Within Christian circles a large debate is taking place regarding the age of the earth. One of the contentions that young-earth creationists (YECs) promote is that millions of years of animal suffering and death before sin entered the world (The Fall) is incompatible with Christianity because animal death is evil and not compatible with God's declaration that the creation was "very good.". A while back I wrote a post explaining that too often man anthropomorphizes animals, and that is the source of our belief that all suffering of animals is evil. In that post I explain that what could ground the idea that the animals suffering (over millions of years before man came on the scene) was evil was if animals were moral beings (via being created in the Image of God). Since they are not moral beings, they cannot commit moral (evil) acts. Since they cannot commit morally evil acts, suffering of the animals as the result of other animals was and is not morally evil.
However, that is only part of the story. I did not speak much on natural evil or man's treatment of animals as moral or natural evil. Recently a commenter asked that I speak to these issues to help further show logical compatibility of my old-earth creation (OEC) view, with biblical Christianity.
But I have already moved ahead of myself. It is important that I back up and make a distinction. I do believe that it is fair to say it is generally granted among careful thinkers that there is a difference between natural evil and moral evil. From a Christian perspective, here is the distinction:
Morally Evil Acts- An act counter to God's character perpetrated by a morally responsible being against God or a being created in His Image (Imago Dei). Acts that humans perpetrated against each other or God may be considered morally evil. Acts against any other being or inanimate object, alone (see note at the end), are not considered evil; they are amoral. To determine if an act against another human or God is actually morally evil, we must look to God's special revelation of his character (the Bible). Anything that is not explicitly stated may be discovered via logical inference. But we are not held any less responsible for immoral actions that must be derived logically than to those that are explicit (this is especially important for those who do not recognize the Bible as a source of truth, but that is a different subject). More on Christian ethics may be found in Dr. Norman Geisler's book on the topic.
Naturally Evil Acts/Events- Acts perpetrated or events that take place where there is no morally responsible party; yet causes pain, suffering, and/or death of a being(s) created in God's Image. There is much that we see in our world that is not the work of a morally responsible party, yet we would identify it as natural evil. Being from the Midwest, tornadoes tend to be the first natural event that comes to my mind that we would identify as natural evil. Others would point to different geological/meteorological events. However, we would never point to the violent storm on Jupiter and call it "natural evil." But why? I contend that it is because no being created in the Image of God is in danger of being hurt by Jupiter's Red Spot. If we take it that something may still be considered "natural evil" when it causes pain, suffering, and/or death of beings created in God's Image, then that allows us to draw a very hard line between which acts/events, causes by amoral agents/processes, are and which ones are not "natural evil."
What's the Significance?
Taking this distinction, regarding animals and natural processes, we can conclude the following possibilities exist (I am using "vs." to mean "against"):
- Moral Agent vs. Imago Dei = Moral Evil
- Amoral Agent/Process vs. Imago Dei = Natural Evil
- Moral agent vs. Non-Imago Dei being/process = Not Evil
- Amoral Agent/Process vs. Non-Imago Dei being/process = Not Evil
In application to reality and using combinations of humans (moral agents, Imago Dei), animals (amoral agents, non-Imago Dei), and the environment (amoral process/object, non-Imago Dei), here are the possibilities:
- Human = Moral Evil
- Animal = Not Evil*
- Environment = Not Evil*
- Human = Natural Evil
- Animal = Not Evil
- Environment = Not Evil
- Man = Natural Evil
- Environment = Not Evil
- Animal = Not Evil
Moral Evil Before The Fall?
We have to remember that sin entered the world through one man- sin is a moral act/posture of the heart against God. It is moral evil. Natural evil is not sinful (since it is not committed by a moral being). So the millions of years of death of animals before humans came on the scene is not tied to sin (necessarily or accidentally). Thus it could exist before sin entered the world. There is no incompatibility of animal death and suffering and the absence of sin in the world. This alone removes any logical, moral objection to the idea of animal death and suffering before the Fall for any length of time (including millions of years). The only objections that remain are emotional. But are those completely unfounded?
Natural Evil Before The Fall?
Even though we cannot consider animal death before the Fall moral evil (making it completely compatible with biblical Christianity), many people still have issues with natural evil. However, even natural evil is not an issue for these millions of years. Since no animal is created in the image of God, then the actions committed against them by amoral beings and processes (animals and the environment) are not even natural evil; in fact, they are not evil at all. The complaint that natural evil was taking place for millions of years prior to the Fall is completely eliminated, so those who are concerned even with natural evil taking place before the Fall may breathe a sigh of relief.
Now, there is a time period before the Fall that natural evil could take place. That would be between the time that God created Adam and the time that Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Animals or the environment could have done something to them, but this is not incompatible with biblical Christianity, because it is merely natural evil and not moral evil. Of course this minute time span is rarely the complaint of those who argue that animal death and suffering is immoral.
Here are two syllogisms to help demonstrate how to determine if an act of an animal is evil:
Regarding the perpetrator:
1. Only moral beings can commit morally evil acts.
2. Animals are not moral beings
3. Thus, no animal commits an morally evil act. (All actions are amoral- the worst they could be is natural evil)
Regarding the victim:
1. An act may only be considered evil if it is perpetrated by a being capable of evil acts against God or one created in His Image.
2. No animal is God or created in His image
3. Therefore, no act perpetrated against an animal alone may be considered evil. (Acts perpetrated against animals alone are amoral)
And here is the one that demonstrates that, any claim that millions of years of animal death before the Fall is incompatible with Christianity, is false:
1. Biblical Christianity is incompatible with the presence moral evil prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve.
2. Millions of years of animals death is not moral evil.
3. So, biblical Christianity is not incompatible with the presence of millions of years of animal death prior to the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Ultimately, my argument may be reduced to this: The Imago Dei is the sole source for moral responsibility and intrinsic and moral value in creation; its presence exclusively in humans and absence in all else work in tandem to form the theological foundation for the truth that millions of years of animal death, before the entrance of sin into the created order, is compatible with biblical Christianity.
What to Challenge
In order to overcome my final conclusion (and maintain that this view is incompatible with biblical Christianity), the challenger needs to present two things:
- That some attribute, other than the Imago Dei, makes a being/process capable of perpetrating an act of moral value (thus it is morally accountable).
- That some attribute, other than the Imago Dei, in the victim allows an act perpetrated against it to have moral value (just natural evil, in this case, is not enough).
Keep in mind that answers to these challenges cannot merely be asserted (mysteriously or namely), they must be defended logically.
I have heard it stated on a few occasions that the most powerful argument for a young earth is the incompatibility of animal death before the Fall with biblical Christianity (by process of elimination). However, as with my first post on this subject, this new post is not necessarily arguing against the young-earth view. It is merely arguing for the necessary compatibility of millions of years of animal death before the Fall with biblical Christianity. And if it is true that animal death before the Fall in other views is the most powerful argument for young-earth creationism (YEC), then the most powerful argument for the YEC view has fallen.
For a more in-depth and broad-ranging treatment on the issue of animal death before the Fall of Adam and Eve, I highly recommend Mark Whorton's book "Peril in Paradise."
Links in this post:
Zombies of Christianity
A Very Good Creation That Undermines Christianity
Cartoons, Animal Death, and Theology
Book Review: Christian Ethics
Of Tornadoes, Flat Tires, and Moore
Filling In The Gaps
Opinion vs. Truth-Claim
The Validity of the Process of Elimination
*It is likely to be challenged that we can easily identify that some of man's activities against the environment and animals is actually moral evil. But does this claim hold weight? I believe that it does. Notice that in my lists, I did not include acts against God, himself. The reason for this is because He is the Creator, not a creature or part of the creation. Animals and the environment do not have the ability to act against God (physically or morally). Only moral agents can act against God. In the physical universe, only humans are agents that can act against God. However, since humans can act against God, all we need to do is look to scripture to justify our concerns here. God commands us to be good stewards of the resources he has given us (animals and the environment). When we exploit these for existential benefit without considering future generations, who will need the same resources to carry out the Great Commission, I believe that it is very easy to identify that as moral evil. But not because it is against animals or the environment (those are incidents of the acts), but because it is against God, Himself (but if you wanted to stay in the context of the Imago Dei, it does hurt future generations).