One of the most significant objections to the theory of evolution is the moral one: if there is an all-wise God, why would he use a process that involves so much waste, suffering and death?
Biology, says, Denis Alexander, is a ‘package deal’. For every ‘plus’ that we might see as positive for life and well-being, there is a ‘minus’. For example: mutations are essential for biodiversity, and yet mutations also cause cancer and genetic diseases. Or again: bacteria are essential for healthy life, and yet bacteria can also kill us.
Life – at least, carbon-based life – is impossible without death. This is because all life depends on a food chain in which organisms die and their constituent organic molecules are taken up into other organisms.
Anthropic accounts of the fine-tuning of the universe draw attention to the extremely precise ‘script’ for the production of carbon-based life. But presumably written into this script is not only carbon-based life, but carbon-based pain, suffering, disease and death.
A ‘wasteful’ world?
The objection that the evolution of life is too wasteful a process to permit belief in an all-wise Creator does not carry much weight. The fact is that the universe needs to be as large and as old as it is in order for elements such as carbon and oxygen to be synthesised.
Then, the emergence and development of life on Earth required extended periods of time, related to the gradual increase in the oxygen level in the atmosphere and other processes.
In any case, it is difficult to know what ‘waste’ might mean for a creator-God who delights in the richness and diversity of the world he has made. To accept the teaching of the Bible that humankind is made in the image of God should not lead us to downgrade the value of the rest of creation, either to ourselves or to God. We may not have been here to appreciate the first 99% of earth’s biological history, but God was. It is perhaps better to think of God as an artist, delighting in the richness and diversity of creation, than as an engineer, seeking the most efficient, least wasteful, solution to every problem.
A ‘cruel’ world?
It is not appropriate to think of ‘cruelty’ within the animal kingdom. Animals are not moral agents in the way that humans are. It is we, not they, who have been given a moral law and who must take responsibility for moral actions.
Justifying the ways of God
Some suggest that God has deliberately limited the exercise of his own omnipotence in order for the created order to be free to be itself. The disorder that we observe in creation is the consequence of this God-given freedom to develop. He cannot be held responsible for the ills of the created order.
Observing the ‘casualties of evolution’ as conceived within such a view, some theologians have posited some kind of end-time ‘redemption’ for them. But this seems a fanciful attempt to do God’s moral book-keeping for him. Apart from highly symbolic references in passages such as Isa 65:25, and slight hints in Rom 8, Scripture is silent about the redemption of animals and plants.
A rather more robust view, favoured by Alexander, is that the physical universe does in fact perfectly fulfil the intentions and purposes of its Creator. There is, accordingly, no ‘kenosis’. The biblical understanding is that God knows the end from the beginning, Isa 46:10. He is infallibly working out his intentions for the created order. He is like an author who, in planning a series of novels, knows how it will all turn out in the end, even if the details of each book were still to be worked out.
What we can say, then, about a theological approach to living organisms can be summarised as follows:-
- They have intrinsic, and not merely instrumental, value. They have value in and of themselves, not merely because they serve our own purposes.
- They have value to God as part of his created order.
- Each creature plays its part in the overall evolutionary narrative. We are all connected, sharing the same genetic code, and the biochemical processes, the same cycle of life and death.
God has intentions and purposes for the world that are being fulfilled through the created order. The world he created was fit for purpose. It was a good world, but also a tough world, suited for the purpose of soul-making. It is a world in which pain and suffering challenge our complacency; a world in which moral and spiritual growth is made possible. Only when we have been prepared by our experiences in this world to depend on God’s grace will we be ready to brought in the new heaven and new earth where there will be no more pain and suffering.
The purpose of God in permitting ‘natural’ evil are brought out in John 9. The man was born blind, not as a punishment for sin, but ‘so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.’
Suffering does not only provide an opportunity for works of compassion, but also can bring people to a saving faith in Christ.
We are impatient to have the new creation now. But God has seen fit for his future redeemed family to be established through the cross, and through suffering.
Understanding what we do of God’s plan and purposes, it is quite possible that the biological package that we have is the best – perhaps even the only – way in which humans could be formed in such a way that they can respond freely to God’s love and know him forever.
And, in any consideration of suffering, let us not forget that God himself, in the form of Jesus Christ, took on the pain of both physical and spiritual death in order that we might experience life here and in the hereafter.
Based on Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose? (Monarch Books, 2008) 277-292.