The eschatological dimension of the problem

Compared with the very strong and repeated affirmations of resurrection for human beings, there is very little in the Christian tradition about post-mortem existence for non-human creatures. Nevertheless there are scriptural and theological reasons for postulating such existence, as follows:

Scripturally, a few texts point in this direction. In Isaiah we see visions of what is sometimes called the ‘peaceable kingdom’ in which domesticated animals co-exist in peace with their natural predators (Is. 11.6-9; 65.25). Certain texts in the New Testament seem to imply a ‘cosmic’ reach to divine redemption, such as Rom. 8.19-22, Col. 1.15-20, Eph. 1.10. But this is fragmentary evidence.

Theologically, one could argue that the resurrection life of humans would be impoverished if it were lived without community with other animals. But also the argument can be made that theodicy requires post-mortem existence for animals. This proposal goes back at least to a famous sermon of John Wesley’s, preached almost eighty years before the publication of The Origin of Species. Wesley opined that there might be: 

a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that had never sinned to be so severely punished… But the objection vanishes away, if we consider, that something better remains after death for these creatures also; that these likewise shall one day be delivered from this bondage of corruption, and shall then receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.

Wesley, ‘The General Deliverance’ in Sermons on Several Occasions Vol II, J. Kershaw, 1825: 131.

Jürgen Moltmann argues that:

Christus evolutor without Christus redemptor is nothing other than a cruel, unfeeling Christus selector, a historical world-judge without compassion for the weak, and a breeder of life uninterested in the victims… Not even the best of all possible stages of evolution justifies acquiescence in evolution’s victims… There is therefore no meaningful hope for the future of creation unless ‘the tears are wiped from every eye’. But they can only be wiped away when the dead are raised, and when the victims of evolution experience justice through the resurrection of nature. Evolution in its ambiguity has no such redemptive efficacy and therefore no salvific significance either. If Christ is to be thought of in conjunction with evolution, he must become evolution’s redeemer. 

Moltmann The Way of Jesus Christ. SCM 1990: 296-97.

So, again, a theory of creaturely immortality must consider what ‘justice’ would require. A key distinction within theories of immortality is between objective and subjective immortality. In theories of objective immortality the experience of the creature, or all that is positive in that experience, is retained everlastingly in the memory of God. This is a characteristic move in process thought.

It is the easiest type of theory to hold, requiring as it does no great flight of imagination about creatures, only a very plausible presumption about the everlasting and all-encompassing memory of God. So it is striking how many theodicists want to say more, to embrace some form of subjective immortality, in which the creature has some form of embodied post-mortem experience, in their own identity though without suffering. That is in tune with the scriptural and theological hints we noted above, but it raises all sorts of questions. Is every creature resurrected, or only those with sufficient sentience to have meaningful experience of resurrection life? How can predators who have lived by hunting and killing be themselves in this resurrection life? What constitutes ‘amends’ or ‘justice’ for creatures which have experienced no fulfilment in their first lives? And lastly but importantly, if this suffering-free existence is possible, why did God not simply just create this ‘heaven’?

For Moltmann and Sollereder resurrection is universal, a mind-boggling notion given the myriad life-forms that have existed, but given that ‘heaven’ is taken to be characterised by a lack of the constraints that inform life in this age, there need not be any shortage of space.

Two factors are in tension in the imagining of subjective immortality. The first is continuity of identity – that resurrected leopards retain their leopardness. That would tend to imply that there might still be hunting of prey, even if without distress or harm. Sollereder suggests that the experience, for both resurrected predator and resurrected prey, would be akin to sporting contests (2019: 167). But the more the resurrected life is aligned with the mortal life, the weaker the sense of amends or justice. Is mere continuity of experience beyond death, admittedly suffering-free, compensation for whatever experience of distress and harms the first life contained? It may be held that God’s responsibility for creaturely suffering is not cancelled by merely compensatory resurrection.

So the other factor is transformation. Both Dougherty (The Problem of Animal Pain Palgrave Macmillan 2014) and Schneider (Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil CUP 2020) suppose that the resurrected state of creatures will include enhanced cognitive awareness, though the approaches taken are different. For Dougherty, the most plausible theodicy is an ‘Irenaean’ theodicy, in which suffering allows ‘soul-making’, which Dougherty extends to the development of the sorts of virtues that are characteristic of saints – faith, hope and love, especially self-transcending love. It is very difficult to apply that to non-human animals, but Dougherty seeks to do so (2014: Chs 8-9). 

For Dougherty animals’ capacity to make meaning out of their lives is, yes, very limited in this life, but then so is that of human infants. If a human dies in infancy, we presume that God will make possible soul-making beyond death, and Dougherty suggests that can also be true for animals. In fact both humans and animals need post-mortem enhancement of their cognitive capacities in order fully to understand their lives. In both cases, the creature will ultimately be able to accept the suffering they experienced ‘as an integral part of a very good life’ (2014: 150).

Schneider is not convinced that this purgatorial process of meaning-making is needed. He also questions whether Dougherty has not strayed too far from the continuity of identity mentioned above. Schneider prefers a view in which, in the transformed conditions of the new creation, animals who have played their part in their evolutionary process are celebrated as ‘martyrs’, who receive ‘universal admiration, gratitude, and praise from God, the angels and humans for what they have done’ (2020: 268). They do not, on this view, need to understand the ‘why’ behind what they may have suffered, just to receive the celestial praise.

The most sophisticated model is provided by Sollereder with her ‘fractal mosaic model of redemption’ (2019: 165-73). This complex proposal should be read in the original, but here are some key points. Every creaturely life is like a tile of a mosaic, or, better, a tile inscribed with a video of that life. The centre of the mosaic is the Incarnate Christ, the ‘”organising algorithm” of redemption’ (177). ‘The creatures that once suffered are drawn into the work of the cross, and aligned with all other creatures into a dynamic mosaic of praise. All hurts are healed, all relationships mended, and all creatures …live out the praise of God’ (177). God, then, is dynamically at work organising the mosaic of creaturely lives into patterns of meaning, and this includes the fullness of life experienced by creatures after death.

It remains to consider why God did not just create a cosmos free of suffering and struggle in the first place. Southgate tackled this question in The Groaning of Creation by means of an extension of the only-way argument:

Since this was the world the God of all creativity and all compassion chose for the creation of creatures, we must presume that this was the only type of world that would do for that process. In other words, our guess must be that though heaven can eternally preserve those selves, subsisting in suffering-free relationship, it could not give rise to them in the first place.

Southgate, The Groaning of Creation. WJK 2008: 90.

Robert Russell has reflected further on this claim, as follows:

I will refer to this as the “heaven requires earth” argument…I believe it is an essential, and not just an ancillary, argument to Southgate’s overall theodicy for several reasons…It offers an intricate and important new element that should be added to the existing six elements of Southgate’s “only way argument.” …Without it, Southgate’s theodicy could easily fall prey to a dualistic ontology of creation in which a radical, gnostic split would forever exist between our material universe (“creation”), with the scientific predictions of an eternal future of endless expansion, lifelessness, and dissolution, and “heaven” (“new creation”) as an ontologically separate and strictly spiritual abode immunized forever from the history of life in our universe, including the Gospel of Christ. Instead, with this new element, Southgate’s theodicy insists that “heaven and earth” are held together as the domain of God’s creating and redeeming Spirit in which “all will be well.”… “Heaven requires earth” is, as best I know, an almost unique insight in the field of natural theodicy, and in natural and moral theodicy as a whole. It’s (sic) extraordinarily profound yet utterly simple claim is, to me at least, astonishing, liberating, and compelling.

Russell Theology and Science 17(2) 2019: 192.

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