The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 2

In a previous post I explained my interest in the problem of suffering and summarized part 1 of Ronald Osborn’s book, in which he addressed various problems with a literalistic reading of the biblical creation accounts (that is, taking them to be a straightforward scientific or historical account of the world, as many modern Christians do).

In the present post I will address Osborn’s account of animal predation as part of the good world God made (since predation significantly contributes to animal suffering); I’m actually going to go a bit beyond Osborn, to strengthen his case.

In my final post I will interact with Osborn’s chapter on Christ’s redemption of animal suffering.

Osborn on Animal Suffering and Death

In the five chapters of part 2 of Death Before the Fall Osborn finally gets to his advertised topic—animal suffering. Osborn explains that the critique of literalism in part 1 “is to a large extent prolegomena” to part 2, which addresses “the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (p. 19).

Osborn correctly notes that this is a problem for both creationists and evolutionists. Although creationists often object to the implication of an evolutionary account of the world since it involves millions of years of the suffering and death of animals (through extinctions, disease, carnivores preying on herbivores), even creationists need to account for why God would allow animal suffering (especially through predation) to be so pervasive in a young earth.

If this is due to the Fall (human sin) as most creationists claim, doesn’t this seem like unjustified suffering? Since most creationists affirm that animals were vegetarian prior to the Fall, this means that carnivores are a post-Fall phenomenon. Does this mean that today’s carnivores were previously herbivores who suddenly grew (or evolved) canines? Or did pre-Fall carnivores use their canines for eating vegetation? And beyond all these crazy theories, creationists still need to answer the question of why animals have to suffer for human sin.

In part 1 of this review I noted that Osborn’s background in the Seventh Day Adventist church equipped him for addressing young earth creationism. In a similar manner, his approach to the problem of animal suffering is informed by having grown up in Zimbabwe of missionary parents, which included many visits to a game reserve. He mentions his awareness of the presence of predatory animals (crocodiles and jackals) and describes witnessing lions eviscerating a fresh kill with the smell of blood in the air.

The world of the game reserve was “deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good” and “the danger was part of its goodness and beauty. . . . Herein lies the central riddle of this book” (p. 13).

Although part 2 contains five chapters, the tension evident in the above quote is embodied in the contrast between chapters 12 and 13. These are the chapters that most interested me.

Animal Predation as Part of God’s Good Creation—The Witness of Job

Chap. 12 (“God of the Whirlwind”) explores the vision of the book of Job, where animal predation is part of the world God celebrates.

In response to Job’s complaint about his sufferings, God describes in his first speech an untamed non-human world that includes suffering and death (Job 38-42). Not only does God send rain on a land where no human lives (Job 38:26-28), but in his rhetorical questions to Job, God implies that he provides food for lions and ravens:

39  Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40  when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
41  Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:39-41)

Indeed, God commands the eagle to build her nest on high, from which she delivers prey to her young (Job 39:27-30), who “suck up blood;/ and where the slain are, there she is” (39:30). Those are the closing words of God’s first speech to Job, and I have often thought it is no wonder that Job was struck silent, at a loss for words at such a gruesome image.

But Osborn is right in emphasizing that throughout the first speech God is delighting in animal ferocity.

This delight continues in God’s second speech, where the creator boasts about Behemoth and Leviathan (given the mythic overlay of these beasts, I wouldn’t reduce them to known animal species, as Osborn seems to do here).

I initially thought that Osborn wrongly identified the second beast with Behemoth (pp. 153 and 157), but it turns out that he was using the New English Bible’s rendering of the first beast as a “crocodile,” which is what most interpreters take as a possible model for Leviathan, the second beast.

Part of the reason I misread Osborn here is that he quotes selections from the description of Behemoth (40:15-15, 19-20) along with selections from the description of Leviathan (41:12, 33-34), all in one block quotation, without distinguishing them from each other (p. 153).

He himself may have been confused by the NEB, which he was quoting, since it idiosyncratically translates 40:15 and 20 as if Behemoth (“crocodile”) was a carnivore (“who devours cattle as if they were grass” and “he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts”). In the NRSV these lines are correctly rendered: “it eats grass like an ox” and “the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play” (this is what the Hebrew actually says). In other words, while Leviathan is clearly a carnivore, Behemoth (seemingly modeled on a Hippopotamus) is a herbivore (though still a dangerous animal).

Despite this slip, Osborn’s point is well-taken that these dangerous beasts (like many animals in the first speech) are paraded before Job as part of a world God is proud of. Predation and danger therefore do not constitute “natural evil” in the book of Job.

Beyond Osborn—The Psalms on Animal Predation

A similar perspective may be found in the Psalms—although Osborn doesn’t explicitly address this. But his case could be strengthened by adding other relevant biblical references to God’s approval of animal predation as part of the natural order.

Just as Job mentions the feeding of ravens, so does Psalm 147. Verse 7 calls on the reader to sing praise to YHWH because “He gives to the animals their food,/ and to the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9). Ravens are omnivores, often scavenging on carrion.

And just as Job mentioned the feeding of lions (which are clearly carnivores), so Psalm 104 notes: “The young lions roar for their prey,/ seeking their food from God” (verse 21).

The psalm even claims that God feeds all animals:

27  These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28  when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:27-28)

 This implies that at least some biblical texts (Job and Psalms) regard animal predation (thus animal death, even suffering) as simply part of the good world that God made; after all God feeds the animals. This is, therefore, not part of what we should regard as “evil.” If a human being is injured or killed by a wild animal, this is certainly “evil” to us; but to regard animal predation in general as “natural evil” is a highly anthropocentric judgment.

The Parallel between Animal Predation and Natural Disasters

Thinking of animal predation as “natural evil” is somewhat like viewing natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) as intrinsically evil. Yet such destructive phenomena have been part of the world long before humans; they are simply part of the natural geological forces and weather patterns on this planet. Like animal predation, when a natural disaster negatively impacts human life, this is certainly “evil” to us. But that has to do with the interaction of humans and nature, not nature considered independently.

Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic 2010) is a superb theological exploration of this theme.

Fretheim (who is one of the most careful readers of Scripture that I know) clarifies how we may think of natural disasters as part of the wildness of the cosmos that God has incorporated into the order of the world; this wildness is part of the good (but not “perfect”) creation that God made. Such natural phenomena may certainly be impacted negatively by human behavior (Fretheim suggests that Scripture itself supports this). And he boldly addresses how the Bible even portrays God as mediating judgment on humanity by the use of natural disasters—all the while affirming that such disasters are not intrinsically evil.

In my next post I will address Osborn’s chapter on Christ’s incarnation and atonement and how these relate to animal suffering. I will raise what I perceive as an internal tension between this chapter and the idea that animal predation/suffering is simply part of the good creation.

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The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 1

I’ve been interested in the question of how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering for a long time. This is sometimes called the theodicy problem—from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Many writers through history have tried to “justify” God in light of the reality of suffering.

My own interest in this question is based both on theology and personal experience.

First of all, I am drawn to the Bible’s theological vision of a good creation. Having written quite a bit about God’s creational intent for the world’s flourishing (in articles and books), I am keenly aware of the need to grapple with the reality that the world does not at present match up with that ideal.

But it isn’t just that the world (out there) doesn’t match up to this ideal. Around the time I was coming to fully embrace a positive biblical vision of a good creation (having just completed a book on the Christian worldview), my life began to experience serious dissonance from this vision. As a result, I found it difficult over a period of some months to trust in God’s goodness. (I’ve recounted some of this story in a previous blog post.)

During this time I was introduced to the psalms of lament as a powerful resource for renewing trust in God in the midst of suffering. One outcome of this experience was an essay I wrote on the problem of suffering and evil that contrasted the attempt of classical theodicy to “solve” the problem with the more experiential approach of the lament psalms (“Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense”). Another was the book that Brian Walsh and I wrote on Christian faith in a postmodern world.

The Question of Evolution and Evil

I’m now being pressed to think further about suffering, given what I’ve come to understand about the evolutionary processes uncovered by various sciences (including paleontology and genetics). I am interested in how we might think about the Bible’s presentation of origins (origin of the world, of humans, of evil) in light of cosmic, biological, and human evolution.

I will be presenting a paper that explores the origins of human evil in Genesis 3 in light of human evolution at a conference called “The Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” next March in Chicago.

One facet of this issue is the reality of death and suffering prior to the origin of human beings. It seems undeniable to me that that biological death, animal predation, and natural disasters all predate humanity. We are latecomers on the scene, and plants and animals (from bacteria to dinosaurs) were subject to death by extinction, predation, accident, disease, or simply old age (if they were lucky) long before us.

This means that we can’t reasonably attribute these factors to the results of human sin (a “curse” on nature). Indeed, my own re-reading of Genesis 3 and other biblical texts has helped me realize that the common Christian assumption that nature was systemically affected by of human sin isn’t clearly supported in Scripture. (I’ll get to the origin of this idea later.)

Even with this realization, questions remain. This is where Ronald Osborn’s thoughtful new book comes in.

Ronald E. Osborn. Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

With vivid prose and an engaging perspective, Osborn addresses the problem of animal suffering for Christians, whether of “creationist” or evolutionary persuasions.

The book is tendentious (in the best sense of that term), arguing both for and against particular positions with passion and verve, yet it does not in the end come to a clear or unambiguous position on its primary topic, namely animal suffering. But the book certainly made me think, which (in my opinion) is high praise.

Osborn on Literalism

There are two prongs to Osborn’s argument, which make it, in effect, two books, or at least a book with two purposes, and two audiences. Part 1 (nine chapters) attempts to help conservative Christians move out of narrow literalism in their reading of the Bible’s creation narratives (by literalism he means an approach to the text that assumes a simple correspondence between what the Bible says and concrete realities in the external world); this approach tends to be associated with a young earth and treats the Noahic flood as the explanation for the fossil record.

Osborn is uniquely qualified to address this sort of literalism, since he was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Although he doesn’t go into details about this, it was the founder of the SDA church (Ellen G. White) who popularized the view that flood geology (and not deep time) decisively explained the current fossil record (this having been revealed to her in a vision, in which she claimed to have actually observed the flood).

This interpretation of the fossil record (along with its assumption of a young earth, and the lack evolutionary descent) informed the hermeneutics of William Jennings Byran, the famous prosecutor in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Byran had read SDA literature on this topic). To this day, many in the SDA church are principled defenders of young earth creationism.

Since I do not count myself among those who read the Bible this way, I was less interested in part 1 of Osborn’s book. Nevertheless, there are some good chapters here. These include chap. 2: “Unwholesome Complexity,” which shows just how certain creationist readings end up tying the reader into interpretive knots, and chap. 6: “The Enclave Mentality,” which is perceptive about absolutism and the demonization of the other often found in fundamentalism.

I was particularly taken with the author’s characterization of the anxiety of a literalist reading of Scripture as “a high-stakes game of Jenga” (p. 45), where if you touch one of the bricks near the bottom the entire theological edifice might collapse. However, Osborn’s rhetoric in this section of the book can be dismissive at times, and might put off some readers who need to grapple with the important issues he raises here.

In my next two posts I will address part 2 of Osborn’s book, which explicitly addresses how we might think theologically about animal suffering.

The Advent of Justice

Back when I was working on my PhD in Canada I was asked to contribute to a book of Advent meditations in honor of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), a Canadian justice organization run by Christians. To that end Sylvia Keesmaat, Brian Walsh, Mark VanderVennen, and I each wrote meditations for one of the four weeks of Advent readings from the daily Lectionary (seven meditations apiece); all of us had been involved in some way with this important justice organization.

I had been personally impacted by CPJ, including their published literature on a Christian approach to the political sphere and the helpful guides they provided to the various issues as each Canadian election approached. I was also impressed by their political advocacy in the name of Christ on behalf of those negatively affected by unjust social policies in the context of our modern consumer society. CPJ had been an important voice in helping me think through the political implications of my own Christian faith.

Since the Old Testament readings for that Advent season all focused on passages from Isaiah, which connected faith with justice, we decided to make this the focus of our meditations, while also drawing connections to the Gospel readings for each day.

These meditations were published back in 1993 by the CJL Foundation (an arm of CPJ), as a short book called The Advent of Justice. That book was then adopted by the Anglican Diocese of Toronto as an Advent study guide for that year.

A well-known Toronto artist, Willem (Bill) Hart, graciously contributed watercolors for the book cover and as introductions to each week’s meditations.

The Advent of Justice was reprinted the following year (1994) by Dordt College Press; and it’s been used on and off by lots of different people over the years as a guide to reflecting on the meaning of the Advent season.

The Advent of Justice has just been reprinted by Wipf and Stock publishers in time for this year’s Advent season. I was delighted that Northeastern Seminary decided to give copies away at their annual alumni reception (held a week ago). And they have just this past week posted my own Advent reflections from the book (with permission from the publisher) on the Northeastern Seminary website.

For anyone interested, the post for the first day of the week (Sunday) can be found here. The posts for the other days (Monday through Saturday) can be accessed from the right hand column of the website.

A flyer about the book can be accessed here.

Wishing you a blessed and meaningful Advent season.