Saturday, January 18, 2014

Christian Responses To The Problem Of Suffering

To me, one of the strongest pieces of evidence against theism is the fact that the evolution of life on earth involved millions of years of conscious suffering and numerous mass extinctions for no logically necessary reason, and looks like a haphazard, undirected process driven by chance, and not design. For the educated theist who rejects a literal interpretation of Genesis, reconciling the suffering required by the evolutionary process with the perfect god of Christianity is quite a challenge. Stepping up to the plate to try and make sense of this dilemma, the BioLogos foundation, which serves to encourage Christians to embrace evolution, has offered several answers which I will critique below.

The following is taken from a 4 part series of posts on the BioLogos site called Death and Pain in the Created Order by Keith Miller. In the series, Miller produces 5 common theodicies that Christians have came up with over the years to try and reconcile their faith in a divinely created universe with the millions of years of suffering required by evolution, and then he offers us his personal theodicy.

1. Creation Corrupted by an Angelic Fall

I've actually debated this theodicy once with a theist (see here). What this explanation of suffering tries to do is say that somehow an angel fell "before" god created the universe (which means before god "created" time) and rebelled against god and so god decided then to create a world with millions of years of suffering. It's utterly preposterous and even Miller admits this is an inadequate explanation. It can also lead to ludicrous conclusions. Within this theodicy some believe that the devil and his minions made the evolutionary process give rise to things like disease and predation which lead to much of the suffering. But mind you, it is this very process of death and suffering that lead to human evolution. If it didn't happen, we wouldn't have evolved. To take this position is to say that the devil caused our evolution and that we wouldn't have evolved without the devil's interference! It also flies in the face of standard Christian orthodoxy that god and god alone single handedly resided over creation. Thus this position is untenable to the Christian theist.

2. The Fall Impacts All Time—Past and Future

That human sin retroactively created suffering millions of years in the past is another bankrupt attempt to reconcile geology and evolution with god. This is a position that old earth creationists like William Dembski take. According to this view, god knew man would fall and so he decided to punish millions of species of animals for millions of years to make sure that "humanity must experience the full brunt of the evil that it has set in motion," according to Dembski. But why was it necessary for there to have been suffering for millions of years before humans had even evolved? It serves no purpose. Those beings were unaware of it and couldn't stand to gain anything from it. On top of this, it makes god look even worse than his portrayal in the Old Testament makes him out to be because now we not only have to deal with the god who commands genocide, the killing of homosexuals, and allows slavery, but also a god who does all that in addition to punishing millions of species of animals for millions of years because of what was going to happen millions of years later. This theodicy makes the god of the bible into even more of a dick than he already was. And also C.S. Lewis' challenge is not rationally explained. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, "So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it."

3 Natural “Evil” as God’s Good Purpose

This theodicy tries to explain the uglier parts of evolution as just being one small part of a larger and more beautiful creation. "Those beings designed to die promote the good of the whole by fulfilling their part in God’s plan for governing the universe," so says Miller. But what this theodicy does is it reduces the millions of years of conscious suffering of creatures into mere means to an end. They were all pawns in a game they had no choosing. Their miserable lives are all to "glorify" god's creation, but none could stand to gain anything out of it. And this also fails to explain why any of this was logically necessary, and that it could not have happened any other way. I fail to see how this explanation of suffering is compatible with the notion of an omni-benevolent and morally perfect god who is incapable of inflicting gratuitous evil. To say that the purpose of animal suffering is to glorify god, is like saying the purpose of overkill is to glorify serial killers. It makes god intentionally cruel and indifferent.

4. Creation Given Freedom
as an Act of Divine Love

This theodicy tries to explain away natural evil the same way as moral evil. Somehow, "The suffering and death embedded in creation provide the opportunity for new creative possibilities, and so are redeemed," according to Miller. And so things like tragedy, "fashions the possibility of a new kind or level of triumph," to quote W.H. Vanstone, from whom we get much of this theodicy. This is often used as an attempt to explain human suffering, but it does not work with animal suffering. What are animals gaining for all those millions of years they were dying and suffering, only to die and to go into oblivion? There is no afterlife for them according to traditional Christian theology, and there is no free will for them or knowledge of god. If a god exists who could instantly will humans into existence, then all of this suffering need not have existed. And the idea that god enters into our world as Christ and suffers with us is like a serial killer suffering with their victim does not make the victim's suffering any better since it need not exist in the first place. Plus Jesus' alleged three days on the cross pales in comparison to some of the suffering humans and animals have endured. And again as C.S. Lewis put it, "So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it."

5. Creation as an Environment for
 Human “Soul-Making”

This theodicy tries to explain natural evil as being necessary for soul making. "Robert Wennberg has pursued this line of thinking by stating that the presence of animal pain and suffering contributes to the creation of an environment in which human free decision-making and “soul-making” can best occur....He then argues that an environment in which God’s power and glory were overwhelmingly present, and all threat of pain and suffering eliminated, would not give adequate “space” for the exercise of fully free choices," Miller says.

But if the purpose of animal suffering is soul making, and only humans have souls, why the billions of years of life before humans evolved that served no logically necessary purpose? To say that the billions of years of life is necessary for god to mold us "into his image and likeness" is to say god could not have done so any other way besides through the evolutionary death and suffering. I'm not buying it. Evolution requires death and suffering. There can be no evolutionary process without it. This theodicy fails to make that logically necessary. We recognize that pain is necessary for our survival. But not millions of years of it before we evolved. This theodicy is also trying to say that creating the world according to Genesis would not make for a good place for soul making, the opposite of most Christians have believed for the past two thousand years.

Summary So Far

So far not a single one of these theodicies truly addresses the nagging problem of natural evil and animal suffering, and Keith Miller, the author of this 4 part series on the BioLogos website even acknowledges this. They all look like twisted attempts to make divine creation compatible with evolution, and to someone not inside the faith who is out of reach of its indoctrination, this is very obvious. In part 4 however, Miller he tries to address the problem of animal suffering head on. 

The Author Explains

Miller concludes the series by offering us his own theodicy to explain animal suffering, but he doesn't make a very convincing argument. First, he quotes Austin Farrer who says god makes animals endure pain out of his love:

the God of nature gives his animal creatures pains out of love for them, to save their lives ... Again, out of love for them, God moves his creatures to shun their pains and mend their harms, so far as their sense or capacity allows.

God could just make all animals philosophical zombies or without central nervous systems. But nah, that would be too humane. He's decided they must suffer for their own good. For the second aspect of Miller's theodicy he acknowledges that more is needed, and he goes onto say that in addition to Farrer's theodicy, the soul-making theodicy above "provides a model for considering the fulfillment of animal existence."

Miller's theodicy all basically comes down to this. 1) Animal suffering and death is necessary for their survival, reproduction and flourishing; 2) If animals did not experience pain, suffering and death, or the drive for food and to reproduce their lives would become meaningless; 3) Borrowing on another theodicy from Christopher Southgate, the suffering of animals "is retained in the memory of the Trinity.” And 4) the promise of a new creation of a new earth and heaven which all of creation participates in somehow justifies millions of years of suffering inflicted by evolution.

I'm left feeling a bit disappointed at these attempts at providing a reasonable theodicy. Miller's explanation does not really explain why animal suffering for millions of years was logically necessary. Sure animal pain helps them survive as it helps us, but none of those species that went extinct before we evolved needed to exist at all. Neanderthals and homo erectus didn't need to exist if god exists. All Miller's explanation does is try to justify why animals living today suffer and die. It's because it cannot be any other way, Miller implies. In other words, the perfect world depicted in Genesis is impossible. It cannot exist since it is "the presence of death and pain that makes possible the fulfillment of individual animal lives." How then will this "new earth" or "new heaven" play out "in which all creation participates" if it presumably has no suffering and death? If pain, suffering, the drive to reproduce, and death are all necessary for animal lives to be fulfilled, then they will all spend an eternity with meaningless lives on this new earth. And the same is true for humans. What purpose will our lives have when it is free of all challenges, suffering and death? The very thing these theodicies use to justify our existence now will for some reason not exist in the hereafter, and yet it is presumed we will exist in the hereafter literally for an eternity and somehow have meaningful lives.

I still submit that an all-loving god is not compatible with the suffering required by evolution. Nowhere here does Miller make a compelling case that it must be this way, (that is that god could not have logically done it according to Genesis or by some other means that didn't require millions of years of suffering.) In the past few weeks, on various platforms, I have debated Christians who hold polar opposite views on evolution. One was an old earth creationist who holds that evolution is incompatible with Christianity. The other was a theistic evolutionist who holds that god had to use evolution to allow us to learn from it and make better technology(!). So one says evolution is incompatible with Christianity, the other says special creation is incompatible with Christianity and that god had to use evolution.

Christians say the darndest things!


  1. I've even heard that the fall of Adam and Eve retroactively brought the evil into the world that was the serpent which was the catalyst for the fall of Adam and Eve. It's one big time paradox.

  2. Christians say the darndest things!

  3. “Christians say the darndest things!”

    Yes we do, so allow me to add to the list. Regardless of someone’s view on suffering or how it came to be, suffering says nothing as to whether or not God exists. The evidence for a creator is not diminished because of suffering. Only your opinion of the creator may be diminished because of suffering.

    1. That of course is "your opinion". One by the way as I've shown in this post, makes no sense.

    2. But the christian god is being sold as generous, loving and almighty. Suffering in the world says nothing about as to whether or not your god exists, but it certainly means that is has been wrongfully advertised.

    3. Suffering in the world is important as to whether or not god exists because all the excuses theists have to explain why there exists suffering have been shown to be fallacious.



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