Last month, scientists proposed a new ancestor of all life: a tiny, versatile organism akin to a stem cell. It would truly be an awesome God who could bring about all lifeforms from such a tiny creature, according to the view of evolutionary creationists. But the story of life isn’t always pretty: Animal death and suffering over millions of years is part of the history of our world. Creatures compete for limited resources, often at each other’s expense. Predators—including humans—rely on the death of other creatures for survival. These things are often cited as consequences of the fall in Eden, but could competition and pain have been part of God’s plan all along? And could such an awesome God, complicit in so much suffering, still be a good God as well?
Bethany Sollereder is seeking to answer that very question. Sollereder, who holds a PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in science and religion at the University of Oxford, was first inspired to study the theology of animal suffering after hearing other Christians struggle with the interaction of faith and evolution. Having just completed a four-year residency at The Kilns, the home of C. S. Lewis, Sollereder is the author of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering (Routledge, 2018).
Sollereder spoke with CT recently about how her work has affected her own faith and understanding of the created world.
Would you say there’s scientific evidence that animals actually suffer?
Well, in one sense, all suffering is understood by analogy. I can’t prove, scientifically, that you suffer. All I can do is look at the signs you are giving me. And the same is true for animals. Where we see a similar brain system that processes pain in similar ways to us, chemical reactions in the body that are similar, and particularly when we see behavioral responses that are similar to ours, we can assume that there’s suffering.
Scientists recently started using post-traumatic stress types of therapies with orphaned elephants and actually found them really successful, because elephants’ suffering is similar enough that the treatment can be similar and have really good results. The Calgary Zoo found that polar bears were acting very anxiously, pacing and scratching and doing the sorts of things that we would think of as anxious behaviors. One of the caretakers decided to put them on an anti-anxiety medication and found huge improvement. They started playing again; they stopped pacing.
So while you can’t prove that they suffer, there’s lots of good evidence for it.
The theory of evolution is contingent on a whole lot of suffering, over millions of years. What kinds of reactions do you see people have when they’re trying to reconcile animal suffering and evolution with a good God?
Well, there’s usually two reactions. One is, “Why would a good God allow all these animals to suffer?” And the second is, “Doesn’t the Bible say that death and suffering came with the Fall, with the sin of Adam and Eve?”
Evolution actually gives us a compelling answer of its own, which is that suffering, to a certain extent, is necessary and good for survival. People might think they’d have a much better life if they couldn’t feel pain, but that’s actually not true.
For example, Hansen’s Disease, which is commonly known as leprosy, actually just kills the pain nerves in your body. All the damage we associate with leprosy—fingers falling off and that kind of thing—happens because people hurt themselves and don’t realize it. They’re actually destroying their own bodies because they can’t feel pain. Jesus’ healing of lepers was restoring their ability to feel pain.
The Christian message has never been one of pain avoidance, right? It’s “take up your cross and follow me.” When we’ve given in to the Western idea that a comfortable life is a happy life, we’ve become pain-averse in ways that are actually problematic for our own flourishing. Which is paradoxical.
The second reaction is, “Didn’t death come through the Fall?” There’s real division on this. About one-half of scholars in this area say yes, suffering and death only entered with the Fall, but the Fall happened at the very beginning of time, whether because Satan and his angels fell or because there’s simply something about creation itself that entails a fallenness. There’s another group of us who say, actually, no, sin entered the world through humans, but death and suffering are not the result of the Fall.
It is interesting to me that throughout Scripture, God is constantly pointing out the most vicious wild animals, from the mighty leviathan to the fierce lions, with special pride. God’s speeches to Job are basically one long tirade about how God made all the most problematic bits of creation, from hailstorms to carcass-eating eagles. If all of that was a result of the fall, why does God take such pains to claim it as divine handiwork?
But also, what is meant by death is a little ambiguous. Adam and Eve are told that “in the day you eat of the tree, you shall surely die,” but they don’t fall down dead physically. When Paul talks about the entrance of sin in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, he says things like, “I die every day.” He’s not saying his body has died. He’s talking about some sort of spiritual death.
Have you found people who want to blame Satan for all animal suffering? What problems does that cause?
I think it raises two problems. The first is theological. It seems odd for God to have given up so much of creation to Satan and then not have told us about it. The overwhelming chorus of Genesis is that the world is good. Everything about the Psalms, even after sin has entered the world, says that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” So I think that if that was going to be important to the structure of the world, God might have been a bit clearer in the scriptural text.
The second problem is scientific, and it’s this: Darwin’s insight is that it’s the competition, it’s the violence that drives the beauty and the skill and the cooperation. So if you say that violence and competition are due to sin, then you’re handing over the root of all the goodness, beauty, and skill to Satan as well. Or you try and start dividing it up in really odd ways, like when it’s competitive it’s Satan, but when it turns out for the good it’s God’s work. And I find that that becomes really, really messy.
And the suffering is part of what makes that creature itself; we know that God delights in the creatureliness of his creatures.
[Theologian] Christopher Southgate pulls from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s view of “selving,” and he sort of sees God celebrating each creature becoming itself, and even transcending itself, as part of God’s purpose. The purpose of God in creation is a lot wider than just humans, and because the Bible is really mostly interested in humans, we don’t hear the rest of that story. So we have to speculate. This may not have the stamp of inspired approval, but I think it’s an important thing to do, especially in this moment of ecological crisis.
How did your understanding of God change as you undertook writing your book ? What have you learned that surprised you?
I used to think of God primarily as the cosmic architect who carefully planned, measured, and built everything, like an engineer. But engineers and architects tend to work with non-living materials. You use dead wood; you use stone.
But when I looked in Scripture, most of the analogies are organic: They’re God as king, God as parent, God as lover. Then you’re not working with a dead thing that you can plan and calculate and position. You’re working with dynamic entities who have their own modes of being. And so I sort of laid down a lot of the views of God planning so much as God accompanying, coaching, loving, growing.
So what does the cross teach us about all of this?
One view—shared by around half of the scholars who write on this topic—says the redemption that happened on the cross wasn’t just for humans, but for all the suffering of the cosmos. Jesus shared not only in humanity but in the molecules of the world. The carbon molecules in Jesus’ body were forged in the heart of a long-dead star, just like every molecule of carbon in your body. And so there’s this deep continuity of Christ with all of creation, animate and inanimate.
And then finally, you can take it to mean something like what [philosopher] Holmes Rolston says: that all of creation is cruciform, that what you’re seeing playing out in Jesus’ life is true of the whole world. In one of Jesus’ parables (John 12:24–26), the seed has to fall into the ground and die before it can produce new fruit, and in the whole evolutionary process, death is necessary to new life. You can kind of read the whole narrative of creation as a larger-scale story that the passion of Christ is the key to understanding. So Christ dies in the death of each animal and is raised in the life of all the animals who benefit out of that death.
And through the cross, Christ is really showing us how to love.
Yes. Here’s another one of my crazy beliefs: I don’t think that animals love. I think that love is a particularly human thing because it doesn’t come about naturally. I think that love is something that is sort of fermented by God in the soul. It’s baked in the soul, like bread. Bread is taking natural ingredients and combining them in a particular way to turn them into something wonderful. The same is true of beer, which doesn’t occur in nature. There’s the sort of fermentation process that doesn’t necessarily happen in nature, but we figured out how to do it.
And I think love is the same: It takes the natural evolutionary desires, whether that’s altruism, the desire for security, or selfish desires, and God takes these natural ingredients and starts working in us to develop love in our hearts, and we can resist that. And I think that’s what sin is: It’s resisting the work of God as God is transforming us into the creatures who love.
Has your understanding of what love is changed through your study of animal suffering?
I think it’s highlighted for me how patient love is. God’s love in relationship to animals doesn’t rush the process, doesn’t intervene to get to the goal faster. Learning to see the patience of God in creation and the way that love allows the other to be the other has really challenged how I have relationships. I’m not just trying to change other people to suit me, but really take them as they are and love them as they are, whether they change or not.
God’s never given up on creation. We talk about the major extinction event that’s happening now and it’s a problem. Human activity is devastating thousands and millions of species. But there have been five major extinction events in the past where 90 percent of the species have been wiped off the face of the earth, and conditions like the Snowball Earth, where there were at least five feet of ice over the whole of the earth. If another 90 percent species loss happens because of us, humans might not survive. But life probably will. And God will continue to work out the celebration of life, the journey, even if humans manage to eliminate themselves.
Because Christ is still victorious, even if we’re making terrible decisions.
Absolutely. Which is not to say we don’t need to worry about climate change. But there’s an ongoing hope in the resilience of the creation and the patience of God.
Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.