This is the third 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 the second post, I examined Southgate’s argument (that the suffering of animals was the ‘only way’ by which God could have created the world), and found that it too is unsatisfactory. How, then, can we make sense of the groaning of creation?
I began by framing the discussion in terms of the problem of evil. For Southgate (and for Michael Lloyd), animal suffering is a clear example of genuine evil. But this claim needs to be examined more carefully. In this post, therefore, I want to consider the possibility that animal suffering, death, and predation might, in fact, not count as genuinely evil, but could rather be described as a good part of God’s good creation, at least for the time being.1 In order to make this case, I will need to argue that animal suffering is not evil, per se, before looking at what Scripture says about the groaning of creation and the purposes of God. Finally, I will look at Romans 8, which is the only passage in Scripture to describe ‘creation’ as ‘groaning’.
Is the suffering of animals evil?
In response to the suggestion that animal suffering might not be problematic, Southgate appeals to the scientific evidence that animals experience ‘acute pain’, ‘actual suffering’, and ‘existential dread’.2 This is explored in more depth by Robert Francescotti, who surveys the recent evidence and concludes that it is ‘highly likely that many animals other than humans experience phenomenally distressful pain states’.3
However, as Southgate acknowledges, this does not mean that animals experience pain in the same way that human beings do:
It is very important to admit that we do not know what the experience of other creatures is like. We shall never know, this side of paradise, what it is like to be a cat, or yet a bat.4
This point is picked up by Henri Blocher, echoing C. S. Lewis:
Although Southgate uncritically attributes ‘selves’ to animals, it is reasonable to doubt that even higher animals are selves in a meaningful sense of the word. None can say ‘I’. … And if there is no self to suffer, the problem of suffering is set in very different terms.5
While not claiming to have solved the ‘problem of animal pain’, Blocher also notes that this is a recent, Western problem, and draws attention to the fact that ‘There is no trace in Scripture of a serious concern about this aspect of animal life.’6 Perhaps, then, with Blocher, and contrary to our modern instincts, we need to adopt a narrower definition of ‘evil’:
What some label ‘metaphysical evil’, meaning being subject to limitations or lacking the fullness of being which is God’s (‘imperfection’ may be used), is obviously no evil if all evil is restricted to sin and the consequences of sin.7
How should we respond to this? Southgate acknowledges Blocher’s arguments, but dismisses them without engaging with their substance.8 But even if we are willing to agree with Blocher that animal suffering does not count as ‘evil’, strictly speaking, it is nonetheless difficult to suppress the intuitive sense that there is something less than ideal about animal agony. To echo Blocher’s words, even if we are not confronted here with a ‘problem of evil’, we are still faced with a ‘problem of imperfection’, or a ‘problem of lacking the fullness of being’. What role does such imperfection and lack of fullness have in the purposes of God?
The groaning of creation in the purposes of God
The creation in Genesis 1 is described as ‘good’, but not as ‘perfect’.9 Lloyd identifies three features of the creation that show that the creation was far from perfect, even prior to the fall of humanity: the command to ‘subdue’ (Gen 1:28), the existence of the serpent, and the fact the garden does not fill the whole earth.10 However, he interprets these imperfections as evidence of creation’s fallenness prior to human sin. This fits with Lloyd’s definition of ‘fallenness’:
‘Fallenness’ refers to the perceived gap between the universe as it now is and the universe as it was intended to be in the creation purposes of God.11
The weakness of this definition is that it does not allow for God’s creative purposes to be initially only partially fulfilled. In other words, if the universe was initially created good but not perfect, then – even in the absence of any fall – there will always be a ‘gap between the universe as it now is and the universe as it was intended to be’, precisely because a good but not perfect creation should grow steadily towards its intended goal of perfection.
According to Genesis 1, then, it seems that there is a difference between God’s eternal purpose and God’s temporary purpose for creation. God’s eternal purpose for his creation is that it should be subdued and filled, whereas God’s temporary purpose for his creation is that it should be largely unsubdued and unfilled. But this does not mean that creation is not good. It is possible for creation to be good, and yet, simultaneously, not to be what it ought (eventually) to be. We could speak of Genesis 1 as describing a ‘good start’ for creation (even a ‘very good start’), while recognising that it does not describe the ‘final product’.
Lloyd sees this distinction between God’s eternal and temporary purposes as creating a conflict between creation and redemption:
Either predation and pain were, and remain, God’s eternal purpose for creation, in which case redemption is unnecessary, undesirable, and impossible; or they were part of God’s temporary purpose for creation, in which case creation and redemption seem to point in worryingly different directions.12
However, this is only the case if (animal) pain and predation serve no constructive purpose in a not yet perfect creation. What might such a purpose be?
My suggestion is that it was good for humanity to be confronted with a creation that was not only unfilled, but also untamed. God’s process of creation ‘involved taming the pre-fallen world of its chaotic elements’ (e.g. Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:13–16).13 The calling of humanity is to continue this process, and to bring about the development of creation.14 It seems plausible that a creation that is energetic, powerful, wild, and uncontrolled would provide a much better canvas for humanity to fulfil its vocation than a creation that is timid and placid. Such a creation would also serve to display God’s power.15 It was part of God’s good purpose for creation that it should be both filled and subdued by humanity (Gen 1:28).16
God’s ultimate purpose for creation is therefore that its original wildness should be tamed by humanity. This will be fulfilled when ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb’, and when ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Is 11:6, 9; cf. 65:25). This ‘peaceable kingdom’ is glimpsed in the life of Jesus, who ‘was in the wilderness for forty days, … with the wild beasts’ (Mk 1:13).17
The groaning of creation in Romans 8:19–23
Having discussed creation’s groaning at length, it is now time to turn to the only passage in Scripture that speaks of ‘creation … groaning’: Romans 8:19-23. What is the nature of this ‘groaning’, and how does it relate to the fall?
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23, NRSV).
This passage is part of a larger unit (vv. 18-30), which brings the first half of the letter to a climax with a description of the ‘cosmic outworking of salvation’.18 The freedom that the nonhuman creation will enjoy is presented in terms of the reversal of the fall of Adam, with allusions to the curse on the ground (Gen 3:17-19), and to the hope of redemption (Gen 3:15).19 It is easy to link this – then and now – with the ‘erosion of the natural environment’ that comes about as a result of ‘economic exploitation’.20 The ‘groaning’ of creation in Romans 8 is therefore associated primarily with the relationship between humans and the rest of creation, with agricultural practices specifically in view.
Is it appropriate to describe creation as ‘groaning’ in a broader sense, to include animal suffering and predation? The ‘futility’ of Romans 8 describes a failure of creation to reach its goal.21 Part of creation’s original goal was that it would eventually experience ‘glory’ (Rom 8:18, 21, 30). What will ‘glory’ look like for creation, in terms of animal suffering and predation? Isaiah’s peaceable vision has been mentioned above (Is 11:6-9), and is alluded to by Habakkuk, with the addition of ‘glory’:
But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14, NRSV).
Creation is groaning towards its glorification, which will involve an end to animal suffering and predation.
As with the definition of ‘evil’ above, we can distinguish two ways in which creation is ‘groaning’. On the one hand, it is groaning on account of sin and the subsequent cursing of the ground. But, on the other hand, there is a sense in which it has been ‘groaning’ even from before the fall of humanity, in that it has always been looking forward to its final glorification. The two senses are related, because the fall has hindered creation’s progress towards its final goal. Humanity was intended to shepherd the creation towards maturity and towards glory, but has failed in that task. Creation is thus ‘groaning’ both to be set free from the negative effects of human sin, and also to see its original purpose fulfilled.22 It will indeed be ‘set free from its bondage to decay’, but its ‘freedom’ will be more than it knew before the fall: it will ‘obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ (Rom 8:21).23
In these posts I have sought to address the problem of animal suffering. I have argued that Christopher Southgate is correct, in The Groaning of Creation, to reject solutions to this problem based on an appeal to the fall, whether human or angelic. But in the absence of a cosmic fall, how is it possible to affirm that creation is good, when God is apparently responsible for so much of its pain? Southgate’s answer to this is to suggest that God had no choice in the matter. I have argued against this idea. Instead, I have proposed that the ‘natural evils’ of animal pain and predation are not ‘evils’ at all, but are rather elements of a creation that is good but untamed and immature.
What are the implications of this, in terms of apologetics, and in terms of pastoral practice?
When it comes to apologetics, how would one respond to atheists, such as Quentin Smith, who claim that the violence and suffering present in the animal world are evidence that God does not exist? My response would be, first, to posit a sharp distinction between human beings and other animals, such that animal suffering is not ‘evil’ in the sense that human suffering is ‘evil’. I would then draw attention to the distinction between a good and a perfect creation. Creation is a ‘work in progress’, and is not yet what God intends it to be.
In terms of apologetics more generally. I hope that these posts have demonstrated that it is worth giving sustained attention to difficult questions. While there will be times when it is necessary to ‘conclude with uncertainty’ and proceed ‘by faith, not sight’,24 this should never be our only response.
When it comes to pastoral practice, it is important to consider how to respond when people are experiencing pain and suffering.
The pre-fall creation appears to have contained predation, suffering, and death, and presumably other ‘natural evils’ such as earthquakes, floods, and volcanos. One question I have not explored above is whether, prior to the fall, such ‘evils’ would have affected people or not. Blocher suggests that human beings were originally immune to all diseases, and would have been able to ‘avert all negative consequences of earthquakes, etc’.25 This is certainly ‘conjectural’,26 but it does raise some significant questions. One avenue to explore would be the distinction between the world inside and outside the garden.27 Was it God’s intention for humanity to be protected from harm within the garden, and then to be suitably equipped to expand the garden to fill the whole earth? My proposals suggest a way in which it is possible to explain the existence of suffering within a good (but not perfect) creation. But a deeper consideration of the fall and its effects is required in order to formulate a more comprehensive pastoral response to the effects of natural evil.
Michael Lloyd makes much of the pastoral implications of his fall-based theodicy (as does Stephen Lloyd, from a young-age perspective28). It allows him to say to those experiencing hardships that God is unambiguously opposed to their suffering. But if suffering, pain, and death are part of God’s ‘good’ creation, then how is it possible to comfort those who are suffering?29
Perhaps this is not too difficult. Lloyd’s response to suffering would, of course, go beyond saying that God didn’t want a person’s suffering to happen. Such a message is little consolation on its own: it suggests that God was unable to prevent suffering, and offers no hope. The comfort comes from the promise of new creation.
With the approach that I have been proposing, the pastoral response would be to say that, even from the beginning, God wanted us to look forward to something better than the world we see around us. In his wisdom, God created a world that was untamed and untidy, in order that we would set our hope on him, and on his promise of new creation, rather than setting our hope on what we can see. In other words, the response would be to say that not only was love part of God’s original creation, so also were faith and hope. Thus the wildness of God’s creation can itself form part of a pastoral response to suffering (Job 38-41).
The topic of God’s purposes for creation has massive implications for environmental and animal ethics, which have not been explored here. Within Christian ministry, this is of relevance for preaching, pastoral ministry, and whole-life discipleship.
By drawing attention to the role of humanity in shepherding creation from being ‘very good’ to being subdued and filled with God’s glory, my proposals give humanity a significant place within creation. We were created for the sake of creation, so that, filled with God’s Spirit and led by God Incarnate, we might contribute towards God’s purposes for his good but not yet perfect creation.
Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2014), 33, 150–156; Alastair Roberts, ‘Death Before the Fall’, visited on 2 March 2018; J. Richard Middleton, ‘The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 2’, visited on 4 March 2018; James K. A. Smith, ‘What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration’, in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 61. ↩
Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 4. ↩
Robert Francescotti, ‘The Problem of Animal Pain and Suffering’, in The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil, ed. by Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder (Chichester: Wiley, 2013), 119–120. ↩
Southgate, Groaning, 4. ↩
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), 168. ↩
Blocher, ‘Theology’, 167–168. ↩
Blocher, ‘Theology’, 165. ↩
Christopher Southgate, ‘Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian Response to Darwinism’, Zygon, 46 (2011), 378. ↩
Osborn, Death, 29, 31; Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 41; Southgate, Groaning, 15–16; Southgate, ‘Re-reading’, 386–387. ↩
Michael Lloyd, ‘The Fall’, in Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society, ed. by Paul A. B. Clarke and Andrew Linzey (London: Routledge, 1996), 369; Lloyd, Michael Lloyd, ‘The Cosmic Fall and the Free Will Defence’, PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 1997, 5:4:b:(iv); 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; Michael Lloyd, ‘The Humanity of Fallenness’, in Grace and Truth in the Secular Age, ed. by Timothy Bradshaw (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 79; Michael Lloyd, Café Theology: Exploring Love, the Universe and Everything (London: Alpha International, 2005), 81–82. ↩
Lloyd, ‘Fall’, 368. ↩
Lloyd, ‘Animals’, 153, emphasis in original. ↩
William Edgar, ‘Adam, History, and Theodicy’, in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. by Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 315–316. ↩
Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 41–48. ↩
Edgar, ‘Adam’, 316. ↩
Osborn, Death, 28–29, 32–33. ↩
Richard Bauckham, ‘Jesus and the Wild Animals (Mark 1:13): A Christological Image for an Ecological Age’, in Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ: Essays on the Historical Jesus and New Testament Christology, ed. by Joel B. Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 3– 21. ↩
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary 38A (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 467. ↩
Southgate, Groaning, 17, 95; Dunn, Romans, 467, 469–471, 486–487; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 413–414, 416; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 513–518; Jonathan Moo, ‘Romans 8.19–22 and Isaiah’s Cosmic Covenant’, New Testament Studies, 54 (2008), 78–79. ↩
Jewett, Romans, 513. ↩
Cranfield, Romans, 413–414; Dunn, Romans, 470, 486–487. ↩
Wolters, Creation Regained, 45–46. ↩
Moo, ‘Romans 8’, 89. ↩
Blocher, ‘Theology’, 172. ↩
Blocher, ‘Theology’, 166; cf. C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003), 160. ↩
Southgate, ‘Re-reading’, 378. ↩
Osborn, Death, 31, 35–36. ↩
Stephen Lloyd, ‘Christian Theology and Neo-Darwinism are Incompatible: An Argument from the Resurrection’, in Debating Darwin. Two Debates: Is Darwinism True & Does It Matter? (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), 20. ↩
Lloyd, Café Theology, 61–69. ↩