Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

The Possibility of Punishment after Death

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Dante and Virgil in Hell

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Joseph Mengele lives a comfortable life in Argentina, even though he tortured Jews in the most hideous ways in his medical “experiments.” He dies quickly in a swimming accident. Controversial jury decisions put people back on the streets who may be murdering psychopaths. A spiteful person full of hatred tells lies that ruin the reputation of a good person, who leaves town and dies a pauper. The spiteful person gets rich and is admired by others in his community. The good suffer, the evil prosper, and so often there is no justice. How can the scales of justice be tipped in favor of justice in a world that fails so much to be just?

The Christian doctrine of punishment after death offers one answer. This is not to deny that other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have a doctrine of suffering for sins after death in a bad reincarnated state based on their aggregated good or bad karma–but this is not the Christian doctrine of punishment. I also deny the gruesome literal pictures of hell pushed on people in conservative Protestant and in some Roman Catholic Churches and schools in the past. The notion of a person suffering in a literal fire for eternity does count against the goodness of God. But C. S. Lewis‘ notion that hell is people who choose against God and refuse to come to God because they desire to do their own will rather than God’s. God just lets them be and withdraws His presence. An evil person in hell could theoretically leave at any time, but some people are so desperately wicked that they will tell God to leave them alone rather than live under God’s terms in heaven. But such a life inevitably leads to misery and a personality that gets more fragmented over time. Eventually only shards of a person remain. Living apart from God is the worst punishment of all–and given a twisted enough will this can last forever. Thus, the Christian Church has affirmed the possibility of eternal punishment as well as the possibility that hell may be empty with only Purgatory existing. I hope the latter view is correct; but the former view makes more sense of human freedom and makes more sense of psychopathy and sociopathy. Some individuals are permanently twisted–and if they are such good manipulators, with the help of a manipulative lawyer, that they “beat the system” on earth, they will not be able to beat the justice of God. In the end their existence will be miserable–they will have no one else to manipulate or hurt and will live only with their immense egos eating away at their souls. Finally their egos will eat their identity, never wholly destroying it, but making a person as near to nothingness as possible. Perhaps there will be a kernel of goodness (beyond the metaphysical good of existing) that leads all these individuals to repent and turn away from the self to God. Perhaps John Hick is correct in his universalism. If a bad person is temporarily punished to the point of seeing the error of his ways and repenting, that is a good thing. We don’t know, and hope beyond hope that the worst people will repent while finding comfort that they will receive justice after this life is over, justice that they can only avoid by repentance, faith, and love so that they are open to the grace of God. I trust that God knows better than any of us what is in a person’s heart, and He will ensure that the injustices of this life are remedied in the Eschaton.

Christianity and Other Religions

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Cults and new religious movements in literatur...

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Are people who are not Christians going to hell? Is there truth in non-Christian religions? Can Christians learn something valuable about their own faith from non-Christian religions? These questions concern at least those Christians who are orthodox with a small “o,” those who believe the doctrines of the Incarnation of God in Christ as fully God, fully man, and who believe that his life, death, and resurrection brings hope of eternal life and freedom from sin.

Many Christian Fundamentalists and even some Evangelicals believe that non-Christians are going to hell. Forget euphemisms such as “they are lost;” let this believe stand out in its full starkness. As a child in the Churches of Christ, I attended a “gospel meeting” in which a preacher said if non-Christians are not lost, why send missionaries to convert them. This was sloppy argumentation on his part, and I believe the Fundamentalists to be incorrect.

As an orthodox Christian, I believe that all who go to Heaven do so through Christ, whether they recognize that during this life or not. One can affirm the uniqueness of Christianity and the unique truth of Christianity without damning those who have either not heard about Christianity or do not seriously consider it due to the depth of the faith in which they were reared. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner referred to “anonymous Christians,” good non-Christians whom God would save, would send to Heaven. C. S. Lewis, in the last volume of the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has a follower of the false god Tash, a good man, saved by Aslan the Lion (a Christ figure) because, as Aslan puts it, “You thought you were worshiping Tash while all the time you were worshiping me.”

To the argument that there is no need to send missionaries, my reply is, “Isn’t Christianity good news. Isn’t it a good thing to spread the message of Christ? Maybe that message will turn the lives of people around who would not be open to any grace in their own religion. And if Christianity is ultimate truth, isn’t it a good thing to spread it without presuming that those to whom you’re preaching are going to hell?”

As far as Christians learning from other religions, why not? God can spread His revelation to whom He wills, and other religions may contain partial truths without containing the fullness of Christian faith. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, multis gentilium facta fuit revelatio, “to many nations revelation has been made.” From the Hindus Christians can learn more about the immanence of God (without accepting pantheism). From the Buddhists Christians can learn about letting go of desires that get in the way of God (without accepting the atheism of Theravada Buddhism). From Taoism Christians can enrich their sense of the unity and mystery of God (again without accepting pantheism). From some Native American religions Christians can gain a sense of God’s closeness to the natural world and that His love extends to plants and animals, not just man–and one could go on.

This is not to say that all religions make the same claims, as the philosopher John Hick believes. He thinks that all religions are about calling people to a high moral life–but one does not have to be religious to believe this. Plus, religions make contradictory claims about reality; Sankara’s pantheism is not the same as Christian theism, and atheistic Theravada Buddhism which denies any individual self or soul is the opposite of Christianity on those two points. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said that “If all Jesus said was for us to be nice to each other, why the h… did they crucify him?”

Christianity, I believe is ultimately true–not just true for me, but true for everyone at all times. But as a Christian, I can still learn about my faith from studying other religions–and I can admit that Christ can save whom He wills, including non-Christians of good will and who accept God’s grace–which may be something that occurs postmortem. Finally, Christians should present the gospel as the good news of what Christ has done for mankind and not just a means for avoiding hell.