Animal Predation and the Problem of Theodicy

There is a great theological dilemma with theistic evolution that biblical literalists have been quick to cite as reason why the true fideles must embrace young earth creationism. This dilemma is the problem of theodicy, or defending God’s character in the face of evil. How could a loving God use as his method of creation a mechanism as cruel as natural selection, which requires massive amounts of suffering, predation and death? “The face of Nature,” Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, “may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.” Is there any way to reconcile this picture of creation “by incessant blows” with the picture of a loving God we find in the biblical creation narrative?

The problem of theodicy arises, however, not only for theistic evolutionists. The theological hurdles, I have concluded, may in fact be much higher for biblical literalists. I am not referring now to the problem of human suffering, which literalist readings of scripture take to staggering new heights when we turn to the books of Joshua and Judges (in which God is said to have orchestrated the genocides of entire tribes in order to make room for the Israelites to occupy the land of Canaan). I am thinking, rather, of the problem that animal predation and suffering poses for literalist readings of Genesis taken on their own terms.

The dilemma is this: entirely apart from the scientific evidence for predation before the emergence of human beings, we are confronted all around us by the plain fact of animals killing in order to survive. The natural world is filled with creatures that are anatomically “designed”—in their internal organs, their instincts, and their physical structures—to exist by consuming other creatures. One might even describe some of these animals as irreducibly predatory (think Great White sharks, Nile crocodiles, and bamboo vipers). And yet these animals play a vital role in the cycles of life. How, then, did these creatures arise?

One can imagine three possible replies to this riddle that would conform to highly literalistic interpretations of Genesis, but none, it seems to me, are theologically coherent and each raise baffling questions about God’s character. I call attention to these problems not in order to criticize the faiths of sincere believers but to challenge the pretentions to absolute certainty and authority that some literalists evince in discussions over creation and evolution. The plain fact is that the problem of theodicy, in the light of animal predation, cannot be resolved simply by appealing to a literal creation week or to Adam’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. Here are some of the reasons why.

Three Possible Explanations for Animal Predation

Possibility One: After humanity’s rebellion, God gave the natural world over to natural laws of competitive rivalry, self-interest, chance, and death, so that over time the instinctual behaviors, internal organs, and physical structures of animals radically evolved, turning numerous creatures into the predators we see today. The theological trouble with this account, however, is that God is now conceived as a divinity who consigns countless morally innocent creatures to suffering and death without any ability to comprehend the meaning of their own suffering and for no redemptive purpose as far as the animals themselves are concerned (since presumably there is no heaven for either repentant tigers or their hapless prey). The Creator therefore remains no less implicated in the harsh facts of nature than in a theistic evolutionary paradigm, and possibly even more so. According to some versions of theistic evolution, animal predation is part of a purposeful arc that reveals a redemptive pattern or plan for all of creation from an early state of chaos and predation; whereas for literalist readers of Genesis, predation cannot be grasped as “the birth pangs of creation” but must be seen as the result of God’s decision to abandon the natural world to the ravages of sin.

Further, the very evolutionary mechanism that literalists sought to dispense with has ironically been reintroduced as a potent, creative force capable of generating entirely new species in a remarkably short time (since most literalists date the creation of all of life to approximately six to ten thousand years ago). But where is the scientific evidence for this massive postlapsarian evolution? And why should Adam’s disobedience have required placid, plant-eating fish to be rapidly transformed into Great White sharks stalking the oceans in search of seals to be devoured in dark places where no human eye ever falls? What kind of loving God would allow or require this to happen?

Possibility Two: After the fall of humanity, God miraculously modified the entire animal kingdom as a punishment for Adam’s sin, creating the predators we see today fully equipped with sharp incisors, talons, and claws, and digestive tracts capable of processing only meat. This answer neatly avoids the scientific difficulties of the first explanation by instructing us to simply have faith in God’s creative power to do anything according to his sovereign will. Under this schema, unfortunately, all of the theological problems of Possibility One are retained and amplified. Instead of a natural process helping to explain the finely tuned balance between life and death that we observe in biological existence, God himself is now seen as the active designer of every adaptation to shred, tear, dismember, and digest an organism’s prey. But what kind of Creator would punish human rebellion by bending the rest of his creation into so many malign forms, supernaturally summoning into existence the snake’s venom and the wasp’s sting?

Possibility Three: God did not miraculously create animal predation after the fall, nor did predation arise over time as a result of natural or evolutionary laws. Rather, the destruction and violence we see in the natural world are the material results of cosmic spiritual war. The great predators in the food chain are perhaps even the products of demonic biological experimentation. An enemy has done this. Yet what do arguments such as these of diabolical counter-creation as an explanation for the shadow side of the natural world say about God? Why would a Creator who permitted satanic intervention in nature on such a colossal scale—and who then required us to deny our reason, observations and senses on fideistic grounds in order to hold on to this conclusion at any cost—be more worthy of our trust and love than a God who permitted evolution to unfold according to natural laws we can partially observe and comprehend? Does this way of resolving the immediate problem of animal suffering offer any kind of constructive long-term approach to reconciling faith and science? And are we at this point in fact still within the fold of orthodox faith? Or have we now entered the realm of Gnostic speculations that give far greater creative power to forces of satanic agency than scripture ever does?

Return of the Don: C.S. Lewis's Alternative Speculative Theodicy

But if an appeal to cosmic conflict themes and diabolical agency is the literalists’ “best” answer to the problem of theodicy insofar as God is absolved of any direct role in animal predation and we are absolved of any need to seriously attend to the scientific evidence (since the entire riddle can now simply be chalked up to the devil’s handiwork), another question arises: Why should literalists object if we offer an alternative speculative theodicy of our own—also drawing on cosmic conflict motifs to explain animal predation—however in an evolutionary key? The theological and scientific advantages to such a move might be great since this would allow for us to deal in a less defensive and more intellectually honest way not only with animal predation in the present but also with the scientific evidence for a very old earth, for animal carnivorousness before humans, and for a great deal of common ancestry among organisms.

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis offers one such account. The first step in his response to the problem of animal predation/suffering is to make clear that anything we say on the subject will be highly speculative since the inner lives of animals remain a great mystery to us. We must also carefully distinguish, Lewis points out, between sentience and consciousness. A sentient creature might pass through a series of discrete sensory states N, A, P, and I. But a conscious creature is able to in some sense stand outside of its own sensations and connect them together as an experience: P-A-I-N. A conscious creature, in other words, has selfhood. It is quite possible, then, that there is no pain or suffering—and so no problem of theodicy—in lower order creatures that are sentient but not “conscious.” “It may be we who have invented the ‘sufferers’ by the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of reading into the beasts a self for which there is no real evidence.”

To this preliminary observation of Lewis’s we might add another closely related one. Biblical literalists and neo-Darwinians alike have often burdened evolution with adjectives such as “cruel,” “vicious” and “selfish.” Yet these descriptions, we must see, are projections of human moral value onto nature that on closer examination might not be at all legitimate to make—at least not for predatory or evolutionary processes tout court. When an eagle catches a salmon out of a river to feed to its young, is it correct to describe the event as “vicious” and “selfish”? Or is it we who have invented not only the suffering of the fish by the pathetic fallacy as Lewis described, but also the “cruelty” of the eagle through the fallacy of reading into all forms of predation a kind of moral egoism for which there is no real evidence either?

It is, nevertheless, very hard to imagine that all animals are merely sentient and not conscious. We do not know at what stage in the ladder of animal development or by what process (natural or supernatural, insofar as the distinction can be made) sentient creatures become conscious beings. But we have good reasons to believe that primates and other higher order mammals such as elephants and dogs have experiences of pain and suffering analogous to our own—as well as a capacity for cruelty. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson has presented compelling evidence for animal emotions ranging from fear to grief to joy to shame to rage to compassion. The evolution of lower order non-conscious creatures, then, might be conceived as a process that does not involve either suffering or cruelty, which would take us a long way toward answering the problem of theodicy in theistic evolutionary perspective. But we still sense in much of the destructiveness of nature and in the suffering of higher order animals that the problem of evil has touched not only humanity but the animal world as well. God’s good creation is fallen.

On the Need for Faithful Agnosticism

Lewis’s way of dealing with this fact is not to offer a general scientific theory or a dogmatic reading of scripture based upon wooden literalism (an approach to interpreting the Bible that Jacques Ellul described as a “paper pope” and “an arrested system that cannot avoid being scholastic in intellectual form”). Instead, Lewis cautiously recalls—with what might be described as faithful agnosticism on the deepest riddles of the creation—certain Dominical, Pauline, and Johannine references to the first creature to rebel against the Creator. The problem of evil, orthodox Christianity has long maintained, predates human existence. The Garden of Eden, in the highly mythopoetic and enigmatic language of scripture, is created with the tree of knowledge of good and evil already at its center. After humanity’s rebellion, Adam and Eve are expelled from this same Garden into a larger, more hostile world. It is thus entirely possible in orthodox perspective to think of the animal world as having been potentially corrupted or fallen before the appearance of humans.

“If this hypothesis is worth considering,” Lewis writes, “it is also worth considering whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform…It may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.”

Lewis’s imaginative and speculative theodicy—essentially a creative mining of the “great controversy” theme—leaves many questions unanswered and so will prove unsatisfying to both biblical literalists and thoroughgoing materialists alike, who share a common zeal for constructing airtight systems of knowledge that leave no room for ambiguity, perplexity, incongruence, or mystery in our worldviews. The Lewis approach has the great advantage, though, of relieving us of an oppressive burden: the burden of knowing. We have a great deal of evidence for evolutionary processes at work in nature. We know in biblical perspective that this is not the entire story. We do not fully know what Genesis means or how to resolve the problem of animal suffering in the light of both the biblical narrative and the scientific evidence. We also do not know all that God has and has not permitted to unfold from the beginning of time in his universe. There might be principles of freedom at work in the natural world no less than the human that we are not aware of, and wherever there is freedom there is also the possibility of evil. This might have much to do with the evidences for evolution scientists have recorded.

Thankfully, we do not need to have complete answers to these questions in order to have faith. The exhausted but interminable conflict between "faith and science" arises only for those who have conceived Genesis as a kind of systema naturae (which they have fully comprehended) that must now be used to coordinate all scientific knowledge on the one hand, and those who have embraced the scientific method as a kind of new revelation that can be used to map all of reality on the other. But there are other creative and faithful ways of reading Genesis and of thinking about the challenge of animal predation for our understanding of God’s character as a good and loving Creator.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1966

I want to thank you for giving this answer to this riddle regarding the predatory nature of our world. It is a mystery that I find very challenging. Though, you did not come to any definite conclusions, I don’t think I wanted to hear more airtight theories that you mentioned in your article. I enjoyed reading your critique of current theories but more appreciated your intellectual honesty and eloquence. Ironic how no answer that I have read for several years has satisfied me as much as your answer, which still left many questions remaining.

How can we be certain from reading the creation account and fall, that the animal world was not created predatory originally? Where is the evidence that animal’s predatory nature changed after sin? Animals cannot sin but the ground was cursed making it difficult for man to cultivate, but that was man’s curse.

Can we know which animals suffer physical pain and those that apparently do not? Photos of lions killing antelopes who make no sound, only try to get away from the predator and struggle. But it is instinctual for them to preserve life, or do they really experience physical pain without crying out?

Surely, experts in animal life should be able to offer some explanations.

Very interesting questions. Theoretically, I would nod my head that we don’t know an animal’s state of mind. That changed when I got a puppy 5 years ago. I read books that I had to show my dominance as I also tried to house train the dog. On one instance, I cornered the dog in a threatening manner in my misguided attempt to train the dog. The little dog crawled to my feet making whimpering sounds. I understood that as a clear communication that the dog had no idea why I was being mean. After that, I basically let the dog do whatever she wanted to do. She feels pain, fear, joy and loneliness. She is also house broken which came about without any effort to train - just have to walk the dog. As far as which animals feel pain - that should be clearly answered by anatomy & physiology. The physical bodies of humans have similar anatomies to several other animals. I think we differ in our consciousness that may not always be associated to our physical bodies. But who really knows the consciousness and awareness of other animals because we don’t have philosophical discussions with other species.

Sorry, I was going off in a tangent. Yes, I agree that the design of the animal kingdom in this reality seems to have always been predatory in nature. Also, never understood the purpose for dinasours in the creation scheme of things. Something happened long ago that we don’t have clear answers. I do believe in Adam & Eve and the first sin. As far as the animal kingdom, I do know that God loves all his creation, because Noah was saved from the flood as well as the other animals.