informed by having grown up in Zimbabwe of missionary parents, which included many visits to a game reserve. He mentions his awareness of the presence of predatory animals (crocodiles and jackals) and describes witnessing lions eviscerating a fresh kill with the smell of blood in the air. The world of the game reserve was “deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good” and “the danger was part of its goodness and beauty. . . . Herein lies the central riddle of this book” (p. 13). Although part 2 contains five chapters, the tension evident in the above quote is embodied in the contrast between chapters 12 and 13. These are the chapters that most interested me. Animal Predation as Part of God’s Good Creation—The Witness of Job Chapter 12 (“God of the Whirlwind”) explores the vision of the book of Job, where animal predation is part of the world God celebrates. In response to Job’s complaint about his sufferings, God describes in his first speech an untamed non-human world that includes suffering and death (Job 38-42). Not only does God send rain on a land where no human lives (Job 38:26-28), but in his rhetorical questions to Job, God implies that he provides food for lions and ravens: 39Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:39-41) Indeed, God commands the eagle to build her nest on high, from which she delivers prey to her young (Job 39:27-30), who “suck up blood;/ and where the slain are, there she is” (39:30). Those are the closing words of God’s first speech to Job, and I have often thought it is no wonder that Job was struck silent, at a loss for words at such a gruesome image. But Osborn is right in emphasizing that throughout the first speech God is delighting in animal ferocity. This delight continues in God’s second speech, where the creator boasts about Behemoth and Leviathan (given the mythic overlay of these beasts, I wouldn’t reduce them to known animal species, as Osborn seems to do here). I initially thought that Osborn wrongly identified the second beast with Behemoth (pp. 153 and 157), but it turns out that he was using the New English Bible’s rendering of the first beast as a “crocodile,” which is what most interpreters take as a possible model for Leviathan, the second beast. Part of the reason I misread Osborn here is that he quotes selections from the description of Behemoth (40:15-15, 19-20) along with selections from the description of Leviathan (41:12, 33-34), all in one block quotation, without distinguishing them from each other (p. 153). He himself may have been confused by the NEB, which he was quoting, since it idiosyncratically translates 40:15 and 20 as if Behemoth (“crocodile”) was a carnivore (“who devours cattle as if they were grass” and “he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts”). In the NRSV these lines are correctly rendered: “it eats grass like an ox” and “the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play” (this is what the Hebrew actually says). In other words, while Leviathan is clearly a carnivore, Behemoth (seemingly modeled on a Hippopotamus) is a herbivore (though still a dangerous animal). Despite this slip, Osborn’s point is well taken that these dangerous beasts (like many animals in the first speech) are paraded before Job as part of a world God is proud of. Predation and danger therefore do not constitute “natural evil” in the book of Job. Beyond Osborn—The Psalms on Animal Predation A similar perspective may be found in the Psalms—although Osborn doesn’t explicitly address this. But his case could be strengthened by adding other relevant biblical references to God’s approval of animal predation as part of the natural order. Just as Job mentions the feeding of ravens, so does Psalm 147. Verse 7 calls on the reader to sing praise to YHWH because “He gives to the animals their food,/ and to the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9). Ravens are omnivores, often scavenging on carrion. And just as Job mentioned the feeding of lions (which are clearly carnivores), so Psalm 104 notes: “The young lions roar for their prey,/ seeking their food from God” (verse 21). The psalm even claims that God feeds all animals: 27These all look to you to give them their food in due season; 28when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:27-28) This implies that at least some biblical texts (Job and Psalms) regard animal predation (thus animal death, even suffering) as simply part of the good world that God made; after all God feeds the animals. This is, therefore, not part of what we should regard as “evil.” If a human being is injured or killed by a wild animal, this is certainly “evil” to us; but to regard animal predation in general as “natural evil” is a highly anthropocentric judgment. The Parallel between Animal Predation and Natural Disasters Thinking of animal predation as “natural evil” is somewhat like viewing natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) as intrinsically evil. Yet such destructive phenomena have been part of the world long before humans; they are simply part of the natural geological forces and weather patterns on this planet. Like animal predation, when a natural disaster negatively impacts human life, this is certainly “evil” to us. But that has to do with the interaction of humans and nature, not nature considered independently. Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic 2010) is a superb theological exploration of this theme. Fretheim (who is one of the most careful readers of Scripture that I know) clarifies how we may think of natural disasters as part of the wildness of the cosmos that God has incorporated into the order of the world; this wildness is part of the good (but not “perfect”) creation that God made. Such natural phenomena may certainly be impacted negatively by human behavior (Fretheim suggests that Scripture itself supports this). And he boldly addresses how the Bible even portrays God as mediating judgment on humanity by the use of natural disasters—all the while affirming that such disasters are not intrinsically evil. The Central Riddle Early on, Osborn mentioned “the central riddle of this book” (p. 13) is the tension between the beauty and terror of animals in the wild. In chapter 12, Osborn mounted a good case for viewing animal predation (and the suffering this naturally causes) as part of God’s good creation. As I noted earlier in this post, I found his argument from the book of Job (supplemented with the perspective of various Psalms) convincing. However, Osborn is not content with making this point. In chapter 13 (“Creation & Kenosis”), Osborn explores the other side of his tension, namely that it does not seem satisfactory to simply affirm the goodness of animal mortality and predation, given the very real suffering evident in the animal world. He calls this a “deep scandal” (p. 157) and notes that “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (p. 157). Osborn therefore turns to the theological notion of kenosis, in connection with the Patristic doctrine of theosis, to address this problem. In the end, his claim is that Christ’s self-emptying and death was for the redemption of all suffering, even that which predates human evil. Kenosis The theological idea of kenosis is derived from Philippians 2, where Paul describes Christ’s self-humbling (verse 7). 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied [eknōsen] himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. This is the first half of a poem or hymn that Paul quotes, the second half of which affirms Christ’s exaltation after death, and makes clear his deity (by using language from Isaiah that in its original context referred to YHWH’s uniqueness). Traditionally, the idea of kenosis is associated with Christ giving up or letting go of his deity (or of his attributes of deity), suggesting that the incarnation involved a subtraction or lessening. However, this misreads the text, which affirms instead that Christ (who legitimately has all the power of deity) did not use this for his own advantage, but (in humility) became a servant, even to death, to bring us salvation. This is the core of N. T. Wright’s argument in his chapter on Philippians 2 in The Climax of the Covenant. The point is clear if we ask why Christ can be an example for us (verse 5). He didn’t model becoming empty of deity (whatever that might mean); that wouldn’t be relevant to us. Rather, Christ modeled the compassionate use of power and privilege. If the one who is equal to the Father used his deity for our sakes, how much more should we use our God-given privileges to serve others in love. It seems to me that Osborn tends towards using kenosis as an umbrella term to refer to Christ holding in abeyance his divine attributes, which led to his suffering (so he incorporates suffering under kenosis). This is why he can identify kenosis with open theism, which affirms God’s self-limitation in order to generously allow creatures space for genuine freedom. But one can be sympathetic with open theism (as I am) without affirming kenosis in Osborn’s sense. Theosis Osborn pairs his notion of kenosis with theosis, also known as “deification” or “divinization.” Although I find some articulations of this doctrine problematic, since they seem to confuse the categories of creator and creation, I understand the impetus of theosis, both in the church fathers and today among authors like Michael Gorman. The biblical warrant for using language of theosis is usually 2 Peter 1:4, which affirms that God has promised that we “may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming God, but godlike in our character. But beyond the transformation into godlikeness, the theosis doctrine, especially in Irenaeus (second century church father), is also associated with a goal-oriented vision of salvation. That is, the transformation that redemption effects is not a return to primitive origins, but along with repairing what went wrong, brings humanity to its intended telos or goal, which sin impeded. So this combination of kenosis and theosis allows Osborn to articulate a vision of God’s compassionate suffering in Christ, which serves to bring the cosmos, with its immense animal suffering, to God’s intended telos of perfection where all suffering is eradicated. I have to admit that I am attracted to Osborn’s vision. Indeed, it is similar to my own articulation of the telos of salvation in my book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Like Osborn, I would go beyond Irenaeus in applying this goal-oriented vision of salvation to the cosmos and not just to humanity. As many biblical scholars are coming to recognize, the Bible envisions a movement from a garden in the context of God’s creation of heaven and earth, to a garden-city in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, where God is fully present. So, the goodness of the original creation is not the same as the perfection God has in mind for the cosmos. I also find Osborn’s affirmation of God working non-coercively in and through ordinary processes of nature and history compelling. He notes that God’s sovereignty does not predetermine everything in advance, but gives creatures freedom to develop (p. 161). This, he explains, is the basis both of the evolutionary process and of the animal suffering this process has engendered. Why Does the Cosmos Need Redeeming? A problem is evident, however, in chapter 13 when Osborn comes to evaluate the evolutionary process, with its resultant suffering. Should we think of this suffering as “natural evil,” that is, something that is wrong in some fundamental sense, and so needs redeeming? Or is the evolutionary process, along with the suffering this has caused over the eons, part of the good (though wild and unpredictable) creation God has made? In chapter 12, on the book of Job, Osborn had argued for the natural death and suffering of animals in the evolutionary process as part of God’s good world. Yet in chapter 13, he argues that this world of animal death and suffering needs redeeming. But why would animal mortality and suffering need redeeming? Two answers are possible. First, they could need redeeming because they are the result, in some way, of human sin. But Osborn has already (rightly) rejected the idea that nature is “fallen” due to human sin. Rather, he views animal suffering as simply part of what a world of living organisms involves, especially an evolving world. Alternately, nature could need redeeming because it is intrinsically deficient (here the deficiency would be precisely the animal suffering involved in the evolutionary process). Did God Create a Deficient Cosmos? I want to affirm the basic intuition I sense in Osborn here, that the world seems out of whack with how it should be. And he clearly has a sense of kinship with, and compassion for, animals that is laudable. Nevertheless, Osborn comes perilously close to a theme that is gaining momentum among Christian writers who take evolution seriously, namely that the death of Christ atones not just for sin and its consequences (which I affirm), but for God’s inadequate or deficient creation of the cosmos. In a sense, God is atoning for his own sin in creating a deficient world. I think that the issue comes down not to whether evolution should be accepted (I agree with Osborn that it makes more sense of the evidence than any alternative). Rather, the issue is whether we think of the chaotic wildness of the cosmos (of which evolution can be considered a part) as part of a good creation or as “natural evil” which needs to be redeemed. We cannot have it both ways. Either a good creator brought into being a good, though not “perfect,” world. Or God is not a good creator, and so cannot be trusted. And no amount of kenosis can atone for this. The Need to Distinguish Creation from Fall and Redemption According to Osborn, “God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates” (p. 160). But I would want to maintain that God’s generous power evident in creation (which does not require God’s suffering) is distinct from God redemptive action to reverse the fall (which certainly requires God’s suffering). I fully agree with Osborn that the kenosis of the cross (rightly understood) opens our eyes to see the realities of good and evil; but when he states that “When Christ cries ‘It is finished’ on Easter Friday the creation of the world is at last completed” (p. 165), I must dissent. Otherwise creation and fall are indistinguishable, and God is not a good creator. This means that we need to think carefully about the interconnection between God’s telos or goal for creation (which does not depend on the introduction of sin) and the need for redemption (which does). I myself haven’t fully sorted this issue out. This piece first appeared in three parts on J. Richard Middleton's blog has been reposted with permission. [div id="blockquote"]This study asks a pressing question: If humanity emerged from non-human primates—as genetic, biological, and archaeological evidence seems to suggest—then what are the implications for Christian theology’s traditional account of origins, including both the origin of humanity and the origin of sin? The integrity of the church’s witness requires that it constructively address this difficult question. This three-year project is designed to help the church wrestle with the theological implications of contemporary scientific models. The starting point for this project is not one of advocacy for a particular position, but a respectful engagement of scientific research, while maintaining the primacy of a profound commitment to theological orthodoxy. [end-div]