Progressive creationists maintain that God created the world in six days, but that there were millions of years between each of the days of creation. Hence, God created some things on one day, then millions of years went by, and God created some more things on a new day, and millions of years went by, and so on. Theistic evolutionists accept the general account offered in biology classrooms, adding only that God was somehow involved in the process, either by programming the system so that evolution occurred, or by helping the process along the way.
These views entail that the Fall of man was preceded by millions of years of death, disease, and bloodshed. It would therefore seem that animal suffering has little to do with the Fall, since suffering came first. Nevertheless, I think there are some plausible models that would relate animal suffering to the Fall.
Most obviously, one could argue that God had foreknowledge of man’s rebellion, and that God therefore created our world apart from his full sustaining presence from the beginning. In other words, God knew that we would rebel, so he never fully engaged the world, until the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the resurrection, God completely upheld and sustained a physical being, which foreshadows the resurrection of all things at the end of the present age. Thus, this world, from it’s creation, because it was a place where man would rebel, was a place that needed to be redeemed.
Alternatively, we might focus on the Genesis claim that man was given dominion over the world. Theistic evolutionists have a difficult time reconciling their view of origins with certain details in the Bible, but they can nevertheless agree with the broad picture presented in Genesis. Here’s the broad picture. God first created a shapeless, formless, chaotic mass. Then he proceeded to organize that mass into an ordered whole by a process of separation (light from darkness, land from sea, etc.). The natural state of the created world was chaos and disorder. Order comes only by an ordering principle which God imposes on the world. (Note: the Greek term for “ordering principle” is logos.)
Because of this ordering principle, matter was organized into life, and evolution occurred. Eventually, man came on the scene, and here’s the key: God gave authority to man to take part in the process of completing the creation. This point can be made clearer by considering free will vs. determinism. Let’s say that nature functions according to mechanical laws, and that nature will carry on according to these natural laws unless something interferes. What could interfere? Only one thing—the decisions of free beings. And these free beings could be God, angels, or men.
Hence, man has the power to alter the course of the world. He does this by his will, just as God could order the universe according to his will. So God gave us dominion over the earth, to play a creative role in shaping it for the good. But our first order of business as rulers over the world was to declare that we didn’t need God’s help. We rebelled, and God withdrew. The world as it now stands is an unfinished product, groaning until God completes the work that he started.
The obvious question here would be this: Why did God create through evolution, a process that relies on death, disease, and bloodshed? One might respond, along with John Polkinghorne, that a world that “creates itself” to some extent is better than a world whose construction is the product of a divine Monarch. I’m not convinced by this, however. I think it would be more important to argue that a world in which man is able to participate in shaping the world is better than a world in which man plays no such role. And if man is to play a role in shaping the world, the world can’t come from the hand of God as a finished product.
On the whole, I think that the “Suffering before Sin” views need to be combined with various theodicies, such as the free will theodicy, soul-building theodicies, the informed consent theodicy, Kant’s argument for divine hiddenness, and so on. For the question of why God wouldn’t skip the process of evolution will always come to the surface, and theists who want to give explanations will have to bring in certain aspects of our world that could only exist in the sort of world we live in.
But where does animal suffering come in? The Bible devotes little space to God’s motives in creating the world, so we may have to engage in a little speculation whenever we think on this topic. Keeping the doctrine of the Trinity in mind, we could postulate a reason for the creation: God made man because he wanted to create a new type of love. In the Trinity love is, so to speak, obligatory, because it is God’s nature to love and because each person of the Trinity is infinitely lovable. In forming man, God created a being who doesn’t love of necessity, but by choice; and, because man would fall into sin, creation also allowed God to love someone who would be inherently flawed. Hence, creation produced the possibility of freely given love from both man and God.
But man, as a free being, requires a certain type of world. To have free choice, God cannot be fully present, because God’s presence would overwhelm our free will and lead to utter coercion. Free beings develop morally only in the presence of hardships, so hardships are a significant part of our world. We must learn that we are dependent on God, so we must have some knowledge of what it’s like to live apart from God. In short, we must learn the difference between good and evil.
All of this happens in our world. As I have argued in previous posts, a world with animals is better than a world without animals. But if animals are going to be a part of our world, this means that they are going to be a part of a world with suffering, hardships, etc. How is this related to the Fall? God knew that man would rebel. And this world was designed to give us an opportunity to develop morally and return to God. Hence, the world is the way it is because of our nature as free, fallen creatures.
For more on “Suffering before Sin” views, see: