The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, by Christopher SouthgateThis is the first of three posts (2, 3) engaging with Christopher Southgate’s book, The Groaning of Creation, which I summarised a few years ago. I wrote the bulk of what follows in 2018, prior to reading Finding Ourselves after Darwin, which contains relevant chapters by Christopher Southgate and Michael Lloyd: see my review of that book for a summary.

One of the most trenchant objections to the Christian faith has been the so-called ‘problem of evil’, which refers to the various challenges posed to faith in a good and omnipotent God by the presence of genuine evil in the world. Understanding ‘evil’ to refer both to wicked actions and to ‘the suffering of sentient beings’, it is apparently the case that a great deal of the evil in the world – such as that caused by natural disasters, disease, and predation – cannot be attributed to human, angelic, or demonic activity, and hence must ultimately be God’s responsibility.1 Why would a good God permit, or cause, so much suffering?

The problem of the existence of suffering not caused by humans is brought into sharp relief when confronted by the suffering of animals in the wild. Atheist philosopher Quentin Smith writes of one such instance,

A clearer case of a horrible event in nature, a natural evil, has never been presented to me. It seemed to me self-evident that the natural law that animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive was an evil natural law and that the obtaining of this law was sufficient evidence that God did not exist.2

The problem is greatly exacerbated by the evidence for animal suffering through an evolutionary past.

It is precisely this problem that is tackled by Christopher Southgate in his 2008 book, The Groaning of Creation.3 Rejecting the suggestion that animal suffering is morally neutral, or that animal suffering is a consequence of the fall (whether human or angelic), Southgate claims that an evolutionary process was the ‘only way’ (or the ‘best way’) in which God could have created,4 that God co-suffers ‘with every sentient being’, and that animals that have ‘known no flourishing in this life’ will experience eschatological redemption.5 In addition, he explores the implications for Trinitarian theology and environmental ethics, engaging extensively with the work of other writers throughout his book.

My aim in this series of posts is limited. Southgate does not claim to have solved the problem of animal suffering,6 but seeks to hold the goodness of creation in tension with the existence of animal suffering (the ‘groaning’ of creation).7 I will seek to evaluate his approach by focusing on three issues. First, in this post, I will consider whether Southgate is correct to claim that animal suffering cannot be a consequence of the fall. Second, in the following post, I will examine one proposal for how Christian theology could do without a cosmic fall: Southgate’s suggestion that an evolutionary process was the ‘only way’ in which God could have created. Third, in the final post, I will challenge Southgate’s claim that ‘the sufferings of creatures must be a problem for Christian theology’,8 by questioning whether animal suffering is genuinely evil, and by exploring whether a good but not perfect creation could comfortably accommodate such suffering.

The Christian gospel is often described in terms of creation, fall, and redemption: a good world, corrupted through sin, and restored through Christ.9 This can readily be understood when the corruption in question is a direct consequence of human sin. However, when applied to the nonhuman creation, it is difficult to describe as ‘good’ a world in which ‘suffering is endemic’, and in which ‘98 percent of all species ever to have evolved are now extinct’.10

Prior to Darwin, animal suffering was commonly understood to be a consequence of the fall of Adam.11 However, given the geological evidence for the death of animals in the past, this position is now difficult to maintain.12 More recently, some have proposed an angelic fall as an explanation, such as Michael Lloyd, who has vigorously defended the importance of the doctrine of the fall,13 and whose work is the focus of Christopher Southgate’s discussion of the fall in The Groaning of Creation.14

Lloyd, following other writers, proposes that there was an angelic rebellion, as a result of which the whole created order is now profoundly distorted. He writes that,

Within this view, death, disease, division, and predation are seen as symptoms of this distortion, consequences of the angelic Fall rather than part of the good order of creation. Creation is thus already fallen before ever human beings evolve … .15

Lloyd sees no need for ‘speculation as to the chronological location of such a fall’, as long as it occurred prior to ‘all natural evil’.16 Is this tenable as an explanation for animal suffering, in the face of evolution?

Southgate considers the proposal that the fall explains ‘the disvalues we see in creation’ to be ‘scientifically dubious’,17 primarily because

the very processes by which the created world gives rise to the values of greater complexity, beauty, and diversity also give rise to the disvalues of predation, suffering, and violent and selfish behaviour.18

In other words, ‘The world is a package deal; to have the values, one must have the disvalues.’19 It is therefore not possible to separate the values from the disvalues, making God responsible for the former, but blaming the latter on the fall. In a Darwinian world, there is ‘an inherent coupling of values and disvalues’.20

Lloyd’s response to this challenge would be to suggest that, if the angelic fall had not taken place, then God would have fulfilled his purposes for creation by means of a different process. In works not discussed by Southgate, Lloyd argues that God used evolution only because he ‘chose to work with and around the free choices of the free creatures who hampered or distorted’ the process of creation.21

Nonetheless, it seems to me that Lloyd has not appreciated the strength of the bond between the disvalues and the values of the evolutionary process. If we were created through a single – and simple – process of ‘competition and carnivorousness’, and if ‘competition and carnivorousness’ are a result of ‘the angelic rebellion’,22 then to what extent can we be said to have been created by God, and not by fallen angels? There is no room – on a Darwinian account – for two rival processes. Rather, there is one process, which must either have been God’s work, or the work of the fallen angels.

The speculative nature of Lloyd’s proposal is also problematic. Lloyd acknowledges the lack of direct evidence that fallen angels cause natural evil, but argues that it can still be accepted as plausible.23 But if the doctrine of the ‘fallenness of nature’ is so vital to the Christian church, as Lloyd claims it is,24 then why is it not revealed more clearly in Scripture? As Henri Blocher writes,

The idea that animal death and catastrophic events, earthquakes or tsunamis, are consequences of Adam’s disobedience or are part of the havoc brought by the previous fall of ‘Lucifer’ … , lack all scriptural warrant.25

Before exploring Southgate’s alternative proposal, it is worth considering whether a rejection of Darwinian evolution might provide some possible solutions to the problem of animal suffering.

First, what about ‘intelligent design’, and the proposal that God, rather than the evolutionary process, was directly responsible for the creation of genetic information? This would make it easier to separate the disvalues of pain and suffering from the values of complexity and diversity, since the two would no longer form a ‘package deal’. However, what of the disvalues of predation, and the associated genetic information? It would be problematic to suggest that God is directly responsible.26 But the alternative would be to propose that the fallen angels created the ‘bad’ genetic information, which would make them into rival creators.

Second, what about young-age creationism? Southgate includes a brief section on this, ‘for the sake of completeness’, but does not discuss the implications for the problem of animal suffering.27 But one of the biggest mysteries for young-age creationism is the origin of predation. Some have taken hints from the effects of the fall on the serpent (Gen 3:14) and on the ground (producing ‘thorns and thistles’, Gen 3:18), and proposed that God ‘redesigned’ many creatures after the fall.28 But there are no hints in Scripture that God’s judgment on human sin was a creative event. Some have supposed that God introduced carnivory after the fall in order to teach us something about the hideous nature of sin.29 But this is problematic in what it suggests about God. Ronald Osborn asks some pointed questions:

But what kind of Creator would punish Adam and Eve’s rebellion – whether retroactively or proximately – by bending the rest of his creation from a state of perfect peace into so many malign forms, supernaturally summoning into existence the snake’s venom and the jaguar’s teeth and commanding innocent creatures to begin devouring one another for the moral instruction or chastisement of humans?30

Some have suggested that predation might be necessary in a fallen world, for example, ‘to control population sizes’.31 But this is not sufficient: it is by no means obvious that predation is a necessary element of our world.32 Young-age creationism, even though it places predation after the fall, still fails to provide a tidy solution to the problem of animal suffering.

So far it seems that Southgate is right to reject any kind of fall event as an explanation for the problem of animal suffering. It is time, therefore, to examine his own approach.

  1. Christopher Southgate, ‘Cosmic Evolution and Evil’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Problem of Evil, ed. by Chad Meister and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 147. 

  2. Quentin Smith, ‘An Atheological Argument From Evil Natural Laws’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 29 (1991), 159, emphasis in original. 

  3. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008). 

  4. Southgate, Groaning, 48. 

  5. Southgate, Groaning, 16. 

  6. Southgate, Groaning, 16. 

  7. Southgate, Groaning, 116. 

  8. Southgate, Groaning, 4, emphasis in original. 

  9. For example, see Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). 

  10. Southgate, Groaning, 15. 

  11. Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 73–80. 

  12. For an example of this position, in addition to the writings of young-age creationists, see William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville: B&H, 2009). 

  13. Michael Lloyd, ‘The Fall’, in Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, ed. by Paul A. B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey (London: Routledge, 1996), 368–370; Michael Lloyd, ‘The Cosmic Fall and the Free Will Defence’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1997; Michael Lloyd, ‘Are Animals Fallen?’, in Animals on the Agenda: Questions about Animals for Theology and Ethics, ed. by Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto (London: SCM, 1998), 147–160; Michael Lloyd, ‘The Humanity of Fallenness’, in Grace and Truth in the Secular Age, ed. by Timothy Bradshaw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 66–82; Michael Lloyd, Café Theology: Exploring Love, the Universe and Everything (London: Alpha International, 2005), 55–89. 

  14. Southgate, Groaning, 5, 29–33. 

  15. Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 159. 

  16. Lloyd, ‘Cosmic Fall’, 5:4:b:(iii). 

  17. Southgate, Groaning, 18. 

  18. Southgate, Groaning, 29. 

  19. Southgate, Groaning, 12. 

  20. Southgate, Groaning, 56. 

  21. Lloyd, ‘Cosmic Fall’, ch. 7; cf. Lloyd, Café Theology, 86. 

  22. Lloyd, Café Theology, 86. 

  23. Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 159–160. 

  24. Lloyd, ‘Humanity’, 66. 

  25. Henri Blocher, ‘The Theology of the Fall and the Origins of Evil’, in Darwin, Creation and the Fall: Theological Challenges, ed. by R. J. Berry and T. A. Noble (Nottingham: Apollos, 2009), 165; cf. Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2014), 34–35. 

  26. Southgate, Groaning, 20. 

  27. Southgate, Groaning, 18–19. 

  28. Don Batten and others, The Updated & Expanded Answers Book: The 20 Most-asked Questions about Creation, Evolution & the Book of Genesis Answered! (Acacia Ridge, Queensland: Answers in Genesis, 1999), 99; Todd Charles Wood and Megan J. Murray, Understanding the Pattern of Life: Origins and Organization of the Species (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 161. 

  29. See Osborn, Death, 137. 

  30. Osborn, Death, 138, cf. 16. 

  31. Wood and Murray, Understanding, 161. 

  32. Smith, ‘Atheological’, discussed in Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 147.