Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Animal Suffering, Darwinian Evolution, and the Goodness of the Christian God

John R. Schneider

Did the God of theism—omnipotent, wholly wise, and perfectly good—use Darwinian evolution to create species? Many contemporary thinkers see this “evolutionary theism” as wildly implausible. Why? One reason is that Darwinian evolution has caused unimaginable amounts of brutal suffering by animals in an unfathomably long planetary past, and it does so in nature now. Did the theistic God design conditions of existence for animals in this way—“nature red in tooth and claw”? Many current thinkers believe that Darwinian evil is all but proof positive that the God of theism does not exist.

I was motivated to write this book by natural desire to have a better answer to this pressing question than the ones available. I was also inspired to write the book by my Labrador dogs, most recently Buffy (see photo) and Blue. Why did God allow them to suffer the way they did, particularly in older age?

I spend part one of the book showing that the problem is even harder than commonly acknowledged, partly because it has an aesthetic aspect that makes the obvious moral challenge worse for theism. The Darwinian story seems not just cruel, but also artless. And did God deliberately create those “anti-cosmic micro-monsters” we have discovered, such as the COVID-
19 virus? They are not just harmful but are very like fictional monsters in horror stories. Does God work in the real-world aesthetic genres of tragedy and horror?

I explore the prevailing theories and conclude that some fail very badly, but that some are more promising so long as we make crucial adjustments. The fundamental (and most controversial) change is to abandon a narrowly ethical picture of God and replace it with an essentially aesthetic one—God as Artist. Some readers might begin rolling their eyes at this suggestion. Classical and post-classical versions of Aesthetic Theodicy, as I refer to it, have been rightly disparaged as morally defective—God comes off as an amoral artist, who uses defenseless creatures as mere means to artistic ends. I have to avoid this fatal moral defect in the explanation, and I believe I do so. Meanwhile, an aesthetic rather than narrowly ethical framework enables one to modify the moral conditions we employ in trying to see God as justified in authorizing Darwinian evil. It allows God extraordinary freedom from certain moral constraints that apply to ordinary persons. I accept Roderick Chisholm’s proposal that on this analogue, God needs only to defeat evils that God causes and/or allows. “Defeat” means to integrate the evils into the lives of creatures as greatly valuable finished wholes, which could not be as valuable without the evil parts, bad as they are.

Further, I propose that explanation along this line will not likely succeed without help from distinctively Christian resources. I appeal especially to the book of Job for a perspective in which the Darwinian evil in view is more plausible on theism than commonly supposed. I then make fresh use of canonical doctrines of the “image of God,” the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, and even divine election. Of course, eschatology must play a part—if God successfully integrates Darwinian evils into the cosmic art, and therewith defeats evils suffered by not just some, but each and every animal, it must be in a postmortem realm—the messianic realm of God. I try to persuade readers, then, that—controversially of course—with these adjustments and Christian resources, good grounds exist for faith and hope that Cosmic Universalism is true: God will ultimately defeat the evils of Darwinian suffering for every animal that has ever existed.

Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil by John R. Schneider

About The Author

John R. Schneider

John R. Schneider is Professor Emeritus of Theology, Calvin College and currently teaches at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. He is the author of Philip Melanc...

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