If God is good, why do animals suffer?”
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
This question was the sub-headline for a recent cover story in Christianity Today magazine (“Why Does Creation Groan?”) by Calvin University theologian John R. Schneider. It’s a twist on the age-old problem defined as follows by the eminent Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis in his best-selling classic “The Problem of Pain”:
“If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
Early in the COVID-19 scourge, The Religion Guy attempted to scan the current discussions in a field known technically as “theodicy” — as here. The issue is as ancient as the Bible’s poetic masterpiece from thousands of years ago, the Book of Job, which provides no snappy formulas to answer these mysteries.
Regarding humanity and its problems, theologians have blamed evils on humans’ free will that necessarily allows dire events to occur, and/or on Satan and demonic minions. However, the scale and depth of, for instance, the mass extermination of the Nazi Holocaust raised the persistent but unanswerable question in both Jewish and Christian circles of why God did not miraculously intervene.
Writing just prior to that and other World War II atrocities, and his own battle wounds from World War I, Lewis advised us to be careful in thinking about God as “all-powerful” because He obviously cannot do things that by their nature are impossible to do. Along similar lines, leading contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga at the University of Notre Dame proposed that we cannot logically conceive of any possible universe where the Creator allows human free will to operate and at the same time our existence lacks all sin and consequently all suffering.
On a devotional plane, other writers see a partial response in the Christian God who is uniquely present with us through our sufferings because in his divine Son the Godhead experienced physical and spiritual devastation in the crucifixion on Calvary. Moreover, Christians believe that the afterlife will redress and rebalance the built-in unfairness of earthly life.
As for natural evils (tornadoes, epidemics), writers say humanity’s fall into sin that followed God’s good creation, depicted in the biblical Book of Genesis, somehow ruins nature as God originally intended it.
Do disease and devastation for innocent people argue against God’s existence? Lewis and later writers see the opposite. Without the design and purpose of a moral God and the divine aspect of each person he creates, what could explain our inherent conviction that the innocent should not suffer, that certain things are unjust and that our world is awry? Meanwhile, elimination of belief in God does nothing to solve our dilemma on why people suffer.
And much, much more has been written.
Then turn to the specific animal aspect. Lewis in 1940 and Schneider in 2023 noted that in times past, theologians could argue that animals were swept up into the cosmic tragedies that resulted from the fall. But science tells us animals existed well before humans first appeared.
Before humanity’s fall, then, was Satan or a malevolent spirit operating? Are wild beasts guilty of willful “sin” as we understand it? Are domesticated dogs “innocent” and capable of “virtue,” as we may want to think? If the theory of evolution by natural selection is true, how can we comprehend the eons of wastage and death needed to produce the species we know?
Though a pet lover, Lewis’ approach in part was to minimize the problem by contending that much we observe in animals need not be what we know as suffering “in any real sense.” He limited that potential to higher beings that may be “sentient” or appear to have a “self” or “consciousness” or a “soul” — elephants but not oysters or earthworms. This in turn is wrapped up in whether animals are immortal and live on in heaven. Lewis admitted all of this must be mere “guesswork.”
Schneider is not satisfied with prior efforts by Lewis and others, and proposes a fascinating alternative.
Perhaps we need to comprehend the creator God as an artist. A painter or movie director conveys harsh images, and a musician composes dissonant chords and jagged rhythms, as elements within what we recognize over-all as artistic beauty. So perhaps that’s how we mortals should conceive of the cosmos as a whole. Others say that just so, pain is essential to medical diagnosis and treatment, and thus to health.
All of this theorizing can seem glib when excruciating pain afflicts a loved one or a flood destroys a hometown.
CONTINUE READING: “Question: “If God is Good, Why Do Animals Suffer?” by Richard Ostling.