Natural evil and the goodness of God

First of all I would like to express my sincere appreciation for the Biologos Foundation. I am a Christian and the blogs on this website have proved to be extremely helpful and resourceful for me as I have studied science and religion. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to follow the evidence wherever it leads concerning evolution and the respect you show to all who disagree with your particular beliefs. I am new to the discussion forum so I apologize for using this specific topic to express my gratitude but I wanted to make sure you understand that I genuinely appreciate the work your organization is performing. Now to the topic.
I’m sure there are many blog posts in the archives that could be referenced for this topic but I would like to update the conversation. More specifically, as Christians and those who believe the scientific evidence for evolution is very strong and compelling how do we justify the “goodness” of God with the long periods of time where animals are competing for survival in the midst of an environment that is sometimes very hostile to life and where predation, parasitism, pain, suffering and death are common themes that are taking place within the animal kingdom? Most of the atheistic vs. theistic debates in modern times that I have watched eventually come across this topic but I have yet to hear an answer that is “compelling” to think that we can justify God’s goodness with our evolutionary history. Obviously it is perfectly logical to assume the existence of God with any such processes but to say that God is good appears to need some kind of justification. I do realize that somewhere in this process we have to plug in Adam and Eve {possibly representing a small population of our ancestors) and the fall but I’m inclined to say that the atheist or skeptic has a very good point in calling into question God’s goodness and it’s compatibility with the evolution of life on our planet. Thoughts?

I haven’t thought terribly wrong about this before typing, so there could be some logical error here. But these are just some thoughts.

  1. “Pain” generally is considered a good thing. Without pain, the famous example goes, the child wouldn’t know to remove a hand from a fire. Pain (of any kind) is perfectly consistent with God’s goodness.

  2. Usually when I see an example of animal death (say…a lion eating a zebra), my first response is not: “how could God allow such a thing?” (I also notice I don’t question God’s goodness when I eat a hamburger) Yet that usually is the case when I see a child starving. In other words, cases of animal pain and dying usually don’t cause us to doubt God’s goodness today, so why would it before humans arrived? (

  3. Suffering is the real issue for God when it comes to the problem of evil. Animals don’t “suffer” in the same sense as humans because they aren’t “self-aware” in the same way. This is, I believe, one of the things that makes us God’s image-bearers and sets us apart from animals. Suffering often stems from empathy or love, too. Not to say those things are void from the rest of the animal kingdom, but I would imagine experienced in a much different light that we simply cannot know (and therefore cannot question). I think it’s very likely, in fact, that humans suffer more from animal pain and death than the animals do (e.g. grieving the death of a family pet).

  4. Even when it comes to the problem of evil, the question isn’t just “suffering” but gratuitous suffering. Suffering (or pain) that brings about some other good (say, the making of our souls) would not be a problem for Christianity. But assuming that the animal pain in which you speak of provides life (i.e. the lion gets food when it kills the zebra), that evil would not be gratuitous. And even more so when we consider the teleology of the process of evolution (inanimate matter–> Life–> Conscious Life–> Self-conscious life, as per Peterson), this process has clearly brought about a good.

Those are just a few responses and likely not exhaustive.

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Thanks for the response. I definitely appreciate you taking the time to respond to my comments. First and foremost I definitely agree that pain (in a very general sense) is logically consistent with God’s goodness. It is a necessary tool for survival and a great motivator for change. Secondly, I agree that animals don’t “suffer” in the exact same way that we humans experience suffering. There’s no doubt that there is something profoundly unique concerning our ability to be “self-aware” of ourselves.
My primary struggle is with the notion that nature, more specifically the process of evolution over long periods of time does not reflect the activity of a benevolent creator. Granted the reality of conscious life arising through such a process is wonderful and truly amazing however the means to achieve such an end seems incongruent with God’s good and gracious (more specifically loving) character. From what we know from science concerning how life has evolved on this planet and the environment in which it took place it seems at least suspicious to assume that God’s benevolence shouldn’t be called into some kind of questioning. Regardless if conscious life is produced through such a process, the evolution of life has not been a “pretty” picture. We know that most species that have ever lived have gone extinct. And not just that but some would say that death or extinction is a necessary condition for evolution to be successful. Now I agree that in some circumstances death can be a good thing but the picture that has been painted for us concerning the history of life on this planet is messy and has been filled with much pain and suffering. Obviously the question comes to mind concerning the issues of gratuitous suffering. Is the context in which life has evolved on our planet compatible with the goodness of God? As we know even Darwin made comments concerning the “nastiness” and “wastefulness” of nature and it’s compatibility with a benevolent creator.
Now, I’m inclined to believe that the world we inhabit is not exactly the way that God intends it to be. As Christians we do hope for the “new heavens and new earth” and maybe there is more to the story concerning the first couple of chapters in Genesis and it’s description of the fall and it’s consequences (I’m not sure how to “correctly” interpret these first chapters). I just find if difficult to square the notion of God’s benevolence with the process of how living beings have come about on this planet.

I think that’s really, really important. In Aristotelian philosophy, there’s a distinction between efficient and final causes. An efficient cause is the immediate, material cause of something, but a final cause is what a thing is made for. So for a human, the efficient cause is conception, childbirth, and so on (and our whole evolutionary history is a sort of efficient cause), but it’s not our final cause—which is our resurrection bodies in a renewed heavens and earth. It seems to me that when addressing the problem of evil, the Bible’s writers overwhelmingly point towards God’s final action as the answer to death and suffering. And this final action; this final reality is different than the reality we live in right now. In Revelation, the heavens and the earth merge together. In Genesis 1, there is a separation between heaven and earth. This strongly advocates for an understanding of our present reality as provisional and temporary (think of the old saying, “this is not my home. I’m just a’ passing through”).

Another thought: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the fullest and most complete answer to the question of evil, as well as all other important questions. I cannot emphasize this enough (for more on this, read books by N.T. Wright and Tim Keller. They make this point constantly). The New Testament is insistent that life, especially abundant life, requires death. Death is the passageway to new life. Suffering leads to expectancy of the new creation. This is not to say that death and suffering are completely ok in God’s eyes—quite the opposite! God’s plan has always been about defeating death and suffering. They have no place in the new creation. But the current creation had to be made ready for this new creation, and death and suffering are a part of that—as well as the struggle against them! That’s the balance of the perspective of Genesis 1—God’s creation is good, but humans need to subdue and rule it (which implies it needs to be subdued and ruled). And the Resurrection is the “teaser trailer” for the New Creation. It validates all the hopes of the people of God throughout history that have longed for the New Creation. Just as Jesus’s resurrected body is fully material, yet not of this world, the New Creation is a renewal of creation, yet is different and better.

The hope of New Creation is the ONLY good answer to the question of suffering. So when people doubt God because of suffering, we need to point out that without the hope of New Creation in God, suffering and death are meaningless and pointless, which is far worse than any other option.

This is a beginning of an answer. Hope it’s helpful.

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Brad, thanks for taking the time to reply. I totally agree that the death and resurrection of Christ is the greatest answer to the problem of evil. Without it we are without hope and all evil, suffering and death are meaningless. The answer that Christianity presents to the world concerning the remediation of pain, suffering and death within our world is by far the best response to the question.

It’s just seems difficult (maybe because of our God-given moral intuition!) to try to get a hold on the way in which living organisms have developed on our planet. Why would a benevolent God want to use the type of evolution that we’ve learned about, a process that is loitered with pain, waste, death, suffering, etc. (we all have specific examples of the things we’ve studied or researched in the natural world that make us cringe, I particularly like Darwin’s example of the parasitic wasp feeding on the caterpillar). Now I’m not trying to argue that the discomfort the caterpillar experiences is morally apprehensible or that the little parasitic wasp is performing an immoral act (I think we can agree that they can’t distinguish between right and wrong but are simply acting on instinct). For me it’s simply the problem (which has been alluded to many times before) of the lion hunting and consuming its live prey. What caused the natural world to act like this? Why are their living organisms that prey upon other living organisms? The theological implications of such a world seem incompatible with a benevolent Creator.

Maybe this is a little extreme but how do we reconcile the fruits of the Spirit as described in Galatians by the apostle Paul with such a process? My inclination, although it may be wrong, is to answer this question by saying that we don’t have to. God never intended it to be this way. We have good reasons to believe this based on Scripture. So then who’s responsible for or what caused the animal kingdom to behave in such a way? My more literal reading of Genesis wants to say that the fall is the cause. It was the result of mankind’s disobedience towards God. But how could that be? Death, pain, waste, suffering all easily predates our arrival on this planet according to the fossil record so how could the effects of sin precede the cause? At this point in my mind I think William Dembski in his book “The end of Christianity” gives a response to this question that is intuitive but still brings about further questioning. He simply states that God unbounded by time retroactively applies the consequences of the fall to creation before humans show up on the scene. This in his view is why there is so much pain, suffering and death in the animal kingdom that precedes mankind’s arrival on the scene. And his answer to why God did this is along the lines of the analogy of firefighters using fire to fight fire. God’s intention was to help us see the distortion in nature and it’s consequences and hopefully guide us away from such behavior. Although a very interesting idea I’m not sure how well it holds up to further scrutiny and it definitely raises some concerns.

The interpretation of the first couple chapters of Genesis is crucial to the context in which we pose such questions. I enjoyed the recent blog series not to long ago concerning the different views of the history of adam and eve. I definitely invite others who have different perspectives to join in on the conversation. There’s no doubt that we need further dialogue concerning this issue and one of the reasons I really appreciate what the Biologos organization is doing is by giving us a platform where we can voice and discuss these issues within a respectful atmosphere.

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@bjbell2002 I"m glad you brought up the relationship between God and time. I was thinking about proposing a train of thought along those very lines. The salvation through Jesus’ resurrection was retroactively applied back through human history (the relevant verses are escaping me at the moment…Romans I believe?) However, if we consider God as outside of time then we have to be careful about the word ‘retroactive.’ In other words, pre-Fall suffering was defeated as it was happening. I think that makes sense :-/

A quote from John C.L Gibson, author of Genesis, Volume 1, p 126:

“Having made his chief point that ‘man’ must face up to his own guilt and not look for a scapegoat, he [author of Genesis] slips in a reminder that there is a larger force of evil abroad in the world as well, one that is independent of ‘man’ and that has opposed God’s will from the beginning of time. The battle which each man or woman must wage within himself or herself is but a small part of a much greater battle being waged between Heaven and Hell. That battle too must be won before Paradise can come to earth.” [emphasis added]

In our frame, most of us perceive the duration of “evidence” challenging God’s omnipotent goodness as endless fore and aft. But in God’s frame, from His creation of time until His ultimate defeat of the opposing evil force and to eternity beyond, the moment of challenge to His omnipotent goodness may be likened to the twinkling of an eye, to page A1 in an encyclopedia…

First I want to make it clear that my questioning the scriptural meaning of New Creation does not mean that I doubt the good that a belief in it has done for the evangelical folks who grew up with Scripture providing the surest direction for leading a good life. However, I see an additional target for BioLogos: the “unchurched” youth who heads toward a career in science and who tends to think evangelical Christianity is old fashioned and irrelevant. Such a young woman or young man would likely be open to the idea that the Universe we live in appears to have an Intelligent Creator who values variety and complexity. (So far just Deism) As evolution produced creatures of greater awareness, this creator God envisioned one of His creatures that could share the awesomeness of what had already developed and even, in a meaningful way, become created co-creators; i.e. humans. This would bring such a youth to the stage of belief in a caring God but not yet to a belief in Christianity.

Take Richard Dawkins, as an example of such a youth (even tho he grew up in a nominal Anglican home). Not far into his scientific career he realized that the behavior that signifies ‘human’ derives from their ability to convey information (ideas) via words. He called these ‘memes’. In the final chapter of his book “The Selfish Gene” he writes: “We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth…We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism–something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." If Dawkins had read the work of Pierre Teilhad de Chardin, he might have expressed this scenario as 'Noogenes, working in the Noosphere and parallel to the Biosphere, bringing life from its beginning (Alpha) to its logical destination (Omega)–which as far as I can tell might be what Scripture calls ‘New Creation.’ Instead Dawkins went on to write the best seller: “The God Delusion”.

This scenario suggests that our biological heritage, developed through evolution, can be seen as Good, as expressed in Genesis 1, but still lacking in the areas of compassion and love. It allows for God desiring to covenant with humans to accomplish His purpose by us humans rising above selfishness and sin, but, of course, does not directly lead to the role of Christ, His son, in making this possible. We still need evangelism for that.
Al Leo

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If I may make a brief comment here — The book of Job chapter 48 , verses 39-41 says, “Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, When they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.” And Psalm 104:21 says, “The lions roar for their prey and seek their meat from God.” <<< It doesn’t seem to me that God has a problem with carnivorous activity, or certain creatures eating each other (e.g., ravens and lions). And the overall premise in Genesis 1 is that his Creation is “good, but perishable” not “perfect”. His standards for goodness is based on His notions of goodness … not ours. So whether we have a long, long history of “survival of the fittest” going on, or just simply what we see in today’s world, in either case, God’s attitude towards carnivores isn’t one of condemnation.

Just some thoughts.



Brandon, the problem of Theodicy (explaining why there appears to be natural evil in the world - - to non-humans or to infants/children)
is a problem for ALL religion.

On the Creationist side, they have ways to explain why innocents suffer. These explanations ALSO apply to Theistic Evolutionists,
if they choose to use them.

The people who seem most likely to bring up this issue are Atheists. Rightfully so, it bugs them terrifically. And it also bugs
all Christians that I know.

The BioLogos position, as I understand it, offers no more additional insights to this than Creationists do.

George Brooks

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