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#113 Animal Suffering

June 15, 2009

Dear Dr Craig,

Can you please assist with these issues I have which are driving me crazy. Namely--Critics say God is cruel, for millions of years animals have been subject to pain with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Even before human beings were on the earth, dinosaurs etc were being torn to shreds by one another. Can we say original sin because man hadn’t been around to sin ?

Secondly, there have been I understand 5 great mass extinction events (not including the Noahic flood), why did God create a creation to see it destroyed by eg Supervolcanoes, Comet or Asteroid strikes etc and all his creatures, with nerve thus pain feeling ability destroyed ? Isnt that cruel ?

I suppose Im driving from the natural evil angle on these things but human beings were not around to spoil creation then.

Does Jesus take on the cross the sin of natural evil and thus the question is whose sin is he taking on for natural evil ?

Thanks Dr Craig, I’ve asked for wisdom in prayer and I can’t figure it out myself. If you could help I’d be really grateful.


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Dr. craig’s response


I’ve written generally on the problem of so-called “natural evil,” of which animal pain and death forms a part, in my and J.P. Moreland’s book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. But when I know of someone who has written very specifically on an issue of concern, I like to invite that person to contribute a guest column in answer to the Question of the Week. This week’s answer comes from Michael Murray, a philosopher at Franklin and Marshall College, who has devoted an entire book to your question, Doug. I hope his reflections will stimulate you to read his book on this subject. Prof. Murray’s answer follows:

Doug, thanks for this penetrating series of questions. I think that the reality of natural evil represents an important challenge to the Christian faith, and the reality of non-human animal pain/suffering/death/predation/extinction may be the toughest aspect of that challenge. Why would an all-good God create a world in which these innocent creatures could both inflict and be the victims of pain, suffering, extinction, etc.?

It was, in fact, this question that led Charles Darwin, when pondering the enormous amount of suffering entailed by his theory of evolution, to exclaim: “What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!” Similar worries led biologist (and now infamous New Atheist) Richard Dawkins to state: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

In a recent book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw (Oxford University Press, 2009), I explore this question at some length, looking at a variety of explanations that Christians might offer. In what follows I will summarize a few of these. But let me offer this disclaimer at the start. This is a very large and very complex question that cannot be adequately handled without writing a full length book (which explains why I wrote a full length book!). I will not come close to handling even most of the questions that might be raised by this topic here.

The most common answer given by Christians is that the pain and suffering of animals is explained by the sin of human creatures, most notably the Fall of Adam. After all, Romans 8:19-22 seems to imply that the suffering we find in the natural world is part of the “groaning of creation”--a creation which cries out for redemption from the crippling effects of Adam’s sin. Isaiah 24:2-6 directly states that (at least much of) the natural evil in the world derives the fact that the peoples of the earth “disobey the laws,” “violate the statutes,” and “break the covenants.”

However, given the very powerful evidence that animals (and their pain, suffering, death, and predation) pre-existed the first human beings, that view seems incomplete. If the pain and suffering of animals predates Adam’s existence, it is hard to see how his (or our) sin could fully explain it. But before we leave explanations that appeal to the Fall behind, it is worth asking this question: “If all animal pain and suffering came after Adam’s Fall, would the Fall be a potentially good explanation for that pain and suffering?”

Many Christian theologians have thought so (Calvin endorses this view in his commentary on chapter 8 of the book of Romans for example). But this explanation has one difficulty, a difficulty I call the “fragility objection.” To see the objection we must consider this question: “What is the supposed connection between Adam’s Fall and animal pain?” A number of answers have been proposed. But they all boil down to roughly one of two explanations: either (1) by sinning Adam and his ancestors surrendered their role as stewards of the animals and thereby surrendered them to the wiles of nature, or (2) the very act of Adam’s sin sent shock waves through creation that transformed animals, which formerly could not feel pain, into pain wracked predators and prey. In either case, however, it is hard to see why God would have made the integrity and well-being of nature, and of the innocent creatures in it, susceptible to the faithful obedience of humans (an obedience God knew they would not sustain). Why was nature made so very fragile in this way? Is not that fragility itself a defect (or evil) in creation?

Of course it could be that the Fall that explains the reality of animal pain and suffering is not Adam’s Fall but Satan’s Fall. It appears that Satan’s Fall predates the creation of animals, and there is no reason in principle why Satan could not have intervened in the natural processes of creation to insure that animals feel pain (who otherwise might not have). So, appeals to the Fall of Satan might have some explanatory value when it comes to animal pain and suffering.

A second (though unpopular) response to this problem is to deny that animal pain and suffering is real or morally relevant. Most will react to this response with incredulity: “Isn’t it just obvious that some animals experience pain and suffering?” The answer to that question is yes and no. We do think it an item of common sense that animals experience pain and suffering. But the scientific evidence for this is not as strong as you might think. Of course, scientists all acknowledge that many animals display behaviors that make it look like they are in pain. But that is not good enough. To see why, consider the phenomenon of “blindsight.” Patients with blindsight claim to be blind, and yet are at the same time able to point to objects and, in some cases, catch balls--something they could only do if they could in fact see. So are they blind or not? Well, it depends on what you mean by “sight.” They can see in the sense that they can use visual information to regulate their behavior. But they are not consciously aware of the fact that they can do this.

When it comes to pain, then, the question is: might the behaviors that we associate with animals that look to be in pain constitute something like “blindpain”--showing all the behavioral symptoms of real pain, but without the conscious awareness? Amazingly, given what we know about the functioning of the brain, the answer might be yes. Those parts of the brain most closely associated with consciousness of pain, are also the parts that were the last to arrive among mammals: the pre-frontal cortex.

Some worry that this response would imply that mistreating animals would not be immoral. But this does not follow. If animals are God’s creatures, we are obliged to respect their well-being and integrity. That well-being can be overridden in some cases where we have good reason to do so. But it is also true that in the absence of such very good reasons, we are obliged to offer that sort of protection.

Of course, many will find a solution to the problem that relies on the claim that animals do not experience pain and suffering to be extraordinarily implausible. What might we say then? I think there are two other possible solutions. I will offer one here (and leave the other one for you to discover in chapters 5 and 6 of the book! (it is too long to outline here)). When I have discussed the question of the pain and suffering of animals with Christian scientists, they almost always explain it like this: “Animals feel pain and suffering because without such pain and suffering they would be unable to avoid injury! Pain is the body’s warning system!” Is that a good response? Might pain and suffering be necessary for embodied organisms to avoid injury?

You might think not. After all, couldn’t God simply wire us so that when we are in the presence of some physical danger, a light flashes in our eyes or a sound arises in our ears that warns of the danger? Wouldn’t that be good enough to keep us from harming ourselves? Perhaps you will be surprised to find out that we know the answer to this question, and the answer is: no. Many Christians have read a book by a missionary physician, Paul Brand (The Gift of Pain), who worked with leprosy patients in Asia for many years. Among the effects of leprosy is that it leaves patients without the ability to feel pain in their extremities. As a result of this, they repeatedly injure themselves (or ignore injury, as Brand found when he learned that some deterioration was caused by rats who would nibble patients’ hands and feet at night without their knowing it). Brand tried to fix this problem by creating pressure sensitive gloves and shoes that would warn people when their bodies were in danger. He tried using battery packs that would cause a light to come on or a sound to appear in the ear. But the only thing that worked was a device that would cause a powerful shock in the underarm (one of the few sites not affected by the disease). Indeed, even when he created such a device, people would disconnect it in order to complete a task that would otherwise shock them! This gives us powerful reasons for thinking that animal pain and suffering might be an unavoidable consequence of creating embodied organisms that live in a law-governed world.

Before closing, let me turn to the question about mass extinctions. It is true that our earth has been subject to a number of mass extinctions. Indeed, if you visit the Evolution exhibit at the famed Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, you will see that the entire exhibit is cast around the five major extinction events that, according to current evolutionary theory, have occurred in our world. Setting aside the pain question, why would God have allowed these extinctions to occur?

First, it is worth noting, as you do, that mass extinctions are, according to Scripture, sometimes described as part of God’s direct providential plan. In Noah’s Flood, numerous animals were destroyed as part of God’s overall judgment on the world and its sinful condition. But what about these other extinction events? Could they, if the evolutionary story turns out to be largely correct, have any providential purpose? Indeed, they could. Scientists believe that 65 million years ago a very large meteor struck the earth, causing a massive amount of sediment to be cast into the atmosphere. This sediment greatly filtered the light reaching the earth, causing the atmosphere to cool dramatically, which in turn caused the extinction of the (largely cold blooded) dinosaurs. This was the most recent of the great extinction events. Had that extinction event not occurred, it would have been impossible for larger sized mammals to evolve at all (with all those large and hungry dinosaurs around--think Jurassic Park!), a line of development necessary for primates to emerge. As a result, without the event it would not have been possible for us to emerge.

Of course, these answers are, as you can see, only beginning to scratch the surface of this question (a question which, among other things, is closely bound up with the questions of what we should think about the age of the universe and about the theory of evolution). I think it is crucially important that Christians continue to engage and grapple with this question, one that is being pressed more frequently and loudly by critics of the Christian faith.

- William Lane Craig