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

“Men seek an explanation of suffering in cause and effect. They look backwards for a connection between prior sin and present suffering. The Bible looks forwards (sic) in hope and seeks explanations, not so much in origins as in goals. The purpose of suffering is seen, not in its cause, but in its result. The man was born blind so that the works of God could be displayed in him (John 9:3)…. We have to be as patient as God Himself to see the end result, or to go on living in faith without seeing it.”  — Francis Anderson, in his introduction to Charles Spurgeon’s The Suffering of Man and the Sovereignty of God

As you may recall, my last post reproduced the first half of my FB discussion with “Ed” regarding how to reconcile the idea of “diseases like cancer in God’s ‘very good’ creation for millions of years”. The phrase “very good” is a reference to God’s proclamation in Gen. 1:31, after He finished His creative work on the 6th <yom> (aka “day” or period of time). As a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC), Ed is very disturbed by the idea of pain, suffering, & death existing before the Fall of Adam (and Eve) and the resulting Curse, which in his view was the first time that any physical (or, even psychological) discomfort was visited upon higher-order creatures. (This would include decay/deterioration, too.) Such inflictions are deemed unnecessarily cruel and, therefore, call into question God’s character. As an Old-Earth Creationist (OEC), I hold to a very different view, which I tried to explain to Ed, though I don’t purport to be an expert of any kind.

The second half of our exchange follows, beginning with me:

gorgo_braincase_small_withtumor“Back to the crux of your question…. Perhaps the question could be rephrased, “How can millions of years of animals suffering pain, often to the point of death, be part of the Master Plan of a Good God?” These animals didn’t learn valuable lessons from their pain & suffering like humans can, after all. Nor could they “draw closer to God” through the ordeal. There is, understandably, a strongly emotional aspect to any question regarding pain/suffering/death, especially when God’s role & attitude is in question. But, it exists and we need to deal with it. So, along these lines, let me throw out a few things:

1) All life is from God, human and non-human. Without Him, we don’t exist. It is, therefore, His prerogative to allow/cause any pain or take any life He chooses for whatever reason He chooses. He *owns* us. And, as the Source and Standard for objective morality, God cannot be deemed immoral for allowing/causing pain or taking lives. Fortunately, we know that He is also good, just, and unchanging in character. So, as Ian pointed out [in earlier comments from the larger, preceding FB exchange], “Suffering exists, so God must have a morally justifiable reason for allowing it, otherwise he would be inconsistent.”

2) Since soulish animals (i.e., birds & mammals) can actually form relationships with humans, many people are particularly emotional about the idea of these creatures suffering pain or being killed. We even tend to anthropomorphize our pets’ thoughts & behaviors. So, it’s no surprise that a somewhat sentimentalized view of animal suffering & death can develop.

3) All physical life suffers to some degree and eventually dies. But, from a Christian perspective, there is a profound difference between the physical death of a spiritual creature (a human) and the death of any other form of physical life. For the former, pain is greatly intensified by the awareness & anticipation of future agony — physical, spiritual, or both. But, the future is neither anticipated nor worried about by the latter.

4) “Eons of death may be offensive, but that is hardly grounds for contrary belief. After all, human death itself is extremely offensive, described in Scripture as an enemy, but it still is a fact. We cannot protest; God, after all, pronounced the death sentence. But he also sent his Son as our Redeemer.”  — Prof. John C. Munday, Jr., Regent University

5) Even in a cursed, post-Fall world, the YEC also has to explain how/why God allows innocent animals to suffer pain & death. I say “innocent” because, while the YEC view states that animal death was the result of Adam’s sin, the animals are not spiritual and are therefore morally blameless. So, why does God make them suffer for crimes they did not commit? (I think Ian brought this up earlier, too.)

OK, that wasn’t comprehensive, and it probably could have been better composed. It may not be emotionally satisfying, either. But, hopefully, you get the idea of where I’m coming from on this.”

I’m sure more could have been said, certainly on the broader issue, but I actually had a hard time finding much material specifically discussing the “disease” issue from the OEC perspective. Ah, well….

Here is Ed’s response:

“You said “[pain/suffering/death] exists and we need to deal with it” yes we do, but this is not the issue were discussing, but rather why is there suffering and pain from the beginning according to OEC. And you’re also right is saying “There is, understandably, a strongly emotional aspect to any question regarding pain/suffering/death, especially when God’s role & attitude is in question.” Exactly, this is the heart of the discussion as according to your view God did create a world of “pain/suffering/death” and called it “very good”. And this is why I think this issue is so important.

closeup of happy  yellow lab1) Here I think you’re begging the question as you say suffering exists and your argument is that it always has for millions of years. And God you say must have a justifiable reason for allowing it, but this again it begs the question.

2) I more or less discussed this point already suffice to say that it’s natural that we hate, abhor, feel strong emotion and sadness when say a pet dog gets cancer and has to be put down. Our all powerful and good God surely didn’t create creatures like these to suffer unnecessarily for millions of years… don’t you think God abhors cancer too?

3) Yes I agree there is a difference, but are we to then say well it’s suffering to a lesser degree so we can therefore justify millions of years of this in God’s “very good” Creation?

4) Again you’re right “Eons of death may be offensive” and it fact it is and many individuals have ask why this was necessary. In fact it can become a stumbling block for some. However I don’t wish to give the impression that someone can justly reject Christ’s offer of salvation because of the OEC view. There are many fine Christians who hold to OECs only because I believe they’re been inconsistent within their overall Christian worldview with regards to OEC.

5) Now this I think is a good question and really what I meant by a challenging question… that is why do animals suffer for mans sin?. Adam and his descendants were to have dominion over God’s wonderful Creation. As Adam was the head what he did with regards to obeying or disobeying God would also have huge implications for all living (including the animal kingdom) on the Earth in which he was given dominion over. An effect of this seen straight away was thorns coming out of the ground. Also many friendly and peaceful animal types would now become vicious and given the chance attack, kill and devour a person or another animal. And to expand on this weather conditions would also change… I mean I’m sure Adam and Eve been naked enjoyed perfect weather conditions and also their descendants would have too provided they continued to obey God. But now things were going to change because of the fall and subsequent curse. There would now be cold and heat extremes. Earthquakes and tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes e.t.c. Yes in many ways the world had changed and the world is indeed groaning again because of mans sin and rebellion.

Christopher I thank you for the time and effort you’ve put into this, but unfortunately you’re right I’m not satisfied at all, only the Biblical account of Creation, the fall and subsequent curse gives real answers to why there is suffering in the world today, but at the beginning it wasn’t so which is also so characteristic of the God we both know and serve. God bless…”

There you have it: a quite civil exchange between two Christian “brothers” with very different understandings on some theological — and, by extension, scientific — issues. Did we make our positions clear and explain the reasoning behind them? You be the judge…

I told Ed I hoped to respond to him within a couple days. Unfortunately, I got busy with some other stuff and never did, and after several more people traded comments with Ed, the thread finally died. Here are a few responses to his last comments that I came up with while reviewing for this post:

HellscapeInitial remarks) Technically, the question was specifically about how an OEC explains (rationalizes?) “diseases… for millions of years” in God’s creation, but I struggled to keep it focused on that, too, so I didn’t quibble. Please note, however, that from the way he phrased “according to your view God did create a world of ‘pain/suffering/death'”, it sounds like that was all that characterized the prehistoric Earth. This obviously was not the case, but Ed makes it sound like some earthly version of Dante’s Inferno!

1) With my first point, I was just trying to show part of the larger perspective. Thus, from the standpoint of the OEC argument which he asked me to give, God’s sovereignty and good character should be enough for us to accept His allowing pain & suffering and taking life, pre- and post-Fall. Such things may be sad, but they should not be so shocking or offensive, even when we don’t understand His reasons. (More on the assumptions of the YEC view below.)

2) I’m sure God gets no joy from cancer or anything else that causes pain/suffering/death, but perhaps satisfaction to the degree that it contributes to the ultimate completion of His purposes. We should, too. Yet, Ed’s plea seems to demonstrate the inordinately sentimentalized view of animal suffering that I mentioned.

3) No, it’s not just the lesser degree that justifies it. But, it does occur to me that God is often merciful to us in the midst of our suffering, which occurs under His sovereign will as part of His eternal Plan. Once one accepts the necessity of this world’s characteristics for the fulfillment of that Plan, then maybe we can accept the things I mentioned — principally, that other creatures don’t experience the psychological, emotional, and spiritual (and, in some cases & to some degree, the physical) trauma of pain/suffering/death the same way humans do — as examples of His mercy upon animals that must die for the greater good.

4) I think that various YEC tenets are at least as much, if not more, of a stumbling block for skeptics than “eons of [animal] death”. Still, I appreciated Ed’s acknowledgement that there are “many fine Christians who hold to OECs [sic]”, even if he does think we are theologically inconsistent.

5) In an attempt to explain why, on his view, innocent animals were cursed with pain/suffering/death as a result of the Fall/Curse, Ed essentially recounted select aspects of the YEC position. Notice how many ad hoc explanations are thrown in that are required for YEC but have no actual, scriptural basis: a) friendly/peaceful animals having their entire nature & biology radically changed; b) first appearance of extreme weather conditions and natural disasters on the Earth. (I’m ignoring the supposed genesis of thorns for now, since there is at least a scriptural argument for it, however flawed it may be.) There’s no scientific basis for this stuff, either. Plus, the conditions within the Garden were much different than those without. The only part that I can see as the beginning (genesis?) of an actual argument is the idea that Adam’s moral failing directly affected all of Creation, because he had been given dominion over it. I don’t completely buy it, anymore than Ed accepted my reasoning, but at least it was something.

This post is pretty long already, but I’d like to finish with a few final comments on the broader idea of where pain/suffering/death fits into God’s plan for His creation.

God never said He intended life on Earth to be pain-free or without “fear, dread or sadness”, not even pre-Fall. This is an assumption read into the text by some well-meaning Christians. As idyllic and beautiful as it was, I suspect even the Garden of Eden had its hazards, minor though they may have been. (Ever scrape your arm or other body part against a rough rock or tree bark?) But, even the Garden only covered a limited region in NE Africa and/or the Middle East. Everyplace else was “wild”.

lion feeding on prey

Psalm 104:21

There seems to be a desire by YECs to insert a moral component into Creation that I don’t think is required by Scripture. The idea is that a “very good” — often re-stated as “perfect” — Creation must be totally blissful, with no worries or risks of anything “bad” happening to any (soulish?) creature, anywhere, anytime. To suggest anything less would be a slight on God’s good character. James Stambaugh has written that such a god would be “cruel, vicious, and capricious.” Yet, we see both from Scripture and from our own life experiences that God uses pain/suffering/death of those created in His image for good. Even Hell is a morally righteous place, since that is where God’s justice is meted out upon those who go to their graves in rebellion against Him. (In fact, He gives them exactly what they wanted: eternal separation from His Presence.) If there is a moral characteristic to Creation as a whole, including Hell, it is that it is instrumental in the carrying out of God’s purposes. Yeah, I know there’s probably no emotionally-satisfying way to say that God was/is OK with a cute little ________ dying a painful death, let alone countless others. All the more reason to focus on the Big Picture from a theological and philosophical standpoint.

I don’t expect anyone of a YEC persuasion to read this post and change his/her mind right away. It requires a paradigm change, and that usually takes time — though probably not millions of years. (I speak from experience, though I wasn’t as hard-core YEC as some.) In his terrific book Peril in Paradise, Dr. Mark Whorton addresses what he calls the “Perfect Paradise Paradigm” adopted by YECs in contrast with the “Perfect Purpose Paradigm” adopted by OECs. There are big differences in how the two positions understand certain biblical passages and the implications thereof. Part of it has to do with whether Adam’s Fall was part of God’s eternal Plan, or if He had to go to a “Plan B” after Adam screwed up. (In fact, I plan another post that goes more into this in the next couple(?) months.) It also concerns the origin(s) and purpose(s) of not only moral evil but natural “evil” in this world, which gets into the questions discussed in this post and Part 1.

If you are interested in investigating this topic further, I highly recommend Whorton’s book, as well as the writings (online & offline) of the scholar team at Reasons to Believe (RTB).


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