Christianity and the Problem of Animal Suffering

The problem of evil is one of the greatest challenges to Christian theism, and one aspect of the problem that is occasionally overlooked is the amount of animal suffering in the world.  Philosopher Stephen Law reflects:

A while ago I watched a wildlife documentary about Komodo dragons poisoning, tracking for a week or so, and then, finally, when their victim became too weak to defend itself, disembowelling and eating alive, a water buffalo.  The cameraman said this had been his first ever wildlife assignment, and it would probably also be his last, because he couldn’t cope with the depth of suffering he had been forced to witness. That was just one poor creature. Each day, millions of animals are similarly forced to tear each other limb from limb to survive. And this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. This is, in many ways, a beautiful world. But it’s also a staggeringly cruel and horrific world for very many of its inhabitants. Unspeakable horror on an almost unimaginably vast scale is built into the very fabric of the world we find ourselves forced to inhabit [1].

It is important to be shaken out of our stupor to ponder these things now and then, because we frequently don’t process the magnitude and extent of animal suffering.  For example, I recently posted a video to my personal Facebook page that showed a red crab eating it’s own newly hatched babies.  Surprisingly it got 1 share, and between the two of us all of the emoji reactions were “shocked” – as if this kind of thing isn’t happening in the animal kingdom every day.  This just goes to show that it can be quite easy to become numb to the violence that exists all around us.  So in the spirit of taking it seriously, consider the following argument:

  1. In order for extreme suffering to be justified, a creature must either deserve it or be compensated
  2. Non-human animals experience extreme suffering, do not deserve it, and are not compensated
  3. Therefore, the extreme suffering of non-human animals is unjustified [2]

 

Definitions and Clarifications

In order to be precise, let’s discuss terms.  By “extreme suffering”, I mean an experience of something negative or unpleasant to a very high degree of severity.   By “justified”, I mean allowed or caused for a legitimate reason.  By “deserve”, I mean merit.  Lastly, by “compensated” I mean given something “in recognition of loss, suffering, or injury incurred” [3].  Next, I want to preempt some objections.  The most obvious one that I want to debunk right away is the infantile suggestion that variations of the problem of evil actually prove God’s existence by presupposing him.  No they don’t.  And even if problems of “evil” did that, the language can be changed to “suffering” (as it is here) to accomplish the same goal without using loaded language.  The premises in this argument are plausible even on the Christian worldview (or some variation of it), so it is on the Christian to explain which premise they reject and why.  

Premise 1

Let’s now consider the first premise: In order for extreme suffering to be justified, a creature must either deserve it or be compensated. Why believe this?  The most basic answer I can give is that it seems highly plausible given our moral intuitions.  This may seem weak initially, but if we think about what would be entailed if one were to deny this premise, the argument is strengthened considerably.  To deny premise 1 would be to sever the connection between culpability, recompense, and suffering.  What are the implications of this?  Imagine that God created Adam and Eve upright, but rather than allow for a trial he simply subjected both of them to eternal conscious torment immediately upon creation.  Would this be fair?  Well, obviously not.  But notice that if you deny premise 1, it would be fair.  After all, extreme suffering can be visited upon creatures legitimately without them having had to deserve it or be compensated for it.  Or consider that God creates an animal (your favorite one preferably) solely for the sake of torturing.  How could you object if you deny premise 1?  I don’t see how.  Because of this, I submit that premise 1 is intuitively obvious and that denying it leads to absurd moral consequences.  Clearly it must be true.

Premise 2

Onto the second premise: Non-human animals experience extreme suffering, do not deserve it, and are not compensated. This premise will be much more contentious than the first I think, so let’s take it apart piece by piece.  The first claim is that non-human animals experience extreme suffering.  Well, if you have eyes, (Fair warning, this link contains violence between a predator and prey) that statement is obvious.  Surprisingly, some Christians have made the claim that animals “don’t suffer”.  This seems patently outrageous, and a person making such a ridiculous claim without having the intestinal fortitude to watch the Youtube video I linked should be embarrassed.  Additionally, I have carefully defined what I mean by “suffer” in a previous section, and the definition obviously applies to non-human animals.  The second claim is that there is no reason to believe that non-human animals can deserve or merit extreme suffering.  Again, this seems fairly straightforward.  Unless one wants to develop a doctrine of “animal sin” or contend that the guilt for Adam’s sin was imputed to animals in addition to the human race, the idea of animals “meriting” extreme suffering seems most implausible.

The final statement may actually turn out to be the most controversial: that animals are not compensated.  For Christians throughout the ages, the common view has been (so far as I understand it) that animals do not have souls – and so will not be resurrected en masse for the new heavens and new earth.  This is not to say that the new earth will not have animals, but only that there will not be a one to one correspondence between animals that have lived, suffered, and died and those that will populate paradise.  This creates a tension, because if premise 1 is true this means that all of the horrific animal suffering through time stands unjustified.  Does this even make sense within the traditional Christian worldview?  One way out of this is to posit resurrection that corresponds to the animals who have lived on earth – or at least ones who have suffered terribly.  This is probably the most reasonable loophole in the argument, and seems entirely plausible if one is willing to go against the grain of Christian tradition.  In fact, some philosophers are taking this path to avoid the problems that this argument is seeking to point out [4].  This is the route that I think Christians should go to avoid negative consequences, though not all will be willing.

Conclusion

If the premises are true, the conclusion follows logically: Therefore, the extreme suffering of non-human animals is unjustified.  Let’s recap the ways that a person might get out of this:

  • They can accept that extreme suffering may be visited on creatures regardless of whether they deserve it or are compensated (this seems insane – it makes created in hell scenarios morally acceptable)
  • They can deny that animals experience extreme suffering
  • They can deny the innocence of animals by believing that their suffering is just in some way
  • They can accept animal resurrection as compensation for suffering

Which will it be?

And if you think this argument works, consider what consequences that admission might have.  It is quite easy to take what we have established here and turn it into an argument against the existence of God:

  1. If gratuitous (ie unjustified) suffering exists, then God (understood as all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing) does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous suffering exists (the argument defended earlier establishes this)
  3. Therefore, God does not exist. [5]

I won’t spend time defending this argument, but as you can see it isn’t a large leap from accepting the existence of unjustified suffering in the world to skepticism about the existence of God (as traditionally defined).

 

References

  1. Stephen Law, God, Evil, and Theodicies
  2. As far as I know, the way this argument is worded is original to me – though arguments from evil and suffering often share similar concepts.
  3. Quotes and definitions taken from Lexico.com
  4. Trinities Podcast, Dr. Trent Dougherty on the Problem of Evil
  5. Stephen Law, God, Evil, and Theodicies – I swapped out the word “evil” for “suffering” in order to fit the theme of this post

Featured image taken from https://www.spcai.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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