Is Animal Suffering and Death Before the Fall Bad?


Perhaps the most momentous issue involved in the debate between young-earth creationists and various varieties of old-earth creationists is animal death/suffering before the human fall. In his book A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, David Snoke writes, “in my experience, this is [i.e., whether animals died before Adam and Eve sinned] is the fundamental issue of Bible interpretation caught up in the debate.” My experience has been the same as Snoke’s. It is here, in the realm of animal death/suffering, that we push through the hermeneutical issues of how to read Genesis 1 into the deeper consequences of different readings, where they result in different conceptions of createdness and fallenness.

In a previous post I outlined my own hypothesis, following the lead of C.S. Lewis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Thomas Torrance, Alvin Plantinga, etc., that the fall of angels is the best explanation for natural evil. This view, however, as far as I can tell, is still largely unknown to most evangelicals, including most old-earthers. More common among old-earth creationists–at least the ones I run into–is to deny that animals “suffer,” or, very close to this, to deny that animal suffering is a fact of moral significance.

I am sympathetic to what these old-earth creationists are trying to do, and I agree with many of their cautions, particularly regarding the danger of anthropomorphism (projecting our own experience of suffering onto the animal kingdom), and regarding the necessity and even fittingness of various kinds of death and pain in the natural order.

Nonetheless, while I do not claim that death and pain are all bad, I do question whether all death and pain are good. I am concerned about what Henri Blocher calls “normalizing evil.” Three reasons why:

1) Eschatology and Expectation

Old-earth creationists often claim that pain and death are necessary components of a sustainable world. That may be true with respect to the current state of creation, but pain and death cannot be absolutely necessary for life if they will not occur in the redeemed new earth of which Jesus’ resurrection body is the prototype. Even if you interpret the animals of Isaiah 11:6-9 as symbolic of “predatory” nations surrounding Israel, can you really imagine any predatory behavior on the new earth? But if not, we cannot say predatory behavior is strictly necessary. Our eschatological expectation informs our understanding of creational necessity.

Therefore it seems to me the skeptic’s question, “why didn’t God make the world differently to start with?” is an intelligible question, and we should have an answer.

2) Do Animals “Suffer?”

Many old-earth creationists distinguish between “pain” and “suffering,” claiming that while animals are capable of experiencing the sensation of pain, they lack the conscious self-awareness required for “suffering” to occur.

I accept this as a meaningful conceptual distinction, a healthy warning about anthropological projection, and a fact that may well mitigate the problem, particularly in the case of lower organic life. However:

a) Animals with complex brains and centralized nervous systems seem to experience pain pretty similarly to human beings. The brain of an upper-level animal like a horse or a dolphin gets information from the nervous system in the same way a human brain does. I grant that animal experience is ultimately a black box, and that it is difficult to precisely define the word “suffering.” I also grant that lower levels of intelligence may reduce the “suffering” involved in pain. But physiologically, it is difficult to suppose why the distinction between human suffering and (at least some) animal suffering should be a difference of kind, not degree.

b) If a high level of conscious awareness is necessary for suffering in a morally significant sense, is pain in an infant human being or severely mentally handicapped human being not morally significant? Most people would acknowledge that although an infant does not think “I am suffering,” nonetheless infant pain is not morally neutral. It therefore seems to me difficult to suppose that conscious self-awareness is necessary for pain to become a morally significant reality in the animal kingdom.

c) Even if animals only felt pain and did not “suffer,” it is not evident that pain is not a fact of moral significance. At some point we are dealing with semantics. Whether you call it “pain” or “suffering,” it is difficult to look at a deer caught in a forest fire and slowly burning to death and then feel, “that is God’s very good creation and requires no explanation.” Meanwhile, we have not just pain and death to explain, but disease and predation. Are parasites “very good?”

3) Psalm 104:21 Does Not End the Discussion

Old-earth creationists often quote Psalm 104:21 that God feeds lions (and other such verses). True enough, but Matthew 5:45 says that God gives sunlight and rain to the wicked. God’s providential care for creation in its current state does not remove the possible need for an explanation of how it got this way in the first place. The fact that God allowed Hitler to breath oxygen and allows Satan to maintain possession of a mind and will does not mean he created them to function just as they do. So the fact that God is the provider of food for lions does not mean animal predation is completely good.

Let’s remember that we are dealing with vast eons of animal pain. Not “billions of years,” as often claimed, since the majority of the history of organic life is of single-celled organisms. But still many hundreds of millions of years. And remember, it is not just death and pain that are the problem, but the whole system in which they come: death, pain, disease, decay, struggle, competition, apparent waste and inefficiency, etc. That is why I use the broader term “natural evil,” not the more limited and debated term, “animal suffering.” Or Tennyson’s phrase works well: “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Sorry to make our job more difficult, fellow old-earth creationists–but I think we need to face this challenge squarely. I don’t think young-earth creationism is the solution to the challenge. But I also don’t think we can deny that it is a challenge.

(One final, preemptive note: if any commenters are going to claim that all death is the result of Adam’s sin by quoting Romans 5:12, please see my prior treatment of that verse here first. I think it is clear from the context and from the parallel text in I Corinthians 15:21-22 that Paul has human death, not animal death, in view in this passage.)

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  1. Gavin, I appreciate your continued attention to this issue. I am a recent convert to old-earth thinking, and I do not yet know whether I feel that animal pain is truly of moral concern, or whether disease cannot be a part of a sin-free, physical reality. However, you may be right in saying that this is a problem and needs to be addressed.

    I recently ran across a paper by Bruce Gordon of Houston Baptist University. In it he addresses this question in a way I have not heard you mention. Gordon’s article can be found at, and he addresses the topic of pain before the Fall on pages 154-156 (the article is about 30 pages long; the page number are those of the journal in which it was published). The view he promotes (shared by Dembski) is that the effects of Adam’s sin were trans-temporal, staining the prehistoric world, just as Christ’s redemption was trans-temporal, saving the faithful of the Old Testament long before Jesus entered history and died on the cross. That is, the effects of the fall anticipated and followed the fall itself. This, he argues, was part of God’s good plan. The post-creative, pre-fall declaration by God that all he had made was “very good” despite the fact that it had been corrupted already includes the fact that any possible world God could have made in which sin never occurred may for that reason have been quite good, but a world in which he enters into time and space in order to accomplish redemption reveals more of God’s attributes and garners him more praise and revealed glory and thus is far greater than a world in which such redemption would not be necessary. It is not only good–it is very good. I wonder, though, if this is not somewhat perverse, as it would seem that the worse off the world became, the more glorious God’s work of redemption would then be. Anyway, I have shared the link with you if the paper piques your curiosity, assuming you were not already familiar with this perspective.

  2. […] I think the authors of GCMAE succeed in presenting their opponents accurately and charitably. All too often I have seen one side or the other in this debate engage in straw man arguments and ad hominem character attacks (regrettably, I’ve done a bit of this myself), but the authors are careful to avoid such sloppy argumentation. On the other hand, the book isn’t quite as strong when it comes to grappling with the biblical and theological aspects of the debate. Although I believe that there are good reasons for thinking that Genesis allows for an old earth, that point needs to be demonstrated. Further, we should acknowledge the problem of animal death and pain before the Fall–especially death and pain on such a massive and seemingly gratuitous scale. Again, there may be reasonable ways of accounting for this–whether we attribute it to an angelic fall, or backward causation, or whatever–but I think we need to admit that the problem is rather difficult (Gavin Ortlund has written about this on his blog). […]

  3. Didn’t read this article before my last comment-really glad you recognize the issue and want to tackle it. Also, you mentioned in a different article that it seemed unlikely animal nature changed rapidly during the Fall, but what about God’s curse on the serpent? There were physical consequences to its anatomy. And even if Romans 5:12 is specific to humans (which I don’t have a problem with that interpretation), Romans 8:21 does mention creation-that it is in bondage to corruption. You may have even addressed this elsewhere, and if you have I apologize. I haven’t had a chance to read them all just yet.

  4. I’d like your opinion on the contrast of creation before the fall with how Isaiah prophesied the Millennial Kingdom (Is 11:6). After Christ’s second coming the earth is restored to it’s intended state under perfect rule, animals lose predatory instincts and return to eating plants. The consequences of the curse on the earth (Gen3) are reversed. This implies death was NOT in the world before the fall. Rather, spiritual death led to physical death, which led to the earth under curse…. until satan is bound halleluiah!