Theologian Bethany Sollereder Finds God’s Care Amidst Animal Suffering in an Evolutionary Creation

Last month, scientists proposed a new ancestor of all life: a tiny, versatile organism akin to a stem cell. It would truly be an awesome God who could bring about all lifeforms from such a tiny creature, according to the view of evolutionary creationists. But the story of life isn’t always pretty: Animal death and suffering over millions of years is part of the history of our world. Creatures compete for limited resources, often at each other’s expense. Predators—including humans—rely on the death of other creatures for survival. These things are often cited as consequences of the fall in Eden, but could competition and pain have been part of God’s plan all along? And could such an awesome God, complicit in so much suffering, still be a good God as well?

Bethany Sollereder is seeking to answer that very question. Sollereder, who holds a PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in science and religion at the University of Oxford, was first inspired to study the theology of animal suffering after hearing other Christians struggle with the interaction of faith and evolution. Having just completed a four-year residency at The Kilns, the home of C. S. Lewis, Sollereder is the author of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering (Routledge, 2018).

Sollereder spoke with CT recently about how her work has affected her own faith and understanding of the created world.

Would you say there’s scientific evidence that animals actually suffer?

Well, in one sense, all suffering is understood by analogy. I can’t prove, scientifically, that you suffer. All I can do is look at the signs you are giving me. And the same is true for animals. Where we see a similar brain system that processes pain in similar ways to us, chemical reactions in the body that are similar, and particularly when we see behavioral responses that are similar to ours, we can assume that there’s suffering.

Scientists recently started using post-traumatic stress types of therapies with orphaned elephants and actually found them really successful, because elephants’ suffering is similar enough that the treatment can be similar and have really good results. The Calgary Zoo found that polar bears were acting very anxiously, pacing and scratching and doing the sorts of things that we would think of as anxious behaviors. One of the caretakers decided to put them on an anti-anxiety medication and found huge improvement. They started playing again; they stopped pacing.

So while you can’t prove that they suffer, there’s lots of good evidence for it.

The theory of evolution is contingent on a whole lot of suffering, over millions of years. What kinds of reactions do you see people have when they’re trying to reconcile animal suffering and evolution with a good God?

Well, there’s usually two reactions. One is, “Why would a good God allow all these animals to suffer?” And the second is, “Doesn’t the Bible say that death and suffering came with the Fall, with the sin of Adam and Eve?”

Evolution actually gives us a compelling answer of its own, which is that suffering, to a certain extent, is necessary and good for survival. People might think they’d have a much better life if they couldn’t feel pain, but that’s actually not true.

For example, Hansen’s Disease, which is commonly known as leprosy, actually just kills the pain nerves in your body. All the damage we associate with leprosy—fingers falling off and that kind of thing—happens because people hurt themselves and don’t realize it. They’re actually destroying their own bodies because they can’t feel pain. Jesus’ healing of lepers was restoring their ability to feel pain.

The Christian message has never been one of pain avoidance, right? It’s “take up your cross and follow me.” When we’ve given in to the Western idea that a comfortable life is a happy life, we’ve become pain-averse in ways that are actually problematic for our own flourishing. Which is paradoxical.

The second reaction is, “Didn’t death come through the Fall?” There’s real division on this. About one-half of scholars in this area say yes, suffering and death only entered with the Fall, but the Fall happened at the very beginning of time, whether because Satan and his angels fell or because there’s simply something about creation itself that entails a fallenness. There’s another group of us who say, actually, no, sin entered the world through humans, but death and suffering are not the result of the Fall.

It is interesting to me that throughout Scripture, God is constantly pointing out the most vicious wild animals, from the mighty leviathan to the fierce lions, with special pride. God’s speeches to Job are basically one long tirade about how God made all the most problematic bits of creation, from hailstorms to carcass-eating eagles. If all of that was a result of the fall, why does God take such pains to claim it as divine handiwork?

But also, what is meant by death is a little ambiguous. Adam and Eve are told that “in the day you eat of the tree, you shall surely die,” but they don’t fall down dead physically. When Paul talks about the entrance of sin in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, he says things like, “I die every day.” He’s not saying his body has died. He’s talking about some sort of spiritual death.

Have you found people who want to blame Satan for all animal suffering? What problems does that cause?

I think it raises two problems. The first is theological. It seems odd for God to have given up so much of creation to Satan and then not have told us about it. The overwhelming chorus of Genesis is that the world is good. Everything about the Psalms, even after sin has entered the world, says that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” So I think that if that was going to be important to the structure of the world, God might have been a bit clearer in the scriptural text.

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Source: Christianity Today