I want to thank the contributors to this volume for taking time to review my book Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil. I especially thank Kevin Vanhoozer for his introductory essay. Anyone wishing to get an accurate picture of my multi-faceted discussion as a whole in concise form can confidently refer to it.

Limitations of space make it impossible to review the essays in adequate detail. So, I will treat them in an ascending order of what I judge to be the force of the substantive critical challenges they pose to my work.

Response to Jon Garvey

Cambridge University Press, 2020

Jon Garvey maintains that the Darwinian problem of evil is neither new nor is much of a challenge for theism. It has become a problem (so Garvey) only for theists who have been “sidelined by Enlightenment religion,” in which an “omnibenevolent moral Deity” has displaced doctrines of “special providence, the inscrutable simplicity of God, and Christ as the Logos in and behind all creation.” Can these theistic concepts readily resolve seeming conflict between Christianity and a Darwinian experience of animals?

To support his contentions, Garvey begins with a passage from The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (1552/3–1599), wherein the Goddess Mutability tries to rule the world. Spenser has in view the transitory lives of beasts “daily massacred,” victims of constant “alteration” and loss. Garvey compares this positively with our contemporary Darwinian sense of transitoriness and tragedy in evolution. In Spenser’s poem, however, in contrast to modern handwringing, Nature calmly intervenes with the verdict that the apparent loss is really gain for the beasts—“expanding their first estate” on the whole. Spenser ends with a prayer of reassuring praise: divine immutability will prevail in the end, with “all things firmely stayed.” With a rightly formed theology and spirituality, then, the contemporary Darwinian problem is sanguinely solved.

To test this spiritual sanguinity, however, let us wind the clock forward to the time when another great Christian poet—Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)—wrote his monumental In Memoriam. As I explain (pp. 33–36), Tennyson brooded over the new scientific revelations that had come into view even prior to publication of Darwin’s writings. I refer to them as the “unveilings” of (1) “deep evolutionary time,” linked with (2) a “plurality of worlds” that existed during deep prehuman planetary time, discovery of (3) “anti-cosmic micro-monsters,” and, via Darwinian theory, (4) “evil inscribed,” i.e., that this new configuration of natural evil on earth was inherent in God’s preferred means of creating species—natural selection.It was not mere transitoriness and mere pain in nature, but all of nature newly understood, these ancient realities freshly framed and hard to see as parts of a divinely purposeful and providential whole. All this together was just dawning when Tennyson wrote poetically of nature’s seeming indifference to species and things come and gone during epochs of time, newly unveiled. It was this astonishing vista of transitoriness and pain that framed and magnified the theistic disturbance of what Tennyson famously described as “nature red in tooth and claw.” It was not mere transitoriness and mere pain in nature, but all of nature newly understood, these ancient realities freshly framed and hard to see as parts of a divinely purposeful and providential whole.

Tennyson, too, ended with a hopeful prayer, but it was anything but sanguine. The tone was rather more like the impassioned pleading of Job that God might make sense of the morally senseless suffering he endured—together with a great many seemingly godforsaken wild creatures. It is a tearfully impassioned prayer for “one far off divine event, towards which the whole creation moves.” It expressed hope against hope that God would somehow make it so that “not one life shall be destroy’d, Or cast as rubbish to the void.” Was the difference in tone between Spenser’s and Tennyson’s prayers due to difference between conceptions of God? Or was it due to a radical change in the picturing of nature in emergent science?

What was so very new and difficult about the Darwinian picture? I wish I could say that Garvey has given readers an accurate account of my explanation in the course of rejecting it. However, to prevent misunderstanding by readers, some corrective clarifications are in order.

First, I do not argue that the mere arithmetical length of “deep evolutionary time” increases the disvalue of the animal suffering in view. I join numerous others in observing rather that this new vista of animal history in the epochal past opened eyes to an unimagined amount of prehuman suffering, and, worse, to kinds and distributions of animal pain and death that strain traditional theistic explanations. Further, it is an evasive God-justifying half-truth that “pain evolved . . . to benefit and protect creatures” (so Garvey), and it begs the core questions I join others in raising about the frequency of biologically pointless suffering.

Connectedly, (2) a “plurality of worlds” is not about discovery of “ancient, previously unsuspected, ages,” although this is part of the problem posed. Nor is it about astronomy (so Garvey). The phrase comes from the title of a book by Darwin’s tutor and colleague, William Whewell (1853), who observed, with theistic wonder, that the planetary history of animals looked rather more like a “series of creations” than the single one that theists naturally expected. The astonishing disparateness of these “worlds,” punctuated by cataclysmic mass extinctions, one after another, helps to unveil an unexpected configuration of animal death and suffering that poses novel and very serious aesthetic and moral explanatory challenges to traditional theism.

As for (3) “micro-monsters,” COVID 19 certainly brings the problem home! The discovery of microscopic creatures, such as Yersinia pestis, the heretofore undisclosed microbe that caused the Black Death, equipped as it is with an exquisitely designed syringe with which to “inject” the infection into unsuspecting victims, invalidated premodern (superstitious) theological explanation along with the supposedly curative witch hunts and persecutions of heretics and Jews.

Did God deliberately create these creatures, which match the description of “monsters” in recent aesthetic theory?

Hordes of such creatures, now unveiled, pose a novel problem to theists. Did God deliberately create these creatures, which match the description of “monsters” in recent aesthetic theory? They are fittingly labeled “anti-cosmic” (contra Garvey) for the horrific evils they cause. Are they really good creations of God (so Garvey)? I suggest that they are indeed good, but only in an intrinsic ontological sense. Because of the evils they cause, they are bad in an extrinsic moral sense. I contend that they, too, pose both aesthetic (horror) and moral (suffering) challenges to theism. Garvey correctly observes that viruses play a key role in the genetics of evolution. However, this evolutionary truth begs the question why God would choose to create species by such a randomly cruel and deadly means, and at such a cost (Garvey omits my comments on this, pp. 30–32 and 249–50).

Finally, the unveiling of (4) “evil inscribed” does not mean (so Garvey) that for me, “evolution is evil,” but that Darwinian evils are inherent in this purportedly divine means of creation. Neither the moral nor aesthetic atheistic challenges that this novel understanding poses are reduced in the least by awareness that natural selection does not work alone, but together with random mutations, genetic drift, and so forth, or that natural selection also produces a great many evolutionary goods. Emphasis on adaptation and “differential reproduction” does not “make all the difference” (so Garvey). For (so evolutionary biologists) “survival of the fittest” remains the regnant evolutionary rule, and natural selection still very often involves the wasteful and brutal kinds of suffering that my case-examples (here left unconsidered) place in question.

Response to Rahel Wells

Despite great differences between her approach to the Bible and mine, Rahel Wells affirms many of my proposals. Her main disagreement is with statements I make occasionally on the natural moral and cognitive capacities of animals.

Contrary to my ethological view, Wells contends that some animals can justly be blamed for wrongful actions. Her contention does not stand on ethological science, but on passages from the Bible.

Wells observes that in Genesis 3, God explicitly blames the serpent for prompting the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The argument, however, relies on the assumption that the serpent is a literal animal, and is not a symbolic representation of chaotic anti-cosmic disorder amid the cosmos, as I argue that it is.

Meanwhile, Wells contends that certain laws and commands in Scripture imply that “animals are responsible and accountable for at least some of their actions, and are to be punished accordingly.” In Exodus 19: 12–13, God forbids that animals touch Mount Sinai when the Lord appears there, and in Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21: 28, God orders that any animals that kill humans be put to death. However, I think the first command is directed to human beings who are to monitor the behavior of animals, not to the animals themselves. In the second instance, the axiological order of human dominion is reaffirmed. The order to kill animals that prey upon humans is similar to our commonplace practice of destroying dogs (or any animals) that are deemed dangerous to human beings.Contrary to my ethological view, Wells contends that some animals can justly be blamed for wrongful actions. I do not think these texts imply moral culpability on the parts of the animals. What they do imply, I believe, is that animal behavior can be morally bad in an objective sense, but not in a human-like subjective one. I adopt the opinion of the great animal ethologist, Marc Bekoff: certain animals do have a proto-morality, and the recent writing of Matthew Rowlands provides limited scientific support for Wells’s thesis. Aside from generating greater respect for animals, however, the implications for human ethics of animals are anything but clear.

As for animal cognition and speech, Wells also appeals to biblical texts rather than to animal sciences. I will bypass her appeal to the speaking serpent in Genesis for reasons already given. Wells thinks that certain additional biblical texts support belief that animals have an innate capacity to “converse with humans.” She cites Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22, a remarkable story to be sure. However, the text makes clear that “the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth” miraculously (Num 22:28), enabling speech. I am unsure what one should infer from this peculiar episode about the innate capacities of this equine species, or assorted others. Perhaps it opens the possibility of animals speaking in Heaven? I argue against this outcome, but I do not think it can be dogmatically ruled out.

Wells also cites examples of animals “speaking” to God, such as the ravens in Job, “speaking out” to him for their food (Job 38:41). This text is part of an intricate poetic account of God’s unexpected intimacy with wild animals thought to be godforsaken. However, does this personification of the ravens’ young (as well as other beasts in Job) communicating with God by means of their animal utterances—not literal speech—imply what Wells suggests it does? I think no more so than do texts that picture nature “speaking,” as in Psalm 19, where “the heavens declare the glory of God.”

In conclusion, Wells’s proposals are intriguing, but I am not convinced that they hold up either in their own biblical terms, on the one hand, or in the context of ethological and cognitive animal sciences, on the other.

Response to Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund writes appreciatively of my book in general, but he raises serious questions about the chapter focused on Lapsarian Theodicy, according to which the God-justifying explanation of evils is a historical fall by first moral creatures. I reject Lapsarian Theodicy on scientific and biblical grounds, but I also lodge four analytical-theological objections to this attempt to place all blame for evils on creatures, and none on God.

Ortlund targets my main objection, which grows from the “problem of paradisiacal motivation.” The problem is that if the first human (or angelic) beings were in original conditions favorable enough to place all blame for evil on them, and none on God, they could have had no motivation to do anything morally wrong, much less the maximally wicked thing they supposedly did. However, if those original conditions were fragile enough to make such evil-doing plausible, then the theodicy fails, since responsibility for those first conditions rests not with the creatures, but with God.

I reject Lapsarian Theodicy on scientific and biblical grounds, but I also lodge four analytical-theological objections to this attempt to place all blame for evils on creatures, and none on God.

Ortlund does not accept the terms of this dilemma. He contends that for the approach to work, we need not conceive of Adam and Eve existing in originally beatific conditions. Further, he asserts, “such a view is not really authentic to Augustine, or the theological tradition more generally.” I will deal first with his contentions on Augustine and tradition. Then I will come back to his first point on originally beatific conditions and theodicy.

Ortlund maintains that for Augustine, Adam and Eve were not created in beatific original conditions, with “perfect wisdom, but existed in an ‘intermediate position’ between wisdom and folly, comparable to human infancy.” In passing, Ortlund mentions (correctly) that Irenaeus of Lyon (d. c. 200 CE) also likened Adam and Eve to children (see just below).

I submit that Ortlund’s description of Augustine’s Adam seriously understates the physical, intellectual, spiritual, and moral advantages that Augustine ascribed to conditions in Eden. Collecting various descriptions, Augustine went to great lengths to place all blame for sin on Adam.See my article, “The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam’: Original Fragility and Supralapsarian Purpose,” Zygon 47, no. 4, December 2012, esp. 956, and subsequent teaching on Adam’s “original righteousness,” 956–57. Adam was immune to illness, endowed with intellectual invulnerability to deceit—Eve was deceived—and was “clothed in grace,” which made him persistently prone towards God and the good. He enjoyed “beatitude” all around. So, critics naturally pressed Augustine to explain how such a man could have sinned.

Ortlund himself seems to equivocate on the super-ordinary greatness of Adam in answering the same question, which he dismisses, quoting C. S. Lewis, as “silly.” So Lewis, as approved by Ortlund: “The better stuff a creature is made of—the cleverer and stronger and freer it is—then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.” However, this seems plainly false. For we commonly assume that God’s greatness includes inability to “go wrong.” Likewise, we typically accept Augustine’s similar understanding of the inhabitants of Heaven, described famously as “not able to sin” (non posse peccare). In fact, when challenged to explain why God did not create these greater human beings in the first place, Augustine acknowledged the assumption of the question: “a nature that has no desire to sin is a better nature,” and also that God foreknew the evil that the inferior humans would cause.The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 11, 7. The problem for his Lapsarian Theodicy was exposed by the answer he gave: perhaps God created the inevitably wicked “wishing to show His anger and manifest His power,” so that, in contrast, God could also “make known the riches of His glory for the vessels of mercy.”The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Book 11, 8. I suggest, then, that the questions raised here are not “silly” at all. In fact, I suggest that they inevitably elicit the concession that, for the Fall to be possible, first conditions had to be to an extent fragile.

Ortlund seems to imply as much in his initial contention that Augustine—like Irenaeus—pictured Adam and Eve as comparable to children. However, this comparison led Irenaeus to judge that Adam and Eve were not entirely at fault, but that the burden of blame fell on the serpent, or Satan. He also sensed that this shift of culpability merely pushed our alleged dilemma one step backwards. Irenaeus suggested that the fall was in some sense planned from the very beginning as part of God’s arcane desire to redeem humanity by means of “recapitulation” in the obedient life of Christ. See again, J. Schneider and references, “The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam,’” 965.

I submit, then, that the dilemma introduced above stands. Until someone finds a way out of it, I submit that Lapsarian Theodicy fails on this analytical-theological ground, among other grounds offered in my book.

Response to Nicola Hoggard Creegan

I refer positively in several places to Hoggard Creegan’s admirable work, which is focused on evolutionary goods that to an extent mitigate the atheistic force of evolutionary evils. Nevertheless, these goods (so I argue) do not “defeat” those evils (see just below), but at best, balance them off. These evolutionary evils are comparable to the “tares” among the “wheat” in Jesus’ parable (Matt 13: 24-30). Use of this parable, however, prompts the question, whence the “tares”? One would expect Hoggard Creegan to answer, the “tares” are planted by whatever agencies are included in the evolutionary process that God chose to employ, so the source of the “tares,” ultimately, is God. However, Hoggard Creegan resists drawing that seemingly inevitable inference, despite the fact that she emphatically rejects Lapsarian Theodicy and a creaturely moral origin of evils in nature. So I wonder why Hoggard Creegan, for all our agreements, resists my answer: by employing natural selection to create species, the causal agent of Darwinian suffering by animals is God.

Hoggard Creegan explains that she finds my “insistence that God is the direct author of evil” hard to accept. She concedes that God may “allow it,” and also that the light may be lighter because of the dark, but “not that God is the author of evil,” even if God defeats it.

In response, I suspect that I should have been more explicitly clear on how I picture the aesthetic agency of God in purposely including Darwinian evils in the world. I, too, do not wish bluntly and simply to deem God to be the “direct author of evil.” To qualify that description, I understand “God as Artist” as an analogy based on God’s employment of Darwinian evolution in sublimely tragic narratives of both creation and redemption,I refer positively in several places to Hoggard Creegan’s admirable work, which is focused on evolutionary goods that to an extent mitigate the atheistic force of evolutionary evils. not as a nearly literal depiction. In choosing to create by Darwinian means, I propose, God has not directly caused Darwinian evils, in the way that Shakespeare, say, literally included the gouging out of poor Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, or as Picasso deliberately painted in the horrors of Guernica. However, I also want to suggest that in employing Darwinian means, God has done something more positively accountable than merely allowing evolutionary evils, for they are inherent in the means of Darwinian creation. I suggest rather that by employing natural selection, God has indirectly, yet causally, “authorized” the existence of those evils. God has done so by virtue of the randomness of evolution, albeit within constraints, such as envisioned in the picture of God aligning purposes (startlingly) with the Chaos Monster Leviathan in the book of Job, supposed in pre-exilic tradition to be God’s archenemy.

To be clear, authorizing such evolutionary evil does not imply that the evil pleases God, or that the evil is really a good in disguise. The evil is genuinely a bad thing that God nevertheless authorizes—active causal agency that (so Roderick Chisholm and Marilyn Adams) is justified by God’s omnipotently sure aim to “defeat” the evil. He does so to integrate it into the larger life-whole of the creatures involved so that their lives end up being better on the whole than they would have been without the evil part. Is this way of thinking theologically acceptable?

Christians have come to understand the crucifixion of Jesus in this way. In tradition, God does more than just allow it. In an enigmatic providential sense, we suppose that God purposely orchestrated and authorized this horrific means of death, but with the sure aim of “defeating” it. We thank God for this horrific evil in retrospect (“O felix culpa!”), because God has “defeated” it by its gloriously artful integration into a redemptive life-whole that could not be as good as it is without the evil—both for Jesus himself and for the whole world. I suggest that if we may accept this understanding of cruciform evil in redemption, by analogy, we are positioned, with proper qualifications, to accept it also in the process of creation. The fact that animal “kenotic” self-sacrifice is involuntary (see Garvey’s criticism, here, too) does not invalidate the comparison, for in both kenotic cases, God calls servants to participate in a very great good. (Even Jesus’ death was only partially voluntary—“not my will, but Thine.”)

There is much more I would write given greater space, especially in interaction with Hoggard Creegan, such as on how we might relate the Satanic to my thesis on Chaos and anti-cosmic powers afoot in the world, and particularly in Darwinian creation. I, too, do not think it is reducible to a simple “medieval” battle between Satan and God. However, I think it is better to name the powers involved as the reality of randomness that God has authorized to exist in evolution than to leave them elusively unnamed as a “Shadow Sophia” or as enigmatic “tares.” Moreover, this picture gives at least a glimmer of the reason why—why the “tares”? We see, albeit darkly, that a world created artfully via the “defeat” of evils is better than any world God could have created without them. The challenge is to seek to explain in sufficiently rational terms how we might envision this to be so. I have sought to do so in my book.