So, how do people deal with this issue, once they become aware of it? I have found that the responses typically come into several categories.
- 1) ‘Total rewrite’.
- These are typically the more liberal end of the church. They may not even recognize the moral problem here, per se, but they argue that we should totally rewrite Christian doctrine to fit with the ‘facts’ of science, which typically involves removing any doctrine of ‘original sin’ or similar and totally re-working the significance of the cross, sometimes saying it is a transformative moment – but that doesn’t address the issue of the fundamental problem of a God whose nature flips 180 degrees. However, many would reject such approaches (rightly, in my opinion).
- 2) ‘The mystery Fudge’.
- One friend, a lay reader in a nearby Anglican church, and an archaeologist and amateur geologist, took me out into the field to try and persuade me why a young earth position was incompatible with the local rock record (and was surprised by the written reply I gave, including experimental evidence that would explain much that he thought impossible to explain other than by long ages). When, on the trip, I raised this moral issue, he said something like ‘Well, that’s just a mystery we have to live with, isn’t it?’ I can’t remember whether I said to him what I thought, which was ‘That’s a complete cop-out’. This is an issue of fundamental and unavoidable contradiction – it’s not a mystery in the sense of the ‘two natures of Christ’ or the interplay of human free-will and divine predestination, or of how God can be Trinity, all of which, although paradoxical, can have actual answers. It has to do with the deepest moral character of God. I would also (loosely) include in this category approaches such as that of NT Wright in a youtube video answering a similar question, where he partially answers, and then does a kind of sidestep-shuffle around the core of the issue.
- 3) Gap-theory or ‘ruin-reconstruction’ theories.
- These place millions of years between Genesis 1.1 (creation of heavens and earth) and verse 2, which in this view is held to be the start of a re-creation process, the most recent one, after a period of destruction. This approach is not as popular as it used to be, and is mostly held by some religiously conservative people. Typically, it involves a series of creation, which are then destroyed by God, who re-starts, and the record of these periods is found in the rock record (a period of creation of dinosaurs who are then destroyed, etc). Apart from logical problems (eg, recognizable bird species in the ‘dinosaur’ rocks), this isn’t really compatible with theistic evolution, for sure (a continuous and unimpeded process). More to the point, it still leaves the question of why God would create in such a ruinous way. Some versions have the ‘ruin’ as God’s judgement because of ‘violence’ in the natural world, but that still leaves the question wide-open – why judge creatures for operating in the way that God created them to be. A few versions speculate that there were sentient beings equivalent to humans in each ‘age’ who are the reasons for judgement, but that seems rather like an ad-hoc justification to try and rescue the theory, and how can God justifiable judge a creation for violence if he has created in a way that involves violence?
- 4) ‘Divine Constraint’ theories.
- These are views that typically say that having created matter to operate according to its own rules, God was somehow constrained to allow it to develop in a particular way, somewhat parallel to the way that God has given human beings free will and the ability to act against God’s own commands. Aside from there being a huge difference between inanimate matter and the exercise of human free will, there is a far deeper problem here. If God is the truly Sovereign Creator then he has the power to create matter in such a way that it does not require violation of his own character. If God is constrained by something to act in a way that is against his nature or first choice, then that something else has at least equal power to God, and therefore is also a deity of some sort. In other words, logically, we must abandon monotheism and thus violate the ‘Shema’, the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith. This takes us straight back to the point in question – that we must violate God’s ‘oneness’ in a different way if we are to ascribe to him a creation method that involves immense ages of suffering.
- 5) ‘Back-flip links’.
- One area of the young earth creationist position that – even by the admission of many (religiously conservative) non-creationists – is especially strong and internally consistent is the way that it maintains a causal link between human sin and dysfunction and suffering in the natural world, which is the basic message of the bible on the issue. The Genesis account explicitly puts humankind in a position of stewardship over life on earth, of sub-rule under God. Because of this, in some way their rebellion affected all of life, in much the same way, for instance, that a parent being put in prison for criminal activity or losing their job for misconduct has a knock on effect on children in their care. Concerning, not fair, but a logical effect due to the interconnectedness and inter-relatedness of life. For this reason, some have tried to keep this link whilst also keeping belief in millions of years. Typically the starting point can be that God is outside of time, and so, fore-knowing human rebellion, the effects of that rebellion are felt back in time for life on earth that is affected millions of years before humans even existed to rebel. Typically, such approaches are certainly ingenious, and I admire the intellectual gymnastics and efforts that go into trying to make them work, but at best they are extremely problematic. For instance, it still doesn’t get round a point that creationists have been making for a long time – that where the bible promises restoration of creation to a former state, as it does in both Old and New Testaments, then if right from the start creation has been marked by suffering and so forth, then is restoration by God to an original state really the huge hope the bible portrays it as. This applies as much to the Old Testament (the lion will lie down with the lamb) as to the New (Romans 8.21: ‘the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’).
But let us put it another way. We find the medieval practice of ‘whipping boys’ morally repugnant. Someone, usually a commoner, would be whipped for the misbehaviour of a prince, who was not to be punished by anyone other than the king, who was often away. (No analogy is perfect, so we leave aside the fact that in that society it was often a desirable position in spite of the pain, because it could give you an unrivalled education you would otherwise not have.) Someone being deliberately and directly punished for another’s wrongdoing just seems wrong (unless it was entirely voluntary, such as Jesus being punished for our sins to redeem us, and even then, many still find it problematic). Even if humanity is a ‘prince’, made in the image of God, it seems especially morally wrong to have a situation of hundreds of millions of years of suffering by a huge number of animals relates back to moral wrongs done in a relative snap of the finger (in the long age scheme, if we just take from the start of amphibious creatures around 370 million years ago, and even if we assume the earliest possible date for ‘human ancestors’ at about 3 million years past – very generous – then we are still talking about a ratio in purely time terms of about 123 to 1, and if as most people taking this position believe that ‘sin’ came much later, say about 1/3 of a million years ago, then it is about 1000 to 1, not even counting the huge numbers of species involved at every time period suffering for the sin of just one future species). We are told that God’s love and redemption was brought about by engineering the suffering and death of just one for many billions of souls, so how is that compatible with creating by a process that involves the sufferings of countless trillions of creatures for the sin of a relative few billions. God may be outside of time, but we creatures aren’t, and surely a God of love and mercy would not set things up in such a way that a link between cause and effect only applies to him, and not to the creatures he cares for, but involves them in endless suffering?
I have worked in human rights, and in places like Pakistan, Christian families are placed in bondage generation after generation because of the dead of an ancestor, a father or grandfather long before. We regard this, rightly, as an affront to human rights, and deplore it because people are forced against their will to live such a life. It is indeed antithetical to the teaching of both the Old Testament, which only allowed perpetual bondage within God’s community if it was voluntary, and the teaching of Jesus. Passages like Romans 8 talk of creation being in bondage, but looking forward to future freedom from death and decay. However, if death and decay is bondage, then that means that millions of years and generations of animals have been bonded slaves due to the debt incurred by a species that will only come into being millions of years later, which is at least as deplorable. It also cuts across the pattern displayed in the bible, where even the hostile high priest at Jesus’ time stated the principle that ‘It is better for one man to die, than the whole nation perish’. We also find in Romans 5 a sustained contrast between how specifically Adam’s sin led to death for many people, since all sinned, but that God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ leads many to life. Specifically Romans 5.16 says this:
Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
In other words, in God’s way of doing things, one act of grace in Jesus covered over the many sins that came before. Earlier in the passage, Paul notes that God didn’t count some sins as sin (v13), consistent with what he said everywhere about God overlooking sins committed by Gentiles in ignorance (Acts 17.30). The point here for our purposes is that God is portrayed as – yes allowing consequences of sin to go on – but also overlooking things, so that God’s mercy overrides – one act of grace comes after many sins. This is the opposite pattern to that required by the kind of position described here – where the one act of human sin is anticipated by a punishment inflicted on a great many beforehand.
- 6) ‘Pain Denial’
- I haven’t really seen this as a stand alone, but sometimes people will try and minimize or relativise the animal pain and suffering involved. This leads us on to:
- 7) ‘Pot-pourri’ positions
- These try and mix a number of the above positions in such a way as to try and minimize the problems associated with each. I don’t have space to engage with them here, but suggest that they only combine the problems inherent in each position, not reduce them.