Is Animal Suffering an Achilles Heel For Creationists?


Christian creationists contend that suffering and death entered the world after the first sin recorded in Genesis 3. But what about animals--specifically those designed for predation? Doesn't animal suffering contradict the traditionalist teaching? Ronald Osborn, in his book Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, surveys the animal kingdom to critique the literalism of "scientific creationism" and wrestle with questions of divine goodness. A 2015 Fulbright scholar and postdoctoral fellow Wellesley College, Osborn's ideas are creating quite a stir. Christianity Today called his book, "a full-bore, unflinching assault on literalism in biblical interpretation, particularly in regard to the first chapters in Genesis" and added, "a simple assertion that anybody who believes as Osborn does cannot believe in the Bible will not do."

Here, we discuss his ideas and how he believes they create problems for creationists.

RNS: You say there is a theological problem with animal suffering." Explain.

RO: The problem of animal suffering is similar to the problem of human suffering: How could an all-loving and all-powerful God permit innocent creatures of any kind to experience pain, including prolonged agony, for no fault of their own?

In the case of animals, however, there are additional theological challenges. What are we to make of creatures that by every indication are perfectly "designed" for predation--lions, crocodiles, and Great White sharks? Did God make them this way in the beginning? Did he "curse" or supernaturally modify the animal kingdom after Adam and Eve's fall?  What are the implications of this idea for our understanding of God's character? [tweetable]Is God only responsible for those parts of the creation we are comfortable with?[/tweetable] What about those that raise perplexing and perhaps insoluble riddles about divine goodness and love?

RNS: Do you think this problem is more difficult for young earth creationists than for someone like you, a Christian evolutionist?

RO: I have never been comfortable with the label of "Christian evolutionist" since the word "evolution" has come to be weighted with so much historical baggage. I am not an "evolutionist" if you mean someone who subscribes to what has been called ultra-Darwinism or philosophical naturalism in theological disguise.

As a Christian who takes the witness of Scripture very seriously, I have come to accept that God's ways of creating include not only dramatic events but also what we have come to think of as "natural" processes that include a great deal of creaturely freedom or agency, wildness, and indeterminacy in the universe. This does not answer all of the pressing theological questions that arise from the realities of animal suffering, and it raises some new ones, but such an understanding of the creation makes better sense of the biblical and the scientific evidence than the alternatives.