This week’s guest author is… Bethany Sollereder, a postdoctoral fellow in science and religion at Oxford whose work considers theodicy, evolution, animal suffering and related themes. Bethany is part of a group of theologians that no longer see all suffering, disease and death as a result of the Fall. While there may be some difference of opinion on that premise, there’s no doubt that she takes biological science seriously, and her thoughts have value for the public witness of the church in a scientific age. – Drew
Why does God allow suffering? A common Christian answer is that God never intended for suffering to occur, that it’s a result of sin: when Adam and Eve transgressed God’s law, the entire order of the world was thrown off kilter. Death, suffering, disease, and human vice entered the world. God’s intentions for a peaceful paradise were wholly undone.
But as science has uncovered Earth’s past, this picture of a sin-wrecked world has become increasingly problematic. From a biological perspective, life relies on death. Death and disease existed long before humans did; parasites developed long before we walked the planet, and dinosaurs had bone cancer.
It is helpful to make a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is the body sending a signal to the brain indicating that it is being harmed in some way. Suffering is the conscious state of anguish that comes in response to pain—including physical, mental, emotional, social, and sometimes even spiritual pain (that “forsaken” feeling). In one way, suffering itself is a late comer to the story of life. Not because it waited for human sin to emerge, but because it took a long while for the brain and body to develop the complexity needed to have the capacity to suffer. In the early Earth, when bacteria ruled the planet, there was no suffering; simple organisms may have felt physical pain, but they lacked the brain development to process it as suffering. But there was no joy or love or happiness either. Where suffering emerged, it emerged in animals with complex brains because it was protective: pain alone teaches a creature to avoid some harm some of the time, but suffering drives learning deep. From a purely biological standpoint, suffering teaches with uncommon urgency what harmful things should be avoided. It was not imposed as a punishment but evolved along several different lines of life because of its great capacity to aid survival. Yet the complex nervous systems that allow us to suffer also allow us to feel the most beautiful things as well.
What’s God Got to Do With It?
Where does this leave us with the question of God’s responsibility? On one hand, you could say that God is not responsible at all: creatures developed the ability to suffer on their own, and God had no part in it. This doesn’t satisfy me, though. If God set up the system of evolution by natural selection, then I think the outcomes are also God’s responsibility. On the other hand, if we say that God did create this beautiful, bloody, and suffering world, what does that say about God?
Some might say it means God must not be a very competent Creator. A competent engineer could make a machine that didn’t have severe suffering as a by-product if they took the time to do their work well. However, when Scripture talks about the Creator, the metaphors are not those of engineer or architect (those came much later, in the 17th and 18th centuries). Instead, the Bible talks about God as lover, as parent, as King, or as friend. These are organic images, not mechanical ones. That can make all the difference to the risk level required.
I am sitting in an airplane right now, 35,000 feet above the waters of Hudson Bay. I sincerely hope that the person who designed the engine outside my window had meticulous control over every aspect of how air moves into the engine, how it combines with fuel and combusts. That is the right amount of control to have when sending humans hurtling at 892 km/h through the upper atmosphere.
However, if a parent exercised the same amount of control over a child that the engineer exercises over the engine, something would be desperately wrong. To help a child to grow into adulthood, a parent cannot control her every movement, strictly guard everything she touched or ate, or make every choice for her. Part of the nature of love is to let the other be itself. And that, for all our protective love, involves allowing risk. Allowing others to grow means allowing them to encounter harm. It is a package deal.
We have gotten so used to mechanical images of God as architect or engineer that we sometimes forget that this is not the primary imagery Scripture uses. God is the shepherd and the parent. Even God as King does not imply total control, but leadership. When God created the world, risk was involved in the same way as when parents choose to have a child. You are making another person, and they will make their own choices.
- CT interviewed me on my book, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering.
- I also discuss my book on the BioLogos podcast.
- Here I focus on animal suffering at the 2019 BioLogos Conference.
- Here is a cover story on dinos and extinction for Christian Century.
- How do I think about sin and evolution?
- Here I ask if God intended death.
Suffering Won’t Have the Last Word
What does God’s risk-taking in creation mean for suffering? It means that suffering doesn’t come our way because it was predestined to, like a process on the factory belt that was intended to happen to finish a product. Suffering comes for all sorts of different reasons: accident, natural disaster, infection, war, hatred, abuse, mental illness, and more. Each suffering has a different source, none of which are sent by God, but none of which are excluded by divine power because to control them would be to overstep the boundaries created by love’s desire to let creatures be themselves.
This is not to say, though, that God has no power to influence or to redeem. Indeed, the suffering we see now only emphasizes the need for God’s work to remake the whole world. God, who created the world, also joined life’s struggle. Jesus lived, suffered, and died. He was a man of sorrows; he understood violent oppression and the cry of pain. Yet he also was raised from the dead: he is the first sign of a coming change that will envelop the whole cosmos. Science shows us that death and decay have always characterized the world. Jesus shows us that it will not always have the last word.
My hope is not that God will control the world in such a way that suffering will never come near me. Rather, I hope that God will be with me through his Spirit in such a way that when suffering comes, I will have the perseverance, faith, and hope to see the seeds of resurrection planted within the pain.