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.


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

  1. Very much looking forward to post 2. Not sure I’ll have time for Osborn’s book for quite a while, so this is helpful. Also, the point on White’s position of popularizing the flood fossil record account was notable (meaning, I literally made note of it, in Evernote). Thanks.

  2. Richard –

    I read your post with real interest and look forward to the next.

    If I understand your direction correctly, you are interested here in how animal suffering exists (sort of pre-Fall-ish-ly as a step in explaining something about its existence any time).

    I wonder if, as part of this effort, it would be helpful to reflect on the nature of it along with the how of it – the how-can-it-possibly-be of it. It seems to me that knowing the nature of the particular experience of animal suffering might be helpful in defining the content of the word “suffering” in this business. (As a footnote, I wouldn’t see any way to describe the nature of suffering – animal or otherwise – without melding it with the meaning of that suffering.)

    Well, those were just some thoughts I wanted to share. I’m out of it now. Looks like a lot of work. As did the barnyard animals in “The Little Red Hen”, I am happy to watch you exert yourself and to plan on enjoying the outcome of your labor.


    • Who will help me write the blog?

      “Not I,” said the cat.
      “Not I,” said the pig.
      “Not I,” said the dog.
      “Not I,” said the mouse.
      “Not I,” said the frog.
      “Not I,” said the duck.
      (Did you know these are all characters in different variants of the story?)

      Well, I guess I will write it myself then–and share it with you all (at least a few crumbs).

  3. Pingback: The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 2 | CREATION to ESCHATON

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