When it comes to suffering and death, there is never an easy answer. We trust in a good God, but also understand that there is suffering in this world that has existed as long as conscious life has evolved. I don’t pretend to give an answer to this in any complete sense, except to make suggestions, and point to what I think is the most potent answer to suffering.
First, death is not the primary mechanism in evolution. Technically speaking, there could have been no death, and life could still have evolved, although life might look very different today, then it would as we see it. Evolution is all about adapting to environment, and it is true that those creatures that can’t adapt, will not survive. It is important though to point out that the primary mechanism for evolution is reproduction. Through reproduction we have new combinations of the genome that both provide the continuity from your parents and the discontinuity that makes you different. Mutations occur when there is an error through the process of copying DNA during reproduction. Most of the time these mutations are neutral, sometimes they are negative, and at other times they are positive. Many times, the complex structures we see today are due to neutral mutations that were continued on and combined with other mutations to form a new structure or function that adds to survivability, which increases reproduction. This has occurred before our very eyes through a 25 year experiment with E. coli bacteria, in which the bacteria evolved the function of using citrate as a food source. This was due to several different neutral mutations that came together to allow this function over several thousand generations. An example of a positive mutation would be a very small village in Italy where a group of people have a genetic mutation that prevents them from getting cardiac disease. Of course, we all know of negative mutations which can lead to cancers, and many other diseases. We tend to notice the negative more than the other two, but neutral mutations are the most common.
One concern for many is that because of these mutation, that evolution is purely a random, meaningless process that removes the supernatural. Part of the answer to that is that there is some metaphysical baggage that is smuggled into this statement. That evolution is random is only partially true, and it is only random from a statistical, or scientific definition, whereby this mutation had as much a chance of happening as any other mutation of occurring. Think of a baby being born. We can describe it purely naturally, without any mention of God, including a certain amount of randomness being involved. And yet we as Christians have no problem saying that it was God who formed us, following from David in Psalm 139. Through the eyes of faith we also see God at work in the seemingly random events in our lives. I believe that God actually revels in the evolutionary process. What a fascinating way God chose to create things! In a certain sense he allows creation to make itself, and in another sense, we must never forget that God is lovingly involved and active within his creation. Nature is never completely red in tooth and claw. In the Psalms we see God feeding the young lions (we call that instinct in our epicurean language, I will get more into that in another post). What else would he be feeding them than what they naturally eat, which is meat? God also feeds the ravens, according to the Psalm. The ancients knew perfectly well how a raven and a lion get their meals, but they saw God’s loving actions within that and we must never divorce our understanding of nature from God’s love. Even in events like the death of the dinosaurs, without which we would not be here, because it was only through that event that mammals were able to emerge into the world and become the dominant animals in nature.
Second, I want to posit this challenge to YEC’s. The claim made is that physical death came into the world through sin, and thus we have all the diseases that are out there, that also infect the animal world. My question is why should animals be made to suffer diseases because of our sin? They are completely innocent of sin, and yet they suffer many of the same diseases that we do. Unlike us, they actually do what God made them to do. If anything, I see this as more of a problem for those who hold to a YEC position than a position of evolutionary creation.
Third, we do see in Romans 8 that all of creation was subjected to decay and futility. This is often seen as a consequence of sin, but it need not be. All of creation, from the beginning, has been marked by transience, and God established this for his own purposes, and possibly for our benefit even though we can’t see it now. We do know though that a day is coming when everything will be made new. This universe will either decay, or gravity will force a Big Crunch (which by itself, is a very futile ending), but God will make a new heavens and a new earth where this old world will be transformed as will our dead and decayed bodies. Then there will be no more death and decay. The old order of things will have passed away.
I think that ultimately, for all suffering, whether natural, or evil, we must turn to the cross. On the cross, Jesus dealt with the full weight of sin, and the full fury of the evil forces behind and of this world. He disarmed the princes and principalities of this world, through his death and resurrection. He bore our suffering there and rose from the dead, so that all of creation (that includes non-human creation as well) can be renewed. Because he dealt with our sin and evil, God’s Kingdom can break through into this world. While we anticipate the commencement of the Kingdom, the church must work on earth now to alleviate the suffering of this world, both through the preaching of the gospel, and its embodiment through acts of love, mercy, and justice. We cannot disconnect theodicy from the cross. The cross and resurrection is God’s answer to the evil and suffering in the world, and anticipates the day when all things will be made new.
“Finish then thy new creation
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
– Charles Wesley