Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is God's Creation Good?

Christians frequently point to the beauty and elegance of nature as a reflection of the goodness of the creator.  And indeed nature is wondrous in many ways.  But there is a problem: many of the key underlying characteristics that lead to survival and multiplication of posterity are not those that Christians would like to ascribe to God.  These include: deception, predation, sickness, disease, death, fear, pain, poison, starvation, ruthlessness, and so on.  These properties are not simply add-ons to nature, but are deeply embedded in its design and fabric.  Let me illustrate some of these:

Fear and pain.  One of the great evils in this world is to be tormented by fear and pain.  Yet fear and pain play a crucial role in nature, spurring animals to find food and avoid predators.  A gazelle living in fear of mountain lions and wolves will remain alert and has a far better chance of survival than one without this fear.  The fear of the pain of being ripped apart will drive it to flee a pursuer with the last drop of its strength.   Furthermore, when prey are scarce, pangs of hunger will drive a wolf to seek prey with all the strength it can summon.  Fear and pain are like a force of nature, propelling the life cycle onward.

Predation.  Much of the diversity and beauty of nature is a result of each animal being optimized for a niche both in what it eats and in the ways by which it escapes predators.  For instance, panther chameleons are slow-moving tree-climbers that are experts at creeping up on insects and then grabbing them with their tongues that are almost as long as their bodies.  Cheetahs' camouflage and litheness enables them to silently creep up on a herd of impalas and catch one in a high-speed chase.  The impala, on the other hand, with its large eyes seeing in almost all directions and keen ears is highly suited to escaping swift predators.  Without predators, many of the impala's tightly honed features would be superfluous.  If the cheetah ate grass, its features would be superfluous, if not harmful, and it would do much better in a form similar to an impala or a cow.  The key reason for diversity and variety in the animal kingdom is the enormous number of techniques animals have developed both for avoiding being preyed on and for preying on other animals.  The predator-prey relationship is a harsh but necessary component of the beauty of nature.

Death.  Death is an essential part of life for many creatures.  Consider flies.  An apple falls on the ground and a fly lays eggs on it.  The eggs hatch, become maggots and consume the apple.  Once the apple is gone, either the maggots die or they must escape.  Well their plan is to escape by becoming flies which look for more fruit in which to lay eggs.  Imagine flies never died; their numbers would keep increasing with each fruit that fell until the world was 3 feed deep with swarming flies.  But this applies not only to flies, consider caterpillars: they eventually become butterflies whose job is to mate and lay eggs.  Some butterflies have no mouth for eating so living forever is out of the question.  The incredibly elegant and complex reproductive and mating system for animals is based on the inevitability of death.  Without death, any species the reproduced would eventually cover every square inch of the earth's surface.

If nature sings the praises of its Creator, what is it telling us about him?  One must look not only at the love a mother shows her offspring, but also at the cuckoo that kills the other chicks in its nest and the parasitic wasp that lays eggs in a caterpillar that eventually devour the caterpillar alive.  What does it tell us about the Creator that animals (and humans) are designed to suffer fear and pain and to starve and die?  What does it tell us that the winners in the animal kingdom are typically the strongest, fittest, most fertile, most well-camouflaged, most deceitful and most ruthless?  God must value those qualities highly since he made them the criteria for success in his creation.

Now here is the answer that puts all these worries about God to rest.  These bad characteristics are simply a result of The Fall; when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and God cursed the creation.  Since then not only have women suffered pain in childbirth and men had to work by the sweat of their hands, but death and pain and all bad things we see entered creation.  So these bad things we see do not reflect God's plan or his original creation, rather they are just his punishment on earth for man's sin.

As a myth this might be a fine solution for taking God off the hook for designing all the cruel ways in which animals kill and devour each other.  But it fails when it claims to be historical or scientific.  It implies that before the fall that the world was good and these cruelties, including death, were absent.   Cheetahs could chase impalas to stay fit, but they better not sink their teeth into their necks.  For that matter, since impalas don't need to fear cheetahs, they could stop looking around them and grow fat eating grass.  It means that flies and caterpillars better not be multiplying.  Actually no animals should mate unless ways of populating other planets were devised.

There is another problem too: the fossil record clearly records the death of animals for hundreds of millions of years.  That is far longer than anyone would claim humans were around, and far before the fall.  And life and death back then was surely no pain-free picnic.  A fossil (right) that struck me, in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, has been kept in the same pose in which it was excavated showing the dinosaur's neck arched back in its death throes, perhaps as it is buried alive in burning ashes.  And no one can tell me animals didn't suffer pain when chomped in half by the enormous teeth of a TRex or belly slashed open by a deinonychus.    For that matter, what kind of loving, caring creator would bestow an enormous dagger on the foot of a deinonychus?  What was God thinking he would do with it?

It is clear that nature as a whole does not now, nor has in the past, embodied the loving, caring, self-sacrificial  ideals we would like to ascribe to God.  Rather, if it were an intelligent mind that devised the deceitful and brutal ways for animals to catch, kill and eat each other, that mind certainly lacks empathy and care for the downtrodden and weak.  And perhaps taking an intelligent mind out of the creation equation provides hope.  We don't have to accept that humans are doomed to be cruel or evil by nature.  Rather the intelligent minds are now, us!  We have an ability to reason and to empathize with those that suffer.  We do not have to model society after the survival of the fittest model.  Instead, perhaps dignity, freedom and compassion can replace eat-or-be-eaten.

2 comments:

  1. A more proper translation of the original Hebrew word "good" used in Genesis is "working" - just a quick note for ya. Good day.

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  2. @Anonymous: I didn't know that. That's very interesting.

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