The Mystery of Animal Suffering

The Mystery of Animal Suffering December 22, 2011

By serendipity, another reader writes concerning Genesis and the Fall as well:

I just finished re-reading your NCRegister post about evolution and the fall . Great article. It certainly articulates the answers to a question I’ve been struggling with better than I could articulate them myself. I’m hoping you can help me with a related question.

My question relates to the problem of evil. I can get as far as moral evils being allowed due to free will, and human suffering being the result of original sin. So far so good. (Or have I made a mistake already?) I can even imagine how, if original sin affected all of creation, we might see evolution giving us creatures whose lives depend on causing other creatures to suffer. But what about those creatures that evolved before the Fall occurred? There were predators, parasites, and pathogens long before humanity ever appeared.

The Original Catholic Encyclopedia article on Evil brings this up: “If animal suffering is excluded, no pain of any kind is caused by the inevitable limitations of nature; and they can only be called evil by analogy, and in a sense quite different from that in which the term is applied to human experience.” But why should animal suffering be excluded? Of course there’s a difference between human and animal experience, given the nature of the human soul, but I can’t understand why animal suffering should be completely discounted. If animal suffering is, as that article suggests, “really no disorder, since it is part of a definite scheme, and precisely fulfils the intention of the Creator,” then why would a benevolent God intend for his creatures to suffer? If it is a disorder, why was it disordered before the fall?

I would very much appreciate reading your thoughts on this matter.

This is a question taken up by C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain and it is, I grant, a vexing one. Like you (and Lewis) I’m dubious animal pain can be dismissed quite so easily. However, I do want to clear up one misunderstanding. There is nothing in our tradition which demands that we believe animal pain came into existence with the Fall or that until we fell, all animals were peaceful herbivores. Death has been part of nature since living things first evolved. What scripture has in view is solely the question of how death entered the human world, not why oysters in the seas of the Jurassic perished nor why the dinosaurs became extinct.

Indeed, if there is one thing the mysterious account in Genesis is clear about, it is that there was some kind of evil intelligence in the world already at work before our First Parents fell. Grant that, and you have all you need in order to argue that demonic forces have been at work for a very long time attempting to deform and destroy the created order in their spite and malice. Given that we know God permits this in the human order of things, I see no reason to think it impossible he has also permitted it in nature. So perhaps the suffering of animals is part of what is assumed when God assumes the animal nature of homo sapiens. Difficult to say.

What we can say is that God is love and that he loves all the works of his hands according to their natures. Given that he promises a new heaven and a new earth, perhaps what we shall one day see is a nature redeemed and purged of the death and futility which now characterizes it. This would appear to be exactly what Paul is getting at when he declares: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)

All speculation, of course. But given the extravagance of the redemption wrought in Christ, I can’t help thinking that an immense amount of suffering of the natural world while not the same thing as human suffering–(how does, say, an insect or plant with no consciousness “suffer” in a way that a rational being does? Does an anesthetized person on a table “suffer” when his body is cut open? His body *reacts* to injury, but he does not “suffer” the injury)–is still suffering of a kind. A fortiori, the terror and pain of higher animals such as mammals and, in particular, primates is difficult to distinguish from our own. Heck, I’ve seen dogs who sure looked to me like they were suffering not just physical but psychological pain.

So, in the end, I have little trouble thinking the suffering of the subhuman world may well have demonic origins just as ours does. I even think that part of the effect of the Fall was that it robbed the natural world of the perfecting work we were supposed to do and instead made us agents of destruction when we were supposed to be agents of healing and redemption. And I think that Christ, the firstborn over all creation, is therefore not merely about the redemption of the human race, but of the entire natural order. If so, it would not surprise me if God, in is providence, permits the suffering of the natural order as a participation in the sufferings of Christ, just as he permits our sufferings for the same reason.

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