Many theologians have claimed that all the suffering that we see in the world around us is a result of the fall. In the Garden, there was perfect peace. After the fall, suffering and death were introduced, not just for humans but for all of creation.
But does this really make sense?
In his new book Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP, 2014), Ronald Osborn says no. That answer results from an overly literal reading of the Creation/Fall narratives, and it fails to account for the fact that animal predation, and the corresponding death and suffering of animals, seems to be part of the natural order (e.g. lions look like they have been painfully devouring gazelles from the very beginning).
With this book, Osborn joins a growing list of scholars dealing with the problem of animal suffering from a biblical perspective. In just the last few years we have Michael Murray’s Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (OUP, 2008), Nicola Creegan’s Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (OUP, 2013), and Andrew Linzey’s Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology, and Practical Ethics (OUP, 2009), among others. So clearly this is a question whose time has come. But has Osborn done the question justice? That’s what remains to be seen.
The structure of the book is not terribly complicated, so I won’t take too long summarizing. Interestingly, Osborn devotes the first half of the book to the issue of “literalism.” Osborn clearly feels that much of the traditional approach to this question is driven by naively literalistic interpretations of the Creation/Fall narratives. So he focuses his attention on explaining why the texts should not be read “literalistically.” This doesn’t mean that he’s promoting some kind of allegorical reading, only that he thinks we need to pay more attention to the cultural and genre issues necessary for understanding ancient texts properly. And Osborn argues that a closer (and more faithful) reading of the text would recognize the many ways in which the text signals the ambiguity of animal existence from the very beginning. Rather than placing early humanity on a originally harmonious earth, God carves out of for Adam and Eve a garden in the midst of the “wilderness” in which they might be protected and from which they might extend the harmony of the garden to the rest of creation. Thus, animal predation, suffering, and death is part of creation from the very beginning, and this is the broader context for the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Having established what he thinks is a more adequate reading of the biblical texts, Osborn turns his attention in the second half of the book to the theodicy question: how does it make sense for a good and just God to allow all of this suffering in the animal world? And interestingly, he offers a kind of fee will answer to this question. For creation to be the amazing place that God wants it to be, God chooses to allow creation to have the necessary “space” in which it can have its own freedom. This freedom often means that creation moves in unexpected, chaotic, and often violent ways. But all of this is a result of God allowing creation both to be and become freely. He is certainly at work guiding creation toward his own purposes, not by forcing creation down predetermined paths, but by lovingly directing creation toward its own telos.
The book really needs to be understood, then, as offering two distinct, though interrelated, issues: (1) biblical literalism and (2) animal suffering. The interaction of these two elements provides one of the more distinct contributions of the book, as well as one of its greatest weaknesses.
On the positive side, Osborn is at his best when demonstrating that the text is more subtle and complex than many appreciate. Regardless of whether you find Osborn’s particular interpretation convincing, he will show you a different way of reading the text, highlighting the role of animals in God’s creative purposes and the wildness of creation throughout. That alone makes reading the first part of the book worthwhile.
Osborn also does an outstanding job asking difficult questions: Why do animals suffer? How can it be just for God to condemn animals to suffer as a consequence of human sin? What is really “cursed” as a result of the Fall? Do we have to assume that all death entered as a result of sin or only human death? How can animal predation be a result of the Fall when so many animals look like they were designed to kill? If all of this is the result of the Fall, don’t we have what amounts to a new creation as countless animals were instantaneously transformed into predators? And on it goes. If you’re interested in creation, the problem of evil, or understanding the consequences of the Fall, this book is worth reading.
And a final strength comes in the later chapters when Osborn begins developing his own constructive response to the questions he’s raised. He briefly flirts with a “Cosmic Conflict” theodicy (i.e. animals suffer as a result of the great cosmic battle between good and evil), drawing on the work of C. S. Lewis, but he ultimately (and rightly) questions whether such a model really explains the origin and purpose of suffering/evil. Then he focuses a couple of chapters on the book of Job as the best biblical response to the problem of animal suffering, although without answering precisely the question that we’re asking. According to Job, we must simply affirm that creation and all its apparent defects are good specifically because it is God’s creation. We may not be able to understand precisely why God includes and allows all this suffering. But we can respond in faith, convinced that God is Creator and that what he creates is good.
So the book offers some real strengths that make it worth engaging. But it does come with a few significant drawbacks. Most importantly, because Osborn tackles two important issues in the same book (literalism and animal suffering) both come across as rather underdeveloped. Since my primary interest in reading the book was the issue of animal suffering, I noticed it mostly there. Osborn makes some interesting proposals in the second half of the book, but never has the time to develop them as fully as I’d like. So that section comes across as more suggestive than constructive. (Particularly, his suggestion that animals were somehow “free” to choose the mode of their existence needs much more development.)
Second, I was frequently frustrated by how Osborn dealt with the issue of literalism. In the first part of the book, you could easily get the impression that anyone who holds to a 6-day reading of Genesis is guilty of literalism. That becomes particularly problematic when he goes on to suggest that a literalistic view is necessarily guilty of foundationalism, fideism, and modernism, and fundamentalist modes of thought that border on tyrannical authoritarianism and brain-washing. Regardless of what you think of the 6-day view, it’s hard to agree that everyone who has ever read the texts this way has been guilty of all such charges. Unfortunately, other than the charge of fundamentalism (more on this in a moment), Osborn does little to justify the claim that literal readings are necessarily guilty of these charges. He does have a chapter on foundationalism, but it is very brief and does not deal with any of the more significant epistemological arguments.
It wasn’t until later in the book that it became clear that Osborn’s real target isn’t just any literal reading of the text, but specifically “fundamentalist” literalism. For example, at one point he critiqued literalism as thinking that its interpretations were beyond criticism
“No one’s ideas should be treated as being beyond thoughtful criticism. But the fundamentalist insistence that these committed Christians can only be one of three things—mentally feeble, morally suspect or spiritually deficient—is perhaps the most depressing illustration of how degenerating the linear equation of literalism on Genesis with belief in biblical authority has become in much creationist discourse.” (73)
Although he goes on to acknowledge that not all literalists are fundamentalists (p. 76), and he even says that we should “carefully distinguish” between literal readings and literalism (p. 97—though he does not offer a precise explanation of the difference), he thinks the two have been largely synonymous in the US, which justifies him conflating the two throughout the book. I think that’s an unfortunate move, one that will only serve to alienate people unnecessarily.
Third, I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced by his “kenotic” argument that animal suffering can be explained by God creating “space” for creaturely freedom. At the very least I would have liked to see a much more nuanced argument for why this does not make God complicit in the ensuing violence. If I left my girls alone for the evening to create space for them to exercise their freedom and one of them ended up killing the other, I’m sure someone would think that maybe I’m a little complicit (especially if I was actually watching the whole time!). Osborn may well have a more nuanced explanation for how his kenotic approach responds to concerns like this, but we don’t see that in this work.
Finally, some of Osborn’s arguments seem particularly strained. For example, responding to the objection that Genesis 1:30 teaches that all animals were originally herbivores, Osborn argues as follows:
“But we must note that while this verse hints against predation being willed by God, it does not resolve the question of whether the…creatures might not at the first appearing in fact be predatory.” (33)
Osborn explains this by appeal to creaturely freedom. In other words, predation may not have been divinely willed, but since he created animals to be free, they may have chosen predation anyway:
“It remains an entirely open question whether very good creatures lacking in moral awareness might not take that which they had not been given.” (33)
The problem is that Osborn has already argued that many animals appear to be predators by design and that it’s a bit silly to think that they were instantaneously transformed into predators as a result of the Fall. So he seems to be suggesting here that God designed these animals to be predators but at the same time somehow really wanted them to be herbivores. It’s not his fault that the lion started eating lambs, even though he designed the lion such that eating broccoli would have been a tad difficult.
Despite a number of important weaknesses, I still think that Osborn’s book is worth reading for anyone interested in Creation, the Fall, or the Problem of Evil. Regardless of whether you find Osborn’s arguments convincing, his explanations are clear and his questions provocative. This is a good overview of an important subject.