Is Nature "Cruel"?


I teach science at a small Christian college. A lot of my students are YEC and think that YEC is THE Christian viewpoint. Most of them haven’t been exposed to any other viewpoints and I see it as part of my job to do so. I frequently remind them that they are in a science class, so our discussions are limited to science - we do not get into debates about Biblical interpretation. Recently, however, a student made a remark about ID that got me thinking about a theological question. She said that many animal behaviors are “cruel.” My first response was that while nature is certainly bloody, “cruelty” is a moral judgment. it may be hard for me to watch my cat torment a mouse due to my feelings of right and wrong, but because he cannot make moral decisions, he is not being “cruel.” Any thoughts?

(John Dalton) #2

It depends on how you define cruel. For example:

Under the definition shown in the box, I don’t think many people would say an animal “willfully” causes pain, or is capable of feeling concern. However, definition 1.1 is simply

Causing pain or suffering.
‘the winters are long, hard, and cruel’

A different story. Both these senses of “cruel” are in common usage.


The Question of Evil has been a long standing theological problem, and I won’t pretend to have the answer. Given the forum we are in I thought might be worthwhile to bring in some quotes from Darwin:

“Finally, it may not be a logical deduction, but to my imagination it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as the young cuckoo ejecting its foster-brothers, - ants making slaves, - the larvae of ichneumonidae feeding within the live bodies of caterpillars, - not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”–Charles Darwin, “Origin of Species”

"With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & 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. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. . .

On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—"–Charles Darwin, Letter to Asa Gray

(Joshua Hedlund) #4

For questions like this, I believe it is appropriate to respond with the use of Scripture, which affirms the YEC’s commitment to Scripture while demonstrating that such a commitment does not necessarily require YEC. So in this case, I would argue that applying words like “cruelty” to animal behavior is subjective, and while certain behaviors might seem obviously cruel to someone, you can surely find many examples along a continuum of uncertainty, even within the judgment of a single person, to say nothing of the different opinions that different people might render to the same behavior.

So surely it would be better to rely on the objective word of God rather than the subjective view of humans to determine this. And in Psalm 104 we see that God provides food for lions - which some might consider cruel (to the antelopes) - and the text says they are filled with “good things.” I believe it’s an illustration of the beautifully complex, interconnected balances in nature between predators and prey, which may not be “perfect” but may be “very good,” which is what Genesis 1 says about it all.

Furthermore, there are different ways of looking at the animal kingdom. While YEC’s may focus on behavior that seems negative to human morality, other perspectives can include a positive celebration of those intricate nature balances as the intentional design of God the creator (and while some may see this “design” as coming through evolution, it’s not necessary for this point, which may make it easier for a YEC to consider). There are so many ways creatures seem explicitly designed for offense or defense - from body parts streamlined for hunting, to camouflages and mimicry and quills and the bombadier beetle’s two-chambered explosion factory for defending, from predators with eyes in the front to focus on prey, to prey with eyes on the sides to watch out for predators… they are all able to interact in a beautiful way that allows a variety of species to “be fruitful and multiply” without any one dominating all the others. By contrast, the YEC must either explain all these intricate animal characteristics as existing before the Fall but not being used, or as springing to life in a new “creation” at the Curse, which are not clearly supported or even hinted at in the Scriptural text, and which can also be argued, in my opinion, to dampen the appreciation of God as being fully glorified in his purposeful, intentional, and intelligent act of creating.

(This contrast in the animal world is similar to the YEC’s view of the beauty in the natural world as the destructive consequences of Noah’s flood vs. Joel Duff’s writings on viewing the beauty in the natural world as the intentional handiwork of God the creator.)

(Albert Leo) #5

You have picked excellent quotations from Darwin’s work that show how troubled he was with the theological implications of the apparent Truth to be concluded from his observations of Nature. One conclusion, which I am unaware of him stating in published work, is that, at least until humans with a conscience appeared in his creation, God must have valued a balanced, productive ecosystem more highly than any single one of its constituents. As soon as ‘selfish evolution’ had produced a creature capable of rising above selfish instinct (the advent of the Noosphere in Teilhard’s terminology) God offered this creature a special kind of love and the opportunity to work with him in ongoing creation.a creation dependent more on Ideas (Noos) than on mere biology.

@Yankeefan, This may not appear to be a satisfactory explanation for most Christians, but it is the best I can conceive of.
Al Leo

(Larry Bunce) #6

Leibniz came up with the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His reasoning was that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent. God could have created any possible world, or no world. God created this world, so therefore this is the best of all possible worlds. The emphasis here is on the world possible. We can easily imagine a world without suffering and death, but such a world would not survive, or would have worse evils.
Edward Hitchcock said that predation was not entirely evil. The prey species were spared long painful deaths from starvation due to overcrowding, or increasing disability due to illness or old age.
We must keep in mind that each creature experiences one life. We tend to imagine the collective suffering of millions of creatures over millions of years, which makes life seem worse than it is.


Parasites can cause long painful deaths from starvation and illness. (Read the creepy “Parasite Rex” by Carl Zimmer.)

(Larry Bunce) #8

I suppose it all comes down to whether one has an optimistic or pessimistic outlook on life. Hitchcock may have been a bit Pollyanna-ish in his view of life, but we don’t need to concentrate on the evil, either.


I don’t think it’s about one’s outlook on life. It’s simply a sobering fact that there is some creepy stuff out there. Google “mango worm.” some time.

(The phrase “best of all possible worlds” makes me think of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide)

(Larry Bunce) #10

Candide was written by Voltaire to show how ridiculous the idea was that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

(Peter Wolfe) #11

RJS over on Jesus Creed had a post on this just this week. Is “natural evil” evil? I resonate with her thoughts.

(Md Zafar Alam Bhuiyan) #12

Yes, I think nature is Cruel in some cases where people are showing more cruelty.

(Md Zafar Alam Bhuiyan) #13

Dear Yankeefan, I think its natural to ensure the food chain and to servival of the fittest.


I realize that. And Bernstein wrote the operetta based on the book. Haven’t read the book yet. But it really is silly to pretend that horrible things are not so bad. It’s a serious question and can’t be breezily explained away.

(Albert Leo) #15

I presume the horrible things you refer to are the same as those that bothered Darwin so much. But he was the first to emphasize that ALL of what we humans judge as beautiful in earthly life results from an intricate web of interactions and relationships that occur in what we now call ‘ecosystems’. (Science has only scratched the surface on this subject.) Some of the most vital of these interactions involve death of individuals. Our human consciousness allows us to view ourselves and our companions as individuals, and through that lens suffering and death are perceived as horrible–as Paul put it, looking through the glass darkly. It is my hope that God, when he looks upon one of his creatures who seeks to know and love him–then God deems that creature as an Individual worthy of His special love in return.

This will not seem an adequate explanation to many, but at least it is not breezy.
Al Leo


Here you go, Aleo: Monday Morning Mangoworms


(Phil) #17

Reminds me of guinea worms, possibly the fiery serpents of the Exodus.


Yes, guinea worms are absolutely horrific. But Jimmy Carter, bless his heart, is determined to eradicate the guinea worm from the face of the earth. If he succeeds, guinea worm disease will be only the second disease that humans have eradicated.

(George Brooks) #19

The irony about these questions of cruelty is that YEC’s think blaming Adam & Eve solves the problem.

And yet, the Bible itself specifically puts the two worst events of “natural evil” right on God’s lap:

The Flood, of course, whether regional or global, is a prime example of animals and baby everythings being wiped out at God’s insistence.

Secondly, the much more “surgical elimination” allowed by The Destroyer during the Exodus story, doesn’t exactly give the readers warm fuzzies - - clearly it does not spare a great many innocent lives:

Exodus 11:4 - 6
And Moses said, Thus saith the LORD, About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.


Quite frankly, I find that animals are on a lower ontological level than humans, and so their lives are not as important as ours. Are we concerned with when a lion catches a deer? Of course not, so what’s the difference from that and a cat ‘tormenting’ a mouse? I just must say that human life is more important than that of animal life, and the animal circle of life and death is to be expected.

I’d recommend watching this video that is related to this point.