The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 2

In a previous post I explained my interest in the problem of suffering and summarized part 1 of Ronald Osborn’s book, in which he addressed various problems with a literalistic reading of the biblical creation accounts (that is, taking them to be a straightforward scientific or historical account of the world, as many modern Christians do).

In the present post I will address Osborn’s account of animal predation as part of the good world God made (since predation significantly contributes to animal suffering); I’m actually going to go a bit beyond Osborn, to strengthen his case.

In my final post I will interact with Osborn’s chapter on Christ’s redemption of animal suffering.

Osborn on Animal Suffering and Death

In the five chapters of part 2 of Death Before the Fall Osborn finally gets to his advertised topic—animal suffering. Osborn explains that the critique of literalism in part 1 “is to a large extent prolegomena” to part 2, which addresses “the theodicy dilemma of animal suffering and mortality” (p. 19).

Osborn correctly notes that this is a problem for both creationists and evolutionists. Although creationists often object to the implication of an evolutionary account of the world since it involves millions of years of the suffering and death of animals (through extinctions, disease, carnivores preying on herbivores), even creationists need to account for why God would allow animal suffering (especially through predation) to be so pervasive in a young earth.

If this is due to the Fall (human sin) as most creationists claim, doesn’t this seem like unjustified suffering? Since most creationists affirm that animals were vegetarian prior to the Fall, this means that carnivores are a post-Fall phenomenon. Does this mean that today’s carnivores were previously herbivores who suddenly grew (or evolved) canines? Or did pre-Fall carnivores use their canines for eating vegetation? And beyond all these crazy theories, creationists still need to answer the question of why animals have to suffer for human sin.

In part 1 of this review I noted that Osborn’s background in the Seventh Day Adventist church equipped him for addressing young earth creationism. In a similar manner, his approach to the problem of animal suffering is informed by having grown up in Zimbabwe of missionary parents, which included many visits to a game reserve. He mentions his awareness of the presence of predatory animals (crocodiles and jackals) and describes witnessing lions eviscerating a fresh kill with the smell of blood in the air.

The world of the game reserve was “deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good” and “the danger was part of its goodness and beauty. . . . Herein lies the central riddle of this book” (p. 13).

Although part 2 contains five chapters, the tension evident in the above quote is embodied in the contrast between chapters 12 and 13. These are the chapters that most interested me.

Animal Predation as Part of God’s Good Creation—The Witness of Job

Chap. 12 (“God of the Whirlwind”) explores the vision of the book of Job, where animal predation is part of the world God celebrates.

In response to Job’s complaint about his sufferings, God describes in his first speech an untamed non-human world that includes suffering and death (Job 38-42). Not only does God send rain on a land where no human lives (Job 38:26-28), but in his rhetorical questions to Job, God implies that he provides food for lions and ravens:

39  Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40  when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
41  Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food? (Job 38:39-41)

Indeed, God commands the eagle to build her nest on high, from which she delivers prey to her young (Job 39:27-30), who “suck up blood;/ and where the slain are, there she is” (39:30). Those are the closing words of God’s first speech to Job, and I have often thought it is no wonder that Job was struck silent, at a loss for words at such a gruesome image.

But Osborn is right in emphasizing that throughout the first speech God is delighting in animal ferocity.

This delight continues in God’s second speech, where the creator boasts about Behemoth and Leviathan (given the mythic overlay of these beasts, I wouldn’t reduce them to known animal species, as Osborn seems to do here).

I initially thought that Osborn wrongly identified the second beast with Behemoth (pp. 153 and 157), but it turns out that he was using the New English Bible’s rendering of the first beast as a “crocodile,” which is what most interpreters take as a possible model for Leviathan, the second beast.

Part of the reason I misread Osborn here is that he quotes selections from the description of Behemoth (40:15-15, 19-20) along with selections from the description of Leviathan (41:12, 33-34), all in one block quotation, without distinguishing them from each other (p. 153).

He himself may have been confused by the NEB, which he was quoting, since it idiosyncratically translates 40:15 and 20 as if Behemoth (“crocodile”) was a carnivore (“who devours cattle as if they were grass” and “he takes the cattle of the hills for his prey and in his jaws he crunches all wild beasts”). In the NRSV these lines are correctly rendered: “it eats grass like an ox” and “the mountains yield food for it where all the wild animals play” (this is what the Hebrew actually says). In other words, while Leviathan is clearly a carnivore, Behemoth (seemingly modeled on a Hippopotamus) is a herbivore (though still a dangerous animal).

Despite this slip, Osborn’s point is well-taken that these dangerous beasts (like many animals in the first speech) are paraded before Job as part of a world God is proud of. Predation and danger therefore do not constitute “natural evil” in the book of Job.

Beyond Osborn—The Psalms on Animal Predation

A similar perspective may be found in the Psalms—although Osborn doesn’t explicitly address this. But his case could be strengthened by adding other relevant biblical references to God’s approval of animal predation as part of the natural order.

Just as Job mentions the feeding of ravens, so does Psalm 147. Verse 7 calls on the reader to sing praise to YHWH because “He gives to the animals their food,/ and to the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9). Ravens are omnivores, often scavenging on carrion.

And just as Job mentioned the feeding of lions (which are clearly carnivores), so Psalm 104 notes: “The young lions roar for their prey,/ seeking their food from God” (verse 21).

The psalm even claims that God feeds all animals:

27  These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28  when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. (Psalm 104:27-28)

 This implies that at least some biblical texts (Job and Psalms) regard animal predation (thus animal death, even suffering) as simply part of the good world that God made; after all God feeds the animals. This is, therefore, not part of what we should regard as “evil.” If a human being is injured or killed by a wild animal, this is certainly “evil” to us; but to regard animal predation in general as “natural evil” is a highly anthropocentric judgment.

The Parallel between Animal Predation and Natural Disasters

Thinking of animal predation as “natural evil” is somewhat like viewing natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes) as intrinsically evil. Yet such destructive phenomena have been part of the world long before humans; they are simply part of the natural geological forces and weather patterns on this planet. Like animal predation, when a natural disaster negatively impacts human life, this is certainly “evil” to us. But that has to do with the interaction of humans and nature, not nature considered independently.

Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic 2010) is a superb theological exploration of this theme.

Fretheim (who is one of the most careful readers of Scripture that I know) clarifies how we may think of natural disasters as part of the wildness of the cosmos that God has incorporated into the order of the world; this wildness is part of the good (but not “perfect”) creation that God made. Such natural phenomena may certainly be impacted negatively by human behavior (Fretheim suggests that Scripture itself supports this). And he boldly addresses how the Bible even portrays God as mediating judgment on humanity by the use of natural disasters—all the while affirming that such disasters are not intrinsically evil.

In my next post I will address Osborn’s chapter on Christ’s incarnation and atonement and how these relate to animal suffering. I will raise what I perceive as an internal tension between this chapter and the idea that animal predation/suffering is simply part of the good creation.

3 thoughts on “The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 1 | CREATION to ESCHATON

  2. I’ve not read Osborn or Fretheim but I enjoyed reading your two posts, Richard.
    Along with an admiration of the cunning, speed and strength of animal predators, should we apply an idea of protection for the image-bearing humans called to fill and rule the earth. What seems assumed in the Genesis dominion-narrative is an expansion of humankind (and its garden) across the surface of the planet within some kind of “firewall”.
    That’s not so outlandish, even w.r.t. the natural disaster scenarios. My understanding (‘m happy to be corrected) is that the devastating Tsunami of 2004 was somehow anticipated by many wild creatures that fled the coastlines before they were inundated. Have humans lost protective faculties while proclaiming their “go it alone” ambitions?
    And, extending that thought, do we see some restoration of lost “natural” faculties (not just protective ones) in the miracle accounts of the Gospels?


Comments are closed.