Recently the American Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, led with an Article
Why does creation groan?
The author John Schneider was a professor at Calvin College in the USA but left because of his views of Adam and Eve. They are close to mine.
Over recent years John has aplied his mind to a vital, and often ignored, issue about living things. Why if God is so good is there animal suffering? On this he published a book Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil, (Cambridge University Press (26 Mar. 2020)
It deals with the nasty aspects of life not found in the hymn All things bright and beautiful as this cartoon shows!
I am sure if John or I made up an additional verse it would cause more upset than the one about “the rich man in his castle”!!
The question partly comes about due to the discoveries of science about the history of life in the last 350 years, as from 1660 to 1800 it became apparent from geological studies that the earth was ancient and many millions of years old. Before 1800 it was known that life also went back millions of years old but in the 1790s the fact of extinction became evident – that is some living forms existed millions of years ago but not today. Dinosaurs are the most well-known example. However the problem of suffering is still a serious problem for those who think the earth is only a few thousand years old – as it is for everyone.
John gives the example of predation and disease in Creataceous creatures of 100 million years ago, to which we can add 500 million year old trilobite fossils have been found with teeth marks from a predator. One life form usually feeds off another, though not all are as blatant as Darwin’s wasps – the ichneumon flies..
And so Tennyson gave us the expression”nature red in tooth and claw” but contrary to popular (and scholarly opinion) he was considering the works of William Buckland, the geologist, and not Charles Darwin. Yes, animals seem to spend their lives tearing each other to bits or being torn to bits. That’s when they are not having sex!
That creates a moral question and if God is the creator of all life (whether by fizz-bang creation or through a slow oozing evolution) there is a question about his moral rectitude for creating such a bloody universe. John is forcing the question of whether a God, supposed or otherwise, who created with such suffering among creatures can be considered to have any goodness. Many ask that question when suffering hits them, either for themselves or a loved one.
Some would say his ideas are flawed because he accepts the fact that the earth is ancient and that living forms have been living and dying on this planet for a few billion years. Neither he nor anyone else can do any other because, despite the nay-saying of Creationists, the earth IS ancient. Even so, to claim that God put a Curse of suffering on all life because of Adam’s sin raises moral questions about the goodness of god.
All this raises the classic questions of theodicy, the goodness of God and why there is suffering
This question was less challenging in the 17th century when most thought the earth was young and chronologists like Scaliger and Ussher thought that creation occured in about 3000 to 5000 BC and all was created in six 24 hour days, so death before the Fall was irrelevant, as Adam went scrumping a matter of hours after they were created. This is the “Traditional View” but I must give a caveat. A good number of scholars were more flexible, some allowing more time for Creation by God first creating “chaos” and then later re-ordering it some time later. This was common among many savants at the end of the 17th century: Thomas Burnett is just one example.
However the “trad view” was immortalised by John Milton and Paradise Lost became the default view of many in succeeding years. The opening words of Paradise Lost show how Adam’s sin caused suffering.
“Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden fruit, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe“.
Beast now with beast gan war, and fowl with fowl,
And fish with fish; to graze the herb all leaving,
Devoured each other. P.Lost X 710-12
This moulded the ideas of many, scholarly and non-scholarly for several centuries, so Bishop Colenso could say in 1863 “We groan under the burden of Milton’s mythology.” That was true then and is still true today.
The “trad” view began to be eroded a few years after Ussher published his Annales with creation is 4004BC, as geologists with their picks and hammers started studying the strata. This began in the 1660s with Nils Steno, titular bishop of Titopolis and then many others in the next centuries. By 1800 there was no doubt that the earth was ancient and most educated Christians, clergy or not, accepted geology. In the 1780s James Hutton knew that many clergy accepted geological time and that makes an interesting story. That meant that they implicitly accepted that there had been death, disease and suffering in the animal world long before humans walked this earth. More and more theologians considered the implications of geological time but others e.g. Thomas Scott and Charles Simeon, simply ignored geology! Many others were happy to accept geological time , even “stretching Genesis like an elastic band” but didn’t consider suffering.
One who did was the geologist Rev William Buckland of Oxford who regarded predation as a good thing removing old and decrepit animals quickly. However he did not consider the predation of the young. He addressed the issue more theologically in a sermon given at St Mary’s Church, Oxford in 1839
As Buckland and others were not phased by anmal suffering another geologist was. Or at least he started as a geologist but illness confined him to home so turned to biology. This was the intended Anglican parson Charles Darwin. He was also affected over the death of his father and of his daughter, Annie, at eleven. Charles Darwin was concerned about animal suffering and his concern over the parasitic ichneumon fly is notorious asking how a beneficient God could make such a creature. Ichneumons are now named Darwin’s wasps in honour of him. I think Darwin raised all the issues over suffering and it prevented full-blown theism for him. My own understanding of suffering has benefited from considering his concerns and my conclusion will be where I am now.
So soon after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin laid out the (his) problems of animal suffering in relation to God in a letter to the Christian botanist Asa Gray. However most Christians dealing with theodicy tend to sidestep the issue.
In his book The Problem of Pain C. S. Lewis tries to minimise the pain of animal suffering. Others have gone down the same route, but I wonder if they have witness an animal in pain. These are not only mammals as I found when I found an injured frog shrieking with pain. I cannot buy into this minimising of suffering. However I have to state that Lewis’s book Mere Christianity was instrumental in convincing me of the Christian Faith a few weeks before I obtained a degree in geology.
I find it significant that most leading Christians on science and faith are not geologists or biologists. A physical scientist does not deal with death and suffering in their work; no dead fossils, no earthquakes killing animals and people, no predation etc. Hence suffering is often sidestepped by Christians seeking to present their faith as reasonable for a scientist. One may say there is almost a conspiracy of silence.
One group take suffering head on and they are the Young Earth Creationists. To them creation took place a few thousand years ago and there was no death or suffering until the Fall of Adam and Eve, when God put a Curse on creation introducing death and suffering as a punishment. Its strength is that it seems very reasonable and true to Scripture, but it does make God seem a bit of an ogre and also means that one must reject all of science.
So now we come to John Schneider. No one can accuse him of not taking the issue head on!!!! He notes the ghastly reality of suffering whether for humans or animals. As he rightly wrote the death of an aged dog is awful. Death and suffering in the natural world seems so wrong. For us it is more so. Without saying so he dismisses the Creationist explanation, which is interesting in an evangelical publication. He totally accepts the scientific picture of an ancient earth with evolving life from soon afterwards. Not that any other position makes any sense. And, of course, he is a Christian and is trying to understand all suffering in the light of Jesus Christ. On this we are totally at one and where we disagree it may be that we both are like blindfolded people trying to cross a mine field.
His Christianity Today article Why does Creation groan? raises many questions and, hopefully, will result in constructive discussion.
I want to consider three points;
- The idea of the Creator as a cosmic artist
- his use of Romans 9 and the potter
- the groaning of creation in Romans 8
Two biblical sources can help to resolve apparent conflict between the Christian story of redemption and the story of species. First, the apostle Paul’s famous discourse on divine election in Romans 9–11 is unexpectedly useful. Interpreters rarely notice that the discussion on election follows immediately after Paul’s imagery of the whole creation “groaning” in labor pains, longing to be rescued from evil (8:18–23). Surely violent predation, disorder, and death among animals are part of the picture Paul has in mind.
To justify God’s action morally, Paul adopts an aesthetic explanation. He presents God first as an artisan, a potter, fashioning an unusual vessel (9:21–23), and then as an arborist, who is pruning and grafting together a tree that will be greater in glory than any tree has ever been (11:11–24).
Paul implies that this strange messianic artistry reaches all the way back to God’s seemingly arbitrary election of Jacob and rejection of his older brother, Esau (9:6–13). The morally enigmatic style, then, according to Paul, is nothing new.
Paul explains further, however, that Israel’s “hardening” is temporary. After the Gentiles have been grafted onto the “tree” that God is cultivating, God will restore the original “root,” the Jews. Paul concludes this very long discourse with this rousing resolution: “God has imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone” (11:32, NLT). In that way, to paraphrase Chisholm, the evils of divine election are gloriously defeated for all concerned.
This is a stunning statement. It seems that Paul envisioned the entire history of creation and redemption as a work of art, in which God has deliberately included evils in order to defeat them by means of mercy that unifies and vindicates the finished messianic whole.
Further, it is a short step back to Paul’s earlier vision of the whole creation “groaning” in great pain, not hopelessly, but in the forward-looking way of a woman giving birth (Rom. 8:22). In this vision of the future for nature—and for animals—the evil is not just ended or outweighed by the outcome but is defeated in universal, cosmic fashion. In both outcomes together—redemption of the human and nonhuman realms—the great goodness of the outcome could not be as good, true, and beautiful as it is going to be without defeat of the apparent evils involved in its creation.
Before relating this point more directly to Christianity and Darwinism, let us consider a second canonical source of support for this distinctly Jewish and Christian aesthetic approach to evils.
So to consider John’s points;
- The Cosmic Artist. In many ways this is a lovely antropomorphic picture and so much better than mechanistic creation beloved by Deists in the 18th century, whereby god sort of fiddled around with details like a mechanic rather than giving a broad brush approach which a Cosmic Artist does. But I am one who does not find visual ideas like that very helpful. For me I can see the wonder of creation but the creator seems to be hiding out of sight. But his results are fantastic – however He did it! Here are some sundew and Snowdon in the early morning.
- The potter in Romans 9. I find this the most inscrutable part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I probably see Paul’s picture of the potter as saying that there are many things we don’t understand and just have to accept them, just as a rejected pot might want to moan at the potter! John’s argument that “God has deliberately included evils in order to defeat them by means of mercy that unifies and vindicates the finished messianic whole.” goes beyond what Paul is saying in Romans 9 vs 19ff, and I don’t think that it is a valid interpretation. Here John is being too fanciful and although it has an appeal to feelings I cannot accept it.
- Romans 8 and the Groaning of Creation. During this century this has become a popular interpretation of Romans 8 vs 19- 22 and is commonly used in eco-theology in all its forms. I have just discovered that a similar view was put forward by G D Yarnold, a priest-physicist in his book The moving Image (1965). Yarnold happens to be my uncle and studied physics alongside my mother in 1930. But I remember him telling me there was no need to learn Greek to be a vicar, but I ignored him!
Its appeal lies in the awareness of all the environmental degradation around us, from pollute air and water, loss of biodiversity, increased emissions. as we think of the extinction of soecies, grossly polluted rivers, choking smogs and lots of other nasties, it is a good anthropomorphism to say Creation is groaning. Further many do not see the seriousness of any aspect of environmental degradation, which is seen both in individual and corporate actions.
We should note this quotation from Aldo Leopold, the great environmentalist from Wisconsin. (if you haven’t read his a Sand County Almanac, then you must.) If you are not sure, just consider what replacing all your garden/yard with plastic grass and hard surfaces does to wildlife.
There is a major problem with this interpretation as, though “creation groaning” has a good feel about environmental degradation, it is rather forcing the words to say something Paul never said or meant. I am quite sure Paul never thought of environmental problems beyond stinking sewers in Rome. As well as that, we may sense that creation is groaning around us. I “groan” when I see another front garden/yard laid down to plastic grass or gravel when there were lawns, flowers shrubs and trees before. Or when road verges are mown removing all the wild flowers. Or when trees are cut down for no good reason. The list is endless. But then I ask, “How is Pluto or Sirius groaning?”
As with any biblical passage we need to ask what the author meant and not just put our own interpretation on it. Another verse which is now used to justify environmental action is John 3 vs 16 “God so loved the world”. From that some argue we too should love the world and care for creation. But, wait a minute! The word “world” – Greek kosmos is used by John in different ways. It CAN mean creation i.e. the created universe, but here and in many other places John does not use it that way, but to signify the human population opposerd to God. That is what we often find in John.
Thus we ought to consider the choice of words in Romans 8 vs 19-23 and what they mean in that context. First we need to asks what the word translated as creation – ktisis – actually means. The almost complete consensus of scholars today is that it means creation, as in the created cosmos, but very few consider that ktisis has multiple meanings. It can mean all creation, a new Christian – new creation ” Cor 5 vs17, humanity as opposed to all creation as in Mark 16 vs15 and Colosians 1 vs23. With reference to Romans 8 Arndt and Gingrich (latest edition F W Danker) in the standard lexicon emphasise “The meaning. of ktisis is in dispute inRo 8:19–22,” having mentioned that in col 1 vs 23 and Mark 16 vs15 ktisis means humankind. The word is used in various ways in both the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers.
Historically, at least since 1650 scholars have been divided over the meaning. However after 1860 most have favoured Creation, and very rarely explain why they chose that option. I don’t have space to give my historical survey. Just a s taster is how Luther and Calvin disagree. Of all the commentaries Luther’s is the most intriguing. He says for vs 19 ktisis is the cosmos, and then for verse 20 ktisis is man in his vanity “Most exegetes take the term “creature” in this passage to mean man, because he has a share in everything created. But it is better to understand man through the word “vanity,” as it says expressly and very rightly in Ps. 39:5: “Surely every man living is altogether vanity.” For it is certainly true that, if man, the old man, were not, there would be no vanity”. Thus instead of the cosmos being subjected to futility, humans are stuck in their “vanity” – see below on matiotes. Luther is not only the most intriguing, but also the most profound. However Calvin on Romans 8 uses ktisis to mean cosmos throughout.
Verse 22 says “all ktisis has been groaning in labor pains” and verse 20 says “the ktisis was subjected to futility, not of its own will but the one (i.e. God) who subjected it..”
Many commentaries which opt for creation rather than humankind see in this a reference to the Fall and the Curse eg Sanday and Headlem’s classic commentary of 1900. (I doubt if these scholars believed in a Historical Fall and almost certainly accepted evolution). And in the more recent one of James Dunn among others. If that is correct then if we follow Paul we must hold that before Adam fell there was no death or suffering among re-human living forms.
N. T. Wright wrote more fully, and rather oddly, in Evil and the Justice of God. P116-7
Creation, writes Paul, has been subjected to futility (Romans 8.20). Don’t we know it: the tree reaches its full fruitfulness and then becomes bleak and bare. Summer reaches its height and at once the days begin to shorten. Human lives, full of promise and beauty, laughter and love, are cut short by illness and death. Creation as we know it bears witness to God’s power and glory (Romans 1:19-20) but also to the present state of futility to which it has been enslaved.
I love the seasons and their changes. These are photos of the Four Seasons taken close to where I live in Lancashire. The mountian for summer and winter is Ingleborough in the Yorkshire Dales. To me this is the joy of the Creator not futility.
Wright uses the word “futility” or in Greek mataiotes as in Rom 8 vs 20. In every other occurence in the New Testament mataiotes and cognates is used to describe the human (fallen) condition as it is in the Greek Septuagint, par excellence in Ecclesiastes but also often in the Psalms and in the fourth commandment. If Wright is right then this is the only example that mataiotes is not used to describe human folly in both the New Testament and the Septuagint.
I question this interpretation of Romans 8 as it makes creation to be rotten to the core. Further what does it mean to say creation is groaning being subjected to futility by God? It may appeal to our feelings and emotions as we consider the destruction of the environment. In Britain I can cite the destruction of raptors on moorland, sewage-filled rivers, the removal of trees in the centre of Plymouth and many other examples. But what is the “groaning of creation” on the planet Neptune or distant stars and galaxies, which humans have never visited?
It may be an appealing interpretation but it is not grounded in good biblical interpretation. Further it is not right to make a “big” theological argument or doctrine from one verse, especially where there are acknowledged questions of meaning.
I admit that most New Testament scholars since about 1850 say (often without presenting any case – for or against) that ktisis throughout Romans 8 vs 18- 23 means the total creation. My own survey on the use of ktisis is that before 1860 a small majority favoured creation as the meaning, but some significant scholars did not starting with John Lightfoot in 1659. Lightfoot thought any idea of creation groaning was meaningless! With his date of Creation of 3929BC he makes Ussher seem like an old earther!
As one considers the New Testament Writings and the Apostolic Fathers one finds that ktisis has various meaning according to the context and can mean either Creation of everything of humanity. Thus Romans 1, it is used of the ACT of creation of the cosmos (vs 19) and the worship of a Creature (vs 25). Mark 16 vs 15 and Col 1 vs 23 ktisis means humanity – unless you preach to bugs and boulders! The use in Col 1 vs 15 could mean either humanity or creation. I am dealing with this in detail for a conference this year so this is a very brief summary. This five year old blog is an earlier attempt, which I have now improved and given a historical background.
John Schneider has given much to ponder and has faced up to the fact of an ancient earth with life, and thus death,disease and suffering, going back billions of years. Very often the issue of suffering is evaded but not by John! He has faced it head on. Any theological view which doesn’t accept suffering for billions of years is simply wrong, wrong, wrong. This cannot be said too strongly.
The challenge is to find a satisfactory explanation. I have never found one which satisfies me and flounder when I attempt to do so.
Ultimately I consider suffering as an unsolvable problem and one we can only feel towards in the light of the cross. Any understanding of suffering must accept that death and suffering have been part of the natural world for billions of years and are thus written into creation.
If, and that is a big if, creation is groaning and in labour pains (and perhaps the tectonically resless earth with all life facing death chimes in with this) (verse 22) then, according to Paul, that is becouse “creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it (verse 20) which if ktisis means the whole of creation points to the change at the Fall. This has the corollary that there was no death before this “subjection” – Fall and thus Young Earth Creationists are correct in their claims.
I freely admit that I cannot explain suffering. I accept it as a fact that suffering has been on this planet at long as life has existed and is written into creation. I feel like Job when God spoke to him out of the whirlwind (Job 38)
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man;
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began
and caused the dawn to know its place,
But we can go further than Job as we see the incarnate Son entered into suffering as I explore in this blog. It is all I have and know it goes beyond any evidence or good argument and can offer no more. As Butterfield famously said
Hold on to Christ and for the rest be uncommitted.
and even better
My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?
Now read this which goes from the ichneumon to the cross.