My path as a Christian paleontologist has been a journey. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it has been marked by peril, especially since I’ve never lost my faith, but it has certainly involved many stumbling blocks along the way. During my years as an undergraduate student at what is now Calvin University, I became increasingly comfortable with the notion that God may have utilized an evolutionary process to create life on this planet over vast eons of time. Many of the difficulties I encountered as I wrestled with this idea were sufficiently resolved with an article, a book, or a conversation with a mentor; however, some issues have remained persistently thorny for me, despite completing a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and spending over a decade as a biology professor.
Some of my most difficult questions have surrounded the immense amount of death, predation, and suffering that are part and parcel of the evolutionary process. How can we possibly reconcile these unsavory aspects of biological evolution with a God who is good, loving, and intentional? The first time I remember thinking carefully about these questions was during my freshman year at Calvin. At that time, I saw evolution and Christianity as being almost wholly incompatible with one another. But in reality, I hadn’t truly thought very deeply about these issues. As a part of our first-year seminar, we read Engaging God’s World by Neil Plantinga to help introduce us to the Reformed tradition. In this book, Plantinga actually wrestles with this very problem:
Creation. . . declares the tragedy of fallenness, of chaos, of painful carnivorousness . . . [It] includes animals that tear each other up and animals that rape each other or kill each other for sport. Some animal parents devour their own offspring. . . . Is carnivorousness a part of God’s original design? Judging by the fossil record and by the incisors of carnivores, it seems so. Judging by the scriptural prophesies of shalom and by our own hearts and minds, it seems not so. . . . If carnivorousness is part of God’s original design, is God less sensitive to animal pain than we are? If not, why do we have what looks like a design for it?1
Ever since then, I’ve thought about these issues against the backdrop of my work as a marine mammal paleontologist, but rarely have I had the opportunity to dig deeply into these questions and think through some possible resolutions. But a few years ago, I was able to participate in the Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II program (sponsored by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford), which allowed me opportunities to learn from eminent scholars across multiple disciplines and devote time to studying the problem of pre-human animal death, predation, and suffering.
During my first summer in Oxford, I was paired up with theologian Bethany Sollereder, who was in the midst of completing her book God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering. The guidance she gave was instrumental in helping me to sort out my thoughts and construct an approach for moving forward with these challenging questions. Soon thereafter I began working with three student research assistants (Harry Ervin, Laura Harjanto, and Shannon Stewart). Together, we explored recent work in these topics, including Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation, Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, and the myriad of tangents that ran through the work of other scholars. Our team sought to delineate both the benefits and difficulties of various approaches, while also attempting to discern how each approach may or may not fit within the bounds of the Reformed theological context in which we were working.
The variety of approaches taken by these different scholars are numerous. Given that the fossil record demonstrates eons of animal death and predation before the advent of humanity, most authors recognized the difficulty of maintaining the classical cosmic Fall as an explanation for the presence of animal death in our world.
Yet, some thinkers explored the possibility of retroactive or angelic Falls to account the life and death we see in nature. Others deemed that these aspects of the living world are necessary for the existence of some other good—pain being necessary for simple self-preservation, for example—or because a natural world with evolutionary pain and suffering might be the only way to bring about moral, sentient beings like humans. Some scholars attempted to reconsider specific attributes that have been ascribed to God—his love, power, and activity—in fairly radical ways, while others looked to kenosis as an explanation for why God might voluntarily limit himself in terms of how he interacts with the world.
Still other thinkers focused on the value that suffering can have or the promise of eschatological redemption, while some even insisted that there really isn’t even a problem here, because animals may lack the neurological capacity to suffer, even if they can experience some form of pain. Exploring all of these approaches and their nuances goes well beyond the scope of what I’m able to do here, but suffice it to say that each approach has both strengths and weaknesses and may not be mutually exclusive. In fact, this issue is so complex that many thinkers advocate for developing compound theodicies, piecing together different aspects of these approaches to generate a more comprehensive and robust understanding of how we, as Christians, might reconcile a good God and a good creation with the evolutionary death, pain, and suffering that we see in the world.
So, even after a significant amount of time and effort exploring a host of solutions to this problem, I find myself without any definitive answers. In some respects, I’m not even sure which approaches I think are best! This is not an easy position for me to be in, especially as a data-driven scientist, but I can’t help but think there is so much to be gained from tackling a complex problem in this way.
First, unpacking an issue like this allows us to break it down into constituent parts that are easier to digest. Even for someone who has spent time thinking about these issues, it can sometimes seem overwhelming to try and tackle such a monumental set of related problems. But by working through different ways of addressing these issues individually, we can isolate individual threads of the argument and deal with them in a more limited fashion.
Second, this approach allows us to honor the nuance and complexity of the issues at stake. In our modern world, there is a tendency to oversimplify issues, forcing them toward resolutions of 280 characters or fewer. But the world is not that simple. Especially at the interface of science and faith, we need to ensure that nuance is respected, and complexity isn’t shied away from. By breaking down a complex issue into smaller components, we not only make them easier to deal with, but we can begin to sort through some of the smaller fibers that make up the individual threads.
Third, by trying to present these different approaches on somewhat equal footing, we can allow for individuals to try and assemble their own perspective on these topics. A great model of this approach can be found in my colleague Loren Haarsma’s book, When Did Sin Begin?, in which he explores the theological ramifications of multiple perspectives on human evolution, Adam and Eve, and original sin, without advocating for any particular approach. Similarly, when I’m working with students or folks in the church, I try not to lean too heavily on the arguments that I favor (even if my own perspective may be discernible with a bit of probing), because one of my primary goals is simply to help others think through complex issues carefully. By meticulously working through the details and implications of various approaches, we can allow others to assimilate their own perspectives on these issues in a way that will hopefully draw them closer to God, even as they wrestle with challenging questions.
Finally, it is my sincere hope that evenhandedly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to complex topics can help give rise to the qualities that should mark all Christian discourse—qualities like humility, charity, and Christian unity—especially as we deal with potentially divisive issues. Think about how radically we could change the public discourse for the better if we, as Christians, could lead the way in working well together despite major differences. It is my hope and prayer that each one of us can hear God’s call to pursue this in our own disciplines, to help shepherd our students, schools, churches, and communities through the challenges that our own areas of expertise can speak into. And may all of our thoughts, words, and deeds give glory to our Creator, even as we lean into difficult questions that might not have easy answers.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: This work was sponsored by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.