Millions of Years of Disease in a ‘Very Good’ Creation (Part 1 of 2)

If you are at all familiar with Christian apologetics, whether engaging challenges from non-theists or from Christians with different views, you know that the topic of pain, suffering, and death is a major issue. (In fact, Darwin’s struggle with this was the impetus for developing his theory.) These things are considered “evil”, so the question is “Why would a ‘good’ God make a world full of pain, suffering, & death for His creatures to endure?”, or “How could God include pain, suffering, & death (for millions of years) in His ‘very good’ creation?”

Raphael painting of God creatingThe Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) solution is that none of that was part of God’s originally intended plans. So, no one & nothing suffered any sort of discomfort during those first few 24-hr days. But, when Adam & Eve rebelled (aka “the Fall”) and God pronounced His Curse, YEC belief is that, not only was death & suffering for humanity instituted, but so it was for the animals. Or, at least, for those that have fully-developed pain receptors, or some such thing. (Btw, it wasn’t always the case, but most YECs now will assert that plants and non-soulish animals — from bacteria to insects to fish & reptiles — do not experience pain or death in the same way as humans and soulish creatures (i.e., birds & mammals).) The Old-Earth Creationist (OEC) position is quite different but, admittedly, not always fleshed out.

As I hinted at in an earlier post, a YEC — whom I will here call “Ed” — that I was conversing with on Facebook asked me about a particular aspect of this issue. It was a good question, and I had to be careful to focus on the specific thing without getting into the larger issue. (You’ll see what I mean in a sec.) It took a few days, but I was able to compose what I thought was a fair answer, which I have reproduced below.

I naively thought — at first, anyway — that Ed was just curious and was asking for my thoughts on the matter merely to better understand my position. I should have known, though, that he also wanted to critique them and tell me exactly why I was wrong. (And, that’s fine.) Not long afterward, Ed responded with: “Hi Christopher, I appreciate your thoughts on this. And I think you’ve also raised a challenging question to my stance on this issue. I hope to respond soon to this… Thanks” Needless to say, I was very curious what he recognized to be a ‘challenge’ to his view, though it probably had to do with the last, numbered item of mine. He followed up a few days later with a lengthy, multi-post response, which I have also reproduced.

Here’s the first part of my post:

“I realize that this thread has effectively ended, but I wanted a chance to answer Ed’s last question to me. (It has taken me a few days to do some research and get my thoughts together.) Hope y’all don’t mind….

Ed asked, ‘…Btw what do you believe concerning diseases like cancer in God’s ‘very good’ creation for millions of years?’

Well, Ed, as you might guess, I do not believe that God’s ‘good’/’very good’ pronouncements — actually, more like reflections or conclusions — in Gen 1 are meant to indicate some perfect, idyllic “paradise” (even in the Garden), where no creature capable of feeling pain/suffering (i.e., “higher animals with a nervous system”) will ever experience such, let alone death. Rather, I think those statements reflect God’s pleasure/satisfaction with what he had just accomplished and/or, as someone mentioned earlier, they are commentary on the creation’s “perfect” suitability for His purposes. The Hebrew word translated “good” (<tov> or <towb> (Strong 02896)) has many shades of meaning, depending on context, and both ideas of pleasant/agreeable and appropriate/beneficial are valid.

I believe God created this universe and this world with several related purposes in mind (e.g., primarily, the conquering of evil via human agents and Jesus), and He determined the combination of physical characteristics and laws that would best accomplish those purposes. (Obviously, I agree with Ian on this. See Dr. Ross’ book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is for a great examination of these purposes.) Like any engineer knows, in order to attain overall optimality in a system/product, one needs to sacrifice and settle for sub-optimality in various individual characteristics or parts of the whole. I suppose one might, then, chalk up the existence of disease as a “necessary evil” within a Master Plan being carried out for the Greater Good by the Sovereign, Creator God.

Cancer cells dividing

Cancer cell dividing

Cancers, of course, have several different causes, including inherited genetic defects, DNA-mutating carcinogens, and infectious diseases from viruses, bacteria, & parasites. (We can be reasonably sure that tobacco, obesity, and environmental pollutants — well, the man-made kind, anyway — were not among those reasons that pre-Fall animals may have contracted cancer. Or post-Fall, at least for the first two.) Diseases in general are caused by either the introduction of a pathogen or by genetic mutation or deterioration.

When you said above that “Carnivory and disease were not part of God’s very good creation,” I think you were half right. I would tend to agree with Dr. Fuz Rana that, while each new animal species was likely created de novo with a pristine genome, they were/are subject to the law of decay from the beginning. Viruses & bacteria are a part of God’s “very good” creation, providing many benefits for life/humanity (e.g., intestinal microflora). But, they are prone to mutation and have the capability of lateral gene transfer, so they sometimes develop harmful properties and/or can swap hosts, causing harm to the new host, even when it was not harmful to the original. Like it or not, pre- or post-Fall, it’s all part of the God-ordained natural order of things. (I would add, of course, that the harmful effects of nature are often exacerbated by the sinful attitudes, actions & inactions of Mankind.)

Btw, Richard Deem makes the following point in an article of his: “Given the laws of physics and the nature of quantum events, it is not possible to design a biological machine that operates with 100% accuracy. In fact, many biological systems are operating right up to the maximum theoretical limits. So, given the laws of physics, it is not possible to create an organism that does not possess at least a small mutation rate. Therefore, genetic mutation and disorders are inevitable for any reproducing biological species.”

Disease “thins the herd,” either by individuals dying of the disease or, in the matter of herbivores, by carnivores preying on them. This helps keep the herbivore populations from becoming too large, overgrazing the land and eventually starving to death. It’s all about the ecosystem and ecological balance. (Well, maybe not *all*. I would go further into this, but that gets into the broader issue of millions of years of death….) Incidentally, starvation is more painful and drawn-out than having one’s neck broken, throat ripped out, or even being eaten while initially, briefly still conscious (and likely in shock).”

Here is Ed’s response:

“I do agree with you here in that God’s Very Good Creation did bring God pleasure and satisfaction. However I also believe that God was glorified in the work of His hands because the Creation was also a reflection of His goodness… wouldn’t you agree? And of course the word “good” can have different shades of meaning depending on context, but here we have God calling His very own work “very good” and that in the context of a world that is not fallen or cursed.

Jesus said that “No-one is “good” but God alone”. but what type of goodness is Jesus speaking of here?, this goodness has to be of a quality that is beyond our full understanding and is the very essence of God’s perfect nature. Therefore when God calls the very work of His hands “very good” this is also the expression of His own goodness. So how can we say disease, suffering, death and decay are called “very good” by God Himself?

We who are fallen human beings or at least most of us instinctively know that disease, carnivory & suffering that also leads to death is not good. And to say “very good” or “good” may mean good for purposes is an understatement to say the least for God called “everything” He had made “very good”. Therefore I struggle to understand how many true born-again Christians can say these things can be called “very good” by God. Furthermore the Scriptures themselves bear witness to this, Gen 1.30 on a face value reading confirms what I’m saying concerning carnivory and death through it. Romans 8 also confirms that there is a groaning & suffering (suffering been implied here through a groaning world) in the “whole of Creation” and this because of sin.

engineer scratching headI really don’t know what optimality has got to do with creatures having to be inflicted with diseases like cancer for millions of years. Also God is not “like any engineer” for with Him all things are possible.

You say that diseases were inevitable and also that animals were made in pristine condition with no defects. I think you’ve got this only “half right” too, but I think you’re making several errors here.

You wrote “Therefore, genetic mutation and disorders are inevitable for any reproducing biological species.” But if this is so Christopher well then Adam and Eve were originally subject to genetic mutation and disorders too as they also had a genetic make-up.

But I know you know this can’t be so, it appears that you are saying that God created Adam and Eve with perfect health and they would have remain so except for the fall and curse, but the animals were created with perfect health, but were going to diseases, harmful mutations etc regardless of whether the world is cursed or not. So it concerns me is that you grant God created the world in pristine condition and then let it deteriorate and allow the natural order of what appears to be an already cursed Creation by implication of your view from the very beginning. It almost sounds like you’re describing a Deistic God to me. But our God did created His very good Creation with all His creatures in pristine condition and to remain that way and this also created an environment that Adam and Eve would have always enjoyed without fear, dread or sadness and this too for their descendants if they were to remain obedient to their Creator.

With regards to viruses e.t.c there is some good material on Creation.com and other good YEC literature and websites that I think gives a good answer in support of YEC.”

So,… that was the first back-n-forth of this thought-provoking exchange. I didn’t get a chance to comment on it at the time, but I actually partially agreed with Ed’s idea that God’s work would reflect His characteristic (moral) goodness. (His nature is the grounding for our understanding of what moral “goodness” is, after all.) But, I don’t think this idea requires that everything start out in a “perfect”, ideal state. (We won’t see that until the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth.) Furthermore, I don’t think Gen. 1:30 is nearly so strong an argument against pre-Fall carnivorous behavior, and the Romans 8 passage doesn’t even apply. I’m also surprised Ed didn’t grasp what I meant about engineering and optimality.

With regard to Ed’s third- and second-to-last paragraphs, he appears to have misunderstood certain points of my position, partly due to some assumptions about particulars that neither of us addressed. I never stated that “God created the world in pristine condition”, and I’m not sure what he meant by that. I did state that “while each new animal species was likely created de novo with a pristine genome, they were/are subject to the law of decay from the beginning.” I think this extended to Adam & Eve, too. I also contend that the “natural order” was in force across the face of the planet, and all animals participated in the “circle of life”. But, Adam & Eve were special cases — i.e., humans, living in the Garden, with access to fruit from the Tree of Life. I think it’s possible, even probable, that this fruit — perhaps via supernatural blessing — had properties that retarded aging and neutralized anything potentially harmful in their bodies. They could theoretically have lived forever — or, at least, a very long time — if they had continued to have access to the ToL fruit. But, that wasn’t part of the plan.

Notice also that Ed’s logic is circular, because he already assumes that the presence of any sort of “deterioration” or pain/suffering/death was/is an indication of God’s Curse, which is precisely the issue at large. He has to read in his YEC presuppositions to make his case.

In a couple(?) days, I’ll post Part 2….

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