In one of my last posts I wrote about the awesome beauty and wonder of space. It surely is breath-taking, magnificent, vast and incomprehensibly stunning. I mean, Jupiter’s famous ‘Red Spot’ is a storm, a vortex the size of several earths, which has lasted for at least 3 hundred years – and that’s just a spot on the planet’s surface! And yet, there is something not only ferocious and hostile about space, but also plain lonely and cold. What’s more, this hostility and savagery extends to our Earth. And this raises questions and potential problems for me as a ‘Jesus-follower’. I know it’s not usual to air these questions publicly, especially when you have no water-tight answers yet. But seeing as these things go round my mind a lot anyway, I might as well discuss them with you! My aim in this post and no doubt in future posts, is not to be contentious and deliberately difficult, or to knock down my own faith, but to freely ask questions and allow space to be honest. Who knows, some answers might gradually form.
It seems to me that this Monty Python ‘hymn’ articulates the unease I feel pretty well:
‘All things dull and ugly, all creatures short and squat. All things rude and nasty, the Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons, each little wasp that stings. He made their brutish venom, he made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous, all evil great and small, all things foul and dangerous, the Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet, each beastly little squid. Who made the spikey urchin? Who made the sharks? He did.
All things scabbed and ulcerous, all pox both great and small, putrid, foul and gangrenous, the Lord God made them all.’
-The Fairly Incomplete aand Rather badly illustrated Monty Python Song Book’ (Methuen Publishing Ltd, 1994)
The brilliant and very likeable naturalist, David Attenborough, also once said in an interview,
‘I often get letters…….from people who say they like the programes a lot, but I never give credit to the Almighty Power that created nature. To which I reply and say it’s funny that people, when they say this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things – orchids and humming birds and butterflies and roses. But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball turning him blind before he’s five years old. And I reply and say, ‘well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well, and I find (it) baffling to credit that action to a merciful God….’
Hmmm, starkly put. Not to labour the point, Charles Darwin (who was not a triumphantly anti-God man as is sometimes portrayed, he just wrestled with the truth as he saw it before him and suffered for it) stated ‘what a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature’ and ‘I can not persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars’. The problem to me is a vast one and it doesn’t only cover biological organisms but also such things as earthquakes, volcanoes and other geological hazards. The earth seems to be convulsing from the inside out, though I wholeheartedly affirm the beauty and goodness of much of creation. The odd thing is that the ultimate purpose of nature seems to be ‘to be better than your neighbour at getting genes into future generations, in which those successful genes provide the message that instructs the development of the next generation, in which the message is always ‘exploit your environment, including your friends and relatives, so as to maximise our genes’ success’, in which the closest thing to a golden rule is ‘don’t cheat, unless it is likely to provide a net benefit’ (Biologist, George Williams in Plan and Purpose in Nature (New York: Basic Books, 1996). This seems so at odds with a creator who is supposed to be like Jesus, laying down his life for the sake of others, displaying that ‘power-over’ others is never the way to, or the final result of victory, but rather that ‘power-under’ is. Jesus went around healing, not harming, lifting up the weak and helpless, not saying it’s a good thing if natural selection can kill them off and rid us of their weak genes. That sounds like Hitler.
I know of a few different answers to this problem, none of which ultimately satisfy so far, but I’m always on the look out for other perspectives!
Firstly, in an attempt to minimise the problem and possibly let God off the hook, some people say that animals don’t actually suffer, especially as they’re not conscious and aware of themselves like humans are. This to me seems like a complete cop out and actually makes me quite angry. Ok, an animal may not be able to anticipate and dread its suffering and death like we can, but it may well have nerones very similar to ours which cry out ‘pain, pain, pain’ when stimulated. And you don’t have to be a genius to see that a dog which has been regularly beaten displays fear and trembling as it cowers in a corner. To be honest, even fishing gets me riled up, especially when someone denies that wrenching a creature from its natural environment where it can not breathe such that it is thrashing around with a hook through its jaw, and then smashing its head in on a deck is not in some small way cruel. And yet I’m more than aware that Jesus fished, hung with fishermen, advised them, BBQ’d and ate with them. What’s a girl to do?!
These days it has also been recognised that many animals do have a level of consciousness (many Jews believed that animals had souls). Chipanzees seem to have some ability to think themselves into the position of another. Dolphins recognise themselves in mirrors. Certain crows have a theory of mind. So even the lack of consciousness argument starts to fall down. Besides, this idea doesn’t even begin to address such problems as volcanoes.
Another argument is that there was no other way for God to make the world except as it is. Earthquakes and volcanoes are simply the result of tectonic plates moving about and without this movement, new magma would not rise to the surface and replenish it. It’s possible I suppose. But I’m pretty sure I believe that God could have made an earth that didn’t have to run on magma and didn’t require tectonic plates. Also, surely he could have made some sort of alarm bell to go alongside plates which he could ring every time an earthquake was about to go off?! It seesms unlikely that the universe had to be made this way. There is something to be said for the idea that real good often has to bring with it the possibility of real ‘bad’ by necessity though. for example, if we have nerves that warn us of danger or potential harm then they will also feel, at times excruciating, pain. If we want to be able to swim and splash around in water then we might also drown in it. Maybe some suffering is inevitable in a physical world. Maybe this is how it had to be and it is simply silly to consider natural phenomena ‘evil’, as if they had deliberate intentions to harm.
Others suggest that ‘the end justifies the means’. In otherwords, God wanted the Earth to develop diversity, beauty and intelligence, but the only way to do this was to begin with simple organisms and work through evolution and the process of natural selection. One day the world will reach its potential and glory and then all this killing and overpowering will have served its purpose and will be able to cease. But, once again, if I have learned anything from Jesus, it’s that the end does not justify the means. You don’t bring about God’s peaceable Kingdom on earth by violent aggression and fighting. This just keeps the evil in operation, it feeds it. This is precisely what Jesus was saying when his disciple Peter tried to defend him against a Roman soldier and cut off the soldier’s ear. Jesus emphatically said, ‘no, put away your sword. This is not how we do things in my kingdom. If you live by the sword you’ll die by the sword’. By going to the cross Jesus absorbed all that hatred, aggression and violence without paying back in kind. He broke the cycle at the highest level. His means brought the right ends. So no, even if only 1 child has to suffer and die to build a Utopia, it’s not worth it.
Another idea is that the world (in fact the whole universe) has become the way it is because God holds strongly to free will. And not just free will for human choices (which surely accounts for a vast amount, but nowhere near all, of suffering) but also free will for nature itself. This may sound crazy, but it has to be said that the God of the bible seems to like delegating, he’s very social! In the Genesis creation stories God says ‘let the earth put forth vegetation….and bring forth creatures of every kind’ and ‘let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures’. It’s as if he’s asking creation itself to do it. In his interesting and honest book, ‘The Selfless Gene’, Charles Foster writes that when God is issuing commands to create the earth in the Genesis accounts, creation seems to respond in ever more disobedient ways. He also makes the point that the author of Genesis would have been very aware that he (or she?!) was communicating this point deliberately. When God says ‘Let light be’ (Hebrew translation), ‘light be’ is what comes back. When God then says ‘Grass grass’, the response this time is the earth ‘put forth grass’. The slight discrepancy/’disobedience’ grows such that when God asks the waters to ‘bring forth the water animals’ , we do not hear that this is what happens. It seems that God is forced to create directly, where he wasn’t before: ‘So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm’. There is the possibility that creation and nature itself had some form of freedom from the beginning and didn’t necessarily develop in the way intended by God. Whilst I don’t dismiss this idea, and you may find it quite compelling, it does seem tenuous to me. Firstly, I think it is stretching the text somewhat (although I’m not genius enough to be able to analyse the Hebrew) and possibly reading more into it than is wise. But secondly, it seems incredible that God could have considered the freedom of nature so important that it should be allowed to generate such horrific suffering caused by all manner of bacteria, parasites, earthquakes and hurricanes to say the least. What would be the point? In what way would we be understanding the consciousness, and thus free choice, of nature? Sometimes people seem to think that nature isn’t all that bad, as if it’s not really gone too far off track. I love John Polkinghorne’s response, that we sometimes imagine ‘evil’ as the wasp that is buzzing around, spoiling the otherwise lovely picnic. Humbly he says ‘in reality, there is more wasp than lemonade’ at the picnic of the earth, and he is a committed Christian and Scientist!
But, apart form our frequent sense that nature is hostile and out of wack when truly exposed to it, the bible does seem to support this too. For starters, I’m intrigued by the food laws for the Jews in Leviticus. George Caird notes, ‘among creatures which the Levitical code declares to be unclean….are all the beasts and birds of prey….are we not dealing here with a naive expression of the idea that nature red in tooth and claw has in some measure escaped the control of the divine holiness?’ All blood had to be drained out from meat before it was eaten because the ‘life’ was considered to be in the blood. Going through that difficult, messy process would surely remind the Jews of God’s original intention that blood should not be spilled at all.
Even earlier, in the beginning, God gave Adam and Eve and all the animals every plant to eat. It is very clear in the text and considering God gives very little instruction at this point, I reckon this detail is quite important. It’s only after they have eaten of the tree they’re not supposed to that some animals get killed to create coverings for Adam and Eve’s newly recognised nakedness. It’s like their wrong-doing has meant something else has had to suffer. Then after the flood (by the way, yes, that is a difficult story to explain too, don’t ask me at this point!) God seems to make a concession and specifically gives permission for animals to eat eachother. But it is a concession. Later on, Isaiah describes what the kingdom of God is going to be like when it finally comes, when things are set right again. He evokes images of wolves, lambs and lions all lying down and grazing with eachother, children playing with snakes and there being ‘no killing on my holy hill’. I understand that this is imagery to show peace, and that the bible is not meant to be taken as a scientific text book, but sometimes I feel the ‘literalness’ of such passages can be dismissed too lightly (perhaps because we like our steaks too much?!). I also know that it raises heaps of questions like ‘won’t the earth get over-run by animals and pests if we don’t eat them? What would a vegetarian lion even look like as so much of a lion has developed to be a predatory killing machine’? I don’t know, but I fully believe God’s kingdom will contain no violence and that includes violence towards and among animals. (This is also, incidentally, why I’m unapologetically vegetarian-call me a sappy hippy if you like!) The odd thing is that in Genesis, when God comands the anials to eat only green plants, the author then puts ‘and it was so’. But surely the author of Genesis was perfectly aware that it was not so. I mean, he had seen how lions hunt and kill, he lived in the real world, he wasn’t stupid. So after all, it seems that creation and Eden are not so much scientific or even historical accounts as a prophetic picture of God’s dream for the world, a ‘statement of original intention and eventual outcome’. I remember Roger Forster preaching exactly along these lines some years ago, emphasising especially God’s rest on the last day as a symbolic picture of the world finally entering God’s kingdom and fulfilled rest in the future. Charles Foster again: ‘The Genesis story of universal vegetarianism tells us not that lions ever ate cucumbers but that God’s reaction to animal pain is the same as ours is, or should be: He is disgusted. He created a world that worked – that was very good in that sense. The verdict ‘very good’ is pronounced on the placid, vegetarian world. He would never have said that about the Ngorongoro Crater. Nor, from what we can see in Genesis, would he ever have endorsed, let alone designed, an engine for continued, evolving creation which was necessarily fuelled by pain, selfishness and waste.’ Don’t get me wrng, I believe in the process of evolution by natural selection, just not that it was God’s intended plan.
So why does it exist? Why does the natural order seem to operate in this way? Christians have always been quick to say ‘it’s because of the fall of man. We disobeyed and that caused not only us to fall but corrupted the whole of nature too. Death came into existence’. I don’t see how any honest, thinking person can still hold the view that before human beings the natural world was perfect. Ok, I know that’s harsh and maybe arrogant and one day I may be put in my place! But, looking at the genuine evidence of all the fossils, of dinosaur teeth and claws, of age old volcanoes, it’s clear that hostility, violence, pain and death have been around for millions of years, way before humans ever graced this planet.
There is one answer/theory that so far seems vaguely plausible and that many theologians hold to. This is the idea that before humans ever were created, other created, spiritual beings (?angels?) used their free will to rebel against God, his plans and intentions. Michael Lloyd suggests that the spiritual realm is so connected to the physical that the spiritual rebellion caused a hugely destructive disruption in the physical world too and distorted the intended development of nature even before humans were around. After all, there is no explanation or apology given for the presence of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Where did he come from if everything was so perfect? Something had obviously already gone wrong. Interestingly, when God explains the curse that humans have brought to the world in their rebellion, he says that Eve’s childbearing will be MORE painful than it would have been, suggesting it would have come with some pain anyway. Is it possible that creation had already become messed up, chaotic, or at least lifeless and that what God did in Genesis was to bring order out of this chaos in one small part of the earth, the Garden of Eden? This little pocket was a microcosm of how God wanted the whole earth to become. This is why God tells humans to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’. Well, you can’t subdue something that isn’t soewhat unruly and in need of subduing, can you?! Maybe humans were intended to learn how to tend and care for the earth in the garden and spread this life and care to the whole earth, so undoing the preceding evil. When they disobeyed and ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, maybe they effectively were saying ‘no’ to this task and consequently the rest of the world was never subdued? Maybe. This idea becomes most intriguing (I think) when you realise that Jesus was the one who came to fulfil the vocation that Adam, Eve and all of us failed to carry out. Watching him, you can see what that vocation was supposed to look like, you see a truly human being. And Jesus spent every day warring against the things that ravage creation, including sickness, death and even, yes even, storms. I remember when I first heard a favourite pastor (Greg Boyd) say that the word Jeus shouted to calm the stor was the same word he used to command demons. He said ‘be muzzled’ as if the storm and nature had some kind of personal life to it, or at least behind it. He obviously considered this particular storm ‘evil’. Now, this is just a suggestion and again, there are days when it sees totally plausible and days when I think it’s stretching things more than just a bit. I wonder to myself how we ever would have fixed the problem of animal predation or storms by following God’s way, but then I hear strange stories of St Francis of Assissi and the deep connection he shared with animals, how they trusted him and stayed near him. And I think just maybe we all could have had this effect. Tbh, I don’t even know what I make of angels! These are just some ideas and thoughts about this topic, and even if they don’t all fit together, I think there are some glimmers of light and some wisdo buried amongst the many words. I’m sure my mind will continue to chug away on this for any years to come.
If you’re at all interested in this subject then some resources I have used include:
‘The Selfless Gene’ by Charles Foster (2009) HHodder & Stoughton
‘Cafe Theology’ chapter 2 by Michael Lloyd (2009) Alpha International
‘Satan and the Problem’ of Evil and ‘God at War’ by Gregory Boyd
various sermons preached by Gregory Boyd, found at http://www.whchurch.org/content/page_26.htm On the right are the seron archives and particularly relevant ones are 01/02/2005 ‘Being the Kingdo in a Groaning Creation’, 15/07/2007 ‘A War-Torn Creation’, 22/07/07 ‘Lessons on the Battlefield’. There was also one recently (2010) called ‘Let it Go.