Animal Suffering (again)

This past fall I did a series of posts on animal suffering, and several friends here in St. Louis mentioned that they did not follow what I was trying to say. I am therefore in this post attempting to restate the problem in a simple, linear formula.  This is not an addition to that series, but rather a restatement of what I was addressing in a brief, linear form. Here goes:

1. There is something wrong with nature.

2. This wrongness (to use as general a term as possible) appears to have existed before human beings.

3. Therefore, the human fall is an inadequate explanation for (all of) this wrongness.

Premise (2) is where the rub comes for most people, but I would argue its difficult to deny to the evidence in favor of it.

From my second post:
“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 competition, futility, waste, and inefficiency 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?”

So how do we understand the brokenness of nature? I’d love feedback from others who have wrestled with this…


  1. ErinOrtlund

    I thought your original idea was promising–the idea that it was caused by the Satanic fall. Didn’t you say that could help explain the snake in the garden? Otherwise, I don’t know. I was just telling Eric how I mull these things over a lot and appreciate any help I can get from people with sharper theological minds! Bruce Waltke addresses some of this in his latest OT Theology book but I don’t know if he specifically talks about animal suffering.

  2. J.W. Ruch

    Gavin, I’m not sure I agree with you. The second premise is where I have a problem but only because it leads to premise 3, which I think could be a dangerous statement (it would depend on what you mean by “wrongness”). I haven’t given this issue a whole lot of thought, so I don’t think I can say much more than that at this point. However, I’m going to begin to think about this on a deeper level. Interesting topic.

  3. Gav – Do we know that this wrongness pre-dated humanity? Gen 1-2 describes this world as existing under conditions radically different from what we now know – it was heaven on earth. Perhaps, before Gen 3, lions still had fangs, but never used them. Isa 11.6-9 describes the idyllic end-time state of creation; but might it indirectly describe also the initial state of creation? Just questions . . .

  4. Gavin Ortlund

    Erin, I still lean towards the Satanic fall explanation as well. I’ll have to check out that Waltke book! Thanks. I will let you know if he has anything helpful.Jeremy, I agree with you that (3) is a perplexing conclusion. In fact, I have been consistently perplexed by it for several months now. However, I want to follow the evidence where it leads. I’d love to talk more as you keep thinking about this.Eric, that is how I always read Genesis 1-3, but the evidence for predation and disease and brokenness prior to the human fall (for example, among the dinosaurs) is tough to deny. I certainly don’t want to say that carnivorous dinosaurs like velociraptors never used their fangs (why would they have them?), nor do I want to have to massively revise geological timeframes. So I am trying to understand geological evidence and Genesis 1-3 in relation to one another. I don’t have any certain answers, but thats the goal. For those interested, here is an article on disease among the dinosaurs:

  5. ErinOrtlund

    Hey Gavin, I did a google search on “animal suffering” and theology and a couple articles popped up about how C.S. Lewis wrestled with this. Perhaps you already know this, but he leaned toward your explanation of the Satanic fall having caused pre-human sin/suffering.

  6. ErinOrtlund

    Oh, I see you got this idea from him in the first place! Should have checked your original series first. :)

  7. Gavin Ortlund

    No problem! At your suggestion, I did the same google search and am finding some pretty interesting things. Thanks! More later…

  8. J.W. Ruch

    Gavin – Jack Collins gives a good discussion on the curses mentioned in Genesis 3 and the implications of those curses upon nature. In his commentary on Genesis (Genesis 1-4) he points out that the curse of Genesis 3:14 did not fall on members of the reptile family, but upon human beings (163). Furthermore, he adds that in the celebration of the proper functioning of creation found in Psalm 104 includes an appreciation for the large carnivores (v.21). The Genesis account does not follow that nonhuman nature is affected in the same way that change has come to the human nature as a result of the fall (166). So, how do we understand the brokenness of nature? What do you mean by brokenness? You mentioned the “wrongness” (i.e. physical death, competition, futility, waste, etc.) existing among animals. Maybe we ought not consider this the “brokenness” of nature? What do you think? You’ve raised some good questions. Did you write a paper on this topic? I would be interested in reading it to get a better idea of what it is you’re trying to say.

  9. J.W. Ruch

    I think I’m pretty far behind in this conversation!

  10. Gavin Ortlund

    Jer – I am too! For what I mean by “brokenness” see the italicized quote in my post. I am open to some animal death not being evil, but things like parasites and animal disease and the more ugly parts of nature I cannot accept as part of God’s originally good creation. Interestingly, I just met with Dr. Collins to talk about this today. He agreed that there is something wrong with nature that calls for an explanation. He said my Satanic theory suggestion was a possibility, and also referenced some other books being published offering explanations. Good thing to read on this: C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, chapter 9, “On Animal Pain”

Leave a Reply