Teleology and theodicy again

Once more I’ve missed contributing to a thread on BioLogos, this time not because of technical problems but because I thought the conversation had died last week. Steve Lemke’s essay on the problem of evil in evolution gave rise to a late reply from Ted Davis, which raised once more the scientific difficulty of holding that there was no animal death before the fall, the problems that inevitably brings to theodicy, and quoting R J Russell’s suggestion of going “beyond mere kenosis” to an eschatological model of theodicy in order to mitigate this. I’ve commented on Russell’s phrase directly here, and on the historical novelty of the so-called “traditional” view that the world fell with Adam here  and, I hope, at some stage will be able to do so in print.
At the root of all this thinking is the idea that suffering permeates the world in its very essence. I’ve questioned before here and here whether we can be in any way confident about what animal suffering actually means, and also just how prevalent it is. “Red in tooth and claw” is a human mindset more than an accurate description of nature. But I want to take a quick look at another differential between animals and man that is actually mentiuoned in the biblical teaching on suffering, and that is the fear of death. Hebrews 2.15 suggests that this constitutes very much of what makes for human suffering – the writer calls it lifelong slavery.

If we were to create a society in which all causes of our pain were removed, but we were put humanely to death at the age of 25, would we not still consider death an evil and our existence a life of bondage? But do we have evidence of any equivalent dread amongst the animals? They avoid death, certainly, when possible, though their motivation is always going to be mixed with alertness to enemies, the experience of pain etc; it is very doubtful that most have any concept of personal death, let alone a desire to avoid it. They certainly have no concern whatsoever about their differential reproductive success. There are also, as we know, creatures whose whole life cycle presupposes death, such as male spiders that get eaten by their mates, mayflies whose adults have no mouth, polychaetes that rupture in order to spread their eggs or salmon which die exhausted after reproduction. How can you say those are examples of evils, rather than fulfilment, without asking the creatures involved? And, for sure, they won’t be able to give you an answer.

Paradoxically this is not a scientific question at all – the evolutionary science that has brought animal death into sharp relief, apparently, as a natural evil has eschewed the whole language of teleology. Animals exhibit behaviours endorsed by natural selection: the talk of their having goals, purposes or fears is not the language of efficient causes. Or so the opponents of James Shapiro say when he attributes goal-directed behaviour to bacteria.

Ignoring the science, though, can we say anything about non-human attitudes to death? Perhaps we might be able to do so from human beings themselves, given conditions that suppress their normal human sensitivities. War, for example, produces an unusual immediate awareness of death. As I know only too well in my own family, its horrors can cause permanent mental damage. Sometimes such damage can lead to a kind of deathwish which is pathological – some VCs were won in an attempt to end it all. Conversely, we are familiar with the idea that great heroism leads people to conquer their fear of death for a higher purpose.

More often, though, there seems to be a kind of middle ground. The job in hand, and the constant closeness of death, can lead to a kind of matter-of-factness about it. Perhaps that is because of an unconscious suppression of the whole panoply of human anxieties about death, but even if that is so it could be said to be a reversion to a more animal-like state. A parallel would be the kind of adrenaline surge that leads intelligent and peaceful people to quite mindless violence in a critical situation: one kills without thought to avoid being killed, as a threatened animal would.

That such a suspension of the fear of death is present is evidenced by the fact that armies don’t desert en masse even when not inspired by a great ideal or by loyalty to comrades (if everyone felt the same compulsion to avoid death, such loyalty would be unnecessary). But perhaps a more graphic example is the tendency of World War II pilots to engage in dangerous aerobatics when they were not in action. If fear of death were consciously suppressed in battle, one would expect increased caution in the light of having survived, life being so precious and injury such an evil – except for those few I have already mentioned who become pathologically eager to die. Such sang froid seems to be quite long-lasting: when the war film Reach for the Sky was filmed in 1956 the veteran Spitfire pilots hired to do the action shots deliberately performed stunts at dangerously low levels.

The attitude of racing drivers like Stirling Moss, interviewed recently, shows the same indifference: even reflecting in old age he criticised the withdrawal of his Mercedes team from the 1955 Le Mans race just because a car had ploughed into the crowd killing his team-mate Pierre Lavagh and 83 spectators.

Such examples are rare in peacetime populations, but far from unknown in the human condition as a whole. In some cultures, disdaining death is a way of life. Conversely, leaving aside Walt Disney cartoons, it’s impossible to imagine an animal hesitating to get involved in a fight for a mate, or predation of an armed quarry, as it considers the possibility of extinction, and of course its implications about the afterlife, God’s judgement and so on.

All these are the human fears that make death such an enemy, and so a bondage for so much of our lives. And who is to say, apart from the writer to the Hebrews, what proportion that fear of death contributes to suffering? And what proportion of that fear comes from what we lost through Adam, rather than what evolution dished up for us?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Teleology and theodicy again

  1. GD GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Yes Biologos discussions seem to get us no-where.

    This is an interesting approach and Hebrews is an excellent place to discuss theological matters. One thing I would add to this discussion is the unique human attribute to use the fear of death so as to condition other human beings. Examples such as Stalin and Hitler are ‘modern’ but show how not only the fear that people may be put to death is real, but the fact that (20 million) other fellow human beings perish – with this goes other human attributes – e.g. perhaps I will not be the next one, or how can I survide by becoming a slave to the dictator, and finally, how can a human being become part of the feared class instead of those who fear. These are extreme examples, but I think we can easily see this on a lower level today.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Quite right GD – another evidence for fear of death as a key driver of human affairs. And applying that to the animal world, you can coerce a dog or horse by cruelty, but you could never intimidate it by threats of death. Even less so when it comes to slugs or shrews.

    There are of course parts of the worlds where the threats are every bit as real as in Stalin’s day. I don’t know if you’d consider our obsession with prolonging life by multiple medication, under the spectre of possible strokes and so on, as a lesser example of the same, or not. But it does contrast markedly with, say, Plato in the Republic, who considered that any normal person would rather be dead than unable to provide for himself… though I’m in danger of destroying my original case that the normal condition of man is to fear death.

  3. GD GD says:

    There is a very wide spectrum that covers humanity’s response to death; you have touched on fear, and also the opposite, which some term the death wish and others see as the ultimate thrill. This is an area that has been shown by ‘truck’ loads of historical data, to be unique to humanity, and almost irrelevant to the animal (or plant) world. I have often thought that underpinning this wide spectrum may be the way we human beings deal with our freedom. Nature cannot held us here, because we are unique (but don’t tell evolutionists this because it is all natural selection, don’t you know. At a level of being, humanity is always confronted by freedom, including choosing between life (good) and death (evil). That is one reason why I consider God as giving life, and the same meaning is od giving freedom – one cannot seperate life and freedom, but humanity gets into an enormously ‘mixed-up’ response to this. (I will not spell check this because I will loose it over that time).

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    I like your insight that our attitude to death is complicated, presumably fundamentally because of our fear of it (taking the Hebrews statement to be the normative baseline). That seems to relate to freedom via sin – we were intended to use our freedom to avoid death by simple obedience (and get on with living) but in the event one has this perverse fascination with it, by thrill-seeking, deathwish, murder and so on, although it has become a deadly and victorious enemy.

    None of this, as you point out, applies to the animal kingdom, so it is a risky business to make any extrapolation from our condition to animal suffering. It would be like attributing adulterous thoughts to some monogamous species (or guilty ones to some promiscuous one, come to that).

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