The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 3

In two previous posts I began to examine Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

In the first post I introduced the book and summarized Osborn’s critique of narrow literalism in the way the biblical creation accounts are often read. In the second post I affirmed (and even strengthened) his case for understanding animal predation as part of the good world God made.

In this post I will summarize Osborn’s argument for God’s redemption of animal suffering, and raise some questions about it.

Osborn had early on mentioned “the central riddle of this book” (p. 13), which was the tension between the beauty and terror of animals in the wild.

In chapter 12 Osborn mounted a good case for viewing animal predation (and the suffering this naturally causes) as part of God’s good creation. As I noted in my previous post, I found his argument from the book of Job (supplemented with the perspective of various Psalms) convincing.

However, Osborn is not content with making this point.

In chap. 13 (“Creation & Kenosis”), Osborn explores the other side of his tension, namely that it does not seem satisfactory to simply affirm the goodness of animal mortality and predation, given the very real suffering evident in the animal world. He calls this a “deep scandal” (p. 157) and notes that “There are things under heaven and in earth that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one” (p. 157).

Osborn therefore turns to the theological notion of kenosis, in connection with the Patristic doctrine of theosis, to address this problem.

In the end, his claim is that Christ’s self-emptying and death was for the redemption of all suffering, even that which predates human evil.

Kenosis

The theological idea of kenosis is derived from Philippians 2, where Paul describes Christ’s self-humbling (verse 7).

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied [eknōsen] himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

This is the first half of a poem or hymn that Paul quotes, the second half of which affirms Christ’s exaltation after death, and makes clear his deity (by using language from Isaiah that in its original context referred to YHWH’s uniqueness).

Traditionally, the idea of kenosis is associated with Christ giving up or letting go of his deity (or of his attributes of deity), suggesting that the incarnation involved a subtraction or lessening.

However, this misreads the text, which affirms instead that Christ (who legitimately has all the power of deity) did not use this for his own advantage, but (in humility) became a servant, even to death, to bring us salvation. This is the core of N. T. Wright’s argument in his chapter on Philippians 2 in The Climax of the Covenant.

The point is clear if we ask why Christ can be an example for us (verse 5).

He didn’t model becoming empty of deity (whatever that might mean); that wouldn’t be relevant to us. Rather, Christ modeled the compassionate use of power and privilege. If the one who is equal to the Father used his deity for our sakes, how much more should we use our God-given privileges to serve others in love.

It seems to me that Osborn tends towards using kenosis as an umbrella term to refer to Christ holding in abeyance his divine attributes, which led to his suffering (so he incorporates suffering under kenosis). This is why he can identify kenosis with open theism, which affirms God’s self-limitation in order to generously allow creatures space for genuine freedom. But one can be sympathetic with open theism (as I am) without affirming kenosis in Osborn’s sense.

 Theosis

Osborn pairs his notion of kenosis with theosis, also known as “deification” or “divinization.” Although I find some articulations of this doctrine problematic, since they seem to confuse the categories of creator and creation, I understand the impetus of theosis, both in the church fathers and today among authors like Michael Gorman.

The biblical warrant for using language of theosis is usually 2 Peter 1:4, which affirms that God has promised that we “may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature.” Of course, this doesn’t mean becoming God, but godlike in our character.

But beyond the transformation into godlikeness, the theosis doctrine, especially in Irenaeus (second century church father), is also associated with a goal-oriented vision of salvation. That is, the transformation that redemption effects is not a return to primitive origins, but along with repairing what went wrong, brings humanity to its intended telos or goal, which sin impeded.

So this combination of kenosis and theosis allows Osborn to articulate a vision of God’s compassionate suffering in Christ, which serves to bring the cosmos, with its immense animal suffering, to God’s intended telos of perfection where all suffering is eradicated.

I have to admit that I am attracted to Osborn’s vision.

Indeed, it is similar to my own articulation of the telos of salvation in my book A New Heaven and a New Earth. Like Osborn, I would go beyond Irenaeus in applying this goal-oriented vision of salvation to the cosmos and not just to humanity.

As many biblical scholars are coming to recognize, the Bible envisions a movement from a garden in the context of God’s creation of heaven and earth, to a garden-city in the context of a new heaven and a new earth, where God is fully present.

So, the goodness of the original creation is not the same as the perfection God has in mind for the cosmos.

I also find Osborn’s affirmation of God working non-coercively in and through ordinary processes of nature and history compelling. He notes that God’s sovereignty does not predetermine everything in advance, but gives creatures freedom to develop (p. 161). This, he explains, is the basis both of the evolutionary process and of the animal suffering this process has engendered.

Why Does the Cosmos Need Redeeming?

A problem is evident, however, in chapter 13 when Osborn comes to evaluate the evolutionary process, with its resultant suffering.

Should we think of this suffering as “natural evil,” that is, something that is wrong in some fundamental sense, and so needs redeeming?

Or is the evolutionary process, along with the suffering this has caused over the eons, part of the good (though wild and unpredictable) creation God has made?

In chapter 12, on the book of Job, Osborn had argued for the natural death and suffering of animals in the evolutionary process as part of God’s good world. Yet in chapter 13, he argues that this world of animal death and suffering needs redeeming.

But why would animal mortality and suffering need redeeming? Two answers are possible.

First, they could need redeeming because they are the result, in some way, of human sin. But Osborn has already (rightly) rejected the idea that nature is “fallen” due to human sin. Rather, he views animal suffering as simply part of what a world of living organisms involves, especially an evolving world.

Alternately, nature could need redeeming because it is intrinsically deficient (here the deficiency would be precisely the animal suffering involved in the evolutionary process).

Did God Create a Deficient Cosmos?

I want to affirm the basic intuition I sense in Osborn here, that the world seems out of whack with how it should be. And he clearly has a sense of kinship with, and compassion for, animals that is laudable.

Nevertheless, Osborn comes perilously close to a theme that is gaining momentum among Christian writers who take evolution seriously, namely that the death of Christ atones not just for sin and its consequences (which I affirm), but for God’s inadequate or deficient creation of the cosmos. In a sense, God is atoning for his own sin in creating a deficient world.

I think that the issue comes down not to whether evolution should be accepted (I agree with Osborn that it makes more sense of the evidence than any alternative). Rather, the issue is whether we think of the chaotic wildness of the cosmos (of which evolution can be considered a part) as part a of a good creation or as “natural evil” which needs to be redeemed.

We cannot have it both ways. Either a good creator brought into being a good, though not “perfect,” world. Or God is not a good creator, and so cannot be trusted. And no amount of kenosis can atone for this.

The Need to Distinguish Creation from Fall and Redemption

According to Osborn, “God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates” (p. 160). But I would want to maintain that God’s generous power evident in creation (which does not require God’s suffering) is distinct from God redemptive action to reverse the fall (which certainly requires God’s suffering).

I fully agree with Osborn that the kenosis of the cross (rightly understood) opens our eyes to see the realities of good and evil; but when he states that “When Christ cries ‘It is finished’ on Easter Friday the creation of the world is at last completed” (p. 165), I must dissent.

Otherwise creation and fall are indistinguishable, and God is not a good creator.

This means that we need to think carefully about the interconnection between God’s telos or goal for creation (which does not depend on the introduction of sin) and the need for redemption (which does). I myself haven’t fully sorted this issue out.

In the end, Osborn’s book is a strange tissue of great insights and contradictory proposals. Should we accept the testimony of Job (and the psalms) that God views animal predation as good? Or do we go with our instincts that this is all “natural evil” requiring redemption?

Perhaps Osborn will take some time to think through these issues and write some more on the topic. It is certainly an agenda for my own theological explorations.

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5 thoughts on “The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 3

  1. JR Middleton; So glad I happened upon your thought-provoking post while exploring various tags in the reader. It appears that the sort of topics you address as a scholar are those that have long fascinated me as a lay student of Scripture. As an example, my repeated re-reading of the Gospels in various formats over the years has led me to conclude that in his capacity as deity, the human Jesus had to have experienced unqualified suffering on his cross. In other words, the cup that he referred to in Gethsemane and subsequently drank contained all sentient suffering, from all ages, past, present and future, human and otherwise.
    In my recent posting “Separate Fire, Different Flame” @ whichbiblewhatfaith.wordpress.com I have briefly addressed the question as to what drives us to reflect upon these issues,
    C.J. Cameron

  2. Have you read Christopher Southgate’s “The Groaning of Creation? It’s a very interesting read. He gives 4 types of Kenosis and as far as I can tell does not fall into the error you are pointing out in your article.

    – K

    I hope to see you at the conference this coming weekend.

  3. Kerry, I haven’t read Southgate, but the book is on my reading list (one of about 25 books related to this subject I have been accumulating). And I will indeed be at Genesis Recast conference. I will be participating in the panel discussion during the afternoon session.

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