The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, by Christopher SouthgateThis is the second of three posts engaging with Christopher Southgate’s book, The Groaning of Creation. In the first post I argued that Southgate is right to reject any kind of fall event as an explanation for animal suffering. In this post, I examine Southgate’s own approach to the problem.

One of the pillars of Christopher Southgate’s approach to the problem of animal suffering in The Groaning of Creation is the ‘only way’ (or ‘best way’) argument:1

The general tenor of this argument is to accept that there is a problem of evolutionary suffering, but to regard it as the inevitable and necessary price of the realization of values through evolution, and the price is worth it.2

It is important to note that Southgate does not prove (for example, on biblical grounds) that evolution was ‘the only way open to God’. Rather, it is an ‘(unprovable) assumption’,3 which he claims is ‘eminently plausible and coherent to suppose’.4 Posing the question of why God did not simply create ‘heaven’ directly, Southgate is reduced to speculation: ‘our guess must be that though heaven can eternally preserve [creaturely] selves, subsisting in suffering-free relationship, it could not give rise to them in the first place’.5 Epistemologically, then, we seem to be no better off here than we were when speculating about an angelic fall in the previous post. Nonetheless, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with proposing a hypothesis in order to explain the evidence, as Michael Lloyd argues in relation to his hypothesis of an angelic fall.6 But it is important to examine the hypothesis, first for its plausibility, then to determine whether it provides a satisfactory solution to the problem of animal suffering, and finally to consider whether it has any wider implications.

First, then, is it plausible to suggest that an evolutionary process might have been the ‘only way’ open to God? Mats Wahlberg has examined Southgate’s ‘only way’ argument by means of a series of thought experiments, and found it wanting. For example,

Suppose that God would create – directly – an exact molecular duplicate of a certain, individual pelican. If the original pelican – which is a product of evolution – is a ‘creaturely self’, then so is the molecular copy of that pelican. But the latter is not a product of evolution, so a process of evolution cannot be the only possible way for God to create creaturely selves.7

Moreover, any notion of ‘heaven’ for human or nonhuman creatures implies that suffering is not necessary for the flourishing of these organisms.8

Second, does the ‘only way’ argument help with the task of constructing an evolutionary theodicy? Although it does exonerate God from the charge of inflicting unnecessary suffering, it does raise the question of whether an instrumental use of suffering is justifiable. This, for Southgate, is the ‘sharpest edge of the problem’ of evolutionary theodicy:

Suffering among the weak and less well adapted is intrinsic to the evolution of sophisticated creaturely attributes. So if we believe God desired the development of such values – complexity, diversity, excellence of adaption – then, again, the sufferers are means to God’s ends. What sort of God is that?9

Southgate attempts to soften the force of this by ‘invoking eschatological compensation for the victims of evolution’ (‘pelican heaven’).10 But this is still ethically problematic. For example, would the intention to offer compensation afterwards render it morally justifiable to torture someone?

Michael Lloyd critiques instrumental accounts of suffering on multiple grounds.11 The first is that they tend to be anthropocentric. This is a charge that cannot be entirely avoided by Southgate’s scheme, with his claim that the ‘phase of evolution … is coming to an end’ with the arrival (and redemption) of humanity.12 Most of Lloyd’s other criticisms are variations on the notion that an instrumental account of suffering makes God ‘directly responsible’ for evil.13

Finally, what are the wider implications of the ‘only way’ argument? Lloyd argues that this argument imposes unacceptable limits on the power of God,14 something which Southgate acknowledges in The Groaning of Creation but does not fully address.15 However, Southgate has subsequently acknowledged that

Theologically however this constraint continues to seem problematic, and calls for further exploration in relation to the classical doctrines of divine omnipotence and creatio ex nihilo.16

Still more recently he has continued to explore this issue, writing that

only-way arguments leave the Christian theodicist in an uncomfortable position, having to assert that God, in the divine desire to create, was constrained to create processes to which suffering was intrinsic in pursuit of ends to which suffering was instrumental.17

This is then likened to another constraint upon God, which ‘is the necessity, oft-repeated in the New Testament, that Jesus should have to endure degrading execution to release, finally and fully, the redemptive purposes of God into the world’.18 However, there is a significant difference between the two constraints. The latter is conventionally seen as necessary in order to redeem humanity from the consequences of the human fall into sin, whereas the former involves God’s purposes in creation. The comparison therefore risks implying that there is no fundamental difference between God’s act of creation and God’s act of redemption.19

The problem of animal pain and suffering appears not to admit a simple solution, either in terms of a fall (whether human or angelic), or in terms of an ‘only way’ argument. Both of these avenues involve a great deal of speculation beyond the biblical text, and both have serious difficulties. Is there another way to proceed?

  1. Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 48. 

  2. Southgate, Groaning, 12. 

  3. Southgate, Groaning, 16. 

  4. Southgate, Groaning, 30. 

  5. Southgate, Groaning, 90. 

  6. 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), 159–160. 

  7. Mats Wahlberg, ‘Was Evolution the Only Possible Way for God to Make Autonomous Creatures? Examination of an Argument in Evolutionary Theodicy’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 77 (2015), 46. 

  8. Wahlberg, ‘Evolution’, 49–50. 

  9. Southgate, Groaning, 9–10, emphasis in original. 

  10. Southgate, Groaning, 53. 

  11. Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 150–155. 

  12. Southgate, Groaning, 127. 

  13. Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 151. 

  14. Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 275n19. 

  15. Southgate, Groaning, 30. 

  16. Christopher Southgate, ‘Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian Response to Darwinism’, Zygon, 46 (2011), 388. 

  17. 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), 157. 

  18. Southgate, ‘Cosmic Evolution’, 158. 

  19. J. Richard Middleton, ‘The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 3’, visited on 4 March 2018.