God’s Good Earth – Chapter 9: On Pain and Suffering

Here is a link to chapter 9 of my book.

This fills the gap that KJ noted in responding to an earlier chapter, and shows how the “problem of suffering” as applied to the natural world has been grossly exaggerated: by naturalistic apologeticists for evolution as a blind and merciless force; by believers in a “cosmic fall” eager to identify the manifold evils of our world; and by academic theologians combining the two into a naturally-fallen world.

All three positions concur in being more obvious from an armchair than by long firsthand exposure to the ways of nature.

What I haven’t overly stressed, that not being the purpose of the chapter, is how widespread has become the change in the focus of modern theology overall, as it relates to God’s purposes in the world. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll notice how nowadays, from the pulpit to the professorial chair, the big issue to be dealt with by God is “suffering”. That ranges from the subject of our study – the implacably hostile face of nature (as we are told) – to the psychological sufferings we face as we grapple with inner demons, external criticisms of our deepest selves (usually defined in terms of sexuality, or perhaps rejection of orthodox beliefs resulting in perceived ostracism), or a Freudian concept of guilt as a pathology (leading to suffering).

In the end, this is often identified as an ontological set of problems – we are as God made us, but them others won’t accept us as God does. “Inclusivity” is the mantra of the age.

It is interesting how the historic faith called “Christianity” sees the problem quite differently – as human beings alone being alienated from God and creation through their wilful sin – a cause of death to themselves, and suffering to those on whom we inflict it – including the natural world. In Scripture, suffering is not an absolute evil – it is sinful when inflicted on the innocent, good when inflicted by God in judgement, and redemptive when undergone vicariously by Christ or by his saints.

I strongly suspect that there are strong emotional preferences for the former explanation over the latter. Certainly “the relief of suffering” is more fashionable than “the cleansing of sin”. That may be why so much emphasis is placed on “unjustified” and “useless” suffering in nature, and why the evidence that I have presented in this chapter, and that others have done elsewhere, will no doubt face an uphill struggle in the marketplace of ideas.

I blame Prometheus.

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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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11 Responses to God’s Good Earth – Chapter 9: On Pain and Suffering

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Bravo again, Jon. I now see one advantage of your decision to share this work with a slightly more limited audience that you would have had with full scale publication. And that is your ability to put forth controversial ideas that would very likely lead to some degree of “pain and anguish” inflicted on you by outraged readers whose worldviews are demolished by your arguments and evidence. Nobody likes that much, and many tend to strike back at the author of such heresies to conventional wisdom and understanding.

    “What??? He says that the natural world is less cruel than we think, no know, that it is? Preposterous and monstrous. Why Garvey’s unfeeling, uncaring attitude is sure to lead to the continued painful slaughter of untold numbers of innocent, terrified clams, lobsters, worms, not to mention trees, flowers, mice, and insects. For shame!!”

    I have come to believe that the most obnoxiously fanatical true believers in the world are vegans (the joke here is that you never need to ask anyone if they are vegan; they will tell you within the first 5 minutes of your acquaintance). Animal pain and suffering is a key tenet of their propaganda, and the fact that you are actually one of the most animal compassionate people I know of, (far more so than myself, for example) would matter not at all, given your philosophical opposition to the concept of universal, uninterrupted and continuous suffering. How very non Buddhist of you.

    What I especially liked about this chapter was the emphasis on the evolutionary advantages of avoiding pain by all concerned in a functioning ecology. This is an important scientific point that I believe has ramifications in the ongoing struggle to see evolution in the light of God’s plan for the creation of life. I have a feeling you will develop this theme more in coming chapters, which I eagerly anticipate reading. Blessings

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Sy –

      I anticipated being gainsaid by Dawkinists, YECs, TEs and theologians of all stripes, but haven’t budgeted for being letter-bombed by Vegans. Morrissey will no doubt be in touch…

      The evolutionary angle, of course, was handled a century ago by the under-read Wallace, as you know.

      • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

        Actually, I am among the vast majority of biologists who have under-read Wallace, and I do plan to correct that as soon as possible, thanks to your prompting. Who knows, perhaps being a Wallacian might become at least as respectable as being a Darwinian.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          The ironic thing is that, in the nineteenth century, Darwin and Wallace shared the same reputation. Both were eclipsed when structuralism came into vogue at the turn of the 20th century – and for reasons worth pondering, it was Darwin alone who emerged with mythical status in the New Synthesis.

  2. pngarrison says:

    Jon, there seems to be a forum topic at Biologos on the raison d’être of the Hump. Seems like you are the logical one to respond there. I seem to have lost your e-mail address in a recent hard drive meltdown.


    • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

      Yes indeed, Preston (I think you are the person that Mr Hesp doesnt know). Merv, Eddie and I have all responded. My question is: who is Caspar Hesp, and was it his idea to post what he did, or was it suggested by someone else? I know that sounds paranoid, but the question remains, what is the purpose of such a post?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Good Morning guys. Thanks for your input over at BioLogos.

        First task of the day was to post a kiloword on BioLogos, so that’s done now. Caspar seems an honest enough guy, pretty new to the table – and I suspect, chosen to moderate because of his even-handedness. That’s not to say that nobody there hinted that a thread “exposing” the schismaticism of The Hump might be a good idea, but I’m really not that paranoid.

        Some of the comments from others are instructive as to why we’re necessary. Apart from the demoralising effect of constantly having to contend with snarks like Beaglelady, the frustration of someone like Scott opposing God’s goodness to his power (a direct outcome of the prevalent theistic personalism ) and knowing that none of the articles will ever attempt to bring them together as Scripture and traditional theology do is wearing.

        OK, on with the show.

  3. Ron S says:

    Hi Jon,

    I’ve been giving this some thought the last few weeks and I’m trying to factor in a few things.
    While I don’t believe universal death was a direct consequence of the Fall there are some things specifically mentioned by God: increased pain and a cursed land/ground. Whether or not this means there was previously NO pain for Eve and NO thorns in the land may be irrelevant – the point is that SOME change occurred (for the worse). I see human death is an indirect consequence of the Fall because Adam and Eve STILL had access to the tree of life despite the above “curse” – human death is a direct consequence of their expulsion from Eden. While it could be argued that this is still part of the Fall, human death is one step removed from God’s immediate “curse”.
    How are these effects playing out today? A quick tour of the Old Testament provides some perspective. Leaving aside the obviously miraculous and the directly divine, like the Exodus plagues and such, we get more subtle references to blessings and curses. These raise interesting questions.
    Are the curses of Deuteronomy divine intervention, the normal flow of things or the withholding of blessings? What about the blessings of the famous 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people…”? Is this a return to Eden? Is it something different from the everyday normal/natural flow? Is normal/natural the absence of blessing, the presence of curse or neither?
    God once offered King David a choice: famine, foe or pestilence (2 Sam 24:13). David chose the hand of the LORD – pestilence. Would we see that choice as the same thing today?
    Where do we see God acting? Is His action natural or supernatural? Is everything supernatural, with some things simply more regular and expected than others? Or is God removed from all but the obviously supernatural/miraculous? Is the natural separate from God or merely one of His out workings?
    Getting back to my initial point, there was SOME change in the Fall and it affected a physical body and a physical land. Either a blessing is removed or a curse is added (or some combination) but saying nothing changed is begging the text. Some suffering/distress/death may have already been present in the creation but with the Fall came more.
    Is the creation now less than “very good”? Can it be simultaneously “very good” and “cursed”? If not, to what extent has it changed? The answer, I venture to suggest, may be simply how well we can see God in it all. Jesus had a marvelous way of revealing people’s hearts – he told parables. Is creation itself a parable? Does it reveal our heart? Paul and David may think so (see Psalm 8; Psalm 19; Rom 1). Two people look at the universe and arrive at opposite conclusions — What a glorious creation! What a world of death, struggle and futility!
    Perhaps the reason for so much disagreement on this issue does not revolve around the physical facts but around our spiritual relationship with God Himself – the condition of the human heart?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ron

      Some deep thoughts, a wide spread of discussion, and some good insights, so I’ll no doubt miss some points.

      My first response to the first bit is to clearly distinguish what happened to mankind through the creation, and what happened to creation, since they’re not necessarily the same.

      For example, though you say the curse of death didn’t come at once, no time scale is actually given in the story, and expulsion from Eden is given as an immediate consequence of the sin, and hence for loss of access to the tree of life. OTOH, whatever the curse on the ground means, no cultivation was going to start in the garden, but only after the expulsion. The ground was cursed with respect to Adam and Eve, and at least part of that could be interpreted as removal from the sheltered life in the garden (God-planted fruit to hand) to the land of self-sufficiency, where thorns interfered. In other words, the change could equally be one of location as one in nature – or (as I have suggested in the book) an additional penalty of limited scope and duration for a different offence from eating the forbidden fruit, that is, listening to the snake via the woman, rather than to God’s word.

      The curse on Eve (whether mental or physical) does suggest the beneficial existence of some human pain before, a thing to which I hadn’t directed my attention, but I have no quarrel with any consequence on the physical or the mental constitution of man himself, seeing that “non death” was being replaced with “death”. If, before sin, man did not die, then he must have had some very different characteristics, since all other life did die.

      Your second major idea is the distinction of natural and supernatural. I tried to deal with this in the Chapter 1 concept that, to Scripture, nature is God’s instrument for good or ill, by its nature. To try and look behind that to what is natural or normal apart from God is like asking what the natural function of a screwdriver is apart from its human user. It is designedly a tool in God’s hand: it has the nature of enabling hands to screw (or unscrew) things according to need.

      Now I freely admit that that flies in the face of the contemporary division of phenomena into “natural”, ie operating under some kind of God-given (or non-God-given) laws whilst he drinks coffee, and supernatural, where he actually intervenes. Neither the Bible, nor pre-modern metaphysics, recognises that kind of division. And I don’t.

      The “normal” then, is entirely dependent on what God has in hand – since the Fall, that has been a world tainted by sin, so “normal” includes blessings and curses. Before the fall, and after the final judgement, once again there is only blessing.

      In that sense every promise in Scripture, including the “If my people” passage, are related to restoration to the state of Eden – though always provisonal and partial (Canaan is parallel to, but not equal to, the “state of bliss”). The final promises in Christ, too, are related to undoing what happened in the garden, though we should take account of the fact that God is not turning the clock back, but bringing about something new. Still, there is Eden imagery aplenty even in the Book of Revelation to validate the parallel.

      Your last point is intriguing and undoubtedly true, at least as a partial explanation. Ecclesiastes is all about the vanity of all human endeavour, which affects us all, and yet to those who are in Christ none of their work is in vain (1 Cor 15.58). Not the same word as the “vanity” of Ecclesiastes, but much the same idea. So the condition of the human heart may well be what gives us our “eyes” for the world – which makes it rather concerning if Christians commonly see the death, struggle and futility rather than the glorious creation.

      But I suppose you’d have to conclude that if how the world looks depends on the changed viewpoint of the sinful or the reddeemed heart, then it is much less to do with the idea that creation has been physically altered.

  4. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    This (like the others) was a good chapter, Jon. One point that I don’t mind quibbling about (and I don’t think you were going or would go this direction with it even if you tempt this hasty conclusion at points) is that I don’t think animal pain need be considered “unreal” even in anthropomorphic terms. I.e., even though science tells us nothing of whether animals really “feel” pain or are even conscious, it is still (rightly in my opinion) considered cruelty to enjoy afflicting pain on any living organism just for gratuitous sport, or even for any other reasons short of hunting for food or survival. And I’m sure you would agree, being the kind-hearted nature appreciator that you are.

    By the way, have you ever read Paul Brand’s “Pain, the Gift Nobody Wants”? I apologize if I’ve brought this up before, but the late Brand is a British author I really admire who studied extensively the function of pain as he practiced his surgical skills on behalf of lepers in India and also in the U.S. Reading your chapter here reminded me of his work which I’m sure you must be familiar with. He discovered (through failure) how daunting the task is to devise an artificial pain system for people who cannot feel pain. Take home discovery from that: just like lit warning lights on your cars dash that we so often ignore for the moment (and then for longer … and longer …) while we keep driving, people will not sufficiently attend to artificial notification (such as a light on a monitor) that tells you you should really get off that foot and let it mend. Unless we have something that forcefully rivets our attention [pain], we do not invest the needed time to take care of ourselves. And if you have no sensations from a limb, you psychologically feel detached from that limb, as if it really isn’t yours. Any good analogies here to empathy and the Body of Christ? Dr. Brand drew exactly these kind of lessons out. He also wrote “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” –coauthored with Philip Yancey. Excellent books. They are both gifted story tellers.

    …will enjoy getting into your chapter 10 here this weekend.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I haven’t read Paul Brand’s book, but I did meet him a few times, and indeed booked him as a speaker for public meetings when I was running Westminster Medical School Christian Union (which seems a lifetime ago).

      Your general point is important, and is why I included the section on vivisection etc in the chapter. As I’ve said before here, anthropomorphism is part of our endowment from God. Once we have the propensity for empathy with other humans, without some counter-motive we inevitably generalise it to our pet dogs, our pet teddy-bears or even our beaten up old Fords or our broken battle-swords (your sword had a name back in the day).

      One example from the week I posted this chapter – I didn’t think it dramatic enough to add to the text. A TV programme about unusual houses met the owner of a place overlooking Poole Harbour in Dorset. The owners made a cold bid for it because of the position, but then discovered the interior had been entirely kitted out, by a previous owner, with the fittings of RMS Mauretania when she was broken up in the thirties – all mahogany bulkheads and state staircases. Not unnaturally, they became obsessed with the ship, since they now lived in her.

      The wife was describing how the captain sent a telegram,in the name of the ship, to her builders as they passed Tyneside en route for the breakers yard, along the lines of “I’ve done my best for thirty years to keep people safe and happy, and do justice to your skills in building me…” The lady couldn’t even read it as tears welled up – for a few thousand tons of iron! But I know where she is coming from – common humanity, not superstition.

      The point is that, even if animals were automata, we are constituted to compare their experience to ours. To be deliberately cruel to an animal, even if it caused no real suffering (which is implausible), would still change us, blunting our empathy not only towards animals, but towards humans like ourselves.

      And so, in fact, the Lord encourages our compassion by his adjurations to treat animals well. But he doesn’t encourage to say “Cauliflowers are people too.”

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