The problem of suffering is undoubtedly one of the greatest conundrums faced by Christian theologians through the ages. Some theologians regard human and animal suffering as a consequence of mankind’s disobedience in the garden of Eden. But does any part of the story of ‘the Fall’ imply that there was no suffering prior to that?
Looking back at the curses God uttered, we see no indication that childbirth was supposed to be painless, but only that it will increase.
As Charles Foster notes, it is difficult to believe that an elephant will not accidentally squash some bugs as it trudges along the jungle, even if, as the Creationists believe, all animals were vegetarians pre-Fall. Will creatures not get hurt at all, or will they not feel any pain if a bone broke? Considering the rate at which micro-organisms multiply, it is also hard to imagine how their populations would have been sustainable if there was no death and suffering. This is true for macro-organisms too.
It’s interesting to note that this concept of a catastrophic ‘Fall event’, of original sin and its devastating effects on humankind and creation, was a very foreign concept to both Jews and Christians, until St. Augustine arrived on the scene with his Gnostic-like disdain for sex and the material world in general. No doubt St. Augustine was one of the greatest and most influential theologians in all of church history, but one must remember that his personal struggles with sin (sex in particular) coloured much of his theology. Charles Foster, in his book ‘The Selfless Gene’, notes that the early Jews viewed the disobedience of Adam and Eve as just that; like little children who disobey their parents and then get punished – there was no cataclysmic, world changing event. What followed with Cain and Abel, and the rest of humanity, had more to do with the choices that they (and we made), and nothing to do with any ‘original sin’ passed on from generation to generation.
Now if suffering and pain were part of the evolutionary process, and existed long before humans arrived to eat of the forbidden fruit, it impacts our view of God. Why would God allow this to happen?
Some argue that animals, because they have no soul or self-consciousness, are incapable of suffering, or feel pain the way humans do. So suffering and pain did not appear until human beings developed self-awareness. Science seems to show otherwise, where many animals have been shown to exhibit signs of distress under various conditions, while primates and dolphins may even be self-aware.
Theistic evolutionists like John Polkinghorne say suffering was necessary. If God was to create a world that would make itself, and have the freedom to be itself, God had to limit his own power by emptying himself (kenosis). There was no other way. It was not that God was powerless to stop suffering, only that he chose to limit it. Francis Collins says, that evolution by natural selection was probably the only way God could have created all living things, in a way that was stable and did not require constant intervention. Some mutations may be good for survival, but most mutations will be detrimental or even lead to cancer.
While I find kenotic thought very intriguing and helpful (and is the one that I hold onto), it does have its own limitations and problems. For example, is it really true that there was no other way?
Charles Foster proposes, in ‘the Selfless Gene’, that seeds of disobedience were already present in creation long before mankind’s disobedience. It was in the chaos that preceded Creation, an ancient evil, which had yet to be tamed by God. It was the Devil, that injected selfishness and suffering into the evolutionary process, while God countered it by injecting altruism into his creation. Again, I find this idea intriguing, but doesn’t it place too much power into the hands of the evil one? Why didn’t God stop him when he could have?