A problem in the theology of creation

Put at its most straightforward, the question of evolutionary theodicy seems to turn on whether the violence, struggle and suffering in creation reflects the way God ‘set up’ creation, or whether some sort of ‘fall’ distorted the creation such that it is not as God intended.

Fall-based approaches

The classic move in Christian theodicy has been to attribute both moral and natural evil to the fall of the first human couple, drawing on the story in Genesis 3. This first sin was regarded as the source of death, and also the curse on the ground (Gen. 3.17). This scheme was developed to the full by Augustine of Hippo. It is best understood as a logical inference from a full-hearted embrace of both creation out of nothing and the fundamental goodness of creation (Gen. 1.31). Evil can have no real existence given the goodness of creation; it can only be a dereliction from the good (‘privatio boni‘). Disvalue must therefore result from the free conscious choices of creatures, and Gen. 3 seems the classic locus of such a choice.

This formulation is not unproblematic in itself. First, the rest of the Hebrew Bible does not seem to know this human fall into corruption, or a cursed natural world. The ‘Fall’ seems to reappear only in the intertestamental literature; it then receives a powerful spur from Paul’s formulation of the first and second Adams in Rom. 5. Second, it is not easy to understand the logic of this first human decision. But the greatest obstacle to an understanding of disvalues in the non-human world stemming from a human fall is that the fossil record makes it clear that predation and parasitism, with the suffering these necessarily involve, were present millions of years before human beings themselves evolved. So it is very difficult to see how human sin could have given rise to these phenomena. 

That leaves the possibility that the fall was of angels, freely-choosing creatures lacking a physical body, and created (presumably) before the arising of the physical universe. The Bible and the tradition contain numerous accounts of angels, and there are a few biblical references to an angelic rebellion (such as Is. 14.12-15; Ezek. 28.12-19; Luke 10.18; Rev. 12.7-12). 

One of the project team, Michael Lloyd, espouses this angelic-rebellion theodicy, calling in evidence the suggestion of E.L. Mascall that:

If the lower levels of this cosmos were to be linked together in intimate union…, and if the lower levels of this cosmos were to be under the surveillance and loving care of the higher, it seems reasonable to suppose that defection and rebellion in the angelic realm will drastically disorder the material world

Quoted in Lloyd’s chapter ‘The Fallenness of Nature’ in Finding ourselves after Darwin ed. Rosenberg et al. Brazos Press, 262-79, at 273.

The merit of this type of argument would seem to be that it seems to preserve the goodness of God, and it is in harmony with Jesus’ desire, recorded throughout the Gospels, to  confront and reverse disease and death.

A variant of a fall-based approach is to insist that the ‘set-up’ of the world is not as God intended, but that it is not helpful, or even possible, to identify precisely the cause of this distortion. This is the approach of another of the project team, Neil Messer, invoking Barth’s ‘Das Nichtige’, nothingness. Messer writes:

By ‘nothingness’, [Barth] does not mean ‘nothing’. Rather, he means what God rejected, or did not will, when God willed to create all things and declared them ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31). As such, nothingness has a strange, paradoxical, negative kind of existence: it is the chaos, disorder or annihilation which threatens God’s creation, to which God is implacably opposed, which has been decisively overcome through the work of Christ. My proposal is that some features of the evolutionary process reflect, not God’s good creative purpose, but rather nothingness: the disorder and annihilation threatening the goodness of creation.

Messer Science in Theology. Bloomsbury 2020: 91.

This was Barth’s version of privatio boni; creation is attended by the possibility of what God does not will. What we know is what God has done in Christ to redeem creation; that for Messer needs to be our emphasis.

A Fall-free approach: The ‘only way’ argument

This argument, espoused on the project team by Bethany Sollereder and Christopher Southgate, goes like this: 

“There is no reason to suppose that there was any way open to God by which God could have created a world with this richness of beauty, complexity, ingenuity and intricate interdependence of creatures with the opportunity to flourish, with a better balance between these values and the disvalues of struggle, competition, violence and suffering.”

So yes, creaturely suffering is intrinsic to the world God has made, yes, it has been instrumental in realising God’s purposes, but there was no better, less suffering-filled way available to God. Only-way theorists do not dissect out the world into the bits God willed and those that arose from distortions of that will. Southgate argues that scientifically the world looks all of a piece, a ‘package deal’ and also that theologically that if there had been a way to create a better balance of value against disvalue, a loving creator God would have adopted it.

The basic proposition behind the argument is that the disvalues in creation necessarily arise alongside the values. The disvalues may be understood as instrumental to the evolution of values, or as a by-product. Arthur Peacocke writes:

If the Creator intended the arrival in the cosmos of complex, reproducing structures that could think and be free – that is, self-conscious, free persons – was there not some other, less costly and painful way of bringing this about? Was that the only possible way? This is one of those unanswerable metaphysical questions in theodicy to which our only response has to be based on our understanding of the biological parameters… discerned by science to be operating in evolution. These indicate that there are inherent constraints on how even an omnipotent Creator could bring about the existence of a law-like creation that is to be a cosmos not a chaos, and thus an arena for the free action of self-conscious, reproducing complex entities and for the coming to be of the fecund variety of living organisms whose existence the Creator delights in.

Peacocke , ‘The Cost of New Life’ in The Work of Love ed Polkinghorne. SPCK, 2001: 36-7.

So although we are not in a position to be at all definite about this, it is a reasonable scientifically-informed theological guess that a natural world containing creatures evolving by natural selection is the only way – or perhaps the best type of way – in which God could have given rise to the biological values we see within our own world.  

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