Satan and the Problem of Animal Suffering (4)

In his book The Problem of Pain, chapter 9, “On Animal Pain”, C.S. tackled this issue and suggested that the Satanic fall may be the best explanation for animal suffering. He wrote that it is “a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene…. If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared.”

More recently, Gregory Boyd has argued for this view in his book Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy. His approach is much different from Lewis’ in so far as it is informed by his open theism, but it still shares the same basic contours. He summarizes this view in this way:

“Of their own free will, Satan and other spiritual beings rebelled against God in the primordial past and now abuse their God-given authority over aspects of the creation. The one who ‘holds the power of death – that is, the devil’ (Heb. 2:14) exercises a pervasive structural, diabolical influence to the point that the entire creation is in ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom. 8:21). If this scenario is correct, then the pain-ridden, bloodthirsty, sinister hostile character of nature makes perfect sense. If not, then despite the valid contributions of a number of thinkers on ‘natural’ evil, the demonic character of nature must remain largely inexplicable” (302).

To the list of proponents of this view can be added the popular philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In his The Nature of Necessity, he writes:

“But another and more traditional line of thought is pursued by St. Augustine, who attributes much of the evil we find to Satan, or to Satan and his cohorts. Satan, so the traditional doctrine goes, is a mighty non-human spirit who, along with many other angels, was created long before God created man. Unlike most of his colleagues, Satan rebelled against God and since has been wreaking whatever havoc he can. The result is natural evil. So the natural evil we find is due to free actions of non-human spirits” (192).

I have not been able to locate what Plantinga is referring to in Augustine, so please let me know if you find it. I have, however, discovered that J.R.R. Tolkien appears to have also held this view about Satan and animal suffering – he and Lewis appear to have discussed it together when Lewis read his The Problem of Pain aloud to the Inklings (see pp. 126-132 of Richard Purtill’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion). It should be noted, too, that sometimes this view is combined with the reconstructionist or gap theory interpretation of Genesis 1:2, “the earth became formless and void,” although this is not necessary to it (none of the above thinkers, for example, go that route).

Evaluation of this view

As I have evaluated this theory, it has seemed to me that although it fits with a lot of the data and explains much of what we do not know, at the end of the day it falls outside the range of what we can know. Here are some of the considerations that converge, however, to make this theory – for me, at least – a compelling possibility:

(1) Satan is portrayed in Scripture now as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11) and the “god of this world” (II Corinthians 4:4). In Ephesians 2:2, “following the course of this world” is parallel to following Satan. And in Matthew 4:8-9, Satan is able to tempt Jesus with the offer of “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” All of this entails a kind ownership and dominion by Satan over this world (though we would also say that God is only true and ultimate King of the world, and that Satan’s ownership has been decisively overturned by the work of Christ).

(2) Satan is portrayed in Scripture as active throughout the entire world and seeking to influence it for ill (Job 2:2, I Peter 5:8), and his presence in the world cannot be restricted to after the human fall, since he is present in the garden with Adam and Even in Genesis 3. All this arouses the question: if Satan and demons were present on earth before humans, what kind of effect did they have on it? What were they doing for all those hundreds of millions of years (or however long was the gap between their fall and the creation of Adam)?

(3) Throughout Scripture, and especially the gospels, demons exert a kind of disabling, disorganizing, and/or disturbing influence on material reality (Luke 13:11, 16, Matthew 9:32-33, 12:22-23, 17:14-20, I Samuel 16:14-15). Its rare to find instances of demon possession in the gospels, for example, without an accompanying physical illness, such that the exorcism by Jesus is part and parcel with the healing. If demons cause sickness and corruption after the human fall, why would it be impossible that they also did so before the human fall?

(4) Jesus refers to the Satanic fall as a real and apparently temporal event in Luke 10:18 (“I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.” Cf. II Peter 2:4, Jude 6). Ezekiel 28:11-19, a passage often interpreted as an indirect reference to Satan’s fall, refers to a mighty cherub being corrupted by pride and thrown down to earth.

(5) Christians have believed for centuries that the human fall caused catastrophic effects upon material creation: it seems reasonable, therefore, that the angelic fall may also have had a kind of spoiling or corrupting effect upon God’s good creation. Dom Trethowan writes, “it seems to be a general law that the lower orders should be governed by the higher ones, that God’s creatures should be arranged in a hierarchy, with a certain dependence of those below on those above” (quoted in Michael Murray, Red in Tooth and Claw, 98). The principle that sin corrupts is not new: all that is new here is the application of this principle to the fall of angels and their continued presence in the world.

Secular critics of this theory argue that it is fantastical because it attributes animal suffering to unseen, supernatural, “otherworldly” agents. While this may reduce the value of this argument for apologetics, but it should weaken its force for the orthodox Christian, for the existence and fall of Satan is a historic Christian doctrine well attested in Scripture. As for the unpopularity of this belief today, C.S. Lewis helpfully responds: “the doctrine of Satan’s existence and fall is not among the things we know to be untrue: it contradicts not the facts discovered by scientists but the mere, vague ‘climate of opinion’ that we happen to be living in. Now I take a very low view of ‘climates of opinion.’ In his own subject every man knows that all discoveries are made and all errors corrected by those who ignore the ‘climate of opinion.’”

If this view is correct, it has some profound implications for how we view the world and our relation to it. First, it means that the history of our planet is far vaster than we often consider: that our existence as human beings is one of later chapters in the much larger story of the battle between good and evil on our planet. Secondly, it informs our understanding of the role of human beings in the world. As C.S. Lewis suggests, “it is worth considering whether man at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. It may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animals’ world, and had he not joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.”

At the end of the day, however, I have to admit that all the points above are indirect, and that we are left with intriguing possibilities, not certain conclusions.

I will conclude this series of posts with a quote from James Bately that well summarizes the spirit of the conclusion I have reached: “a wise man will not be so oppressed by the unsolved riddles of nature…. Man is not in a position to call into question the justice of God. In order to judge of the merits of a case it is necessary to know the whole truth about it. It is becoming in man to wait humbly and seek to learn more of the way of his Creator” (quoted in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, 468).

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  1. Interesting Gavin. I had never considered that before–but yeah, why was the snake in the garden at all?If it’s true that the natural world had already been corrupted, then was there really ever a chance that humans would not fall? It’s hard to imagine unfallen humans living in a corrupted natural world.

  2. Hey Erin,sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner – yes, it is hard to imagine, and yet I find Lewis’ quote about humans having a redemptive role to play in creation from the outset very intriguing. Its impossible to imagine what this would have looked like, since we live on this side of the fall, but I don’t think there is any necessary inconsistency with being un-fallen in a corrupted world, just as Christ was.

  3. Hi, Gavin. This is an interesting discussion, to be sure. We do know that Eve and Adam were not the first to sin against God, nor the first to sin on earth or in the garden of Eden. Clearly, the serpent was sinning even in the act of tempting Eve and subverting God’s word. We also know that the angels were made before the earth was made (Job 38:4–7). We do not know when the Satanic rebellion occurred, except that it occurred prior to Genesis 3. The angelic fall explanation for animal suffering thus seems to make a lot of sense. But there are questions. One I have is how demonic forces could possibly corrupt the animal kingdom into the violent drama we see today while maintaining the delicate balance of ecosystems that, on a macro scale, actually permit life to flourish, basically at maximum levels. I would think that if Satan started tinkering with animal behavior (and appetites, instincts, digestion, levels of aggression, nutritional requirements?), a mass extinction would be the inevitable result. How could Satan muck it all up in such a perfectly functioning way? (Of course, we could say that God prevents this, and by divine counteraction has in some ways used Satan’s corrupting influence for good). Also, we must be careful not to read corruption into processes we may simply not understand (Augustine’s quote from an earlier post in this series mentions this). For example, you talk about “waste” in nature but do not give any examples. If you mean the sheer incomprehensible volume of animals and plants that lived and died before God created Adam on Day 6, keep in mind that the bio-deposits laid down by this long, long process of death and decay show God’s brilliant provision for human beings once they came on the scene. Without them, we would not have the resources to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” and “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

    1. What you said is something that is perplexing me as well. If Satan is the one who corrupts God’s “very good” Creation, how is it that predation, disease, suffering, pain, etc. all function in a beautifully orchestrated ecosystem? It seems to me to be too “perfectly” designed to be caused by anyone but by God alone. Would love an answer to this question!

  4. Hello, Dr. Ortlund,

    Great article concerning animal death before the Fall. Concerning natural evil, I suppose more than animal death can fall into this category (e.g. natural disasters). My question is, what is your opinion on such things? Were tornadoes or hurricanes, for example, possible before the Fall – if they were, did God ordain then in a way they would not effect humans (e.g. so humans could not be killed by the disasters)? Thank you.
    Also, I understand this question is odd topic, but I’ve been thinking about 2 Peter 3 lately, and I was curious how this can be reconciled with old earth creation (‘God made the earth from and through water’). Did Earth begin as water?
    Thank you,
    (And have a happy Thanksgiving)