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A renowned Christian who believes in evolution is Francis Collins:

Collins also has written books on science, medicine, and religion, including the New York Times bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. After leaving the directorship of NHGRI and before becoming director of the NIH, he founded and served as president of The BioLogos Foundation, which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science, especially through the idea that the Creator brought about his plan through the processes of evolution. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

In fact, Francis Collins is a well-known advocate of the concept of Theistic Evolution:

Francis Collins describes theistic evolution as the position that "evolution is real, but that it was set in motion by God", and characterizes it as accepting "that evolution occurred as biologists describe it, but under the direction of God". He lists six general premises on which different versions of theistic evolution typically rest. They include:

  1. The prevailing cosmological model, with the universe coming into being about 13.8 billion years ago;
  2. The fine-tuned universe;
  3. Evolution and natural selection;
  4. No special supernatural intervention is involved once evolution got under way;
  5. Humans are a result of these evolutionary processes; and
  6. Despite all these, humans are unique. The concern for the Moral Law (the knowledge of right and wrong) and the continuous search for God among all human cultures defy evolutionary explanations and point to our spiritual nature.

However, evolution via natural selection is a process that is inherently plagued with suffering. This suffering emerges from the relentless competition for resources, mates, and survival in an environment where only the fittest prevail. Organisms endure hardships such as hunger, disease, predation, natural disasters, mass extinctions, and territorial disputes as they strive to pass on their genes to the next generation. While natural selection drives adaptation and diversity, it does so through a mechanism that often entails pain and struggle. The evolutionary arms race perpetuates a cycle of suffering as organisms continually evolve to outcompete one another, leading to ever more sophisticated strategies for survival, but also escalating levels of conflict and suffering.

I find it quite challenging to harmonize the picture of evolution with what the Bible reveals about God's ideal and desire for animals:

Romans 8:19-22 ESV

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Revelation 21:1-4 ESV

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Isaiah 11:6-9 ESV

6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. 9 They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 65:25 ESV

The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

How can the tremendous amount of suffering inherent in evolution be reconciled with the concept of a loving God from a Christian evolutionary standpoint?


Note: I came up with this question while reflecting on recent discussions on the problem of evil:

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  • 1
    According to many Christians: it can't, thus proving that "evolution" (that is, Common Descent), whether "theistic" or otherwise, is wrong. (The number of serious discrepancies that need to be ignored in order to believe in Common Descent also speaks to its veracity, or rather lack thereof...)
    – Matthew
    Feb 19 at 16:46
  • You have not demonstrated any diff between human suffering through evolution with the present suffering in the form of homo sapiens.
    – Michael16
    Feb 20 at 14:02
  • Usually with humans you can apply the "free will" theodicy. But that doesn't work with animals unless you claim that animals have free will and their suffering is due to their sinning.
    – Mark
    Feb 20 at 14:05
  • Of course implicit in this statement is that animals do actually experience pain and suffering…
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 20 at 18:59

2 Answers 2

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Overview
There are two ways the term "Christian evolutionist" may be understood. One is to see change in the animal kingdom through the lens of the Bible. The other is to see change through the lens of science. The approach by way of science requires conditions radically different from that found in the Bible, specifically billions of years, and in this case the answer is straightforward: it is impossible to reconcile the nature and work of God as described in the Bible with evolution.1

My answer is based on the first position which could be phrased, "How does a Christian reconcile change which occurs in the animal kingdom which results in suffering with a God who is love?

Creation
Before creating man, the Bible records a reason for how and why this was to happen.

Genesis 1 (NKJV):

26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

The plan to create man in the image and likeness of God included giving man dominion over the animal kingdom. The Bible states God did what was planned.

Genesis 1:

27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

29 And God said, “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. 30 Also, to every beast of the earth, to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food”; and it was so. 31 Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

Everything was very good. There was no death or suffering.

Post Creation
The suffering in the animal kingdom took place after God created and placed the earth and animals under the dominion of man.

It is man who has direct responsibility for what happened next.

God's "culpability" for the suffering is indirect. It happened because he made things such that man would and could exercise dominion over the animals. If God wanted to prevent the future problems, man would have to have been created differently. Being created in the image of God came with real authority of the earth and animals. Man failed to discharge the special position God's love bestowed on us in a way which continued God's good work. Instead, man brought death and suffering into creation.

Conclusion
God's love is openly displayed by the special treatment man received. No other living thing was made in the image of God.

A proper response to the suffering we see today is not to blame God, but to accept responsibility for mishandling how God created man. Like a parent who out of love for their own gives them the family business only to watch it be run into the ground, God put the lives of the animals in the hands of man and watched as man brought death, suffering, and extinction into creation.


1 Evolution is how life changes. It was never put forth as an explanation for the origination of life. In fact, Darwin stated explicitly God created life which was changed by natural selection. Darwin did not accept spontaneous generation as an explanation for the existence of life. Coincidentally, Darwin's On the Origin of Species was published in 1859 the same year Pasteur disproved spontaneous generation. While the natural world has some evidence of age contrary to the Bible, there is nothing in the natural world to support life originating by natural means.

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  • 1
    I see, you believe in post-ark evolution, not in the mainstream view of evolution involving millions of years that Francis Collins would endorse, for example.
    – Mark
    Feb 20 at 21:49
  • 3
    @Mark Correct. Millions of years is a physical impossibility IMO. I know there are well meaning believers who believe otherwise but that prompts your question. Suffering was the driving force for Darwin, who BTW believed in creation and sought an explanation for the terrible things one can find in the world. In particular he could not see how God could create the Ichneumonidae which laid its eggs in a caterpillar. The hatching eggs would rupture the body which the hatchlings ate. Darwin's world view was creation by God and change by natural selection. Something which should be taught today. Feb 20 at 21:59
  • 1
    I'm confused by this answer, perhaps I'm lacking context. The answer seems to imply that evolution itself is not "real" and man is culpable. But the premise of the question is that evolution is real, and it asks how christian believers of evolution reconcile the implications. Maybe I've misunderstood the answer?
    – quant
    Feb 21 at 10:45
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    @quant The suffering of animals occurred after God placed them under the control of man. Therefore God’s blame for the suffering is secondary to man’s. The natural change which is observed is a result of God creating animals such that man’s authority over the animals is real. There is an active element to change, things that man does purposely and a passive component, things man unknowingly allows to happen. Example: eating other animals to survive. Had man cared for the earth and animals correctly all life would still be surviving by eating plants. Man’s failed and so had to find food elsewhe Feb 21 at 14:19
  • 1
    Okay, well... that's not the way the majority of people understand "evolutionist" (whether or not you stick "Christian" in front of it). The common understanding is "people that believe in Common Descent", i.e. that humans are descendants of apes, who are descendants of reptiles, who are descendants of fish, who are... By your definition, I, and the folks at e.g. ICR, CMI and AiG are all "evolutionists"; indeed, almost anyone with a bit of curiosity about biology would be an "evolutionist".
    – Matthew
    Feb 21 at 16:39
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+50

Preface

  1. This post will address death & pain separately. Both death without pain and pain without death are possible.

  2. This post will use scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it does not represent official teachings of the church.


Animals have an afterlife

In Revelation chapter 4, John sees a vision of heaven which includes animals. The following are questions Joseph Smith asked, and answers he received from the Lord, which pertain to animals in the afterlife:

2 Q. What are we to understand by the four beasts, spoken of in the same verse? [Revelation 4:6]

A. They are figurative expressions, used by the Revelator, John, in describing heaven, the paradise of God, the happiness of man, and of beasts, and of creeping things, and of the fowls of the air; that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual; the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created.

3 Q. Are the four beasts limited to individual beasts, or do they represent classes or orders?

A. They are limited to four individual beasts, which were shown to John, to represent the glory of the classes of beings in their destined order or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity. (Doctrine & Covenants 77:2-3)

Other animals are not created in the image of God, they are not the children of God, and they are not potential heirs of God, like humans are (for these characteristics of humans, see Romans 8:16-17, Genesis 1:26-27). They are not moral agents in the way that humans are (2 Nephi 2:14,16,26). But they are creations of God (see Genesis 1:20-25). God's creations are not abandoned to this temporary, fallen world (see passage quoted above, also Isaiah 11:6-9, Ezekiel 36:35, Hosea 2:18, 2 Peter 3:13). Jesus Christ overcame this fallen world and through the resurrection rescues all His creations from physical death (rescue from spiritual death is another matter that will not be covered here).

Animals will not inherit everything humans have the capacity to inherit, but they are destined for an afterlife characterized by felicity. The fact that their destiny in God's plan is different from that of humans does not mean that for them there is no purpose and there is no plan.

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Death

To borrow an idea from Albus Dumbledore=), to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

To assume there is no afterlife, and on the basis of that assumption reject the existence of God, is to argue in a circle. This circularity exists whether the subject is the death of humans or the death of animals.

If animals have an afterlife (discussed above), then the arguments that human death is not irredeemably unjust or irreconcilable with a loving God are also applicable to animals. For animals, this mortal life is just a brief stop along a journey. Progressing to the next portion of that journey is not in and of itself inherently bad.

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Addressing a counter-argument

To be sure, if death without suffering were philosophically problematic on its own, the concerns identified in the OP with respect to animals would be equally relevant to plants. I've yet to encounter anyone arguing that a loving God cannot be reconciled with so much death among broccoli.

The hedonistic counter-argument, that the purpose of life is pleasure, which animals can experience (to varying degrees), but plants cannot, is morally bankrupt. It's an awful slippery slope. The extreme to which I have seen this argument taken (I will not share links because I do not wish to give clicks to those espousing this view) includes those who believe that the purpose of life is sexual pleasure. I emphatically reject this shallow, short-sighted, life-deprecating view. It leads to prioritizing one's own temporary pleasure over the well-being of others. Such a view is rejected ethically here and theologically here.

The purpose of life is far more enduring than fleeting fun (see 2 Nephi 2:25-27, Romans 8:16-17, Moroni 7:48). If there is nothing in this world that cannot be improved upon in eternity, death is not at all inconsistent with a loving God.

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An important clarification

This does not mean killing people or animals just to send them on to eternity is good or sanctioned by God. This life is a sacred gift from God. What He gives He can take away (see Job 1:21). Animals were created for the use of man, not the abuse of man (Genesis 1:29, Doctrine & Covenants 104:17-18). Killing innocent humans is condemned by God (see Exodus 20:13).

One of the most significant pieces of progress in human philosophy was recognizing legally what God had already revealed centuries before: life is a God-given, natural human right (Recommended reading includes Richard Hooker, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson, whose world-changing ideals--which they wrote and aspired to but didn't always live up to--were inspired by none other than...the Bible). Taking away human life isn't simply wrong if it inflicts pain, it is man assuming for himself that which is the prerogative of God. God gave man dominion over the animals, not dominion over other men. Murder deprives God's children of valuable learning experiences during the time of probation and preparation that mortal life occupies in the plan of salvation.

If the trials of mortal life were unnecessary, why didn't God just skip over that part and send us all directly to the next step? The development in this life and the receipt of a physical body are fundamental parts of the plan. They are not distractions from eternity, but preparation for eternity.

--

Pain

Purpose of pain

It's tempting to think of pain as inherently bad. But what purpose does pain serve? It can certainly be a memorable instructor. It is also a protection. Pain guides an organism to avoid harmful behavior which can damage or destroy its physical body (e.g. the sharp recoil we exhibit upon feeling the pain of touching boiling water generally prevents prolonged exposure to boiling water, which would cause permanent scarring or death).

If mortal life in a physical body is an important part of God's plan -- even for animals -- then equipping animals with a defense mechanism that clearly warns against harmful behavior promotes the continuation and continuity of life.

From the perspective that animals are given for the use of man, the warning stimuli of pain promote animal survival so they didn't all die off in the first generation, but instead continue to provide sustenance and resources to man on through time.

From the perspective that animals are also on an eternal journey (to be sure, one that differs from the journey humans are on), pain provides protection that promotes the survival of the species, so more animals can obtain physical bodies and progress on that journey that runs through--but does not end with--mortal life.

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Suffering vs. pain

I've focused on pain because suffering is a somewhat murkier term. Certainly "pain" and "suffering" are often used as synonyms, but when we think of human suffering, we generally have something more in mind than just the conscious experience of pain. Fiction which portrays animals exhibiting the full array of conscious thought & experience of humans is misleading. E.g. Finding Nemo tells a great story with valuable lessons, but empathizing with a clownfish (because it is portrayed experiencing human emotions) to the degree that one believes clownfish should have the same rights as humans, is simply confusing fantasy with reality (in any event, the justification for human rights being unique to humans is not our level of cognitive development, but our identity as the offspring of God. Humans with cognitive impairment are just as deserving of human rights).

If suffering is understood to include at a minimum being in pain AND being aware that one is in pain, it is difficult to definitively assess the degree to which animals experience suffering. "Self-awareness" is the variable often used to distinguish between pain and this type of suffering (see discussion here). Some animals do appear to be self-aware; most animals do not (dolphins, elephants, and some primates are strong candidates for self-awareness, but this is not conclusive).

This is not to say animals do not experience pain. A dog and a human exhibit remarkably similar physical and physiological responses to being burned. But psychologically, there is more happening for the human. Thus, some philosophers have defined a distinction between pain (experienced by humans & animals) and suffering (unique to humans and potentially a few animals). I don't believe there's enough data to take a dogmatic position on this issue, but I acknowledge the reasons for distinguishing between pain and suffering.

It does appear that humans are capable of suffering to a degree that most/all animals are not.

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Eternal perspective

One of the most common responses to the existence of human pain is that it is a momentary part of a journey that leads somewhere far better. Experiencing misery (briefly) allows one to prize its absence. If animals have an afterlife characterized by felicity, this response can be applied to animals as well.

Like all of us in this fallen world, animals experience pain. The pain that does not make sense when all we can see is the window of a few years over which it was spread, is cast in a very different light and takes on a different magnitude when the denominator is eternity.

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Death Prior to the Fall

Does believing that evolution of life over many eons is probable require accepting that there was death before the Fall? Not necessarily.

Sections 2 & 3 in this post consider scenarios in which this would not be the case. I do not claim to know the answer on this one, I just don't see any inherent contradiction between a) God created a world in a paradisiacal state without death, and b) after the world exited that paradisiacal state mortal life developed in stages over a number of years (which number may have been large enough that it would have been both meaningless to Moses and impractical for him to try to write it down).

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Conclusion

This mortal life is worthwhile--even for animals--because it is not the destination, it is a step in the journey. If evolution was an effective means to generate progress in that journey, in which temporary pain opened the door to eternal felicity, it is not irreconcilable with a loving God.

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