Incomprehensible Animal Suffering


Hey Biologos forum. This is my first post. It relates mainly to parasitic wasps.

I don’t see an issue with animal death or the problem of evil generally, but some things in nature seem totally incompatible with a merciful God. For instance, some wasps can lay eggs inside a caterpillar host, the larvae would eat its way out, and somehow turn the injured caterpillar into their mind-controlled slave to protect them. The enslaved caterpillar eventually dies of starvation.

Other wasps can turn their spider hosts into slaves that build a web for them before the wasp eats the spider. Some worms invade snails and let birds eat their eyes to pass on new generations. Some fungi can possess ants and make them latch onto grass until they die.

Again, I don’t see a problem with animal death in general or the problem of evil. This, however, seems far too terrifying to reconcile with what Scripture tells us about God. The psalmist found wonder in God providing all the animals with food (Ps. 104:21;27), but how would he respond if he knew about these parasitic wasps and worms? What are your thoughts

Warning: Do not watch while eating.

(Christy Hemphill) #2

Hey, welcome to the forum!

My friends’ baby almost died last week from roundworms combined with a bacterial infection. All parasites are hard to understand and reconcile with God’s goodness. And what’s up with viruses like Ebola? Or genetic disorders like Tay-Sachs.

I don’t know what you mean by not seeing a problem with the problem of evil. It looks to me like parasitic wasps are part of the problem of evil. It’s called the problem of evil, because people don’t have any answers that perfectly resolve the tension between God’s power and goodness in the face of things like parasitic wasps. I don’t have any good answers either, but I tell myself it comes down to freedom in nature. (It’s similar to the idea of why did God give us free will if he knew we would use it destructively.) It must be that in God’s plan, a natural world that has the freedom to develop and adapt, even in competitive ways that result in harm to/destruction of some life, is better than a world that doesn’t have that freedom.

And I think David spent some time expressing his feelings of depression and despair over the injustice and pain that he saw in the world. We’re allowed to do the same.

(Phil) #3

We often project our feelings into these types of natural situations, anthropomorthising them and seeing them as evil, yet take pleasure in swatting a mosquito, just trying to get a few nutrients for its babies to be. I think it is something fairly new as we are separated from the nitty gritty of life as we shop in supermarkets, with plastic wrap separating us from the residual blood shed by the animal that died for our meal. I do not not think catapillars and insects :ant: have nervous systems that feel pain as we do. Even for us, pain is important protective adaptation, so is bad only when it’s purpose is twisted.
Even telling myself that, it is still difficult to comprehend how it fits with a loving God, but could it be any other way? Both beast and man return to dust as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, but thankfully Christ conquered death for us.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #4

Hey! And welcome! And wonderful way to start I’d say :sunglasses:

Have you been reading Darwin lately?

He too wondered in a letter to Asa Gray (note: Asa’s response has not been found as of yet)–

I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot 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, or that a cat should play with mice

Here is an interesting series from the main BL site:

(Edward T Babinski) #5

Figs = dead incestuous wasp babies

The fig is not a fruit but an inverted flower completely covered by overprotective plant skin all round. A female “fig wasp” carrying fig pollen enters the fig (sometimes loosing its wings and antennae in the process), lays its eggs, dies. Newly hatched male and female wasps mate, males dig hole to outside for females to escape from the fig. Females pick up pollen while inside the fig, then they fly off. Fig absorbs the original female wasp and the male offspring that remain.

Humans have to keep male and female fig trees distant from one another and limit the number of fig wasps released (in bags on certain trees) otherwise too many female wasps get into the fig and it winds up breaking open after too many eggs are laid inside it, which is great for the fig tree’s reproductive cycle but not for human consumption.

Most dried figs once had wasps inside them. But fresh figs not so much. The fig tree requires pollination otherwise it simply drops its figs before they ripen, because unpollinated figs are a burden on the tree’s resources and are jettisoned.

(Edward T Babinski) #6

The Designer or Tinkerer, or whatever name you choose, sure knows how to invent creatures to bite and tear or debilitate other creatures.

I guess the Designer got bored with designing flies that just laid their eggs on excrement or on a dead carcass or on decaying vegetable matter (Iʼm not sure about the last one, but the designer could probably invent flies who did just that). Instead he had to design flies whose maggots lived and bred in an annoying fashion in the flesh of squirrels.

The Screw worm fly of Africa has to find a wound in the flesh of a cow or human being and lays its eggs there (since itʼs tiny mouth canʼt bite through the skin of the animals it lays its eggs upon). The eggs hatch and the maggots develop biting parts that allow them to burrow deeper and gorge themselves on their host, be it cow or man. They often bore into the lungs or even the brain, and the cow or human being dies. Oh that Designer!

(Edward T Babinski) #7

In what sense did the Almighty know about and agree to include in His creation all the diseases that kill or cripple children and crops, and cause sorrow and starvation?

Think of the banquet of woes God bestowed on humans, animals and plants, throughout earth history and human history.

Just considering human history note that till the late 1800s about half of all children died before reaching the age of eight. And even today, half or more of all successfully fertilized human eggs (i.e., zygotes) either pass out of the female’s body without successful implantation or they perish in the fallopian tubes or uterus. And even after the zygote stage a percentage of embryos and fetuses perish spontaneously (also look up “vanishing twin syndrome” where one twin is absorbed by the other or by the uterine walls—something we hadnʼt noticed until ultra-sound was invented, some estimate that perhaps a quarter of all single children used to be twins in the womb), and women used to perish in childbirth far more often in the past than now. So it looks like modern medical science is denying us a bounteous blessing of woes that God bestowed on our ancestors. Or maybe we just live in the happy interim period after many of the old woes were conquered via human ingenuity, but God or His creation is busy coming up with new ones as we speak?

Didn’t some Christians in the past defend the pain and deadliness of childbirth, or small pox, malaria, and TB—all of which killed hundreds of millions in their heyday, and continue to kill many today? Didn’t they simply claim it was part of God’s inscrutable plan? While other Christians may have even applauded such horrors by preaching that everyone, due to Original Sin, deserved such painful temporal earthly horrors, or worse—deserved horrific eternal pains, of which such temporal horrors were merely a foretaste. Such preaching may have even induced repentance and increased church membership. Ingenious ad hoc, post hoc, reasoning in both cases. At best, isn’t one left with more questions than definitive answers?

(Edward T Babinski) #8

One also cannot help but notice that there are hermit species and social species, herbivores and carnivores, animals that mate for life, others that live to mate… and some that eat their mates. In nature thereʼs also mothers who eat their sons and daughters, fathers who kill other fatherʼs children, daughters who eat their mothers, sons that mate with their mothers, and brothers and sisters who kill and/or devour each other in the womb. For examples see here

Nature is basically one big buffet. Sometimes they eat you to death, or weaken you to death, sometimes they live off your juices just a little and are relatively benign, and sometimes they produce juices you can eat too (i.e., symbiosis — like the way we breathe the farts of algae and trees). But basically nature is constantly grinding up old organisms and spitting out new ones. Not sure what kind of weird Designer or Tinkerer came up with such a scheme.

(Edward T Babinski) #9

There is also a species of parasitical wasp that seeks out caterpillars that already have been injected with eggs of a rival,species, and it lays its eggs inside those caterpillars, and their young eat the other wasp’s young.

Listen to the following podcast:

The Dexter of Parasites: Yes, in the same way Dexter preyed on other serial killers, parasitic organisms are targeted by parasites as well. Join Robert and Julie as they discuss the world of hyperparasites.

(Edward T Babinski) #10

I posted some thoughts and questions below, similar to yours. You might especially like The Dexter of Parasites, a podcast on Stuff to Blow Your Mind to which I included a link. Unfortunately, I was working from a small screen, and posted my replies to others, didn’t scroll all the way back up to your original comment before replying to it directly. Oops.

(Edward T Babinski) #11

My apologies, I meant to reply to the original comment at the top of the page, was working on a small screen, didn’t scroll backwards far enough before posting my comment.

(Edward T Babinski) #12

Oops, I meant to reply to the original comment at the top of the page, was working on a small screen, didn’t scroll backwards far enough before posting my comment.

(Randy) #13

Thanks for your thoughts. I think they are well put. Denis Lamoureux has an interesting discussion in his Coursera course about “horrid natural realities.” Science is fascinating like that–we are all learning both new wonderful and horrible things about the universe. It reminds me of the poem of the Blind Men and the Elephant–although some of the time, I spend more time examining the south end of the elephant than the north. Neither is the less amazing for our own responses.

I don’t know the answer to all of your excellent questions. I think that the honesty of the folks on this blog is refreshing. Thanks for your thoughts.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #14

Parasites have always posed an interesting challenge to my mind too, not just as a Christian but even just as any general thinker at large, evolutionary outlook or not. I’m not a life-sciences expert of any kind, but do enjoy learning what I can.

To that end, I really enjoyed Dawkins’ book “Climbing Mt. Improbable”. I think it is in that book that he devotes at least a chapter to the fig wasp and its bizarre relationship to the fig trees that it is co-dependent with (which I guess means that relationship isn’t strictly parasitical). But in any case, I’m not quite convinced we have the whole story when we easily label things as parasites (read: “the world would be better off without these things in our personal view”). I was surprised to learn, for example, that mosquitoes are apparently among the useful plant pollinators. I remember my dad refusing to make use of the back-yard electric mosquito zappers so many of our neighbors had because he thought of the birds that feed on mosquitos. In short, there doesn’t seem to be any thread in nature that we could pull on (or out as some 100% only bad thing) that wouldn’t in some way mess with and affect the whole enterprise in many unintended ways (especially long-term). I know believers can hide behind that opaque curtain and always say “well, we can’t see God’s bigger plan”. And that does become a rather useless foil of personal convenience for us to disregard some things we don’t wish to deal with, while we mount crusades about other things that do trigger our emotions. You sound like you have some history of wrestling with this already yourself.

While I find Dawkin’s anti-theological musings to be weak at best, I think his scientific descriptions are brilliantly communicated and very educational. Even as a believer, I enjoy the scientific education he provides along the way.

[added edit]
I had meant to add above that, reacting to your “what kind of creator would do all this” question … none of us will probably give any satisfying responses to those who want every understanding nailed down and defined (and often in scientific terms, no less). If Job couldn’t get “satisfaction” in that regard, we probably aren’t going to either. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to at least put forward plausible possibilities. One quick answer is that you or I wouldn’t be here having this discussion if the world did not include the massive death of so many organisms (and people!) prior to us whose existences now make our existence possible. Death appears to be “built-in” in that sense, which doesn’t make any YECs happy, but it sounds like none of us here feel too beholden to their views anyway. So the forced humility of knowing that I will one day return to dust is not made that much worse by throwing a few worms, maggots, and parasites into the mix too. Tomorrow’s top soil will, Lord willing, nourish tomorrow’s plants, and then people too as we all face that same inevitability together. The God who doesn’t deem a cross to be beneath his reach of experience should have at least some inspiration for us in that regard (I should think!) that we have misplaced ambitions if we think we ourselves should somehow be above such a fate. My take as a Christian is that we don’t get to go around the cross to try to reach the desired redemption on the other side. We are obliged to go right to it, and through it. I could say more, but perhaps this has been enough of a ramble without knowing more about your situation.

You can find articles on Biologos about this by clicking the search glass on the home page and putting in words like “theodicy” or “evil”. Among all that you might find here, you might try this one by George Murphy that addresses some of these issues … or you could try his book “The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.”

(George Brooks) #15

I propose that the Old Testament writers (or at least a branch or family of them), thought God had the right to wreak havoc and horridness wherever he needed it.

All these references to wasps seem well and good… but really, there is more than enough of this in the bird kingdom!

There are several species of bird where the design is for one well-fed chick to survive. To wit: the strongest ablest of the chicks systematically works to weaken and eject his nest mates from the nest. The film I saw presented (2 or 3 chicks in the nest). And by the end of the sequence, the biggest baddest chick had literally pushed his brothers/sisters out of the nest - - falling some 10 or 20 yards the forest floor below. The parents made no effort to feed the refugee - - assuming the refugee survived the fall.

And really, we don’t even need to venture to the non-human animal kingdom: Exodus will do nicely.

  1. The Pharaoh is tempted to agree to the terms of Moses.
  2. But God has hardened the heart of Pharaoh.
  3. God tells Moses to warn Pharaoh of the last terrible plague - - the death of all Egypt’s first born.
  4. Moses tells Pharaoh.
  5. Pharaoh rejects the plea of Moses, again, because God has hardened his heart.
  6. God brings the destroyer (which may or may not have been associated with the Full Moon), and kills the first born of all Egypt, including the first born cattle and the first born of the domestic slaves (for those not protected by the blood sign on the doorways).

One might rationalize that God doesn’t pay much attention to the non-human animal kingdom. But here we have God setting up thousands of giant bowling pins, with humans tied (metaphysically) to each bowling pin. Then God says, one last chance… are you going to accept Moses’ terms? Pharaoh, tied to the leading pin, is about to accept the terms… when God “hardens his heart” and shuts him up.

Hearing no words assenting to the reverse Mafia “deal that nobody can refuse”, God throws multiple strikes down the lane… until thousands of pins, with their first born bound to them… are destroyed. Pharaoh and his pin have not been hit, because he is not firstborn. Pharaoh is distraught, confused, and becoming increasingly more bitter and angry.

Then God turns to Moses: “Uh-oh… you better get going!”

Now this is drama!


Good questions, no easy answers. Intelligent Design goes so far to say that God some intelligent designer deliberately made the malaria parasite resistant to chloroquine, a drug developed to kill it. The thing is, these diseases disproportionately affect the poor and the weak. And the non-believer Bill Gates is spending a fortune trying to find a cure for malaria. What is going on here?

btw, an excellent book on parasites is Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer.

(Randy) #17

I also enjoyed Survival of the Sickest.


Have you ever heard of mercy or blessing in disguise? I think @Mervin_Bitikofer nailed it when he said Job couldn’t figure it out either, so neither will we know, but we are to trust. And if we were all to trust Him, none of these would seem like woes.

As far as human suffering goes, It gets really philosophical to guess why. What is the point of our life, what is our main function? If it is to carry on with our vocation of subduing the earth and ruling over the animals, helping others do the same, and using the gifts God blessed us with to help others and our vocation, and all of that is done do give God the glory and show the glory of God to the universe, then “pain” can be looked at in such a different light.

What is suffering? In light of the purpose above, suffering is not living your function. So anything that would drive you back to living that, would actually be a blessing. When you work out, you feel pain, and that pain makes your stronger. When you go through a tough time, and God brings you through it, you feel closer to Him, and can help others get through there tough times.

Some random guy kills your child, or breaks a leg. If you now know, that you need to lean on God more as He was the only thing that will ever fulfill you, then that was a blessing. I wouldn’t tell that to a mourning parent or the guy in the hospital getting a cast on. There is a time for mourning, there are rough seas to ride out. But there is a calm at the end of the storm, and there is a time for reflecting and growing closer to God, and living our purpose better. If this can bring you closer to God, knock off some more stone on your heart, to love this murdering in spite of what he did to you, because your Father loves you in spite of what you do, you can now share some of this love and maybe soften some more hearts in your life and shine the light of God to others and save many more lives than your one child.

Gold is purified with fire. If gold could suffer, it would not enjoy that, but it’s purpose is to be pure and shiny, conduct well ect., and the intense heat brings about its purity. So fire is actually good, pain is good, suffering is good, if it is helping to bring about your purpose.

It takes a change of mind, a renewing of your mind that only the Spirit can bring. Prior to the Spirit, we are too narrow minded. We don’t like pain, and we see others in pain and don’t like that as well, which is empathetic. Some times even something as ‘good’ as empathy can be perverted into breeding hate inside us to prevent/stop the evil, in which case we are just birthing more evil exponentially, when we try to take things into our own hands, place burdens on ourselves that we were not meant to carry. But if we trust God, allow Him to carry that burden, empathy can breed love, and allow love to soften hearts exponentially.
But too bad we, ourselves, should not see pain as a bad thing, but an opportunity to grow closer to God, and we should see the pain of others as a way to show them the healing knowledge of a loving Father, who wants us to live our purpose.

So when there is a (with regards to our minds of the flesh) an “incomprehensible suffering” we can see it as good, they are living their purpose. We are told not to lean on our own understanding, and in all our ways acknowledge Him. So many things will/should be incomprehensible, and we are to trust Him. Though I don’t think it was a mistake that this happens, or after the “fall” these bad parasites became into being.

God knew how perverted we would turn His creation with regards to humans. I think He was giving us a mirror to look at with these parasites. Maybe we could see these incomprehensible sufferings of the insect world, and look towards our own world and see that we are just as bad if not worse.

We should look at these bugs and see that we do the exact same thing to other humans. If we are to have sympathy for these creatures, how much more should we have for humans? There are human ‘parasites’ who take children from their mothers, force them to live, lives of physical an emotional terror as they are traded as sex slaves and told they are worthless. This is far greater deal than a few wasps of caterpillars.

Now that is real incomprehensible suffering. But we shouldn’t/can’t sit on our high horse, thumbing our nose at them, we and our fathers played a part in this and are making it worse for our children’s children. But we all play a part in it. Every little sin we do, hardens our hearts more and more, which has us treat others badly, we put our desires and well being before others more and more. This causes rage and bitterness, pride and envy, and that hardens their hearts further, and butterfly effect down the road, is trading humans as slaves.

We can’t fix this, only God can, but it starts with Him in us. Asking Jesus to give is a heart of flesh, love God above all, and put the desires and well being of other before our own, with help from the Spirit. This passes on this heart of flesh, others see the love of God in us, which chips away at their heart of stone, softening it, so they will one day too find God, and butterfly effect to the positive of us all being the image bearers of God we were supposed to be. And when the world is changed for the better, we will see things like wasp parasites, and thank God for showing us the cruelness of our hearts and the disgusting things it leads to. Thank Him for the pain He allowed us to go through, the fire He put us through to purify us, so we can live our proper function in this world.

We shouldn’t allow this to go on or justify it by any means, but we can also have sympathy for those slave traders or those on wall street who care more about money and personal comfort/luxury than the starving humans, or those who see the evils of this world and attribute it to an ‘evil god’ or lack of god. To be in such a dark place with such hardened hearts. I am thankful to God that I was raised in a Christian home, but I am no better than anyone else. Who knows what kind of person I would have turned into had I been subject to a different upbringing. This is a daily battle for me too. Though Jesus has pulled my heart out of the pool of impurities, I still have quite a few impurities on me, and a hardened heart, and require much fire to purify me.

(Edward T Babinski) #19

I am not an atheist but I admit to not being convinced that God has a cunning plan that cannot fail.

(Edward T Babinski) #20

Sure, Christians say we suffer with Christ. We also suffer with every human who suffers, even with every worn that suffers. That question remains, why is 5is cosmos merely in equilibrium? What kind of God created a cosmos in which life is merely in equilibrium with death, extinction in equilibrium with evolution? Why the suffering, ignorance, illusions, fears, that make us raise defenses, why the anger reaction built into us, why the irritants, the cognitive biases that blind us, the limits and imperfection of spoken languages themselves? We do not appear to have been created and placed in a cosmos where truth and communication are easy, but rather where they are rather easily thwarted.

And besides that, why let demons and Satan remain loose as well?

As for birds and mosquitoes that you mention, only some species of mosquitoes carry horrible pathogens. Sure we don’t want to wipe out all mosquitoes. And ideally we would just like to wipe out the pathogens like malaria and other viruses carried by those few species of mosquitoes. Likewise no one is apologizing to God for wiping out smallpox or fighting scourges like TB, malaria.