There is an old show business saying, often misattributed to W. C. Fields: “Never work with children or animals,” presumably because they will either behave unpredictably or steal every scene. John Schneider’s Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil boldly ignores this advice, and the result is a startling new take on the problem of evil in which animals indeed steal the show—by appearing in heaven!
Evolutionary Theodicy: A New Cottage Industry
Schneider’s book is the latest addition to a growing number of books (most of which he engages) that address a new and more confounding iteration of the ancient problem of evil that gives it a peculiarly Darwinian twist. C. S. Lewis and other Christian apologists have dealt previously with animal suffering, but evolutionary history renders the problem exponentially more difficult, first, because of the sheer amount of suffering (Schneider remarks that the extinction of species means that whole “worlds” have come and gone) and, second, because much of it is prelapsarian, and thus not the fault of human beings. Schneider devotes an entire chapter to deconstructing the traditional view that explains animal suffering in terms of the fall.
The Darwinian Problem of evil effects a paradigm shift, a Copernican revolution in how one views God’s relation to, and responsibility for, animal suffering in the Darwinian World, replete with “anti-cosmic micro-monsters” (a category that includes the Coronavirus) and other evils that the Creator appears to have “inscribed” into the fabric of creation.
Consider, for example, the cover illustration of Schneider’s book, a picture of the Ichneumon wasp (aka “Darwin’s moth”). It is a parasite that hatches in, feeds off, and eventually kills its insect and spider hosts. It is a killing machine, hardwired to wreak devastation: murder, He wrote—apparently into its DNA! The patent cruelty of this species troubled philosophers, theologians, and naturalists like Darwin in the nineteenth century, who could not reconcile its behavior with the loving God of Christianity, the one who made “all creatures great and small,” and then pronounced his creation “very good” (Gen 1:31).
What generates the Darwinian Problem of evil is the cognitive dissonance between the goodness of God on the one hand and the reality of animal suffering that appears to be a brute fact and brutal feature of the world as created by this God on the other. Evolutionary engineering seems to require an inter-species fight for survival. To be sure, some theologians attempt to avoid the problem by saying that animals cannot suffer because they are not “conscious.” Schneider, friend to five faithful Labradors (to whom he dedicates the book), spends half a chapter blocking this escape route, arguing that our commonsense intuition that their suffering is real is correct.
From Ethics to Aesthetics: Job’s Tragic Insight
The “normal” way to defend God from the charge of cruelty to animals requires meeting several conditions. The Necessity Condition stipulates that a morally good person will permit or authorize evil only when necessary; the Outweighing Condition says that whatever evil is permitted must be less than the resultant good. In addition to demonstrating the logical compatibility of natural evil and a good God, a case for God must also enable us to see signs of divinity in the non-human evolutionary realm, which Schneider terms the condition of theistic sight.
Perhaps the most common response to the Darwinian Problem is the Only Way theodicy. On this view, the process of evolution, red in tooth and claw, was the only (or best) way for God to create a habitable world with the kind of biodiversity that would eventuallySchneider is careful not to sentimentalize this picture of cosmic order trumping chaos, however: the picture of evolutionary creation is hardly a pretty Hallmark card. produce human life. Schneider resists this Way Out of the problem on the grounds that the good accrues only to human beings, not the animals themselves. Does the end of human soul-making justify the means of animal suffering? Schneider, lover of Labradors, thinks not.
Instead of trying to explain how a good God could allow evil, Schneider pivots from morality to aesthetics, drawing on an overlooked essay by the philosopher Roderick Chisholm to argue that God defeats evil—defangs nature’s red tooth and claw—by incorporating it into a larger, meaningful whole. God here resembles a cosmic artist who fits ugly and discordant elements, like animal suffering, into a harmonious, beautiful pattern.
Schneider is careful not to sentimentalize this picture of cosmic order trumping chaos, however: the picture of evolutionary creation is hardly a pretty Hallmark card. The God-justifying beauty that evil makes possible is tragic, not comic. Indeed, some evolutionary evils are worse than tragic: they are horrible—horrors that appear to violate the order of creation.
How can evils be both genuine horrors and catalysts of beauty? Schneider here turns to the book of Job, which he believes provides an answer, though not the usual one in which God the Creator triumphs over chaos. On the contrary, God is creating Cosmos—order, life, and beauty—in and through the Chaos of suffering and death. The narrative of Job enables readers dimly and symbolically to perceive this eschatological possibility, namely, the transfiguration of tragedy into what Schneider calls the “messianic sublime”: “a calming sense of God’s creative/redemptive cosmic presence even in the midst of anti-cosmic turmoil” (p. 192).
From Aesthetics to Eschatology: Roar in Heaven?
Can Christians this side of Darwin see what Job saw in contemplating God’s presence and activity in nature? In particular, can we see how God is morally justified in defeating the tragic evils he also authorizes? In his final two chapters, Schneider sets out to show how “canonical Christian believers” can view the Darwinian world through the eyes of messianic faith.
In Chapter Nine Schneider examines what some see as a striking similarity between the Son’s kenosis or self-emptying mentioned in Philippians 2 and the way animals, indeed whole species, pour In his final two chapters, Schneider sets out to show how “canonical Christian believers” can view the Darwinian world through the eyes of messianic faith. themselves out as it were in and on behalf of the process of evolution. Schneider is not deterred by readers who may question the legitimacy of his zoological application of a Christological category like kenosis, insisting that it is part of a Darwinian “passion play” in which animals sacrifice themselves for the sake of the evolutionary process.
Of course, Jesus willed to do the will of the Father, being obedient even to the point of death, whereas animals have no choice in the matter. Schneider responds to this apparent disanalogy by turning to Romans 9–11 and the doctrine of election. Just as God temporarily rejected Israel so that Gentiles could be included, so God calls animals to perform a “kenotic” service for the sake of higher, teleological dramatic end: giving one’s life for another.
Schneider marshals other doctrines too (most notably, the doctrines of the image of God, atonement, and resurrection) in his final chapter to argue that God defeats the evil of animal suffering not only by bringing about something beautiful, but by doing right by all creatures, great and small, raising them to post-mortem bodily existence. If this were not controversial enough, Schneider goes on speculatively to suggest that God does not simply raise but exalts animals to the place traditionally reserved for human saints: “it makes sense to understand sentient animals in their ‘cruciform’ evolutionary suffering on the analogy of martyrs” (p. 267).
Schneider acknowledges and responds to the inevitable questions and objections: Did Christ suffer and die for non-human creatures too? Is the cross God’s way of assuming responsibility for the evil he has inscribed into the natural world? Can the essential nature of predators like lions and orcas be preserved in the peaceable kingdom of the new earth (cf. Isa 65:25)? Does Scripture really teach the eschatological deification of all created human and non-human creatures? Will God endow animals with the cognitive capacity to confess Christ and acknowledge their earthly lives as “good” despite, or even because of, their suffering?
By the end, at least two things are clear: first, that Schneider here makes a provocative and thorough case for God’s goodness to animals, their suffering notwithstanding and, second, that I will never again be able to look at, or think about, a Saint Bernard in quite the same way . . .