Perhaps the most momentous issue involved in the debate between young-earth creationists and various varieties of old-earth creationists is animal death/suffering before the human fall. In his book A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, David Snoke writes, “in my experience, this is [i.e., whether animals died before Adam and Eve sinned] is the fundamental issue of Bible interpretation caught up in the debate.” My experience has been the same as Snoke’s. It is here, in the realm of animal death/suffering, that we push through the hermeneutical issues of how to read Genesis 1 into the deeper consequences of different readings, where they result in different conceptions of createdness and fallenness.
In a previous post I outlined my own hypothesis, following the lead of C.S. Lewis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Thomas Torrance, Alvin Plantinga, etc., that the fall of angels is the best explanation for natural evil. This view, however, as far as I can tell, is still largely unknown to most evangelicals, including most old-earthers. More common among old-earth creationists–at least the ones I run into–is to deny that animals “suffer,” or, very close to this, to deny that animal suffering is a fact of moral significance.
I am sympathetic to what these old-earth creationists are trying to do, and I agree with many of their cautions, particularly regarding the danger of anthropomorphism (projecting our own experience of suffering onto the animal kingdom), and regarding the necessity and even fittingness of various kinds of death and pain in the natural order.
Nonetheless, while I do not claim that death and pain are all bad, I do question whether all death and pain are good. I am concerned about what Henri Blocher calls “normalizing evil.” Three reasons why:
1) Eschatology and Expectation
Old-earth creationists often claim that pain and death are necessary components of a sustainable world. That may be true with respect to the current state of creation, but pain and death cannot be absolutely necessary for life if they will not occur in the redeemed new earth of which Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype. Even if you interpret the animals of Isaiah 11:6-9 as symbolic of “predatory” nations surrounding Israel, can you really imagine any predatory behavior on the new earth? But if not, we cannot say predatory behavior is strictly necessary. Our eschatological expectation informs our understanding of creational necessity.
Therefore it seems to me the skeptic’s question, “why didn’t God make the world differently to start with?” is an intelligible question, and we should have an answer.
2) Do Animals “Suffer?”
Many old-earth creationists distinguish between “pain” and “suffering,” claiming that while animals are capable of experiencing the sensation of pain, they lack the conscious self-awareness required for “suffering” to occur.
I accept this as a meaningful conceptual distinction, a healthy warning about anthropological projection, and a fact that may well mitigate the problem, particularly in the case of lower organic life. However:
a) Animals with complex brains and centralized nervous systems seem to experience pain pretty similarly to human beings. The brain of an upper-level animal like a horse or a dolphin gets information from the nervous system in the same way a human brain does. I grant that animal experience is ultimately a black box, and that it is difficult to precisely define the word “suffering.” I also grant that lower levels of intelligence may reduce the “suffering” involved in pain. But physiologically, it is difficult to suppose why the distinction between human suffering and (at least some) animal suffering should be a difference of kind, not degree.
b) If a high level of conscious awareness is necessary for suffering in a morally significant sense, is pain in an infant human being or severely mentally handicapped human being not morally significant? Most people would acknowledge that although an infant does not think “I am suffering,” nonetheless infant pain is not morally neutral. It therefore seems to me difficult to suppose that conscious self-awareness is necessary for pain to become a morally significant reality in the animal kingdom.
c) Even if animals only felt pain and did not “suffer,” it is not evident that pain is not a fact of moral significance. At some point we are dealing with semantics. Whether you call it “pain” or “suffering,” it is difficult to look at a deer caught in a forest fire and slowly burning to death and then feel, “that is God’s very good creation and requires no explanation.” Meanwhile, we have not just pain and death to explain, but disease and predation. Are parasites “very good?”
3) Psalm 104:21 Does Not End the Discussion
Old-earth creationists often quote Psalm 104:21 that God feeds lions (and other such verses). True enough, but Matthew 5:45 says that God gives sunlight and rain to the wicked. God’s providential care for creation in its current state does not remove the possible need for an explanation of how it got this way in the first place. The fact that God allowed Hitler to breath oxygen and allows Satan to maintain possession of a mind and will does not mean he created them to function just as they do. So the fact that God is the provider of food for lions does not mean animal predation is completely good.
Let’s remember that we are dealing with vast eons of animal pain. Not “billions of years,” as often claimed, since the majority of the history of organic life is of single-celled organisms. But still many hundreds of millions of years. And remember, it is not just death and pain that are the problem, but the whole system in which they come: death, pain, disease, decay, struggle, competition, apparent waste and inefficiency, etc. That is why I use the broader term “natural evil,” not the more limited and debated term, “animal suffering.” Or Tennyson’s phrase works well: “nature red in tooth and claw.”
Sorry to make our job more difficult, fellow old-earth creationists–but I think we need to face this challenge squarely. I don’t think young-earth creationism is the solution to the challenge. But I also don’t think we can deny that it is a challenge.
(One final, preemptive note: if any commenters are going to claim that all death is the result of Adam’s sin by quoting Romans 5:12, please see my prior treatment of that verse here first. I think it is clear from the context and from the parallel text in I Corinthians 15:21-22 that Paul has human death, not animal death, in view in this passage.)