In this post I will address some preliminary methodological issues before getting into the various theodicies (answers) to the problem of animal suffering:
1) I do not believe the Bible directly addresses this question, and there is therefore a need for caution, restraint, and humility in our thinking about it. When approaching an ancient text (say, Genesis 1) with a specific contemporary question in mind, it is easy to make the text say more than it actually says, or to apply the text to concerns it was intended to address, or to impose later categories of thought onto the text that would be foreign to the original writer and original readers. The Genesis 1 creation narrative is not a kind of a-historical, technical, scientific account, written to satisfy modern speculative curiosities: rather, the creation narrative was written, part and parcel with the narrative that follows it, to the first and second generation Israelites about to enter the promised land in order to explain to them their identity as the covenant people of the God of the whole world. We must read the biblical creation narrative (1) accordance with its genre(s), (2) in light of its historical context, (3) in cooperation with its literary intent, and (4) in conjunction with the rest of the Pentateuch, to which it is annexed, and without with it cannot be understood. By subjecting our understanding of the creation account to what this text originally meant for its first hearers, we will likely reach conclusions from it that are much more chaste – however, they will also be sounder and more reliable.
2) In the opposite direction, it would be a mistake to think that the Genesis account has nothing to say to modern curiosities, or to set up a chasm between “science” and “faith,” or to be afraid to ask any questions about creation which the Bible does not directly address. If the Genesis account gives us trustworthy data from God Himself, as I believe, then to fail to seek to understand it in relation to the modern world of science (and the questions which arise from it) would be a colossal failure of imagination. Thoughtfulness, not presumption, is the goal. There are important apologetics issues at stake.
Henri Blocher has written, “the Bible … is not a handbook for science. Agreed. But that does mean it will have nothing to say which touches the realm of the scientist” (In The Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis [Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1984], 24). Since both science and theology seek truth, and truth is one, there will inevitably be areas of overlap between the two. Granted, when we are asking questions not directly addressed by the Bible, our reasoning will be more indirect and our deductions more tentative. But it is not wrong to speculate – provided that we remember we are only speculating!
3) Finally, there are a number of theodicies of natural evil which I will not address in this series, such as John Hick’s “soul-making” theodicy, responses associated with process theology, N.P. Williams’ “World-Soul” hypothesis, and several others. The reasons are (1) you can’t do everything in one series of posts, and (2) the philosophical and theological bases for many of these theodicies are so different from my own that it would be difficult to interact with them in a limited way, without addressing the root issues. Instead, I will confine myself to the two most common “theodicies of natural evil” that I have heard among evangelicals: (1) the denial that animal suffering is a moral evil; (2) the attempt to understand animal suffering as a result of the Satanic fall. I will take these two in my next two posts, respectively.
To conclude this post, I will restate the question I am addressing, for clarity, force, and momentum into the next posts. The question I am addressing in this series is: how do understand the reality of animal suffering in relation to the Genesis account’s repeated emphasis on the goodness of God’s creation? By animal suffering I mean not only the physical sensation of pain felt in individual animals with developed nervous systems when they are injured or killed in nature, but also the entire system of predation, futility, waste, and disorganization by which the natural order subsists. Everywhere we look we see a nature “red in tooth and claw” in which the strong devour the weak, suffering and death are the driving forces, and decay, disease, and disorganization are rampant. If we are willing to yield to the overwhelming fossil evidence that this system pre-dated human beings (and thus the human fall), then … what do we do with this?