When Abraham Lincoln was a small boy, he would sometimes join his friends in doing cruel things to animals. But he was uneasy about it and eventually Lincoln’s conscience kicked in. Once when schoolmates began to torture a turtle, Lincoln intervened and scolded his friends for committing a horrible act of wrong.
Human sympathy for suffering animals runs deep. I am one of those people who slow down on the highway… or even stop… when I see a helpless and confused turtle trying to cross the road. Now just consider this idea for a moment: according to mainstream science, most of the animals that have ever lived belong to species that have long ago become extinct. A lot of turtles have been “run over” by the relentless progress of evolution.
A Problem for Old Earth Advocates…. A Problem for Intelligent Design
For me, the thorniest problem faced by Christians who hold to an Old Age view of Earth’s history perspective is the question of animal death and suffering before the Fall. You see, Young Earth Creationists have a ready answer for this problem. They simply ascribe animal death and suffering as a consequence to Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden only a few thousand years ago. Human sin not only separates us from God, it also damages God’s good order in Creation. Are you thinking of that poor turtle squashed by a car on the highway? Just blame Adam and Eve and their rebellion against God for starting to get the whole world out of whack.
But if you believe in “millions of years”, you have to accept the scientific consensus that the bulk of Earth’s history has been filled with generations upon generations of animal pain, death, and suffering. God created the world “good”, so how could He inject animal pain and suffering into His Creation and still call it “good”?
This type of argument parallels the primary objection raised against Intelligent Design. If the universe is Intelligently Designed, what type of “intelligent designer” would allow millions of species to perish as waste products of evolution? The best example of this intellectual struggle is found in Charles Darwin himself, who early in his life was once an advocate of the 19th century version of “Intelligent Design”, but then eventually found himself horrified that certain parasites would literally eat their hosts alive. What type of omnipotent designer would permit that type of senseless brutally within the natural order of things?
Two Responses: Old Earth and Evolutionary Creationist Responses
Hugh Ross, at Reasons to Believe, an Old Earth Creationist ministry, argues that this issue shows how easily modern people can be unjustly swayed by sentimentality. Who are we to sit with judgment upon God and declare his purposes right or wrong? Hugh Ross looks to Psalm 104:21 for God’s perspective, where God gives his blessing to carnivorous activity among the animals. God did create everything as good, but we must understand everything from God’s perspective, not our human, inadequate and sentimental perspective. At first glance, parasites look pretty bad. But taking a longer view, they serve a greater purpose.
Consider this: What about all of those fossils? Are they all truly waste products of evolution? No, according to Hugh Ross. Instead, fossil remains give us the carbon-based resources that allow us to live in a high tech society. Do you use an iPhone, or drive a car, or play a video game? Then go thank a turtle fossil. Without fossils, we would have no petroleum resources to fuel the high energy demands needed to power the Internet and the vehicles on our highways.
Granted, the Fall of Humanity indicates a negative impact on the created order, so it is sometimes difficult to figure out what was God’s original intention and what was the result of evil’s invasion into God’s created world. Nevertheless, Ross concludes that we should be careful not to be hasty and presumptuous in criticizing God’s purposes.
C.S. Lewis, who would probably fit into more of an Evolutionary Creationism paradigm today, in The Problem of Pain proposed that there were perhaps “two” Falls, instead of just the one told to us in the Garden. After all, where did that Serpent who tempted Eve come from? Lewis, following a long tradition in the church, argued that there was a rebellion among the angelic hosts in Earth’s long history, including Satan as the chief antagonist, many years before Adam reportedly arrived on the scene. Though hinted at in several Scriptural passages (2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6), the Bible does not give us any specific information about this pre-Adamic fall. Nevertheless, if one understands this angelic pre-Adamic Fall as historically real, then this would help to give us a full explanation for the existence of pain, death, and animal suffering long before Adam. Since Genesis 1:27 tells us that God gave humanity the command to “fill the earth and subdue it“, does this not subtlety suggest that despite the declaration that all was “good” that something was not entirely quite right when Adam arrived, thus requiring the Earth to be subdued? In this sense, we can understand that humanity’s original purpose was to help to redeem the catastrophe of angelic rebellion and its impact on nature.
Typically, when I hear discussions about the age of the Earth, people get really preoccupied with issues like the meaning of the Hebrew word “yom” for “day”. Is it “24-hours” or could it mean simply “a long period of time”? Frankly, debating these type of technical issues is more of a distraction than anything else. The animal suffering and death before the Fall issue is much more profound, as it is essentially a subset of the bigger question regarding the existence of evil and suffering in the world in general. If you have ever lost a pet or grieve when you see an animal hit by a car, then magnify that pain and loss by “millions of years” and you will get a sense of why some approaches to “Intelligent Design” can inadvertently trigger despair.
Does thinking about this expose my sentimentality too much, as Hugh Ross suggests? Mmmm….perhaps, yes. Though I find Hugh Ross’ explanation entirely reasonable, I can see why a Young Earth proponent would not be entirely convinced. For me, C.S. Lewis may have the better approach, though I agree that it is a bit speculative. But if an angelic Fall long before Adam helps to give a better account for the existence of natural evil, then it gives an even greater honor to the place of humanity in helping to restore Creation…. and an even a greater sense of anguish when considering how humanity joined in that angelic rebellion.
I am thinking of that poor turtle in the road….. and the millions of turtle ancestors that have perished over time, never to be seen or heard from again. So, if you find that the traffic on the road today suddenly stops, it is probably because someone like me has jumped out of the car to try to help that turtle cross to the other side!
More on the turtle ancestor story and evolution can be found here.
The issue of animal death and suffering before the Fall is perhaps the single greatest theological issue being grappled with by defenders of Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and Evolutionary Creationism. To get a flavor of the profound issues involved, here is William Lane Craig’s Old Earth Creationist view:
The Best Young Earth vs. Evolutionary Creationism Debate on the Internet???:
The following is a real gem!! It took me awhile to find this, but here is a link to an audio debate between Stephen Lloyd (video introduction to Stephen), representing Biblical Creation Ministries in England and Ard Louis (video introduction to Ard), representing the Faraday Institute. Lloyd is a Young Earth Creationist who centers his case directly on the animal death/suffering problem, whereas Ard Louis is an Evolutionary Creationist, reflecting the thought of a C.S. Lewis. What I really like about this debate is that both participants are very eloquent and generous to one another, in spite of their differences. Perhaps it is just that British accent that does it for me.
Coming This Weekend!!
Want to explore more about these issues in conversation with other people? Then please come to the Facts & Faith Symposium, to be held at the Williamsburg Community Chapel, on several Sundays in November, 2013 (the 10th, 17th and 24th) at 6:30pm.