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If the universe is billions of years old, and the fossils represent millions of years of life on earth, God’s method of creation was an immensely long process of death, disease, violence, pain, suffering and waste. This scenario is incompatible with the biblical account of creation. It is also incompatible with belief in a God who is omnipotent and absolutely good. Such a method of creation does not inspire awe and worship. If anything, it inspires contempt. As far as many non-Christians are concerned, God must be cruel and/or incompetent if this was His method of creation.
However, to many Christians who try to combine belief in the Bible with belief in billions of years, this is not obvious at all. Many cannot or will not accept that the plain meaning of Scripture is the real meaning, and that majority scientific opinion is wrong. (That is, the plain meaning as understood by the vast majority of the early church Fathers,1 all the Reformers,2 virtually all professors of Hebrew or Old Testament in world-class universities,3 and vast numbers of believers down through the ages. It is also obviously the meaning believed by Jesus and the New Testament authors.)
In various ways they try to show that millions of years of death, disease, violence, pain, suffering and waste are compatible with Scripture.4 This article looks at just one of those ways, encountered while debating by e-mail with an academic who teaches in a theological college. He wrote, “The insistence that creation being ‘very good’ means it was absolutely perfect and therefore without predation etc. begs a few questions. To equate the goodness of creation with an absence of animal suffering seems to reflect modern Western sensitivities about nature.” (emphasis added). The implication here is that most people in the world regard animal suffering as normal, and are not bothered about it—the real problem is modern Western sensibility (over-sensitiveness).
This argument may sound plausible to some, but it is unbiblical. The book of Isaiah prophesies of a time in the future with no bloodshed in the animal kingdom:
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:6–9 ESV)
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. … The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.” (Isaiah 65:17,25 ESV)
Whether these descriptions are symbolic or literal, they convey the clear message that there is something wrong about animal carnivory, violence, pain and suffering. If these things were normal and “very good”, why should they be remedied in a future restoration? Isaiah was not a Westerner, and he was inspired by God Himself. It is quite wrong, therefore, to say that animal carnivory and suffering is a problem created only by Western sensibility.5
In fact, these passages indicate very specifically that carnivorous activity is an evil—that is, a physical rather than a moral evil. The Hebrew word translated “hurt” (“harm” in some other translations) in Isaiah 11:9 and 65:25 is ra’a. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the most frequent translation of this word is “do evil”. Other translations include “afflict” and “do wickedly”. It is related to ra, the usual word for “evil” in the Old Testament—and that includes both moral and physical evil. As for the word translated “destroy” in the same passages (shachath), the core meaning is “mar” or “corrupt”.6
If animal carnivory, violence, pain and suffering is a physical evil, it cannot have been present in the original “very good” creation (Genesis 1:31). Therefore it has to be a consequence of the Fall, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Genesis 3:14–24, Acts 3:21, Romans 8:18–25,7 Colossians 1:20 and 2 Peter 3:7–13 indicate that the whole creation was affected by the Fall and needs to be renewed. The whole creation is “groaning” and is in “the bondage of decay”, and is looking forward to its future. Revelation 22:3 (see also 21:1–4) calls this punishment the “curse”, and it is clear that it was inflicted by God.
The present state of the natural world and universe was ordained by God, but it is not the ideal. It is a creation that is still incredibly complex and beautiful, but it has been marred and spoilt because of man’s rebellion against God. This needs to be remembered when we read verses like Psalm 104:21, which indicates that God provides lions (which are carnivorous) with their food (see also Job 38:39–41). It was not like this in the original ‘very good’ creation, nor will it be like this in the new creation, when God creates new heavens and a new earth. The same comments apply to verses like Job 38:39–41; 39:26–30; 41:1–34. (Note that Genesis 1:29–30—indirectly supported by 9:3—indicates that all animals were herbivorous in the original creation.)
The fact is, we are led into a morass of confusion and compromise if we try to reconcile the Bible with ‘millions of years’. This is so whatever ingenious stratagem we might employ, and the ‘Western sensibility’ argument is just another case of unbiblical clutching at straws.
Mankind and death—was it only ‘spiritual’?
The main text refers to animal carnivory, pain and suffering; but what about the so-called ‘hominids’? (Note that ‘ape-men’ as such did not exist as far as biblical creationists are concerned.1) Does the ‘Western sensibility’ argument apply to them also? According to theistic evolutionists, man’s hominid ancestors (who were nothing more than intelligent animals) had been fighting one another and suffering and dying for millions of years before Adam.2 Presumably they believe that these sufferings and deaths were just as normal and ‘good’ as those of any other animal. But what about the teaching of Scripture that pain, suffering and death came to man through Adam’s sin? Relevant passages are Genesis 2:15–3:24; Romans 5:12–21; 8:18–25; 1 Corinthians 15:12–58; Revelation 21:1–4; 22:3. Theistic evolutionists usually deal with this problem by asserting that it was only spiritual death which came through Adam’s sin. However, this contradicts Genesis 3:19, where God told Adam that he would return to dust, as well as the clear teaching of 1 Corinthians 15:12–58 that the punishment must have included physical death—hence Jesus (‘the last Adam’) died physically on the cross and rose physically from the dead.