[I decided to break this into two posts. The first deals with animal suffering from a “No Suffering before the Fall” perspective. The second (which I will post tomorrow morning) deals with animal suffering from perspectives that allow suffering before the Fall.]
Christians typically believe in a “Fall of Man”—an event in which human beings turned against God, resulting in the “Curse.” The Curse would include, among other things, suffering. Thus, the Fall is used by Christians to account for suffering in the world.
Atheists find this unconvincing, but apart from declaring that the Fall is a myth, there’s not much of a way to argue against it. Hence, atheists try to explore the limits of what the Fall can reasonably account for. This is where animal suffering comes in.
“Granting that God is punishing humans for rebellion,” argues the atheist, “why do animals have to participate in this punishment? What did animals do to deserve this?”
The theist, then, is left with the task of showing how animal suffering is related to the Fall of man, and this is the purpose of this post (and the next). I will divide theistic views into (1) those claiming that there was no suffering before man sinned, and (2) those claiming that there was suffering in the world even before man sinned. Since I’m only discussing possible relationships between animal suffering and the Fall, I will have to dedicate a separate post to theodicies that account for animal suffering. Hence, the following should be regarded as a partial theistic response.
Young-Earth creationists typically hold the following:
(1) God created the world between six and ten thousand years ago.
(2) God created various “kinds” of animals, which through selection developed into the species we see today. (Note: Natural selection is a part of Young-Earth theories. These theories simply reject the idea that evolution can produce an increase in genetic information. Hence, in the beginning, God created a great deal of information among the various “kinds”; these “kinds” later produced offspring; selection favored certain offspring in different environments.)
(3) Animals were originally vegetarians.
(4) There was no death before sin (except plant death, and perhaps fish and insects).
Some Old-Earth creationists agree with everything except (1). They hold that the world was created billions of years ago, while God created life according to the biblical account (i.e. God created life between six and ten thousand years ago, though the earth is much older). Hence, certain Old-Earth creationists agree that there was no death or suffering before sin.
So how would the Fall be related to animal suffering on these views? The account would go something like this. God created a world, and it was perfect. There was no death, disease, or bloodshed, because God was upholding and sustaining everything perfectly. Everything went according to God’s will. Suffering was not an option, because there was the perpetual miracle of God’s sustaining presence.
But God gave man the freedom to choose what kind of world he would prefer to live in. Would man rather live in a world according to God’s rules, or a world where he can do as he pleases? Man chose to live in a world where he could do as he pleases. That is, he rebelled against God. Atheists tend to think that such rebellion (eating a forbidden fruit, for instance) is an incredibly small matter. But we should recognize what was going on. The problem wasn’t a matter of fruit. The problem was that man adopted a new system of morality, according to which he would do whatever he feels like doing, even if it goes against what God commands.
At that point, God partially withdrew from the world. He withdrew some of his sustaining power. God said, in effect, “If you’d like to live apart from me, welcome to a world where I am not fully present to keep everything just the way you like it.” On this view, the “Curse” would not be something positive. It wouldn’t be something that God added to the world. Instead, the Curse would be the result of subtraction. God withdrew (to some extent), and things started going wrong.
Animals, of course, were part of the world that God withdrew from. If man had not sinned, God would have continued to fully sustain us, and there would have been no animal suffering. But since man chose to live in a world apart from God, and since God honored that choice, the entire cosmos was affected.
That would be a rough sketch of the “No Suffering before Sin” view. An atheist might make the following objections:
(1) God shouldn’t have created animals if he knew that they were going to experience pain. I addressed this claim in my Introduction a few days ago. Given the choice between suffering animals and no animals, a world with animals is better than a world without animals.
(2) God should have created animals so that they don’t experience pain. But if God knows that he is going to leave the world to its own devices, this would be disastrous for animals. Animals would go extinct if they didn’t experience pain.
(3) God should have created animals so that they experience less pain. Before I take this objection seriously, I’d have to see some evidence that species would perform better with lower levels of pain.
(4) God should have created animals so that they don’t need a sustainer. That is, God should have made the world so that it performs perfectly without him. In the mind of the atheist, this would probably be the strongest objection. To me, it is the weakest. The atheist here would be arguing that God should make a world that functions perfectly even if creatures rebel. But why? Why shouldn’t God create worlds that depend on him not only for their existence, but also for their well-being? I can’t think of any good reason for siding with the atheist on this point.
Hence, I think that the “No Suffering before Sin” views plausibly account for animal suffering. (The question is whether these views account for other things.)
As a final note, I would like to reiterate a comment I made earlier about pessimism. Is nature really as bad as atheists make it out to be? When discussing the existence of God, many atheists act as if we live in the worst world imaginable. Thus Bambi dying in the woods becomes the picture of all nature. The tiger playing with her cub is left out, as are the eagles soaring on the wind, the beavers building their dams, and the dolphins dancing in the water.
Nature is not horrible. Nature is wonderful and beautiful. There is, of course, the problem of pain. But what would we expect in a world where a great rebellion has occurred? I would expect a world with problems, but a world which still bears the mark of its creator. And that’s exactly what we find.
For more on “No Suffering before Sin” views, see: