Thursday, September 4, 2008

POST #18: Evolution, Red in Tooth and Claw (part 2)

Nature’s bloody brutality, exhibited in the processes of natural selection, is pressed into service by two opposing viewpoints. Atheists point out that such a display of cruelty cannot possibly be the work of a loving, personal God. Ergo, the case is made: “No God!” Creationists point out that such a display cannot possibly be the work of a loving, personal God. Ergo, the case is made: “No evolution!”

Rarely do these two divergent groups agree on anything. But here they find common ground:
God, and his creative purposes, as typically presented by traditional church teachings, is wholly incompatible with evolution.

What of the growing population of Bible-believing Christians who accept the evidence of evolution. Are we caught up in a sea of schizophrenic denial? Is there no way to bring into harmony the creative purposes of a loving God, and the modus operandi he apparently chose for creation?

part 1 of this post, I discussed the originator of the phrase, “Red in tooth and claw,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Compelled by the untimely death of friend to deal with the dilemmas of a cruel Nature and a loving God, Tennyson is left only with a faith-shaken hope that the mystery will somehow be resolved.

[Not all believers see a problem here that needs solving (see, for example the
Stephen Douglas exchange with Tom in the comment thread following part one.) But the arguments that death, animal pain, thousands of species extinctions, and other examples of natural evil pose no theodicy problem fail to convince me, and many other theists and atheists alike.]

If we posit the premise of atheist and Creationist, that a loving and personal God, and his creative purposes, as typically presented by traditional church teachings, are incompatible with evolution, Christians who accept evolution are left with few choices. Either,
  1. Evolution has not, in fact, been a brutal display red in tooth and claw, or
  2. God is not loving and personal, or
  3. the traditional church teachings have failed to tell the whole story, or to tell it accurately.
Of these three alternatives, I find the first indefensible, the second unacceptable, and the third thus highly probable. I am thus compelled to seek a retelling of the story of the ages, one that takes into consideration all the data available to us in this late day. Many of my biblicist friends are troubled by even the admission that we must search for a more fitting, more compelling metanarrative for the Christian story. “God said it, that settles it,” they tell me. Of course, that presumes that God finished his speaking 2000 years ago; that we have nothing to learn of his purposes and plans from the volumes of historical and scientific data which are unfolding before our very eyes. No, I cannot join their contentment with a traditional telling of the story; for this believer, the search is imperative.

My personal search is guided by Scripture, reason, and principles we can glean from the on-going exploration of God’s creative work. To leave out this ever-expanding source of “General Revelation” is to doom Christian theology to the dustbins of history. When we discover something about the cosmos, something that profoundly impacts theology, and when the discovery is confirmed again and again by science, we must be prepared to adjust our understandings of Scriptural truths where those understandings have been errant. History yields abundant testimony: the church has been painfully slow in learning this lesson.

Earlier in this series, in this
post on Theodicy, I addressed the need to adjust traditional theology in light of entropy’s timeline. There I noted that entropy (which is the driving force of the cosmos, a force of degradation, decay, and death) has been functioning since the very dawn of creation. It is not the result of the Fall, as theologians have long held. Decay, disease, and death predate the Fall of man by billions of years! God created the universe to be entropic from the very start.

In that earlier discussion, I suggested that the creation of the cosmos must have been a divine response to evil. If God created the cosmos with built in concessions, characteristics such as death and decay, from which he planned later to deliver his cosmos, we must ask, 
“Why?” I have suggested that when evil arose in God’s presence, he was confronted with a formidable challenge. The annihilation of evil is the overriding purpose of the cosmos. The destruction of evil is apparently no simple task, but one that required a 13.7 billion year process and a vast entropic universe to accomplish; and that it would involve untold suffering. In this suffering, God himself leads the way; but he also calls upon creation, including man, to suffer with him (see Romans 8:19-24).

Enter the processes of evolution. Viewed in the light of a cosmic battle that has raged for billions of years, the processes which at first seem heartless and cruel can be seen in a different light. They are necessary. We live in a cosmos in which the forces evil have been granted freedom and dominion. These forces are arrayed against everything good, including life itself. And the death principle wielded by the forces of evil (Hebrews 2:14) has had much success in its endeavor to destroy life. For every living species alive today, one hundred or so have become extinct. And yet, here we are. Living beings, capable of faith, capable of relationship with the Creator.

Scripture suggests that the culmination of God’s plan to annihilate evil involves faith-filled living beings such as ourselves, beings who are the end result of this long process, beings whose very existence proves what God knew all along: Life is more powerful than death (see 1 Corinthians 15) and does win out in the end.

The struggle of life has not been painless. It is indeed “red in tooth and claw”. But when viewed as part of the price of the annihilation of evil, all pain and suffering takes on meaning. There is an overriding purpose which will, in the end, render significance and purpose to all suffering, to all pain, to all death.

I am aware that this explanation is incomplete. There are pieces of the puzzle which are not yet understood. And it does not tell the whole story. As others have noted, there is value in suffering on many other levels. But when I consider how essential pain, suffering, and death have been in the Creative purposes of God, I believe such an understanding as I have suggested must be part of the answer. I invite your comments.


James F. McGrath said...

Thanks for your reflection on this. I would just add that it is not simply evolution that poses this problem. The fact that countless organisms starved to death, were eaten by other animals, and so on may be a key part of the mechanism of evolutionary development, but the mechanism is clearly there all around us, visible and undeniable, regardless of whether one accepts evolution or not. So denying that something good came of all this through evolution doesn't really mitigate the problem, and may make it worse.

Of course, young-earth creationists would claim that God gave T-Rex teeth and made harmful viruses and bacteria at the fall as a punishment. But once again, I have to ask whether that claim, rather than these being natural products of a world that is capable of giving rise to intelligent life, really helps lessen the problematic character of what we find in nature.

Psiloiordinary said...

An eloquent posting Cliff.

I really don't want you to think I am proselytising when I recommend "selfish gene" to you (again I think).

Beautifully written, it explores how selfish genes red in tooth and claw have produced altruistic, loving and selfless primates.

To quote Dawkins; "We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

I genuinely think this book will provide a glimpse of some of those puzzle pieces you are still missing.

Kind Regards,


Cliff Martin said...

Yes, the theodicy problem is not limited to prehistoric brutality. The beat goes on ... However, there are many believers who, as you note, chalk up all contemporary suffering to "this fallen world" and who refuse to even look at the evidence for evolution based upon their prior assumption that God just couldn't have created in that fashion. Suffering now is not a problem to them. Pre-adamic suffering would be. I'm into solving problems. And, sadly, sometimes the first step is to convince believers that we really do have a problem to solve! Thank you for your comment!

No fear of your proselytizing here. The list of books to read for this slow reader keeps piling up. One of those books is Dawkin's Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins is a terrific writer and on top of evolutionary biology, for sure. I do want to read more of his books. And, yes, the premise of The Selfish Gene may indeed fit nicely into my ideas about evolution. Thanks for mentioning it again.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
First, I agree with so much of what you said – particularly:

“When we discover something about the cosmos, something that profoundly impacts theology, and when the discovery is confirmed again and again by science, we must be prepared to adjust our understandings of Scriptural truths where those understandings have been errant. History yields abundant testimony: the church has been painfully slow in learning this lesson.”

Absolutely. Well said.

One minor quibble and then a question. First the quibble.

I don’t think we should be so quick to equate “nature red in tooth and claw” with “evolution red in tooth and claw”. I think we can all agree with the first part. However, nature (or creation ) is more than just evolution. Evolution is just one aspect of how creation works. The fact of pain, suffering, and death is the really difficult challenge; evolution just describes the connections between different generations (common descent) and the mechanisms that allow divergence of life forms (eg. natural selection and genetic mutations). In one way, you can describe evolution as the anti-dote to death.

But this really doesn’t change the essence of your argument (except that I’d state your option #1 as “Nature has not, in fact, been a brutal display red in tooth and claw” – and I agree with your assessment that that option is indefensible). Theodicy is a really big – THE biggest philosophical challenge for Christianity.

Now the question:

Your hypothesis is that evil pre-existed the creation of our universe & that the creation of our universe was God’s mechanism to eradicate evil. I’m wondering why you feel this is a better answer to theodicy than the combination of the “free-will defense” (ably defended by Plantinga) and Polkinghorne’s adaptation of this with the “free-process defense”. What deficiencies in the “free-process defense” do you think are addressed by your thesis?

Dan Werner said...


I'm intrigued by your solution. If I'm not mistaken, Greg Boyd holds to a similar view. The Pain and Suffering problem is the biggest hurdle for me as an ECer. I have not yet found a solution completely convincing. Even Denis Lamoureux's solution left me somewhat bewildered. Thanks for your valuable input.

Cliff Martin said...

What I know of Polkinghorne's Free Process solution I appreciate (you, I'm sure, have a fuller grasp of Polkinghorne). It certainly fits into the scheme I have presented. But, from what I know, Free Process is not bound together by an overriding purpose other than an interesting way to frame and create a universe. To me, it sounds like God is just tinkering. As for the free will theodicy, it has never fully satisfied me. I find it nearly abhorrent to consider that God would deem cruelty, brutality, pain, suffering, murder, etc. as an acceptable price to pay for free will. But, again, if there is an overriding purpose and goal as I have proposed, both Free Process and the free will theodicies are given meaningful context.

Thank you for your comment, and welcome to OutsideTheBox. I have been told that Boyd uses a "cosmic battle" approach in his theodicy. I have read some books by Boyd, but not his theodicy. I recently purchased Is God to Blame and hope to read it soon. I agree with nearly everything Boyd writes, and it will not surprise me if he comes out in a very similar place when it comes to theodicy. One thing I've wondered about is whether Boyd is an EC. I suspect he is, and keeps it quiet.

Jen said...

Hi Cliff,
regarding Greg Boyd, you might be interested in what he has to say here:

hope those are right, I have no idea how to do links other than cut and paste.


Cliff Martin said...

Thanks, Jen.

Both addresses worked fine (and I took the liberty to delete your second comment, since there was no problem with the first one). I would be glad to show you how to create a link, if you are interested. Email me.

Wow. In the first Boyd post (from April of this year) Boyd even quotes some of the same lines from Tennyson that I quote in part one of this post. Honest, folks, I did not read Boyd's post until today!

My initial response to Boyd: I do appreciate his approach, and it is similar to my own. He apparently is not a "closet" evolutionist, but indeed, an outspoken one. He attributes evolutionary process to the active superintendency of both God and Satan. I view evolution more as a natural Darwinian process sans the active participation of God or evil. I would suggest that the rules of engagement in the cosmic battle rule out direct supernatural intervention. Death, degradation and decay are natural processes which, while in keeping with the purposes of evil, are not micromanaged by the Evil One. Life, as I see it, has its own intrinsic vital force which is greater than the powers of death arrayed against it. Life wins, because Life is of God.

Some will see doublespeak in all of this. It is not easy to sort out, a lot of speculation, etc. But I am hoping that an on-going discussion will prove to be productive.

Stephen Douglas said...

Hey Cliff,

I started to write a book here on your blog. I'm going to post it on my blog instead sometime in the immediate future. Just FYI. :)

Tom said...


Nothing to add from our previous discussions, but I just wrote a related post on my blog where you will see me thinking "outside the box". ;-)

Psiloiordinary said...

Warning to Cliff.

My comment on Tom's post can be seriously dangerous to faith. Especially when I get around to posting the link.

Think of it as turning the box inside out.



Cliff Martin said...

Thank you Psi,

Far from endangering my faith, your posted link to Stephen Law’s inversion of the “Problem of Evil” serves to strengthen my argument that the standard theodicies of Christianity are woefully inadequate when it comes to this central issue. Thank you for the link. I found Law’s tongue-in-cheek God of Eth debate both highly entertaining and, for the most part, logical. While I might take issue with some of his points, there is really no need. I, too, have rejected all the arguments which he so deftly destroys.

Tom’s evil evolution Hypothesis (were you spoofing me, Tom? because your hypothesis bears little resemblance to the ideas in my post) is also interesting, but I’ve heard no Christian evolutionist propose such a thing.

For me, both responses do nothing more than solidify my conviction that a cosmic battle approach to the reality we observe is the only approach that works.

Does Law's atheism “work”? Not for me. As absurd as Law makes theism out to be, personally, I find atheism to be at least as absurd. If Law thinks his purposeless, nihilist, meaningless existence as an atheist is somehow more attractive than a theism that admits to mystery, he is mistaken (at least for this believer).

Even when encountering this strange confluence of unfathomable evil and boundless good, I find more explanatory power in theism (even with its mysteries) than atheism. Law presumes that if theism cannot solve all riddles, than nihilism is surely the superior worldview. Where is the logic in that?

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

LOL. Lots more things that it turns out we agree on then.

- - -

BTW Law's, and my own existence has plenty of meaning thank you very much. The trick is that you use your rational mind and your experience as a human being to decide what it is.

Are you really claiming that there is no meaning or purpose if that meaning or purpose comes from within you?

How do you justify that?



Cliff Martin said...


I know you well enough to be assured that you have found personal meaning and significance in life. No doubt Stephen Law has also found purpose. Here’s my problem: If purpose and meaning are purely subjective as you contend, then ultimately there is no purpose or meaning at all. If person A finds within him purpose and meaning, and person B finds a purpose and meaning that is 180° opposite to that of person A, who is right? You might reply that they are both right. But the net result is that you just admitted there exists no objective purpose or meaning to life; we are left to our own devices and fabrications, and in the end, even our fabrications are meaningless.

If you find that satisfying, go for it! I find it completely unsatisfying. Rather than conceding to nihilism, I prefer to continue my search for ultimate purpose. Even should life prove to be as purposeless as you believe it to be, I choose to spend my life on a quest to understand an overriding, objective purpose for existence, and for my life. Am I begging the question? perhaps. But even if you could prove to me that there is a 99% likelihood that existence is nihilistic, I would spend my life in search of the 1% chance that life has ultimate meaning.

In this light, it is not incumbent upon me (as Law suggests) to begin with theistic proofs. Even though the evidences from creation, from experience, from science are inconclusive, they are more than adequate to justify my search. Beauty, human affection, the Big Bang, occam’s razor, sentience, and the deep seated god-consciousness residing in most people ... these, you tell me, prove nothing. But for me, they provide ample grounds for my suspicion that I need not settle for a purposeless existence.

Tom said...

([W]ere you spoofing me, Tom? because your hypothesis bears little resemblance to the ideas in my post) is also interesting, but I’ve heard no Christian evolutionist propose such a thing.

No, I was not spoofing you. I love sarcasm, and even try it on occasion, but it was not overtly intended to mock theists who also believe in evolution.

My premise is that the evolution and theism do not mix and I would like to discuss my reasoning, because I did not treat the issue lightly when assuming the ramifications of choosing apostacism. My intent with the post is to challenge theistic evolutionists. In assuming a deity and evolution, the battle for me was coming up with a theology that made sense. I couldn't. In seeing the themes of theistic evolutionist websites, I thought up "evil evolution" which puts to bed many of the issues that crop up and are expressed in these websites. What has yet to be determined is if my hypothesis is wrong. I will bet that I can find more Biblical support for it than what a theistic evolutionist can muster supporting God's use of evolution. I don't say that to sound cocky, but the knee-jerk response of theists who then accept evolution is that "evolution must be part of God's design". Why must death, pain, suffering, and the competition for survival be part of any divine plan? Why couldn't it be part of the wager and the situation God and the Devil were placed at with the Big Bang?

Just because no Christian has thought of this is no reason to believe that it is not worthy of merit. If God can work through random mutation, can He not also work through an atheist?

Any "mocking" that was intended is to show that I believe evolution is purposeless. (Not that life is). What survives is what survives. If you want to say that a supernatural uses evolution, then you have an issue with theodicy and the problem of pain if that supernatural is the definition of Good. The Devil is also supernatural. In my post I have delivered a premise that describes how these supernatural powers of Good and Evil duke it out, naturally. In my case, by choosing Evil as the cause of evolution, I have a problem with Good. That "problem" is dealt with through Jesus. You still have to deal with the problem of evil.

Tom said...

If person A finds within him purpose and meaning, and person B finds a purpose and meaning that is 180° opposite to that of person A, who is right? You might reply that they are both right. But the net result is that you just admitted there exists no objective purpose or meaning to life; we are left to our own devices and fabrications, and in the end, even our fabrications are meaningless.


Materialism does not equate to nihilism, and in fact, theist and atheist positions cannot be segregated when it comes down to "meaning". Here's why. All of us have to work in the confines of the material. So, what you draw upon, even if you call it "from God", is a material thing -- the parchment, the voice, the thought, whatever, or however "inspired" is material. Therefore, to jump the gun and equate atheism with meaninglessness disregards the channels of communication we all employ within ourselves and between each other to make our collective experience more enjoyable.

That being said, I'll jump the gun and predict that you envision inspiration comes from God and obviously manifests itself in the material. A believer who requests such power will be given gifts unavailable to unbelievers that do not solicit such inspiration, and unbelievers will not really know what they aren't able to experience.

Let me say, up front, that stance is pompous, but let me also say, my stance that the comforts of materialism could bring to theists if they'd only give it a chance, is equally pompous. Okay, now that that's out of the way, what I'm saying is that "meaning" whether you want to attribute it to a God -- or if I do not -- is a gobbly-gook of experience, information, and goals for us individually and even between each other. When the Christian implores God for meaning, what is he/she doing? They are asking the Bible, their church members, and God through prayer to supply this information. The first two venues are entirely material and prayer is, well, our personal thoughts and wishes and a way of interpreting future events after we have prayed for such things. So, again, it's all material. Similarly, an atheist might call upon self-help or philosophy books (even the Bible?), friends, and interpret events through our own wishful thoughts. We ascribe meaning through the same devices and largely the same sources. There is no way that you can describe what is inspired of a supernatural source from what is not. You can imagine a 1% ultimate purpose, but there is no way to prove that purpose is anything less than 100% subjective.

Anonymous said...

This isn't so much on Theodicy-But regarding the nature of God and or TRUTH.
First of all #3. is correct, ‘the traditional church teachings have failed to tell the whole story, or to tell it accurately’.
This is a true statement. This is where manuscript criticism comes in handy-but Bruce Metzger passed on-but alas we have his books, he should be consulted as he was considered the expert on Biblical textual criticism.
Over the centuries there have been many-a-man’s agenda. For example compare the King James Bible with the Geneva Bible, or Jerome’s Latin Vulgate with Origin’s Latin interlinear, or Vaticanus with the Qumran. You’re going to find some discrepancies (inerrancies if you will) between them. Now I know I’m stepping on toes with that word inerrancy-but nonetheless its true. Judaism scribes made sure the deity of Christ was not found in various ‘Old Testament’ manuscripts, likewise Christian scribes (the scripture that made ‘the cut’/canonized) after the Arian ‘heresy’ made sure the deity of Christ was written in. [what of the Gnositc texts that didn’t make the cut-perhaps there were too many female voices] ) ...hmmm Judaism without Christ vs Christianity which was a sect of Judaism (Paulinism) with Christ, which one was right?? Judaism or Christianity? I think it was the case of whose agenda would prevail in what century in what geographical area, in what cultural mêlée.
Or consider this what was ‘lost’ or ‘found’ in translation. From Hebrew to Aramaic, from Hebrew to Latin, from Latin to Greek, from Hebrew to Greek: then from all the above into English!

“I SHALL PROVE TO BE WHAT I SHALL PROVE TO BE.” Heb., היהא רשׁא היהא (’Eh·yeh′ ’Asher′ ’Eh·yeh′), God’s own self-designation; Leeser, “I WILL BE THAT I WILL BE”; Rotherham, “I Will Become whatsoever I please.” Gr., E·go′ ei·mi ho on, “I am The Being,” or, “I am The Existing One”; Lat., e′go sum qui sum, “I am Who I am.” ’Eh·yeh′ comes from the Heb. verb ha·yah′, “become; prove to be.” Here ’Eh·yeh′ , “I shall become”; or, “I shall prove to be.” (Bible Dictionary).

We keep anthropomorphizing God as if she/he/it is a being like us humans.
I think we will get a truer picture of God and ourselves as we unitize, synthesize, and reasonize all that we know about life that we have put in Aristotelian categories, i.e., theology/philosophy, anatomy/zoology, botony/cosmology etc... as they are all bearers of TRUTH.

Anonymous said...

Having laid that foundation first, I do believe in the so called ‘free-process’, but also the create-as-you-go process. Meaning we are co-creators with ‘God’, as we THINK and SPEAK things into existence (not to mention our actions). Words and thoughts become reality. The universe is complex and we are ‘plugged’ into it. I think the ideation of ‘evil’ is a huge value laden concept that perhaps needs to be unpacked a bit before we can truely talk about ‘evil’ or theodicy.


Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

First of all you have not answered why your selection of one of the 3,000 gods out there and then choosing one particular interpretation of one particular translation of one small group of human being selection of a particular set of books rather than another can count as being objective.

I realise that this goes straight back to the whole "have you got some evidence or not then question" that I have been nagging away at for about about a year now - but there you go.

Secondly you ignore a couple of things that I have already told you about more than once. Surely you haven't forgotten?

First that I believe in democracy and the rule of law. Secondly that I think we have an innate evolved altruism or moral sense which will give us a huge amount of common ground between folks on what is right and wrong. I have previously quoted studies showing no difference in the answers to moral questions between theists and non theists.

So please resist your urge to just fall back on straw man arguments.




The question was why an "outside" purpose was in any way more meaningful than an inside one based on an evolved innate moral sense?

Psiloiordinary said...

Here are a couple of short posts from Law that address your own claims.

Before you come back on my claims.



Cliff Martin said...

Tom and Psi,

I started a reply to your latest comments here, but quickly concluded that answering your questions and points about ultimate purpose would be better done in a new post. The discussion is off-topic here anyway, and my answer would be too lengthy for a new comment.

I don’t believe I have fallen back on straw man arguments (my perspective, of course), but it is quite clear to me that Stephen Law has done so in the linked posts from Psi. 
As I frame a post, should I respond directly to your comments here? or should I respond to the Stephen Law posts? or both?

I do agree with Law when he complains that most Christians do not allow themselves to think about these questions with much depth or intellectual honesty. I hope I can prove to be an exception to that rule.

~ Cliff

Psiloiordinary said...

Hey Cliff,

Fancy me taking a thread off topic??


Feel free to reply how you prefer.

Sorry for throwing "strawman" around but you are claiming to describe my view - and you aren't.

I totally vote for you as an exception to Law's comment on thinking Christians.

Best Regards,


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,

But, from what I know, Free Process is not bound together by an overriding purpose other than an interesting way to frame and create a universe.

“Fred Process” is not THE purpose of creation, but I believe it is “bound together by the overriding purpose” of creation. In creating the universe, the creator allowed something other than himself to be – Polkinghorne often speaks of creation as “being and becoming”. Ultimately in the new creation all things will be reconciled to God. I think that creation / redemption / reconciliation are all reflections of the same process; they are certainly part of the same story. The eschatological hope of this “new creation” is the purpose of creation, and I don’t believe this hope could be realized if the Creator limited his creation to autonoma.

Certainly there are challenges to this (as you have alluded). I really have 2 points:

1) As Plantinga showed (IMHO) in “God, Freedom, and Evil”, the co-existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, all loving creator & evil is not a logical fallacy (as so often assumed / claimed); difficult to understand certainly, but not illogical.

2) As I indicated in my first comment, I’m really puzzled what philosophical advantage the model of “creation as mechanism to defeat evil” has over the “free process” model. In the former model, God still allowed evil to come into being at some point (prior to our universe) but there doesn’t seem to be a hint of an explanation as the why; the latter model at least hints at the reason why it occurred in this universe. I know that “fuller explanation” doesn’t necessarily mean “better” but I guess I also see no advantage to the lesser explained model – maybe that is something you are still going to get to in future posts. I do see one theological disadvantage of the former – it smacks somewhat of dualism to me. I know we’ve discussed this before & I am not accusing you of this; just that it is something that I believe you need to carefully explain.