As a Lincolnshire man born near Burgh le Marsh not far from Somersby, the birth place of Alfred Lord Tennyson, I am well aware that it was the latter who once said that nature was red in tooth and claw. It is. We do indeed live in ‘a world of plunder and prey’. This is made especially plain nowadays even to city dwellers who watch the TV nature programs of Sir David Attenborough and others. As a Christian I am supposed to be perturbed at this and in urgent need of a theodicy, a way of justifying God as a good Creator. Perhaps as a countryman who has been used to animal death since childhood I may appear somewhat hard-hearted. At the age of three I was present and ritually bloodied when a hunted fox was driven to ground and shot in its den and, at about four still before WW2, I distinctly remember watching a pig being killed without the use of a humane killer or stun gun. Even then, I was not unduly upset by the loud squealing and the flood of blood. Perhaps over the years my sensibilities have been somewhat further coarsened but, though I am hotly opposed to the deliberate mistreatment of animals, I am not as inclined to anthropomorphism as many are today. (1* With a knee-jerk reaction the Australian government in 2011 put an immediate ban on the live animal trade with Indonesia because certain people were upset by the admittedly disturbing TV images of cattle being mishandled at slaughterhouses. By doing this the entire trade and millions of dollars of investment were jeopardized. In Britain, on the basis of popular sentiment, fox hunting had earlier suffered a less dramatic demise like bull fighting in Spain, I believe.) For all that, Tennyson’s graphic phraseology deserves a reasonable response. So here goes.
The Cruelty of the Creator
The all-important relevant question is: Is God cruel? Does God treat animals as wanton boys treat flies and kill them for their sport (King Lear)? Job, like the Psalmist (104:24,27f.; 145:13b-17), implies that he does not. He says in Job 39:13-18 that the ostrich leaves its eggs on the ground forgetting that they may get trampled. From this he concludes that the ostrich itself adopts a cruel attitude towards its young and treats them as if they were not its own. This superficially strange behaviour is put down to the fact that God has made it forget wisdom and given it no share in understanding. The Psalmist agrees and says that the horse or mule is also without understanding (32:9) and has to be curbed with a bit and bridle (cf. James 3:3). And while Isaiah tells us that horses are flesh and not spirit (31:3), Elihu informs us in Job 35:11 that the beasts and birds are not as well taught and as wise as man is. Doubtless there are inferences to be drawn from these references and comments, as we shall see.
Elsewhere in Scripture animals are regarded as irrational creatures of instinct born to be caught and killed. Where they are not being prepared for the slaughterhouse and the butcher’s knife, they are perpetually involved in mutual predation. Observation underlines the truth of this. On the other hand, people who act like them can expect to be treated like them (2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10; Rev. 21:8, etc.). The fact that animal sacrifice was basic to the OT cultus, which was specifically ordained by God himself, would suggest that cruelty, and therefore sin, was not involved. Indeed, it is almost ironic to point out that the sacrifices were designed to atone for sin. However, if it is insisted that the slaughter of animals is sinful, then the rivers of blood spilt by sacrificing priests testify ominously against the goodness of our Creator God.
Jesus and Meat Eating
Though in mankind’s infancy meat was, not surprisingly, not on the menu (cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:6), it was so later (Gen. 9:3). Under the law of Moses the Israelites rejoiced in eating meat as God blessed them (Dt. 12:15, etc.), but there were definite restrictions on their diet (Dt. 14:1-21). Jesus, however, made all foods clean (Mark 7:19, cf. 1 Tim. 4:3f.) and was even personally accused of being a wine bibber and a glutton. After his resurrection he certainly ate fish (Luke 24:41-43). It would appear from this that if God is to be charged with evil for allowing animals to be slaughtered, so is Jesus. Clearly Christianity is no friend of strict vegetarianism. One is prompted to ask why.
In contrast with Israel some of the heathen nations resorted to child sacrifice, something Abraham, who was prepared to sacrifice Isaac at God’s bidding, could hardly have been entirely unaware of. It was certainly taboo later in Israel’s history as is pointed out in Leviticus 18:21 and Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5 and 32:35. The reason for this is doubtless to be found in the teaching of Genesis 9:6 where human beings who are made in the image of God are regarded in a different light from mere animals. (2* We need to be careful here. It is evident from history, experience, observation and the teaching of Scripture that man is only potentially (made) in the image of God. It is not until rationality and moral consciousness dawn that man begins to show evidence of being different from other animals. Prior to that, he is ‘flesh’, 1 Cor. 15:46. See further my Are Babies Saved?, Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?) We might well ask why. (3* On this, see e.g. my The Plan of Salvation – in outline (1))
Then there is the question of circumcision on the eighth day. It may well be argued that this was the commandment of a cruel God who gratuitously caused pain (Gen. 17:12) to the innocent, to those who knew neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39). But it is never so regarded. Why? After all, Genesis 34 and Joshua 5 make it evident that so far as adults are concerned it could be both painful and incapacitating. Why the apparent difference?
Man an Animal
While all this may be true, it hardly solves our problem. Another question may be posed. Since on the level of the flesh man is an animal (cf. Gen. 6:3,7,17), why should he not be susceptible to slaughter in the same way as an animal is? Why is cannibalism to be regarded as beyond the pale? Again, the answer doubtless has to do with man’s rationality rather than his physicality and his being made in the image of God. Let us take a closer look.
Death the Wages of Sin
Because of our Augustinian tradition, evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, tend to think that all death is the result of sin and rush to prove it by appeal to Romans 6:23. However, this cannot be true for, first, life is promised to Adam, who in contrast with his Creator (Rom. 1:23) is naturally mortal, on the condition that he keeps the commandment (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5, etc.). Second, if death is solely the wages of sin (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23), wages which involve work can only be earned by breaking the law (Rom. 4:15). Animals, however, cannot break a law that they do not have and understand (Rom. 4:15), yet they all die. So, since their death cannot be wages, it must be the result of something else. What is that something else? The traditional answer has been the so-called Adamic curse which resulted in a “Fallen” creation, but this is prone to criticism on a number of fronts. (4* See my various articles on original sin, e.g., Does Romans Teach Original Sin?) Most obviously, it lacks adequate support and is contradicted by other evidence. (5* See, for example, my Cosmic Curse?) The truth is surely that in contrast with the immortal and incorruptible God (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), death in a temporal creation which has both a beginning and an end is natural and corruption or aging is universal as Paul plainly indicates in Romans 8:18-25 (6* This is widely denied by both translators and commentators who are clearly conditioned by traditional Augustinianism. See further my Romans 8:18-25, Augustine: Asset or Liability?.) and the author of Hebrews in 1:10-12. It is imperative to appreciate the fact that while Jesus only avoided death as wages by not sinning (1 Pet. 2:22, cf. Heb. 5:7-9), even he got older (Luke 3:23; John 8:57, etc.) and so would have died naturally (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 8:13b) in a creation which had been subjected to futility if he had not been transformed at his ascent into heaven. (7* On this, see, for example, my Death and Corruption, Romans 8:18-25, Two ‘Natural’ Necessities, Are Believers Butterflies?)
Our First Parents
This, however, raises another point of profound significance. If we humans at our baby beginning as both race and individual are merely animal flesh (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46), we must resemble mutatis mutandis Adam and Eve when they were first created and knew neither the commandment (law) nor the good and evil which it determined and defined (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22, cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.). In light of the increase in Eve’s pain (Gen. 3:16) we are inexorably led to the conclusion that as babies we may feel pain but do not know it. We do not remember being born, for example, though a difficult birth involving forceps and the rest may well be extremely painful and in some cases even lead to death. Though our bodies may react to pain, we are totally unconscious of it. How many of us remember the bumps and bruises of our infancy? It is only as we become self-conscious and moral to some degree (that is, capable of understanding our parents’ negative commandment like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, cf. Prov. 1:8; 4:1-9; 6:20) that conscious pain makes its impact on us.
(Note. The increase in Eve’s pain implies (a) that she was a corporate personality as well as an individual and, (b) that as the former she had had fleshly offspring before. However, it was only as she developed self-consciousness that she became aware of it. This confirms Paul’s view expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:46 that we are flesh before we are spirit. This is true of both the race and of the individual. See further my Creation and / or Evolution.)
Now if this is true of babies, it must also be true of animals. Since the latter never develop moral awareness which implies self-consciousness, they never consciously experience pain. And their death simply plays a role in the ecology of which they are so obviously a part. What is more, far from being the result of sin which, I stress again, implies a degree of moral awareness (8* It is absolutely vital to realize that sin, which depends on law and apart from law is non-existent, Rom. 3:20b; 4:15; 7:7f.; 1 John 3:4, etc., is by definition conscious no matter how minimally. Pace those who believe in original sin and baptize innocent and unself-conscious babies to remedy the situation. See further my various articles on original sin and baptism.), pain is the inevitable concomitant of self-consciousness. In other words, as the old adage has it: no brain, no pain. Put plainly, sin, which implies growing (self-) consciousness, does not cause pain as our Augustinian tradition would have it but is simply co-incidental or contemporaneous with it. We may demonstrate the connection as follows:
The Relationship Between Sin and Pain
(1) Where there is no law or knowledge, there is neither sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:7; John 9:41; 15:22,24) nor pain (cf. Job 3:20; 5:7; 7:1; 14:1; Jer. 20:18). Thus both Job and Jeremiah who suffered much despite their relative righteousness wished they had stayed in the womb which clearly symbolized the Garden of Eden recapitulated in miniature. (9* It might be usefully observed at this point that neither Adam, Gen. 3:22-24, nor Nicodemus, John 3:4, once they were outside could re-enter the womb. Even the second Adam had to find a different way to enter the true paradise his mother’s womb had merely typified, Luke 23:43! It is interesting to note that when Tennyson’s son was strangled by his cord at birth the poet wrote, “He was – not born … but he was released from the prison where he moved for nine months ….” See Tennyson, p.254, by Michael Thorn, London, 1992.)
(2) Where there is sin, there is both knowledge and pain. Alternatively expressed, knowledge or intelligent consciousness is common to both sin and pain. The one implies the other except in the case of Jesus who experienced pain but not sin because he kept the law he knew only too well.
Nature’s Apparent Cruelty
If this is true, then nature’s apparent cruelty is precisely that – apparent. So, to say that death and suffering in general entered the world through human sin reflects profound misunderstanding. If animal perceptions are purely sensory and do not involve intelligent consciousness, it should cause us no surprise to read how it is precisely God himself who of set purpose feeds the carnivorous lions (Ps. 104:21,27-29) and the rest of the animal creation (Job 38:39-41; 39:28-30; Mt. 6:26). At the end of the day all flesh, in contrast with God himself (Rom. 1:23), is grass (Isa. 40:6-8, cf. 1 Pet. 1:23-25), and, because it is corruptible and destructible on the one hand and lacks self-awareness on the other, it has no moral value (cf. Col. 2:22a). It has been subjected to futility as part of creation as a whole (Rom. 8:18-25). It will eventually disappear and be replaced without regret (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1-4).
All this ties in with other Scriptural teaching. We can hardly fail to notice that the flesh, though not evil as such as the Greeks imagined, is regarded pejoratively throughout the Bible (cf. Jer. 17:5, etc.). For example, in John 6:63 and Romans 7:18 we are expressly told that it is unprofitable. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say in Romans 8:6 (cf. v.13; Gal. 6:7f.) that to set the mind on the flesh in contrast with the spirit is death (cf. Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:7f.). Why? The answer is that the flesh is by nature non-rational, non-moral and hence ephemeral like the rest of the physical creation (cf. Rom. 8:10). No matter how much or how well we and other animals eat to nurture the flesh we nonetheless die. Jesus made this plain when he quoted Moses in Matthew 4:4 to the effect that man as one who is made in the image of God cannot live on bread alone. He harps on the same theme again in some detail in John 6:22-63.
Another point must be made. As a rational man Jesus knew that the laying down of his life for his friends would involve great suffering which was quite alien to the many amoral animals that were constantly and repeatedly sacrificed in the OT cultus (Heb. 10:11, etc.). In other words, in contrast with Levitical animal sacrifice, his sin-offering gained its significance from the fact that it was consciously, morally and intentionally offered at great personal cost (Heb. 10:12). Perhaps this is why suffering is so important to the Christian life which involves fleshly self-denial (Mark 8:34-37). Little wonder that Paul once wrote: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10, NRSV). The truth is that if salvation is to be achieved, the flesh along with earthly things in general (cf. Gal. 5:24; 6:14) must be put to death both metaphorically (Col. 3:1-5a; Phil. 3:19) and literally (1 Cor. 15:42-50; 2 Cor. 5:1). By contrast, the spirit must be nurtured (Gal. 5:16,18,22-24), for its destination is the heavenly city and its destiny corporeal glory (2 Cor. 5:1; Phil. 3:20f.) not obliteration (cf. Isa. 43:15-21; 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13).
Far from providing a good excuse for postulating atheism and naturalistic evolution, I believe that the death and corruption which pervade the entire physical world (this present ‘evil’ age, cf. Rom. 7:24; 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17; Gal. 1:4; Eph. 5:16; 1 Pet. 5:1) from which we must of necessity escape (1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Tim. 1:10) is the seed-bed of the gospel which points to the hope of salvation in Christ. (10* Dusty Adam, like the rest of his posterity including Paul, was clearly created mortal and corruptible but was promised (eternal) life if he kept the commandment, Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 7:9f.) In other words, far from being a blind watchmaker God has intentionally made creation futile because he has an invisible hope in mind (Rom. 8:20,24). We were never intended to live forever in corruptible flesh (cf. Gen. 6:3) on an intrinsically impermanent earth. (11* Pace again those who think in terms of a ‘Fall’ from original perfection and postulate an OT-style restoration! See further my essays on the redemption of creation.) What Sir David Attenborough and others are showing us in spectacular fashion in the twenty-first century is that as flesh we along with the entire (animal) creation are trapped in futility (Ps. 146:4; Rom. 8:20) and, apart from procreation which itself is temporary and ultimately futile, have no way of escape (Luke 21:35, cf. Ps. 31:3-5). (12* The idea that we survive in our offspring is in my view poor comfort and does little to offset the reality of final futility. See further my Death Before Genesis 3, Escape.) But as creatures who are being fashioned in the image of God (2 Cor. 3:18), we have received a heavenly call (Heb. 3:1, cf. Phil 3:14) to eternal life and spiritual perfection (Heb. 6:1; Phil. 3:12f.) which we dare not neglect (Heb. 2:3) on pain of death, the second death (Rev. 2:11). This latter is a much more serious matter than mere physical death, as Jesus plainly implied (Mt. 10:28; John 11:25).
(The reader may find it helpful to read my Creation and / or Evolution, I Believe in Recapitulation, Correspondences, and various essays dealing with the putative redemption of creation)
1. The Contrast between Painless Birth and Painful Delivery
The violent contrast between the painlessness of (unconscious) birth and the usually excruciating pain of the conscious giving of birth ought to ring a bell in our reflections. The former is never referred to in Scripture presumably because it was taken for granted; the latter receives frequent mention and in both Testaments (e.g. Isa. 13:8; John 16:21). At birth we do not know the commandment (law) and hence neither good nor evil (Dt. 1:39; Rom. 9:11, etc.); in their conscious maturity mothers know both (Gen. 3:6f.,16,22-24; Rom. 7:11) and they may involve pain, sin and even death (Gen. 35:16-20, cf. Ps. 51:5 ESV)!
2. The Contrast between Human and Animal Delivery
It is perhaps more important still to recognize the difference between a conscious woman’s pain and the near painlessness of animals’ giving birth. Nowadays we see numerous animal births, of wildebeest, for example, on TV. Conscious pain seems to be absent and mothers seem to be ready for flight at approaching danger almost immediately. When we bear this in mind, Genesis 3:16 makes a great deal of sense. The difference between knowledge and instinct is implicit especially in Job 39:1-4 (cf. Jer. 12:3; 2 Pet. 2:12-22; Jude 10). With a rational woman God can make a covenant (cf. Noah), but not with the wild ox and Leviathan who like most animals are beyond domestication (cf. Job 39:9; 41:4). (See further my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?)
3. In his Evil and the God of Love (Fontana Library, 1968) John Hick initially expresses doubt about the consciousness of animals (p.346) but appears to conclude that they lack it (p.349). On page 350 he suggests that on the whole an animal is immune to distinctively human forms of suffering and concludes that the picture of animal life as a dark ocean of agonizing fear and pain is quite gratuitous.
4. According to some, brain disorder can lead eventually to inability to feel pain. A friend of mine tells me that her mother who suffered from acute Altzheimer’s disease broke her leg when she fell out of bed. The injury was not discovered till some time later. Arguably, the reason for this was that she was unable to tell anyone of her pain. More likely, she was as blissfully unaware of the fact as she was of everything else including her closest relatives. (Since writing this I have seen on TV a lion running after a fashion on a broken foreleg. The commentator pointed out that such an injury in the animal world foreboded certain premature death.)
Another friend of mine has a very interesting story to tell of her mother who also suffered from Altzheimer’s disease. She also didn’t recognize anyone even her own daughter. But amazingly when Jesus was mentioned, she ‘recognized’ him immediately and readily joined in the singing of hymns she had known all her life. Her daughter says she is sure that her mother was not conscious of pain. Eventually she too fell out of bed and died of pneumonia as a result.
5. In 1 Corinthians 15:56 Paul tells us that the sting of death is sin and that the power of sin is the law. In other words, if where there is no law there is no sin (cf. Rom. 4:15), then death has no sting. Animals die but since they have neither the law nor sin, they do not experience death’s sting. The difference between human and animal pain is that human pain is known, animal pain is not.