Science in Christian Perspective
From: PSCF 39 (September 1987): 150-157.
Why would a God of love create a natural world that contains the appearance of evil and suffering? For several biblical and biological reasons, I conclude that the apparent evil in the natural world cannot be attributed to the Fall of Man. Furthermore, the apparent evil can be considered necessary for the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole only if individuals within species and species within ecosystems work for the common good. However, natural selection, whether viewed as a creative mechanism by evolutionists or a conservative mechanism by creationists, is a thoroughly selfish process. The problem of apparent evil is therefore worsened rather than solved: the unselfish God of love is contradicted by a selfish world of nature.
I propose a metaphorical view of nature as a solution to these difficulties.
From: PSCF 39 (September 1987): 150-157.
Most people may profess a belief in a deity of some sort, and may be willing to listen to arguments about intelligent Design. But when confronted by news or personal experience of evil and suffering in the human world, and when they see apparently similar situations in the natural world, they cannot convince themselves that the deity controlling the universe is the Christian God of Love. David Hume1, John Stuart Mill2, Charles Darwin3, and Mark Twain4 are four influential examples. It is one thing to admit that the "Heavens proclaim God's glory" (Psalm 19:1) and "His eternal power and deity" (Romans 1:20), to admit that the constancy of natural law reflects His providential reliability, and that the complexity of the natural world proves His intelligence; it is quite another to demonstrate that the natural world reflects the existence of a loving God.Many of the evils befalling humankind can be attributed to human sin. Animals and plants cannot sin, however. Therefore I want to clearly state that throughout this article I am referring to the appearance of evil, rather than actual evil, in the natural world. To insist that God did not create actual evil does not help us very much, however, since it is the appearance of evil that bothers us. Presumably the Creator wanted to express His personality in the creation in part so that we, the rational of His creatures, could learn about Him. Why, then, would a God of love create a natural world that contains the appearance of evil and suffering, contradicting His own character?
Two major categories of Christian response have
been made to this problem. I am not convinced that
either of them is adequate. The major purpose of the present article
is to carefully and respectfully demonstrate the inadequacies.
The Human Fall
The first category of responses maintains that the natural world was originally created good, then became bad-truly bad, not just possessing the appearance of evil.5 In particular, most proponents of this view claim that not only violence, but death of any kind, even of animals, was not part of the world as originally created.6 God therefore expressed His loving-kindness in a world of nature that no longer exists. In order to posit such a theory, the Christian is obligated to find some biblical reference to God making changes in the natural world, and some plausible motivation for God to do such a thing.7 The latter is provided by the Human Fall, and the former by the "curse" of Genesis 3 pursuant to that Fall. The inadequacy of explaining all apparent evil in the natural world by attributing it to the Curse is twofold: first, this approach has an inadequate biblical basis; second, it has severe biological difficulties.
1. The Biblical Basis.
First, the Genesis 3 passage is very specific with regard to what is included in the Curse: the snake and its enmity with humans; pain in childbirth; agricultural toil, with weeds as part of the outcome. As we read these verses, it is difficult to see how they could be interpreted to refer to all apparent evil in the natural world. Some interpreters say "the ground," and therefore the whole earth, was cursed at that time. This interpretation is out of context; "the ground" described in this passage is that which is tilled, agricultural soil. To attribute all the apparent evil of nature (or as some young-earth creationists claim', the very alteration of physical laws) to this passage is highly figurative and should be admitted as such.
Second, there is no clear biblical basis for asserting that the death of animals is necessarily evil and therefore could not have occurred prior to the Fall of Man. There are biblical passages that will permit this interpretation, but they do not require it. The Bible teaches that "death" entered "the world" through Adam's Fall. "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin ... many died through one man's trespass ... because of one man's trespass, death reigned. . . " (Romans 5:12, 15, 17). " , . . by a man came death.... As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:21-22). It is clear that our spiritual death-results from our sin, and it is possible that human physical death is also "the wages of sin" (Romans 6:23). The context of these passages is human sin and death. Sin presupposes the knowledge of right and wrong (James 4:17), therefore animals cannot sin. Humans sin, and die; animals do not sin, yet die.
The Bible uses the words we translate as "death" and "die" in more than one way. Adam lived 900 years after the Fall, even though God said, "In the day you eat of [this fruit] you will surely die." "Death" here refers either to spiritual death or the beginning of a gradual physical decline, or both. "I die daily," said Paul in I Corinthians 15:31, and "For you have died," in Colossians 3:3. These verses use the same apothenesko as does I Corinthians 15:22. "We have passed from death into life" (I John 3:14) uses the same thanatos as does I Corinthians 15:21. The use of these words in more than one way demonstrates that the writers did not intend for them to be received literally.
The word we translate as "world" can also be used in more than one way, Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that his dominion "reaches to the ends of the earth" (Daniel 4:22). Both of them knew that this was not literally true. "World" can refer to something more limited than the planet Earth. Thus "death" entering the "world" can refer to spiritual death entering into just the human realm.
Stanley Rice recently completed a Ph.D. in plant ecology at the University Of Illinois at Urbana. He studied plant responses to variability in light conditions in fields, prairies, and forests. He taught introductory botany at the University. His undergraduate degree, in environmental biology, was from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has been an NSF Graduate Fellow and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He currently teaches biology at The King's College in Briarcliff Manor, NY and does joint research with a faculty member of Harvard University.
Romans 8:19-23 indicates that "the whole creation" is under a "bondage to decay" and is "groaning in travail." Paul's choice of wording ("groan" and "travail") was deliberately metaphorical. Moreover, if God has really placed the natural world under a bondage, it is one that was placed upon it "in hope" (v. 20). Therefore, it is not necessarily a product of the Curse.
Finally, proponents of "the curse" explanation of apparent evil in nature often cite eschatological passages as descriptions of the pre-Fall world. Two famous biblical passages refer to the wolf lying down with the lamb. One of these (Isaiah 11) is associated with "a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse" (v. 1). In the other (Isaiah 65), conditions on "God's Holy Mountain" (v. 25) are explicitly associated with "new heavens and a new earth" (v. 17). No scripture plainly teaches that the pre-Fall world had to resemble the post-Resurrection world.
Conditions, we are told, were idyllic for Adam and Eve inside the Garden. Are we therefore to assume that conditions outside the Garden were likewise idyllic?
The inadequacy of explaining all apparent evil in the natural world by attributing it to the Curse is twofold: first, this approach has an inadequate biblical basis; second, it has severe biological difficulties.
The Bible says that God planted the Garden; it would
not have been there had He not planted it; therefore the
world surrounding the Garden was not idyllic in the
way the Garden was. And Adam and Eve were banished from this Garden after the Fall.
2. Biological Difficulties.
First, the plants and animals in Genesis 1 were commanded to multiply. They were not commanded to stop reproducing. In a world with limited resources (the "finished creation" of Genesis 2:1) reproduction can only be balanced by death. Further, all animals and plants have the capacity to reproduce more than is necessary to just replace themselves. There are many examples of reproductive potential. Overpopulation of deer resulted from hunting of predatory pumas on the Kaibab Plateau of Arizona, and overpopulation of moose occurred on Isle Royale in Lake Superior prior to the migration of wolves. Overpopulation of a species can result in a severe depletion of food resources for that species, and disturbance which can harm many other species.9
Whole classes of animals are morphologically and physiologically committed to parasitism. One such is the Cestoda (tapeworm) class of the phylum Platyhelminthes. The adaptation of Dibothriocephalus latus, the broad fish tapeworm, to its series of hosts is breathtaking. When it enters the stomach of its carnivore host. it is exposed to very acidic conditions and powerful digestive enzymes. In the intestine of many carnivoress it is bathed in nutrition, but is exposed to very low oxygen levels and very alkaline conditions. Nevertheless it thrives, and can be thirty feet long, with 4000 body segments. With shameless reproductive efficiency, each mature segment contains male and female organs and produces eggs. The eggs, voided with the feces into. water, hatch into "coracidia" that swim freely. They are ingested by tiny aquatic copepods, and inside their body cavities develop into larvae known as 11 procereoids. " When a fish eats a copepod, the procereoid develops into another kind of larva, a "plerocercoid," which lives not in the fish body cavity, but in the muscles-which are in turn consumed by carnivores, thus completing the cycle. The parasite has gone through f ive very different developmental stages and lived in as many contrasting environments!10
Some writers, such as Wenham", claim that such examples of apparent evil in nature are rare, and are mostly associated with human disturbance. However, the information presented above indicates that predation and parasitism, astounding in both their diversity and complexity, are at least as intricately designed as anything else in the natural world. If an intelligent Designer created the world, He had to have put the parasites into it. If He put all predators and parasites into the world at the time of the Fall, the biological world had to be almost completely redesigned. Where is the biblical account of such extensive alteration?
Finally, the approach in which death and decay in nature are attributed to the Fall is inextricably wedded to the young-earth creationist position. The fossil record contains evidence of predation and death throughout. Only a universal Deluge or set of catastrophes on a relatively young earth could produce a post-Curse fossil record. Anyone who makes the origin of death coincident with the Fall must be prepared to accept the young-earth position and deal with the evidence against it, which is extensively documented by both Christians and non-Christians.12
In a world with limited resources (the "finished creation" of Genesis 2:1) reproduction can only be balanced by death.
For the biblical and biological reasons above, we
cannot attribute all apparent evil in the biological
world to the Fall of Man.
For the Good of the Ecosystem
The second category of responses maintains that those occurrences that appear evil to us are necessary for the functioning of the world ecosystem as a whole.
Egerton 13 and Birch and Cobb14 have reviewed this category of responses, calling it the "balance of nature" approach, and they associated it with the pre-Darwinian special creation viewpoint. Perhaps the most ancient proponent was Herodotus, who explained that animal populations remained in balance because big animals and predators reproduced less than small animals and prey. Their patterns of reproduction, and their deaths, were therefore part of a benevolently designed world. Empedocles, Democritus, Lucretius, and Cicero presented similar explanations.15 The explanation used by Plotinus inspired Augustine's defense of the goodness of God despite the appearance of evil in Nature.16 Much later, in the 17th through early 19th centuries, Sir Thomas Browne, John Graunt, Sir Matthew Hale, John Ray, William Derham, Alexander Pope, Carolus Linnaeus, and William Paley explained that species were perfectly designed for their environments, and that this perfect design included their interactions such as predation.17 It is well known that the emergence of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection provided a challenge to traditional creationism. But if the "balance of nature" concept was essential to the creationist view, then the discovery of extinctions, and Malthus' study of populations, also constituted serious challenges. The realization that the " natural economy" was not in balance, with all parts working for the common good, played a major role in turning both Wallace and Darwin away from creationism.
However, some evolutionists have held a similar view, only they think that it is evolution rather than God that produces individuals "for the good of the species" and species "for the good of the ecosystem." Organisms reproduce in order to insure the continuation of the species, and natural selection gets rid of those individuals that do not contribute to the progress of the species. The ecosystem needs predators to control prey populations, and needs decomposers to recycle nutrients, so evolution produces them. The most successful species are those that contribute best to the ecosystem.
This view is implicit in evolutionary philosophies that make the assumption that evolution is always a progression upward. Such philosophies, set forth by Herbert Spencer, Chauncey Wright, Charles Pierce, Henri Bergson, Josiah Royce, and Errol Harris, have been summarized by Collins.18 Several evolutionists have made specific reference to evolution as a process leading to "higher and richer modes of fellowship," and other similar ideas.19 As recently as 1960, an ecologist wrote about natural selection occurring on the ecosystem level.20 This idea underlies the popular writings of Lewis Thomas21 and John Lovelock.22
Ecologists have now gathered enough information to dismiss the concepts of "individuals working for the good of the species" and "species working for the good of the ecosystem" (whether from a creationist or an evolutionist perspective) as general descriptions of ecological interactions. The shortcomings of this approach can be described in ecological terms without reference to evolution. An ecosystem whose components worked "for the common good" would be inherently unstable; ecological interactions are "selfish." Such value terms do not imply that organisms have selfish motivations, but rather that organisms behave unwittingly to defend their own interests and thus will prevail in ecological interactions.
The selfish individualistic understanding of eco logical interactions has to a certain extent poisoned our ability to see an unselfish, even self -sacrificing, God expressing His personality within nature. Because evolution requires competition among organisms, Van Dyke' concludes that theistic evolution "cannot continue to be viewed by religious intellectuals as a Christian panacea to the origins debate." He is correct. But some creationist positions have a similar shortcoming.
The realization that the "natural economy" was not in balance, with all parts working for the common good, played a major role in turning both Wallace and Darwin away from creationism.
1. One of the first examples that comes to mind of species appearing to work for one another's benefit is of flowers and pollinators. In many plant species, crosspollination is necessary for reproduction. Pollinators, such as bees, carry pollen from one plant to another, and the flowers reward them with nectar. In an ecosystem designed by a Creator or produced by evolution for maximum efficiency, the most successful bees would be those most effectively carrying pollen, and the most successful flowers would be those most effectively rewarding the bees. However, both the carrying of pollen and the production of nectar are processes that divert time and energy away from the important task of reproduction. If a bee can obtain nectar without carrying pollen, it will be able to devote more resources to reproduction. If a flower can attract bees without producing nectar, it can devote more resources to reproduction. The selfish bees will out-reproduce the unselfish ones, and the selfish flowers will outreproduce the unselfish ones. This is the process of natural selection, which evolutionists consider to be the mechanism of evolution and which creationists consider to be a process that conserves and maintains the designs of the Creator. It is a process that consistently rewards the most efficiently selfish individuals within species, those that most efficiently contribute to the survival of their own offspring and the offspring of those other individuals most closely related to them.
2. Ecological interactions involving beautiful flowers, singing birds, graceful trees, and the care of animal parents for their offspring superficially declare the unselfishness and love of the Creator, but on closer examination they prove to be illustrations of selfisliness, in absolute contrast to the Christian understanding of God. I will examine each of these examples.a. Beautiful flowers. I described above the manner in which natural selection would lead to animals, obtaining nectar without carrying pollen, and to flowers attracting pollinators without rewarding them with nectar. There are many such interactions.
There are "nectar thieves" and "nectar robbers.24 In some cases, insects and birds are able to hover in front of a flower and take nectar from it without touching the 21 pollen-laden stamens.26 In other cases, robbers will chew holes and enter the flower from behind, avoiding the stamen, or will drink nectar from holes left by other robbers. Such "floral larceny," as ecologists refer to it, can be even more common than true pollination. In one habitat, robbers27 accounted for more than half of the nectar usage, and the experimental exclusion of robbers (allowing only the true pollinators to have access to the flowers) caused a four- to twelve- fold increase in seed production.28 There are also flowers that attract pollinators but do not reward them. Several species of orchids, themselves nectarless, resemble other species of flowers that grow in the same vicinity and possess nectar. The pollinators cannot distinguish between the flowers that have nectar and those that do not, and the nectarless orchids therefore benefit from the nectar expenditure made by other specie29. There are other orchids that produce fake stamens. Pollinators that habitually consume pollen are attracted, only to discover too late, that there is little or no pollen.30 Both of these kinds of "mimicry" are also found in the same species, in which some individuals take advantage of others. In one species, it is the male, not the female flowers that produce nectar3l, and in another species the female flowers produce fake stamens.32
Some plants go much further in the extent to which they take advantage of their pollinators. Tropical orchids of the genus Ophrys attract male wasps of a certain species by looking and smelling like female wasps33; another species of orchid elicits attack from male bees34 and one species of pitcher-plant attracts pollinators, then eats them.35
In each case above, some individual plants benefit while other plants (of the same or different species) experience a net loss. Such arrangements clearly do not promote the maximum efficiency of operation of the ecosystem. Their evolutionary origin, and their persistence (even if they were specially created), require an individualistic, "selfish" explanation.
b. Singing birds. Birdsong delights us, but its primary function appears to be in settling territorial disputes among birds rather than in expressing avian joy. At first, this territorialism might appear to be unselfish, because the whole population of birds can more efficiently gather food for their young if the habitat is divided into territories. The parents do not have to travel as far to find food, and therefore not only waste less energy, but have more time at home to protect the nest from predators. Paley would have been delighted, and would certainly have cited this as evidence of divine benevolence. It very much resembles the orderliness of decent human societies. Bird territorialism, however, arises from "selfish" competition. A male bird that can claim for itself the best and largest territory can attract not just one but two or more females. A male bird that practices polygamy will leave more offspring than one that constrains its appetites. In most bird populations, a few males have many mates and most have none.36
c. Graceful trees. Trees fill whole landscapes with delight. But from the functional viewpoint of photosynthesis in the ecosystem, trees are unnecessary. In order for plants to fulfill what Paley might have called their offices in nature, plants need to store sunlight energy in the chemical form of sugar. The plants themselves, and the animals that eat them, use this sugar as a source of energy and raw material. Since the sun is 93 million miles away, tree leaves are not significantly closer to the sun, and are no more efficient at using the sunlight than are little plants close to the ground. Indeed, they are less efficient. The moisture and nutrients required by the leaves must be transported from the ground to the leaves of lofty tree branches in an intricate plumbing system, and another system is required for transporting sugars down to the roots. Mosses grow very near the ground, and do not have or need such plumbing systems, nor do they have or need extensive root systems. The trunk and branches of trees must not only have plumbing, but plumbing with thick walls to support the enormous weight of twigs and leaves, All this enormous expense is unnecessary for the photosynthetic process. Why aren't all plants like mosses?
A plant with its leaves held aloft can obtain more sunlight not by being closer to the sun but by being above its neighbors with whom it would otherwise have to share the light. For this reason, plants that are capable of growing tallest under a given set of resource limitations can intercept the most sunlight energy. In dense herbaceous populations, it is very common to find a large number of small plants suppressed by a few large ones, the few large ones accounting for almost all of the reproduction within the population.37 Garret Hardin 38 therefore considers every plant larger than green scum to be a monument to waste. I prefer to phrase it differently: they are examples of efficient selfishness. Their tall growth is wasteful from the ecosystem viewpoint, but strongly beneficial on the individual level.
Monsi et al.39 calculated that the total amount of photosynthesis in a whole field of plants would be maximized if the leaves of the plants were vertical. In most fields of plants in nature, and in most tree canopies, most of the leaves are horizontal, not vertical. Why do leaves tend to be arranged in a fashion that is less efficient for the species, or the whole community of species? Because an individual plant can maximize its own photosynthesis by having horizontal leaves, if it is fortunate enough to be the tallest plant. Its horizontal leaves will shade its neighbors, but its own reproduction is not harmed by the bad luck of the other plants. Once again, individuals maximize their own growth, at the expense of the ecosystem as a whole.
An ecological or evolutionary system of ethics would identify selfishness, whether it leads to cruelty or to cooperation, as the fundamental good. Christians reject this approach, because we believe that God is like Jesus, an unselfish, humble servant.
d. The care of parents for their offspring. The care that animals lavish upon their offspring is sometimes interpreted as reflecting the desire to "keep the species going." Yet it is just another aspect of animals working to increase their own reproductive output at the expense of the community as a whole. If parental care is motivated by selfishness, we would expect parental violence rather than parental love whenever the parents' own reproduction might be jeopardized by offspring of other individuals within the species. Such violence is in fact observed. In polygamous animal species, the few dominant males inseminate many females. if the female is already pregnant with another male's offspring, the dominant male would gain nothing in allowing this female to reside in his defended territory or benefit from his resources. In order to make females immediately available for insemination, male baboons have been observed to induce abortion in females.' If female lions have a living cub, the newlyarrived male frequently kills the cub." Offspring, therefore, do not have value of their own apart from passing on the parents' genes to future generations, despite the fact that these offspring may be perfectly suitable for carrying on the species and fulfilling their role in the ecosystem! In some species, such as spiders and mantids, the males, if they do not contribute to defense or resource acquisition for the offspring, are useless once they have fertilized a female-useless except as food to the female. The male's contribution to reproduction is not any the less for his death-indeed, he may thereby help as his offspring's nourishment!
As mentioned above, almost all organisms possess the
ability to reproduce more than is necessary to replace
themselves. This can have two explanations. William
Paley attributed this "superfecundity" to the necessity
of species to "fill the void" which disaster or human
activity has created, so that it will not remain empty.
This is a "good-of-the-ecosystem" explanation. The
more widely-accepted explanation is an individualistic
one: an individual's reproductive success is not dependent upon the extent to which it helps regulate the
population level of the species, but on the success with
which its own offspring are represented in the next
generation. An individual can thus be more successful
by producing more offspring (even if this contributes to
overpopulation) than its less fecund neighbor. This
explanation has been invoked to explain the tragic
paradox of large human families in famine situations.
A Basic Biological Process
The "selfishness" that characterizes ecological interactions is not, of course, the product of evil intentions on the part of the organisms. It arises automatically from the ability of DNA to replicate itself. The origin of viruses provides an excellent illustration of this point.
Viruses consist of protein-coated strands of DNA or
RNA, but cannot replicate themselves.42 DNA is the
nucleic acid which stores genetic information inside of
cells. RNA is a related nucleic acid. The host cell in
which the virus resides does not recognize the virus as
foreign, and replicates the viruses as it would its own
DNA. In several cases, portions of viral DNA or RNA,
including the "oncogenes" that allow some viruses to
cause cancer43 are found to have structures very similar to portions of the DNA of higher plants and animals. Such evidence indicates that viruses most likely arose as escaped bits of DNA from the cells of the organisms
that they now infect.44 They are, therefore, diseases from within the higher animals and plants. Escaped bits of DNA, whose job it was to replicate, continued replicating even after the cells of the host lost control over them. Therefore a truly unselfish world could not evolve into existence, and even if created unselfish it could not persist as such.
A Metaphorical Approach
We conclude, therefore, that if God created the natural world, and in particular if He allowed evolution to play a role in its production, partly in order to exhibit to us a literal reflection of His character, we would have to conclude that God places highest priority on efficient selfishness. This is what the theology textbook of nature teaches us about God. An ecological or evolutionary system of ethics would identify selfishness, whether it leads to cruelty or to cooperation, as the fundamental good. Christians reject this approach, because we believe that God is like Jesus, an unselfish, humble servant.
Since nature, when read as a theology textbook, gives us an impression of God's character that openly contradicts the character of Jesus, then we must not use nature as such a textbook. It is Jesus, not nature, that teaches us about God (Hebrews 1:2, John 14:7). Jesus must be our primary, and nature our secondary, source of information about the character of God. Yet, if we cannot trust what nature teaches us about God, we are left with the feeling that nature's whole raison d'etre has been blighted. We have encountered a contradiction which we must resolve; yet the two major Christian responses to this contradiction have failed to resolve it.
The Bible presents no literal theology of nature. Aside from the passages quoted above that indicate that nature gives clear evidence of God's existence, the Bible has no coherent theory of "how to see God in nature." This is the reason that the two approaches I discussed above have had to rely heavily on just a few passages of scripture.
Instead of presenting a theology of nature, the Bible treats nature as a storybook. The prophetic imagery of the Old Testament is replete with allusions to nature. Both Old and New Testaments contain nature parables. In each case, a predetermined story is read into the natural phenomena. The phenomena themselves do not literally teach the principles they are made to illustrate. The biblical approach to nature is therefore overwhelmingly metaphorical.
We can obtain factual information about nature
through the scientific method. But human observers
feel irresistably drawn to impose metaphorical interpretations upon nature. The very use of the word
selfish" is metaphorical. If we Christians try to obtain
theological information from nature, we should learn
about God from Jesus then impose the resulting ideas
on the natural world. This is admittedly an unscientific
procedure. This procedure is metaphorical because it
causes us to seek illustrations of Christian themes which
are not literally connected with either the origin or the
operation of the natural systems so studied. If we
employ this procedure, it does not matter whether we
can demonstrate that nature has a Designer or whether
evolutionary theory is correct or not. In the storybook
of nature, the conflict between design and evolution is
The apparent contradiction between a good God and evil" in nature also vanishes. For if nature is His great work of fiction, He need not approve of all the activities of the participants in the story any more than a novelist need approve of all the actions of his characters.
In using parables, Jesus was inviting His listeners to apply their own knowledge from everyday life-knowledge of mustard seeds and salt and fig trees-to understanding the kingdom of God. I believe His invitation was open-ended: to learn more about seeds and sowers was to allow an extension of our knowledge of the Kingdom. Thus as there seems no end to scientific discovery, there may also be no end to the raw material from which Christians can elaborate on Jesus' parables, or invent new ones after His example. I speculate that providing such raw material for metaphors was a major reason that God made the nonhuman universe so big and complex.