Good question...

...does the savagery of predation in nature show that God either isn't, or at least isn't good-hearted?

[original piece: July 6, 1999  updated: July 18/1999]

Introduction and Table of Contents


The biotic food-chain of the natural world, with its savage predation and suffering is often given as evidence against the God of the bible.

Let me start the analysis of this by citing some different wordings/aspects of this problem (not all with theological conclusions in them):

"If there are any marks of all special design in creation, one of the things most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals" (J.S. Mill, 1874). "Most animals are either eaten or eat other animals. Plants, too, are often consumed by animals. Consequently the chances of being devoured, or of eating some other organism in order to survive, are exceedingly high." [NS:PAP:3] "Let's face it: our life cannot exist without the *agonising* death of another breathing, feeling entity. The second law of thermodynamics is just another one, *demonstrating* (as the theories of self-organising energy fail to do) that deterioration is inherent in this universe.

"Charles Darwin wrote about the Ichneumon spider and the nightmarish sort of manner in which its very existence depends on the impregnation of its paralysed victims with its eggs so the hatchlings can have fresh, *live* meat when they hatch (kinda like the Aliens movie). Dawkins, Pinker, and pretty much the ridiculously vast majority of the scientific community keep offering demonstrable evidence of how God cannot fit in a universe where an ichneumon may be so "designed."

"I think some people, Christians or not, will think this question is a little on the soft side. Never the less, in my attempt to reconcile myself to the concept of a merciful loving God in the face of tragedy and pain, I am left with some very unanswered questions. So, here goes

"How should we deal with animal suffering? Not just the idea of, for example, willful human torture of an animal. I am thinking of the whole animal kingdom suffering. Perhaps it is ruefully ironic that only a conscious mind could truly appreciate the suffering of an animal. I pray that animals are not conscious of their pain. They certainly respond to what looks like pain. Am I empathizing with the animal's pain because part of my fallen nature is in a way, animal?

"In the past I tried to take a very mechanistic approach. Animals were beautifully created machines. A pain impulse would simply go to the brain as any other external signal. The brain would route the signal to provide the appropriate response, etc.

"I cannot make myself believe this. I have a dog now, which has changed things. I do not have children, but I imagine the experience would further change my views. I feel a horror for the future death of my dog.

Nature is often called "red in tooth and claw" and the quotes above point out the emotional difficulty this creates for humans. We seen the vivid cases of a lion biting the neck of a Thompson gazelle, or the Ichneumon spider example given above (which is technically incorrect--the Ichneumon is an insect order of wasps, not spiders), or the diagrams of big-bigger-biggest fish eating one another in a food chain lesson. We see chimpanzees (often portrayed as emotionally deep) tear the arm out of its socket of a captured bonobo money (and then eat it with the bonobo screaming there) [PH:GN:84]. We see killer whales, playing with their seal pup food, throwing it back and forth like a beach ball (while the terrified pup is still alive) [NS:DNNHE:xii]. We know that foxes will chase and capture the same shrew, just to let it go and repeat the process [CS:AM:60], and we use the 'cat playing with the mouse' image as a metaphor.

The quotes above intimate that this situation is radically inconsistent with the existence of the Christian God.

There are many, many issues involved in this question, so let me begin by listing some of these:

Question One: To what extent is the existing predatory situation created by God, and to what extent does God 'endorse' it now? (In other words, has it always been like this, or to what extent is this the result of the Fall or of the Flood?)

This question will require some basic study of what the biblical data is, and what range of options might exist for how we 'fit' predation into our view of creation, providence, etc. So the data for this will be primarily biblical.

Question Two: How extensive is 'painful predation'? (In other words, DO all things REALLY live only at the expense of agonizing death by those lower on the food chain?)

This question will be answered by biological data. We will need to survey the food chain, and ask questions of scope of predation (as opposed to the other possible ecosystem relationships, such as parasitism or commensalism) as well as to what extent each of the creatures involved in a prey-predator relationship actually "feel agony" in a meaningful sense.

Question Three: Where exactly in the act of predation is the theological/moral problem? Is there a moral problem with carrion beetles that eat the dead carcass of an animal (who obviously doesn't feel any pain)? To what extent is there a problem with a gazelle having to avoid a predator every day (or every week) for decades--does this somehow cause "painful stress" for the gazelle that is radically worse (and to the point of "cruel, immoral suffering") than that of having to make a living every day by humans? Is it in the "destructive" experience of the prey (perhaps painful) as it is being killed by the predator, implying that prey animals that feel no pain (such as zooplankton) as they are eaten are not "included" in this problem? Is it in the fact that something dies at the mouth of another, instead of living forever, or only dying "of old age, in its sleep." Does dying of starvation (because some other animal group ate all the grass) count as predation? Does dying of disease (because some very small life-forms attacked it) count?

This, strangely enough, is a philosophical and theological question. How would we decide that it was wrong for a cockroach to die (instead of live forever)? How would we decide that it was wrong for a cockroach to die suddenly by ingestion by a bird (instead of suddenly by an end-of-life(?) failure of some internal biological function, such as the heart)? How would we decide that the suffering of a zebra for 3-5 minutes at the fangs of a cheetah morally "outweighed" the previous 20 years of growing, reproducing, not being eaten or mauled by a predator (being mauling by a predator generally reduced mobility and results in capture quickly thereafter), and community life for some 20+ years? Is it "wrong" for my white blood cells to attack and devour bacteria that is harmful to me?

About all we can do with this question is expose the value assumptions that are inherent in the question, and how they are being "used" by the objection. We might also be able to subject these assumptions to some more rigorous philosophical analysis, by examining implications of those assumptions.

Question Four: How exactly would the predatory situation count as evidence against the Christian God, given the actual details of the food chain/web interrelationships?

Here we are in another philosophical arena--this is NOT a biological issue!-- and we will have to examine (1) the general evidentialist argument from evil, (2) how the biologists mentioned in the quotes (e.g., Dawkins) are using biological data in philosophical arguments to reach theological conclusions (and how trustworthy such an approach might be); and (3) what alternative scenarios for biodiversity (e.g., all creatures use photosynthesis instead of biomass consumption, all carnivores are scavengers) might be feasible and/or "more moral".

Question Five: Are there elements in the existing predatory and/or larger ecological situation that might support the Christian claim that "God is good to all He has made"?

Here we are in another philosophical arena. Can the data of predation as it exists today be interpreted in such a way as to support the proposition that "God arranges matters such as to minimize pain in the life of non-human creatures, in the context of His overall purposes and designs?" (or similar propositions).

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