The Problem of Pain (and Death)

The excellent Jesus Creed blog tackles a question that my wife and I have batted around: If God chose evolution through which to create the world, does that mean his “good” creation came equipped with pain and death built in?

If we have a big bang, an old earth, and evolution –  then explosions, asteroid impacts, earthquakes, tsunamis, death, and competition in the animal world are all part of God’s good creation. But this is contrary to the view of creation taught in much of our church. …

From an evolutionary perspective, before humans ever existed there was suffering in creation caused by disease and natural disaster. I stand by Wright in the idea that God will eventually renew both us and creation, restoring it to what it was meant to be before the Fall. However, I have just realized that it is very difficult for me to explain non-human evil without the literal account of creation found in Genesis. This leads me to a faith crisis. Suffering in the natural world, caused by things like cancer and earthquakes, must be explained if God is good and his creation was created good.

One of the more interesting responses the author makes is that even a literal reading of Genesis would seem to indicate the presence of death; after all, why would Adam and Eve have needed a Tree of Life? Or, even more interesting, how would all the animals God created have carried out the command to “be fruitful and multiply” without death to keep them from overrunning the planet?

In the end, the author seems to be arguing that man – whether a single couple named Adam and Eve,  a representative couple or a community of people – had the opportunity to be immortal, but that the rest of the world was created with natural processes of life and death. When sin entered the world, those processes were transferred to humanity.

This explanation would mean that we, like the rest of creation, are traveling toward an ultimate perfection, one we had the opportunity to achieve until we severed communication with God. Thanks to the restorative act of Jesus, we are again on that road – evolving, you could say, toward our ultimate destiny.

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6 comments on “The Problem of Pain (and Death)

  1. You already mention the notion that only man seemed to ever have a shot at immortality and close relationship with God – i.e. spiritual life. So under that notion,”death and competition in the animal world” do not represent destruction or decay of any moral or spiritual impact. Similarly, “explosions, asteroid impacts, earthquakes, [and] tsunamis” are not “disasters” as they do not add a degree of suffering to the world. So whether you are talking about a slow process utilizing violent natural events or a six-day period of out-of-whatever-preceded-the-blue creation, God doesn’t really have any explaining to do, even within our potentially imperfect ideas of morality, good, bad and evil. As usual, nothing really hits the fan until we add mankind to the mix.

    What follows is nothing more than the merest speculation, and as usual it raises more questions than answers. But I go through it to illustrate that God doesn’t necessarily have to contradict our limited understanding of the natural order (i.e. biology and physics) in order to exceed it in scope.

    Also understand that it’s not necessarily a statement of my own personal beliefs, so I’ll feel no need to refute many problems anyone may have with the logic and/or conclusions. But I feel that, in general, it might represent a fairly valid way of “seeing” God’s relationship to his physical creation.

    Is it really that far-fetched to think that, before the fall of man God might have had (or had plans for, depending on how long it took us to mess things up) a different way of keeping equilibrium? After all, we (“believers”) don’t seem to have a problem with “heaven” or eternal life being a place or state of being separate and apart from the natural order of our present physical world. Why would we have a problem with the idea that God might have had more than one “natural order” up his sleeve for this world?

    At a time (before the “fall of man”) when God seemed to be much more directly involved with his creation (at least from the perspective of his relationship with man) he might also have been more directly involved in guiding the processes of birth, life cycle, weather and population balance mentioned, without the more “negative” natural mechanisms. Or, alternatively, the “evolution” of the cosmos might have gone in a different direction, resulting in a different (to our way of thinking, more “peaceful”) status quo in those regards. Depending on your interpretation, we already have account of a couple of mechanisms whose purpose and nature we don’t really have a good handle on, the trees of knowledge and life. (I say we don’t really understand them because Genesis 3:22 almost seems to suggest might not have been for Adam and Eve’s use at that time.)

    If God charged mankind with taking care of his creation (at least in the form of tending the garden) with the understanding of a closer, more personal relationship with himself, it might not have been a simple “make sure they get plenty of water and keep the weeds at bay.” It might have been a much closer collaboration with the creator and maintainer of weather and life themselves than our present state lets us fathom. (Genesis 3: 16-19 indicates a significant change after the fall in the natural process of birth and man’s relationship with nature [potentially changing the roles and activities of both man and nature?]. )

    What would happen once that relationship was broken? Possibly, once God was forced into the situation of letting man go his own way, he was also forced into the position of letting nature, to an extent, go its own way; having such issues as population and weather cycles balance themselves through such “fallen” mechanisms as “natural” disaster, disease and death where previously he had been able to more perfectly keep balance.

    In short, if we believe in our breaking of relationship with the creator of the universe, then we must be prepared for the idea that it might have had both literally and figuratively, both physically and spiritually, astronomical consequences. If we believe that our sin and stubbornness stop God from acting for our good in our lives, is it strange to think that mankind’s “collective” or original breaking of God’s original system stopped him from acting for our good in the way he sets nature in motion? Obviously, with our limited scope and God’s unlimited ability to take his creation from point A to point B, C, D or E in any number of ways, we wouldn’t necessarily know the difference.

    • Paul says:

      I think your first point is absolutely right, and the post to which I linked mentions that argument, that death is only problematic when it comes to humans, who fear it, which gets into the Christus Victor theory, which states that Christ came to liberate us from the fear of death, and therefore from sin (death and the fear of it cause sin, not the other way around, according to Christus Victor, though it seems kind of chicken-and-egg).

      I’m not big on speculation of the sort you engage in. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s not the way my mind naturally goes. I think the physical evidence is clear there was death before humans came along; we have fossils of animals that are much older than the fossils of the earliest humans, and to the extent that science can accurately tell us such things, I don’t think God would have manipulated the evidence to provide a false picture of how things happened in his world.

      • I agree with you entirely there, but I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t suggesting that God made a world that looks different than it really is; only that we’re looking at it from a limited enough perspective that mistakes are possible. Or, to put it another way, our understanding of the formation of the world still allows God plenty of room to act, even within the systems he created, in ways that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to accurately interpret after the fact.

        (I mention it because the “God for some reason ‘faked’ the evidence” idea is also a pet peeve of mine.)

  2. Matthew says:

    The problem of evil is essentially ethical, not mechanical. Trying to cook up a metaphysic complex enough to get God off the ethical hook does exactly the thing you condemn in a previous post: it defends traditional doctrine rather than addressing the more pressing question: Given human experience of the world, is the idea of an overwhelmingly powerful, meaningfully good god coherent, or is it not?

    • Paul says:

      That’s the big question, isn’t it? My post wasn’t intended to address that, merely to point out some theories as to how a good creation can incorporate death in a world formed by evolution before any “original sin.”

      I think the key part of your question is the introductory clause, “Given human experience of the world …” I think it stacks the deck. Ultimately, our experience of the world is impossibly finite. Ask me when we’re all together in a place of perfection with no more pain or tears, and my answer will likely be much different.

      In the end, we have to trust that we can’t see the big picture, but that God can. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search, shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t doubt. With a journalism background, I’m a big advocate of all those things. And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be hurt, upset or angry about the unfairness of the stuff that happens to us. Too often, people use a sentiment like that as a way to suggest we should smile and be happy and murmur sweet nothings about God as if everything is fine, when clearly everything is not fine.

      But it does mean that when it’s all said and done, we have to recognize that if we’re going to trust in an overwhelmingly powerful, meaningfully good God, then we have to trust that he will help us through the horrors of this life as he leads us into the infinite bliss of the next.

      • Matthew says:

        I apologize for my lack of clarity. The comment about metaphysic was intended more for Daniel than for you.

        > if we’re going to trust in an overwhelmingly powerful, meaningfully good God, then we have to trust that he will help us through the horrors of this life as he leads us into the infinite bliss of the next.

        I agree with this, but probably not in the way you intended.

        Yes, if we are going to trust in such a God, we have to trust that God will help us in that way. Why? Because the problem of evil is a real problem: There is a deep contradiction implicit in the idea of a being who is both “overwhelmingly powerful” and “meaningfully good”. So if we want to keep believing both of those things, we have to also believe that God in some way transcends that paradox.

        But to do so is essentially to ignore the problem of evil: to notice the conflict, and then, in the interest of preserving our existing ideas about God, cover our eyes and pretend that it doesn’t exist.

        I’m not into that. I think the conflict has to be addressed head-on, which is probably going to mean accepting that we were wrong about God.

        But if God is as big as we claim God is, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

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