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The problem of animal suffering

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Atheist philosopher Erik Wielenberg crafts what he considers an irrefutable instance of suffering against which no defense of God’s character might stand (probably based on a similar argument from William Rowe).

In his example, Wielenberg describes a scenario in which a wildfire burns its way through a remote area of wilderness without any human witnesses. In the course of the fire, a young fawn suffers severe burns, and spends two days dying in excruciating agony.

This example, according to Wielenberg, escapes all of the regular justifications Christians offer for suffering. This is not a human being suffering, so this cannot be an act of divine punishment for sin, or some kind of lesson to be learned from the pain. No humans were responsible for the tragedy, so this cannot be an instance of God allowing someone to exercise their free will to do something bad. And because there were no human witnesses that will ever be aware of the event, there can be no moral lesson learned from the experienced.

It is an utterly gratuitous instance of suffering which has no justification.

In his 2013 debate, “The Status of God in the 21st Century,” atheist Justin Schieber constructed an argument from evil which included a factual account of gorilla groups that would dominate, kill, and rape other gorilla groups. Schieber subsequently received accolades from the audience for his inclusion of animal suffering in his argument.

This forms a convenient fallback position for the argument from suffering. Even if Christians were to somehow build an effective argument that shows God could be good and still allow humans to suffer, why would he allow animals to suffer? Alternately, if human beings act evilly because of sin and rebellion, why do animals act evilly?

This covers both suffering and evil. Animals were not, according to the Bible, made in God’s image, and yet they are prey to the exact same difficulties that plague human beings even though they cannot, in the strictest sense, sin.

The concern over animals in the discussion of evil and suffering is added to because of a strictly evolutionary worldview that does not include a Creator. Although the Christian worldview puts humans in a distinctly separate ethical and volitional position than animals, if God is removed from the picture, the distinction between humans and animals blurs significantly.

Biologist and Atheist Frans De Waal notes that animals, especially primates, show hints of what humans would recognize as moral behavior. Says De Waal:

“…female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concern as yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today.” (Morals without God, Frans De Waal, 2010)

So the problem becomes even further involved. Morality may have evolutionary roots, which would – in theory - eliminate the need for some transcendent cause to explain moral impulses.

So to sum up the problem of animal morality:

· Animals suffer even though they do not have moral agency

· Animals act in ways which are “evil”, even though they were supposedly designed by a good God, and did not “fall” in the way that humans did

· Certain animals display “moral” behavior, indicating that morality is not a strictly human trait, and may be the product of evolution rather than conscious design

Arguing from a hypothetical

Before these objections are addressed, there is a technicality in Erik Wielenberg’s “Burnt Fawn” scenario that is worth mentioning.

The classic question goes “if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one around, does it make a sound?”

The idea behind the question is that events require observers in order to be said to be real. If there is no conscious observer around to witness an event, there is no way to be certain what the experience was like. Wielenberg describes a hypothetical situation that would require that no one ever finds out about it in order to stand as an objection. The problem is that there is no way to know if something like that has ever happened. If a human observer comes upon a burnt section of forest, and the remains of the dead fawn, a moral agent has now become aware of the event, and any moral lesson that might be associated.

In order to be evidence against God, it must be evident. But in order to be a meaningless instance of suffering, no one may ever know that it occurred. Perhaps this kind of thing does happen, but there is no way of knowing if it does, and this is a speculative argument.

Animals and suffering

In order to consider the questions of animal suffering and morality, one must ask the same questions one does of human suffering and morality: what value do animals have in the eyes of their Creator, does their suffering serve a purpose, and what is the relationship between animal behavior and morality?

The Bible places an immediate distinction between humans and animals. Humans are given their own separate creation story, are the only creatures created “in God’s image”, and are given the responsibility to identify and name the animals. Moreover, God is said to have breathed life into human beings, indicating some soulical distinction between humans and animals. Genesis chapter 4 shows Abel tending domesticated livestock. In the Flood story, God puts a man in charge of preserving all of the animal species. In the Mosaic Law, domesticated animals are to be killed if they intentionally injure or kill a person.

The indication here is that humans are not simply superior to animals, but, in fact, responsible for animals and their behavior.

This theme of the fate of animals being connected to humans is brought into even starker focus by the many passages in the Old Testament that require animals to be destroyed along with their evil owners.

A significant treatment of animals that is seen in the Bible is the constant cycle of animal sacrifice that is required to purchase God’s forgiveness of sins. Here one sees animals standing in for humans as objects of God’s wrath.

In this regard, animal suffering appears to be directly related to the fallen state of human beings. The indication is that humans are given responsibility for the earth and everything on it; humans are morally faulty, and the earth suffers as a consequence.

This is stated explicitly in the book of Romans:

Romans 8:19-22

English Standard Version (ESV)

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

The penalty humans suffer due to their rebellion is not restricted to their own corruption, but also the corruption of their environment.

In fact, the observation that animals have the capacity for both moral and immoral behavior (by human standards) actually lends credence to the moral argument for God. If animals were created by a moral agent, then they would evidence this moral behavior. If both animals and creation are in a fallen state because of human behavior, then the animal world would manifest this corruption.

What’s wrong with animal suffering?

Assume for a moment that suffering is not “bad” if it leads to existential fulfillment. In the case of human beings, this works out because a person’s ultimate existential purpose is determined after their death. Based on Biblical doctrine, there is no afterlife for animals. When they perish, they do so permanently. Consequently, any purpose served by animal existence must be temporal. This article has so far made the case that suffering and any moral culpability on the part of animals is directly related to that of human beings. So what purpose do animals serve that could possibly relate to the ultimate purpose?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the Old Testament references already cited. Human beings were given responsibility for the planet including the animals thereof. The human failure to manage the animal kingdom, the resultant suffering, and the “moral” failure of animals, are all actually part of the problem of suffering and evil. They point to human failure, and the human need for redemption. Thus the existential purpose of animals is served in highlighting the human capacity for good when properly managed, and the human failure when mismanaged.

If this is the case, a human being would not need to be present when an instance of animal suffering occurs; the very fact that they unable to prevent such suffering – the very fact that divine intervention would have been required in order to prevent the suffering – evidences the need for God in a fallen creation. This need is ultimately met in the person of Jesus Christ. Again, the circle is completed.

One additional thing to mention is that, if God does exist, than there is not a single instance of animal suffering that goes unnoticed. Jesus said:

Matthew 10:29-31

English Standard Version (ESV)

29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

So Wielenberg’s “suffering fawn” scenario would be observed by a moral agent, namely God.

Death

The other factor that requires consideration is the inevitability of death. All animals will die. Any suffering they have experienced in life is erased at the point of their death. This becomes quite a different problem than the suffering of humans. Since presumably humans live beyond death, their suffering would have to be given some kind of meaning that transcends death. Since, on the other hand, death is inevitable for animals, the question becomes, “What kind of death is morally acceptable?” Presumably death itself is the problem; a problem which will be addressed at the return of Christ.

Evolution: A problem?

It’s hardly worth stating that evolution is a controversial subject, both within and outside Christian circles. Assume for a moment that human life arose through a process of mutation and natural selection. This would involve a lot of suffering, dying animals before humans were ever around to adopt an attitude of rebellion against their Creator. This might seem to defeat the explanation that animals suffer because humans suffer or are morally fallen.

However, if humans arose through the process of evolution, then the suffering and death of animals becomes a necessary part of bringing about the human race. This being so, animal suffering actually serves an existential purpose, justifying its existence. Since, as already stated, animals cease to be after death, this suffering is erased by death and is given a purpose by the advancement of the species that it serves.

Moreover, the primitive root of morality displayed by higher-functioning primates serves as the vehicle through which morality is produced in humans, explaining these observations as well.

Even adopting an evolutionary stance, suffering and evil become a justifiable aspect of creation.

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