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Home » The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil » “The Groaning of Creation” – Preface – Chapter 1-1.5: Part I

“The Groaning of Creation” – Preface – Chapter 1-1.5: Part I





In Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he writes, “Pain is a necessary concomitant of a richer experience of the world of higher animals. There has to be pain if there are to be higher organisms with sophisticated processing of their environment.” Furthermore, “Pain and suffering can, moreover, be seen as part of the way the evolutionary process optimizes the fitness of organisms, and the fitness of ecosystems.”  But he notes that, “[J]ust as some human beings never seem to have any opportunity for fullness of life, so the experience of many individual animals, such as the newborn impala torn apart alive by hyena, seems to be all pain and no richness.”  What do you make of this statement?  Does what he says here change your belief that many Christians hold to that God places pain and suffering in life for a purpose, namely to produce more spiritual fruit within you, or a more Christ-like character, more maturity, etc.?  Was God doing that with a still-born baby or a baby born with a congenital heart defect and has only several days to live? Is there a higher purpose to pain and suffering in a moral sense, or is it just an arbitrary meaning people associate to it to make meaning and sense to their lives (i.e. psychological/therapeutic comfort)?  Can one experience a richer life without pain as opposed to life with pain?  State your reasons as to why or why not.


To be alive is to experience pain.  There was an old drama I watched about a close-knit group of friends.  One of them dies tragically and it affects them all.  One friend has to break up a drunken fight another friend started for no real reason.   When asked why, he angrily answers that he doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead.  In response, his friend slaps him and asks if it hurt.  It hurts, so he must be alive.


Pain is necessary for survival.  There’s the old joke where a man goes to the doctor complaining that he hurt whenever he pressed against any part of his body.  To demonstrate, he pressed his index finger against his temple and cried out, “Ow.”   Pressing against an elbow, he cried out again.  He repeated this all over his body.  The man asked the doctor what was wrong with him.  The doctor answered he knew exactly what was wrong, his finger was broken.

Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, or CIPA, is a rare condition where a person does not feel any pain and they don’t usually live very long.  Every night, children who suffer from it are carefully examined by their parents for any unknown wounds that could get infected.


Pain is complex.  One of my favorite TV sitcoms was “Scrubs” that followed a young doctor straight out of medical school.  As a doctor, he faced the issue of pain which turns out to be very subjective due to many factors such as Race – a sushi chef with a knife in his shoulder quizzically asks in accented English, “Does what hurt?”

Gender – man is holding his wife’s hand for support in the middle of labor.  Man accidently bites his inner cheek and cries out that this is the worst pain EVER and his wife shoots him a look of daggers.

Proclivity – Man in black leather cries out as doctor fidgets with a hook piercing in his cheek and then smiles liking it.  Pain is different for each person, so for doctors to gauge pain, they use an archaic chart of varying smiley/frowning faces.


Lobsters are delicious, but the popular preparation of them for consumption is to boil them alive.  One reason is that when they die, they rot fast.  Still, the churning in the burning water for escape can be stomach turning.  The good news is that science tells us that the lobster nervous system isn’t developed enough to register pain as we humans or animals experience it.  The thrashing in the pot is more due to an escape instinct than suffering.  Pain and pleasure go hand in hand. They define each other as opposites and absence.


Pain and suffering can lead to growth. My small group is currently reading the Psalms together.  An interesting point was brought up that a lot of them is about suffering and at the same time praising God.  It was brought up that suffering and growth almost seem to go hand in hand.  Human nature seems to need a push or deadline to get anything meaningful done.  Just like we need a deadline to get these questions answered otherwise we may keep on niggling.  I still want some more time to fine-tune my answer to this
question, but it’s due.


Discomfort can help us decide what is really important in life.  I’m a bit of a germophobe, but helping a friend move I was so exhausted I really didn’t care about sanitation.


Joseph was chosen by God to save his world from famine, but as a spoiled brat he was useless to God.  He had to be humbled and suffer to be forged into a man of principle and man of God.  His own brothers sold him into slavery, but he wisely understood ultimately it was God behind it and forgave his brothers.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
– Genesis 50:20






Do you agree with Southgate’s assessment – are such studies too preoccupied with the human species?  Do you see the suffering of animals within God’s creation to be a relevant topic?  Why or why not?  Should theodicy focus solely upon human suffering?  Do you feel animals feel the same type of pain and suffering as humans do?  State your reasons as to why or why you don’t think animals experience pain and suffering


I think it is important to differentiate between pain and suffering.  We are all programmed to avoid noxious stimuli (pain) and to seek pleasant ones.  Depending on how developed the neurologic system, all sentient beings are subject to physical pain. However, I doubt whether other beings suffer emotional pain as we humans do. Suffering has a lot to do with how we interpret this pain… real or imagined. In higher mammals and particularly in humans, the neural pathways of pain are linked to the limbic system (emotions) and our memory. For example, when the adult female sea lion is being torn apart by orcas, she most certainly feels the physical pain but I doubt whether she is also putting meaning into this pain—e.g. worried about who she is leaving behind, who will take care of her little ones?  Does she reprimand herself for having gone out into the water too soon after the killer whale pod went away?  Human have the ability to feel pain and suffer even before the event happens, by merely anticipating it i.e. we have the ability to suffer from imagined pain. Do other animals?


Humans have the ability to feel the pain and suffering of others…do animals?  When the sea lions watch from the shore, what do they see? I think they only see danger… not the suffering of one of theirs. This can be debated of course… Humans have an innate sense of morality, of good and evil… does this make us more prone to guilt, shame, empathy, compassion and therefore to pain and suffering?  Non humans don’t… they act on instinct


While all beings are programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure, humans have the capacity to choose pain. We label and put meaning into pain and suffering. Good pain (shapes us), deserved pain (guilt), self-sacrificial pain etc… Humans seek meaning in their life and willing to endure ad sacrifice for it… do non-humans?  So pain and suffering have more than survival value in humans.


We also have the ability to modulate our pain and suffering through meditation and biofeedback, being connected to loved ones (research demonstrates that we experience less pain when we are held by a loved one).  Can we take this a step further to our relation to God?  Do we experience and interpret pain differently when we are in connection with God?  What role does the Holy Spirit, the Great Comforter, play?  What about rebirth and sanctification—can we interpret that as an evolutionary step? Hope and gratitude certainly change the way we see and experience pain. If our vision goes beyond this world, we are not doomed to play the survival game…






In the final part of Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he refines “the problem of evolutionary theodicy” in that “it consists of the suffering of creatures and the extinction of species.” Which of the three theological aspects that he presents – that of 1) ontology, 2) teleology, or 3) soteriology – most intrigues or challenges you the most?  Why?  How does this aspect help you to understand your relationship with God as creator and redeemer of the world?


I’m not sure which of the three my comment would fall under (maybe soteriology). But what this reminds me of is a talk that Andy Crouch (previously Executive Editor of Christianity Today magazine) gave at a church in San Francisco last year. This is probably based on his book “Strong and Weak”.


Rather than re-explaining, I instead refer to another person’s blog post, whose sentiments I share.



I recently heard a talk by Andy Crouch where he put forth a framework that supports an abundance mindset, instead of a scarcity mindset. Basically, he was positing that with God in the picture, we do not live in a closed system with limited resources, since God is the Creator of all resources. Therefore, we should not grasp onto our resources and power, but share them freely, especially with those who lack resources, since we actually live in abundance, not scarcity. He says this is not a zero-sum game.


…But I think this is more the exception than the rule in this earthly life. I think that we have natural laws that God put into place, and that God occasionally supersedes them. It’s very, very rare and exceptional.  I think if we look at Earth by itself, it’s generally a closed system with a set amount of resources — this is scarcity. 


I know I’m disagreeing with a Christian-thought leader, but I still think we live in a resource-constrained world. I deal with it every day, as I consider where to give grants — I have a limited pot of money. I can optimize and be creative about it, but at the end of the day, I have only a certain number of dollars available to me. I think about scarcity when I think of affordable housing. I asked Andy this question about gentrification: the number of wealthy tech professionals who have moved into San Francisco has displaced those who can no longer afford the rising rents. This is scarcity. My very presence in San Francisco means that someone else cannot afford housing in the city. It’s a zero-sum game. He answered my question saying that this means we as Christians just need to be more creative about housing policy — higher density housing, more mixed use housing, etc. I feel this answer is simplistic, from someone who doesn’t really understand housing policy — I know a lot of experts and advocates who care very deeply about the effects of gentrification on the poor, and there might be good solutions and theories out there, but there’s clearly lack of political will or resources to implement them. No offense to Andy, but I looked at his background and he doesn’t seem to have any “real world” experience — he’s mainly been a writer, editor, and campus minister. I think it’s “easy” for him to make the claims that he does, from an ivory tower, and I don’t know that he can speak from direct experience of being in the trenches.


I feel like trying to apply an abundance mindset to our lives on Earth is like trying to convince ourselves that we can have our cake and eat it too. It negates the concept of sacrifice. If we have resources in abundance right here, right now, then it’s easy to give — it’s not a sacrifice.


However, if we take Heaven into consideration as well, it is an open system where there is abundance. We give now, sacrifice now, in this Earthly life, banking on the abundance we will experience in Heaven. We might experience small glimpses of abundance here on Earth, but it’s rare, miraculous, and supernatural. Heaven is where our hope and faith lie. And moreover, regardless of whether we have abundance in the next life, we sacrifice today because it’s the right thing to do, because we see our sisters and brothers suffering and we want to share in that suffering. Isn’t this what it means to take up our crosses and deny ourselves?


…Jesus talks about storing up treasures in Heaven — this is where true abundance lies. But implicit to this is the fact that there’s a tradeoff between treasures on Earth and treasures in Heaven…



It does seem to me that (1) life on Earth is defined by scarcity, and (2) abundance can come only when (a) Heaven is brought together with Earth, and (b) we put our faith in the God of abundance and live as if it’s actually true.


This is one formulation of soteriology; I am curious to see how Southgate formulates his salvation plan.









In Section 1.3 “Objections: Perhaps There Isn’t a Problem After All”, he quotes Kenneth Miller, “We cannot call evolution cruel if all we are really doing is assigning to evolution the raw savagery of nature itself. The reality of life is that the world often lacks mercy, pity, and even common decency.” Southgate adds, “Suffering, pain, waste, and extinction in the nonhuman world, for Miller, are just facts of nature.  They have no moral content, and we should not project on them moral categories, which properly belong only to the sphere of human beings.”  Do you agree with Miller here?  Is suffering in nature amoral – that it is a mistake to attribute human categories of morality unto a system that is really neutral to such ideas?  If Miller is right, then where is God in all of this?  Does it pose a serious threat to the Christian belief or doctrine of divine creation and God having called it good?  What of God’s divine love and identification in suffering with us and all of creation?  Is God’s position one of non-intervention to his creation?  Or is it one of indifference?


I will venture to say that calling suffering in creation amoral is, in fact, what qualifies God’s creation as “good.” I agree with Miller entirely. I think that morality is reserved to thinking creatures—certainly humans, but if other creatures turn out to have the capacity for thought, then those too. If suffering in nature was a question of morality, then it would be that much harder to swallow God calling it good. That’s because every instance of suffering would be an automatic failure on the part of the inflictor of suffering, and considering how much nature truly is cruel (using the term in an amoral sense), then nature would be teeming with immorality, therefore it would be not good.


As to divine love and identification in suffering with us and creation—it’s hard to believe that God can truly identify with suffering, especially if suffering is such an integral part of the functioning of creation. And yet I believe he does. The simplest explanation to this is Christ’s role, having arrived as human, and thus a created being. But even beyond Christ, who is a historically recent apparition, there is a solid buffer of love and compassion in creation to all of the cruelty and pain. Maybe that’s God’s expression of identification, and perhaps one does have to experience both in order to live a full life, as another question asks. (That’s not to say that a life of suffering is superior to one lacking in it, as many would claim, or that a life devoid of suffering is devoid of some intrinsic good, but simply by definition—if both suffering and its opposite are an integral part of creation, then a life composed of both is a fuller life.)


As to God’s intervention—from personal experience (therefore, very subjectively), God is not a non-interfering God. He is also not indifferent to his creation. But his scope, timing, and magnitude of intervention are his and his alone to determine.





In the final part of Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he refines “the problem of evolutionary theodicy” in that “it consists of the suffering of creatures and the extinction of species.” Which of the three theological aspects that he presents – that of 1) ontology, 2) teleology, or 3) soteriology – most intrigues or challenges you the most?  Why?  How does this aspect help you to understand your relationship with God as creator and redeemer of the world?




The second aspect, that of teleology, that Southgate presents, intrigues and challenges me the most.  One of the main question he asks in this introductory chapter is how to continue loving and worshiping God, who Christians say is good, in the midst of so much death and suffering around us as evidenced in the natural world.


In reference to teleology, he poses the problem as to how God is responsible for creating the world, knowing that suffering, pain, and death were to be a part of it from the beginning, for the long-term purpose for “desiring certain values to arise through the process.”  In other words, “Suffering among the weak and less adapted is intrinsic to the evolution of sophisticated creaturely attributes.”  Predators, through millions of years of evolution, have changed and adapted to become more efficient in capturing prey.  In order for them and their species to thrive, it is necessary that their prey has to suffer.  Of course, the other aspect is true as well, as the prey have to adapt as well – become faster, quicker, stronger, and cleverer than their predators in order to survive.  That means that those predators that cannot adapt to their prey’s evolutionary upgrades must suffer starvation and death, and possible extinction of their species as well in the long run.


The notion that God set up this rather brutal system of survival from the beginning is troubling in that it somewhat implies that he wanted it to be like this in the first place.  Did God want his creation to suffer in order to bring about his own divine (or mysterious) purposes?  As Southgate states, if “God desired the development of such values – complexity, diversity, excellence of adaptation – then, again, the sufferers are means to God’s ends.  What sort of God is that?  Is that, in [biologists David] Hull’s phrase, ‘a God worthy of worship?’”


Is God a sadist then?  Does he get a kick out of seeing baby seals being tossed around in the air by a hunting pack of orcas?  Or a new born baby gazelle separated from its mother so that Cheetah cubs can practice their hunting skills on it?  Or in a different aspect, when a cape buffalo gores a lion to death after an unsuccessful hunt?


It seems as if God’s redemptive purposes involve a steep cost and a lot of suffering.  Most Christians believe that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross to bring about the redemption of not only of mankind’s sins but also the creation itself.  Does he mean to reverse or undo this creative pattern of predation, suffering, and death that seem so intrinsic to the world around us?


Is this God’s way of “repenting” for his setting up this system of nature?


After all the Bible states, “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (Genesis 6:6, King James Version).  Other versions state that God was “sorry” that he had made mankind and how wicked it had become.


Furthermore, Isaiah foresees a time in the future (possibly a Messianic age) where predation will seemingly cease and predator and prey will stop their natural inclinations:


The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.   

– Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)


Perhaps the redemptive process is a kind of reverse of natural selection and it takes billions of years to reverse.  To reverse the entire natural order will take a huge endeavor as the physiology and internal chemistry of predators will have to change, animal populations will drastically be impacted, thereby impacting the entire ecosystem, etc.  In effect, God will have to make a completely brand new creation unlike anything we’ve experience before.  Is that what Jesus came to die for?  Is this what the new Kingdom and the eschatological new creation are like and supposed to be?  (I know that this is involving Southgate’s third aspect on soteriology here as well.)


So far, from a purely natural perspective, I don’t see any evidence of that happening at all, so it’s hard to gauge what God’s divine purposes are or even if he has a grand purpose altogether.


That being said, God is not obliged to answer our questions nor is he required in any way whatsoever to reveal his personal plans or purposes to us.  So just because I or anyone else cannot see it, doesn’t mean God doesn’t have one of course.


Although I’m currently under the assumption that God is not actively interventionist in his creation, I’m hopeful of the biblical message that he does at least feel some empathy or some emotion to all that is going on with his creation and seemingly wants to do something about it.






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