How evil is the world?

Most animals are fated to an agonising death.”
The sheer horror so frequent in the biological world has seemed to make Christianity unintelligible and even offensive.”
[A world] which seems at best to be utterly indifferent and at worst implacably malevolent.

These are all quotes from Christians dealing with a theodicy of natural evil. I have commented on natural evil before, largely on the question of whether the natural world is “fallen” and, specifically, on the history of that doctrine. See for example herehere   and here. I have pointed out that fallen nature is a relatively recent doctrine, even before evolutionary theory raised the stakes. Nevertheless theodicy of some sort is surely desirable, if only because non-believers also raise it and there is an apologetic necessity.

These writers are interacting with, and sometimes prompted by, a burgeoning tradition of writing about the awfulness of the natural world that goes back at least to Charles Darwin. I won’t quote the likes of Richard Dawkins since his statements on the indifference and pitilessness of the natural world are well known, and also well known for being primarily anti-religious polemic. Instead, here is a quote from Ernest Becker’s celebrated book The Denial of Death (and he was no Gnu):

What are we to make of a creation in which the routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organisation, and then excreting with foul stench and gases the residue… Creation is a nightmare spectacularly taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures…

This planet is not the only place where this evil creation manifests itself. Atheist and scientist Steven Weinberg:

It is very hard to realise that [this world of ours] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe.

If the world is like that – red in tooth and claw hardly describes it adequately – then it is not surprising that theodicy has acquired such a central place in theology. It is interesting that Ernest Becker, quoted above, participated in the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, and that Jürgen Moltmann, the principal theologian of suffering in the last century, also took his inspiration (if that is the right word) from the Holocaust.

Not just the Holocaust, but everyday experience, raise the question of the meaning of human suffering acutely. Sin itself is clearly the thing requiring explanation in the first instance. And there’s no doubt that famine, tsunami, disease and so on raise questions about the natural world – though in relation to human suffering there too is also a strong link to the queston of sin and mortality attributed, in the Bible, to the fall.

I also concede that there is a case for the discussion of suffering in death and nature. But is the kind of language seen in the quotations above really conducive to a sufficiently nuanced consideration of the matter? In other words, is the picture of the universe given there representative of reality? Or is it, perhaps, so exaggerated as to be a calumny on our Creator? Just after I started this, I went outside to muck out our stables and feed the chickens. I invite you to consider the last time you stepped into the world of nature – or better still, take ten minutes out to do so now.

What was it like for you? How many agonised animal screams did you hear? How much sheer horror did you see? How did the implacable malevolence of the world feel to you, not to mention the overwhelming hostility of the universe? I’m in Devonshire, England, but I know I have readers in Canada, America, Europe and elsewhere, in countryside and town, so we should collectively have some kind of representative experience of the world .

My chickens were well, thanks, but then they do have a protected environment. One died, peacefully, earlier this year. There was a pair of wagtails hanging around the horses, after insects, I guess, for their brood. I was privileged to see their elaborate courtship. A chiffchaff was in a tree, sounding off  either to protect his territory, or to express his birdie pride, or maybe both. Perhaps he enjoys singing – certainly there’s a fox we often see sitting on our hill apparently just enjoying the sunshine and the rolling view in his vulpine way. We also have a pair of ravens patrolling the field – interesting as they’re one of the few species actually stated in Scripture to receive their food from God’s hand. Well, it’s grubs, folks – though a few days ago it was a mouse I caught in a trap in the chicken coop. I know that because they nicked the mousetrap too, and it turned up yesterday in the middle of the pasture. Ravens like to have a laugh, I think – judging by their utterly abandoned aerobatics at certain times of year.

There are also rather too many rabbits in the field. I’ll dwell on them a little, partly because they’re well down the food chain and because I know a bit about them. Many rabbits obviously don’t survive long, or there’d be far more. Foxes get a few – though they tend to outrun them. The buzzards have a go at them, but if the bunnies are above 500g it’s really just target practice – and it’s not unlikely that both parties enjoy the adrenaline rush. Rabbits here suffer endemic myxamatosis, which probably makes them feel pretty ropy until a predator knocks them off – but my lot are clean. I learned how to diagnose them in my gap year job at a pest control laboratory. There I also learned that your average rabbit has several score of fleas and an average of about five tapeworms. Yet for all that, the rabbits seem pretty contented most of the time – they’re not being eaten, painfully parasitaised, agonised, often for a year or two at a time. They’re just munching our herb garden. When they do get predated, it’s normally when they’re getting old and slow, and it’s usually by something keen to finish the job quickly and have supper.

In other world, it’s the natural world that the ancient Bible writers knew well – full of variety, fecundity and exuberance as well as the occasional violence – for all of which they wrote unstinting praise to its Creator. If the world really was implacably malevolent it would hardly be as richly populated as this after 4 billion years, would it?

As for the overwhelmingly hostile universe, what has it ever done to you? Admittedly there are not many places in it where you’d feel comfortable, but nobody’s asking you to step outside your tailor-made Eden, are they? And though Jupiter may throw occasional asteroids at us, more often than not it soaks them up itself to protect us, for the solar system, like the universe itself, is extremely finely tuned in our favour. Fine tuning is the opposite of indifference, it seems to me. And anyway, how many people do you know who have been lost to asteroid strikes? As for the dinosaurs, maybe we should let God decide how their reign should end, since all had to die at some stage.

I’m not suggesting we close our eyes to suffering – each of us knows enough about that reality in the human sphere, and the Christian is called both to participate in it and minsiter the suffering of Christ into it.. But I think it is sometimes refreshing to take a look outside at the world as it is, rather than as some library-bound theologian or lab-coated biologist tells us it is, before we start doing our theodicy. It might make the task a little less daunting.

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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 How evil is the world?

  1. Cal says:

    I sympathize with both sides.

    On the one hand, I have trouble even killing a gnat (I give a quick mental memorial if I happen to do so) and yet on the other hand, most of the natural world does not have so sophisticated a system to feel “pain” nor do any animals feel any existential anguish over death.

    I’ve lost pets and it is tough but I wonder if that is our anthropomorphizing them and projecting our own anguish of death. If they could speak would they “Don’t worry pal, I’m ok with it, it’s the way we’re made and we’re content”. Maybe our grief is because we were not meant to die.

    I mentioned this before, but I always wondered what of the animal companions past in the restoration of creation? Shall we see such critters again? I would like to, but I trust Lord Jesus. Who else but the Holy One of God to judge rightly.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    I tried to avoid denying the reality/possibility of natural suffering – just that everything is as terrible all the time as modern writers seem to make out. R J Russell’s projected theodicy asserts that it is absolutely required by justice that in the new age every detail of every organism’s life should be put right – payback time for all the butterflies squashed by dinosuars, and presumably every bacterium phaged by a leucocyte. That truly is a general resurrection!

    The part of me that not only would like to meet Scruffy the collie again, and meet a Triceratops, resonates to that a bit, but then I think of the risen Jesus eating fish, and wonder if he might have assumed too much about the continuity of the new creation (and indeed the nature of the one we have – Jesus also sacrificed a herd of pigs for one man).

    It may not be relevant, but moving from town to country changed my perspective a little – but then working in medicine made death rather more familiar than most jobs.

  3. Gregory says:

    How good is the world?

    “I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing their ability to dwell on this earth. I cannot and will not believe that evil is a man’s natural state.” – Fyodor M. Dostoevsky

    For another translation of a great short story:

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Prof Sarah Coakley (my contemporary at Cambridge, apparently) did this year’s Gifford lectures Gifford Lectures on cooperation in evolution. She spent some time collaborating with E O Wilson who, she says, has done an about face from his earlier Dawkins-like views and now sees collaboration as a “third force” in evolution with mutation and natural selection. It’s certainly true that collaboration/altruism is coming to the fore: the world is looking a little kinder already – maybe the universe will follow on in due course.

    Coakley’s purpose is to relate collaboration to theology, but in laying out her stall she points out how conducive Dawkins’ bleak genetic selfishness was to the societal and economic trends of the time.

    Applying that to my blog piece, it seems the theology was being driven by the science which was being driven by the sociology – I guess not a surprising consonance, but it shows how you might be out of step with society, science and contemporary theology and resonate instead to a 19th century novelist (or, say, the Bible), and still be ahead of the curve. Or maybe the rabbits were just fiercer when “Selfish Gene” came out!

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