Evolution and “making God the author of evil”

I’ve argued before that the question of a “historical” Adam and Eve and the related question of a “historical” Fall is not a “gospel issue.” That is to say, universal human sinfulness is such a self-evident fact that the question of its origin is secondary. The gospel speaks to this phenomenon of universal sinfulness with its offer of universal grace.

But as Richard Beck points out in a thought-provoking post, the hard problem evolution poses for orthodox Christian theology isn’t one of soteriology (what are we saved from and how are we saved) but one of theodicy (how can an all-good God permit such evil as we see in our world). Beck is responding to a critique of evangelical scholar Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam by neo-Calvinist theologian James K.A. Smith. Briefly, Smith doesn’t think Enns takes seriously enough the importance of the orthodox doctrine of the Fall. And Beck thinks that Smith may be right that Enns, by focusing on the origin of humanity, may overlook the broader context that brings the theodicy issue to the fore.

The problem is this: if the evolutionary story of how life came into being is right (and it’s cleary the best account going), then it looks like evil (suffering, death, sickness, predation, etc.) is built into creation so to speak. In other words, if God uses evolution to bring life into existence–as “theistic” evolutionists contend–then it seems that God is directly responsible for the evil that attends this process. And if that’s so, then can we say that God is truly wholly good?

Beck argues that the point of the traditional doctrine of the Fall isn’t so much to account for human sinfulness as it is to safeguard God’s goodness by exculpating God from responsibility for the existence of evil. He goes on to point out, however, that the orthodox story isn’t quite as air-tight in safeguarding God’s goodness as we might think. He notes, for instance, that in the Bible the serpent (representing evil?) is already present in the garden, tempting Adam and Eve. No account is given of its origin. Only much later was the story of a “fall” of Satan and his angels from heaven posited as a kind of prequel to the Adam and Eve story. And needless to say, this just pushes the problem back a step–after all, whence comes the angels’ propensity toward sin? St. Augustine, for one, rather famously wrestled with this question and never reached a wholly satisfactory solution.

Beck concludes:

At the end of the day, theodicy doesn’t really boil down to the origins of evil. It boils down to this: Why’d God do it in the first place? Why, given how things turned out, did an all-knowing and all-loving God pull the trigger on Creation? Why’d God do it?

No one knows of course. Not Smith. Not Enns. Not me. My point here is simply to note that this is a live and acute question for everybody. So I think it right and proper for Smith to point this out for Enns. But the same question is pointed at orthodox theology and it doesn’t have any better answers, just a “mystery” that allows it, often in cowardly ways, to retreat from answering the questions directly.

Theodicy has always been the root problem of Christian theology, orthodox or heterodox. There’s no getting around that. The problem is no less acute here than there.

Readers may be aware of my ongoing interest in this problem. For instance, in my blogging on Christopher Southgate’s book on animal theodicy, I discussed his “only way” argument. This is the argument that creating by means of an evolutionary process–with all that entails in terms of evil and suffering–was the only way for God to get creatures like us in the context of a law-governed universe. God is “off the hook” as it were because there was no other way for God to achieve his ends. Whatever problems there may be with this view (and there are some), it does try to account for evil in a way that doesn’t make God the author of (avoidable) evil. But as Beck says, this is a challenge for all theology, whether it accepts evolution or not.

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25 thoughts on “Evolution and “making God the author of evil”

  1. Yes, the fall of the angels seems to predate the fall of humanity – evil was already here.

    I’m not clear why an all powerful God would need to evolve the kind of creatures he wabted – couldn’t he just make us to order?

    And to say allowing for the evil (suffering and death) of evolution in order to end up with us is saying that God justifies the means with the ends.

    Not that I have any better explanation 🙂

    • I’m actually glad God didn’t make us to order! Sounds like cheeseburgers…. 😉

      Isn’t the evolutionary principle kind of a good one, though? I mean, since the world itself is fluid, it seems like we human beans ought to be, too – along with everybody else. Otherwise, we’d be out of business in some few generations, I’d think – rather than adaptable to our environment, which has allowed us as a race to survive. I mean, if not: God would have to make a static, predictable, unchanging world; boring! I guess it’s hard to imagine such a world – but wouldn’t everything have to remain utterly the same forever? Personally, I think: ugh.

      And Lee: I’m not sure that “evil” is the right word to use when talking about natural processes – is it? As it is, death is a part of life, for everything and everybody. I would guess that bunny rabbits – say – enjoy their time on earth, even though they might get eaten by somebody with big teeth someday.

      It’s always been my theory that all lifetimes “feel” the same for everybody. A day for a mayfly lasts what seems to be three score and ten years; a dog’s year really is like 7 of ours.

      That’s my story, anyway – and I’m sticking to it…..

  2. “God would have to make a static, predictable, unchanging world; boring!”

    … like heaven? 🙂

    People say evolution was necessary to end up with creatures like us, but really that’s reverse engineering theory – seeing what we have and looking back, finding everything that lead up to this point as meaningful. There are many more insects here than us, they’re incredibly sucessful, and simpler creatures still also persist. If that meteorite hadn’t landed in the gulf of Mexico, dinosaurs might still rule the earth.

    I’d like to think that the suffering that every creature experiences matters – the little I’ve seen of animal suffering and death looks pretty awful to me. If God thinks of that as just collateral damage, than he’s a scary God.

  3. … like heaven? 😀

    Well – yes. If that’s heaven, I’m not sure I’m that interested, frankly….

    😉

    I’m not sure I get the point you’re making in your last para there; are you saying that animal suffering and death is somehow different than human suffering and death? It is true that animals who live with us as pets and so forth tend to live a lot longer than animals do in the wild – is that what you mean? But then, we also tend to have pity on wild animals who are not able to live “wild” lives; that’s why the movement away from confining zoos and circuses and things like that.

    But, anyway: I’m not sure what you’re saying there….

  4. Here’s a post where I (tentatively) argue that God may have good reasons for not “making us to order”: https://thinkingreed.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/was-this-trip-really-necessary/

    To BLS’s point–I think what bugs people about the suffering in the natural world (theologians and philosophers sometimes refer to it as “natural evil”) is that it can seem vastly disproportionate. Many (millions? billions?) of creatures have had their lives snuffed out as part of the evolutionary struggle without having any opportunity to flourish. And we can’t help but ask if there wasn’t some other way for God to bring valuable, sentient beings into existence. I think this intuition is buttressed to some extent by the passages in the Bible (Isaiah, e.g.) that portray the perfected creation as one without creatures feeding on each other or doing violence to one another. The insight seems to be that such a world doesn’t (ultimately) reflect God’s will.

    Now, as I see it, we have two main options, neither one completely satisfying: either we have to say that the world as we see it (“nature red in tooth and claw”) does reflect God’s will, or at least is one necessary stage on the way to the completion of creation; or we have to say that the world as we see it is “fallen” from the way God meant for it to be.

    The way I lean (most days) is to say that creation is good but it’s not perfect. That is, God intends something better for us, but for some mysterious reason, this is the process or path God has chosen for us to get there. But I’d be the first to admit that it by no means answers all the hard questions.

  5. Bls,

    Sorry, I just meant that: 1) evolution seems like a messy and inaccurate way to get a creature just like us …
    2) and what Lee said better than I could – that the animal suffering needed for this pocess seems hard to justify.

    As Stephen Law once said in a Philosophy Bites interview on the problem of evil, “Sixtey-five million years ago, there was a massive extinction event … it wiped out ninety-five percent of the species from the face of the earth. That would have produced unimaginable suffering.”

    I’m still trying to come up with a good explanation for all this – maybe that’s a fool’s errand 🙂

    • “evolution seems like a messy and inaccurate way to get a creature just like us …”

      When you create a universe, I’m sure you’ll do much better.

      • I don’t think that’s fair. After all, the traditional doctrine of omnipotence says that God can do anything logically possible. And it’s not obvious that evolution was the only logically possible way to get creatures like us. Didn’t Jesus say that God could raise up children of Abraham from stones?

        Now maybe it turns out (as I’ve suggested) that the traditional notion of omnipotence is wrong, or that evolution is necessary in some appropriately strong sense for God to get creatures like us. But the intuition that evolution comes with a great deal of (apparently) unnecessary suffering and casts doubt on the loving purposes of God is common and I think should be taken seriously.

      • But Lee, the fact of the matter is, we don’t have the first clue as to how to go about setting up a universe, how to create sentient beings with free will independent of ourselves, how to set it all going according to a system of coherent and stable laws, etc. As my friend used to say, one someone would remark “Lousy weather today,” “Since I can’t make any weather, I don’t criticize any of it.”

        Isn’t the proper attitude, faced with a being who CAN do all of the above, humility, rather than complaints about why He didn’t do things the way WE would have done them?

  6. But the thing is: everything and everybody dies. I don’t see why it’s worse in, say, a mass extinction event, than would be over a longer term (although I guess the relative youth of some of the creatures dying might be one argument for that position). I don’t see why there’s more suffering, either; any suffering involved is just condensed in time, rather than spread out over it.

    And, I don’t see why we have to go there for an argument about “natural evil”; I mean, death just by itself would have to be considered a “natural evil,” wouldn’t it? Because until the present age, there were no cures for most sicknesses; people just died. Women died in childbirth; children died in infancy. In the midst of life, we were (always) in death. A very few people made it through to old age (I’d think mostly the comparatively better off) – but the rest had sometimes much, much shorter lives than we do. Would it have been better for them never to have lived, so as to avoid the ultimate end?

    So we don’t have to think about evolution at all, do we, or about animal suffering and death in particular? It’s part of the human condition, too, and always has been. I mean, I know doctors and other people do think of death and sickness as “the enemy” – but given the alternative….?

    I guess we’re actually heading into Job territory now, though….;-)

    • Yeah, Job 😉

      I guess between the two alternatives of live with suffering, and no life, most everyone would pick life +, but I keep wondering why there’s not a third aternative – life without suffering – given an all poerful, all good God. That’s probably one of those anwerless questions
      that says more about me than anything else.

      • Well, all I can think is: suffering is just there. It’s another thing that just comes with the territory – nothing to be done about it. All human beings suffer as part of the natural growth process: that’s why the phrase “growing pains,” after all! We get sick; our loved ones die; we hurt as we learn and grow; we feel fear; we die ourselves. Sometimes suffering actually contributes to our growth as empathetic human beings, I think – and it makes us able to help others. It seems to me that a world without suffering at all is – again – a world without learning and growth; is that thinking just off the wall? It’s hard to imagine such a place, I must admit – although I guess you’d say again: heaven. (And again, it seems awfully tedious, to me…. 😉 )

        Granted, there is suffering beyond the bounds of what’s usual and part of the process – “unnecessary suffering”? – both for us and for other creatures. And that is what we can and must (I think) try to alleviate.

  7. Thanks for keeping the conversation going! Great stuff here.

    I guess where I come down is that–even if you bracket how we got here–organic life is prey to suffering, disease, death, etc. So if God wanted organic, embodied creatures that’s part of the deal.

    Now, I suppose God could’ve created beings who were not embodied, organic creatures and who therefore wouldn’t experience pain and suffering like we do. In fact, traditionally, that’s how angels have been thought of–as intelligent, rational beings who are not physically embodied.

    So the question then becomes: is a universe with organic, embodied beings better than one without them–even with all the suffering it brings in its train? Well, for those of us who are happy to have been born, it’s kind of hard to look a gift-uinverse in the mouth!

    But I think maybe Christians can say more than this: we can say, one, that God has, in the Incarnation, entered into solidarity with us–sharing in our pains and sufferings; and, two, that God intends to bring the universe to some kind of consummation where, we hope, the present sufferings will not bear comparison with the joys to be revealed (to paraphrase Paul).

    That may be less satisfying in some ways than the traditional view that the world was created perfect and fell into a state where evil and suffering came into existence, but I at least find myself unable to believe the traditional account.

  8. @ Gene: (Sorry, the “reply to individual comments” feature only seems to go a few layers deep.)

    Yes, I agree we should be humble. Is that a trick question? 😉

    At the same time, though, it’s a hallowed Christian tradition to question and wrestle with the seeming incompatibility between the fact of evil and suffering in the world and our belief in the goodness and providence of God.

    In one way, I think evolution makes this somewhat easier because it gives some clues as to why certain types of evil/suffering are necessary parts of the process by which life came into existence.

    At the same time, though, it makes it harder because, on the old (traditional) view, we could still see evil as somehow a contingent fact about nature (i.e., it didn’t have to be, and at one time wasn’t that way).

    I also think we need to keep in mind that according to the Bible and our tradition, God is not content with the status quo. As Paul says, the last enemy to be defeated is death. So, even if death and suffering are an essential part of the creative process, there is still a sense in which God is opposed to them and (we believe) will act to bring an end to them. We shouldn’t view them as good or even morally neutral if we want to be faithful to that vision.

    I think this means holding these two ideas in a certain tension: we recognize that there are evils without which none of the goodness in the world would be possible, and at the same time hope for a world in which they are overcome.

    • But Lee, in the Middle Ages, philosophers who wrestled with these questions did so from a standpoint of faith: there goal was to *demonstrate* that these things could be reconciled, not to ask whether or not they could be reconciled. To do the latter is to open oneself to blasphemy, to wondering “how could this possibly be an ethical plan?”

      • But then who is your comment aimed at? Everyone posting here is, to the best of my knowledge, a Christian. So we all think that God’s existence can be reconciled with the facts of evil in the world–we’re just not sure how.

  9. Just thinkng about one of the things that so bothers me and makes me wonder how this could be an ethical plan for the supposed growth of beings like ourselves – it’s that we’re all pitted against each other. One of my teachers used to say that our decision to live was our decision that something else must die. To hell with being humble, somebody (God) should take responsibility for all this mayhem 😉

    • One of my teachers used to say that our decision to live was our decision that something else must die.

      I don’t think this is true, though – unless you’re talking about bacteria and mosquitos? 😉

      I mean, people can make the decision to be vegetarians; many have. And wild creatures aren’t making any decisions – and I don’t think most are carnivores anyway, are they? (Is this true, does anybody know?)

      Some teachers are just drama queens, I think…. 😉

  10. Yeah, maybe “decision” was the wrong word, but I think he meant that almost all life here can continue to exist only through causing the death of other life, even if only the lives of plants. This reminds me of a bit from a book by David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea, in which he talks about how
    aggrssive all of nature is, how “all life feeds on life”. I have an except here if anyone is interested … http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2007/10/david-hart-and-nature.html

    • Well, I’m OK with the deaths of plants. They are not conscious, after all (unless we’re really on the wrong track there!). In fact, I think of the process of plants giving life to other creatures as quite lovely.

      Anyway, we don’t even kill them, for the most part; we harvest from them – and in fact we feed them ourselves, and work hard to keep them around for many years so that they’ll produce more fruit. The ones that die would die with or without anyone eating their fruits.

      I can understand the worry about the prey animals – but they do have life. And – let’s face it – predators would no longer exist at all in the “peaceable kingdom.” They would not be the creatures we know today; they’d lose their characteristics and become like herbivores in almost all ways. It would be a world made up mainly of goats and cockroaches, pretty much….

      😉

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