The Problem of Natural Evil and Animal Suffering

by Austin Pounds


            One of the greatest challenges to theism is the problem of evil, pain, and suffering in the world. How could an all-powerful, benevolent God allow this world to be full of such evil? Theologians have pondered this question since the conception of Christianity. Oftentimes the conversation on this topic has been relegated to the realm of human suffering.  However, one issue that often gets ignored in theodicy is the problem of natural evil and animal suffering. Modern science exacerbates the problem since it shows that evolution is the process by which biological complexity has been brought forward through billions of years. Charles Darwin, the pioneer of modern evolutionary theory, elegantly captures the problem of evolution in his classical work The Origins of Species by stating, “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”[1] This is upsetting for many, since they cannot reconcile a good and loving God with the process of evolution. Bethany Sollereder shares this intuition by asking, “How is God’s love expressed in the intense suffering of a young fawn, brought down by a predator or, worse still, accidentally burnt alive in a forest fire… Is the project of creation worth the risk of even one innocent creature who suffers and dies in agony?”[2] Different theological and philosophical schools of thought offer different answers to the problem of natural evil and animal suffering in order to show the compatibility between Christian theism and the reality of such evil. However, this article will focus particularly on open and relational theology and how this paradigm of theology can answer the problem of natural evil and animal suffering.

What is Open and Relational Theology

            Before getting into how open and relational theology can address the problems of natural evil and animal suffering, it will need to be defined. According to Thomas Jay Oord, open and relational theology tends to hold three core themes as its core.[3] The first theme is that God and creation are in relationship with one another and influence each other.[4] The second theme is that the future is not settled but is instead open.[5] This means that neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur before it happens. Finally, open and relational theology affirms the idea that love is the greatest among God’s attributes and is the lens from which one should understand God’s relationship with creation.[6] While all open and relational thinkers will affirm these three themes, they still disagree with each other over nuances on how these ideas should be worked out and connect with each other. Some of these nuances will be explored even throughout this article. However, open and relational theology is an umbrella term to describe any theology which affirms these three ideas and is, therefore, not monolithic.

Exploring the Problem

Now that open and relational theology has been briefly defined, we can reflect on the nuances of the problem of natural evil and animal suffering. The problem of evil is like a diamond. It has many facets that make up the whole of the problem. The facets most relevant to the topic of natural evil and animal suffering are the logical problem of evil and the evidentialist problem of evil. The logical problem of evil is one that seeks to show that belief in theism is irrational by showing that there is a logical contradiction between the reality of evil and an all-powerful, all-loving God. The evidentialist problem of evil is one that seeks to show from observation and experience that there are evils which make God’s existence less probable. If God’s existence is less probable, belief in his non-existence is more justified and rational while belief in his existence is more irrational. Both of these problems can be incorporated into natural evil. For example, the logical problem of evil would say that a fawn dying in a forest fire or being eaten by a predator is logically inconsistent with an all-powerful, all-loving God. If the reality of the fawn dying is true then God cannot exist logically. In order to show Christian theism to be rational given the logical problem of evil and the evidentialist problem of evil, the Christian theist must show that God is not logically inconsistent with the reality of natural evil nor is his existence less probable given natural evil. Before doing that, both the logical problem of evil and the evidentialist problem of evil will need to be expounded upon.

The Logical Problem of Evil

J.L. Mackie’s logical problem of evil is probably the most well-known for this type of argument. Mackie asserts that if God is omnipotent and good then evil should not exist, since a good God would do his best to eradicate evil and an omnipotent being has no limits which means it should be able to stop evil.[7] If one were to put this in a syllogism, the argument would go like this

Premise 1: God is omnipotent

Premise 2: God is wholly good

Premise 3: A good God would eradicate evil as far as he could

Premise 4: An omnipotent being has no limits in power

Premise 5: Evil exists

Conclusion: God is either not omnipotent, good, or real given the reality of evil.

The logical problem of evil is deductive rather than inductive, even though its premises can be evidentially validated such as “evil exists.” Although, it would probably serve Mackie’s argument better to give a specific kind or example of evil rather than just saying “evil exists.” If one were to use natural evil and animal suffering as the example, then the argument would say that an all-good and omnipotent God would seek to eradicate natural disasters that kill animals and people because these events cause much suffering, death, and loss. Therefore, natural disasters that cause suffering, death, and loss are inconsistent with an omnipotent and good God. Mackie goes even further though by claiming that not only is the reality of evil contradictory to the existence of God, but it also makes belief in theism irrational since essential doctrines are inconsistent with one another.[8] For example, God’s goodness seems to be out of sorts with God’s omnipotence if evil exists, since a good God would want to stop evil and an omnipotent God could stop evil. Given this, Mackie concludes that the theologian must, “now be prepared to believe, not merely what cannot be proved, but what can be disproved from other beliefs that he also holds.”[9] Mackie believes that a person could answer this problem but only by rejecting one of the premises. He writes, “If you are prepared to say that God is not wholly good, or not quite omnipotent, or that evil does not exist, or that good is not opposed to the kind of evil that exists, or that there are limits to what an omnipotent thing can do, then the problem of evil will not arise for you.”[10]

Responding to the Logical Problem of Evil

            To show the logical problem of evil to be false, one would need to show that there is no contradiction or inconsistency between God being omnipotent and good and the reality of evil. Mackie’s argument, earlier, relies mostly on premise 3 (A good God would eradicate evil as far as he could) and 4 (An omnipotent being has no limits in power).[11] Open and relational theologians and philosophers, along with most classical ones as well, take issue with the way Mackie defines omnipotence. Both open and classical theologians throughout time have proposed questions about the limits of God’s omnipotence regarding logical impossibilities. Can God make square circles? Can God create a rock so big that no one can lift it, including himself? Can God both exist and not exist at the same time? If one argues that God cannot do logically contradictory things, then Mackie’s premise that an omnipotent being has no limits is flawed. Other strands of open and relational thought believe that the type of omnipotence given by Mackie is ontologically mistaken due to God’s essence being love. For example, Oord believes that God’s essence is uncontrolling love and, therefore, the power to coerce and totally control others is something that God has no ability to do.[12] Oord calls this view God’s essential kenosis.[13] If God has no ability to coerce or control creation then the logical problem of evil is also defeated since God does not have the type of power that can coerce or control creation’s  agency. Essentially, the logical problem of evil doesn’t cause much inconsistency for the open theologian or philosopher because God’s relationship with the world is one driven by love, and that love involves risk given that creation is free to resist and reject God’s love. God cannot simultaneously have a world where creation is free to resist and reject him and have a world without the possibility of evil. While these arguments will suffice in dealing with the logical problem of evil, more will be needed to address the evidential problem of evil.

The Evidential Problem of Evil

According to Paul Draper, the evidential problem is an argument based on the observation that there are evils in the word that serve no purpose and provoke a negative response to theistic belief[14] The classical evidentialist argument comes from philosopher William Rowe who makes the claim that there are instances of intense suffering that God could prevent without losing some greater good.[15] Furthermore, God would prevent any occurrence of such suffering unless, by doing so, a much greater good is lost.[16] The difference between Rowe’s argument and Mackie’s argument is that Rowe’s premise that there is suffering God could prevent without losing a greater good is one that cannot be known with certainty. However, this doesn’t matter for the argument since the argument is not looking for certainty but probability based on experience and testimony. According to Rowe, it is more probable that there is no greater good that justifies certain sufferings such as a young fawn being burned alive in a fire and dying a slow torturous death or a young child being raped, beaten, and strangled to death.[17] The force behind this argument is that it is inductive and appeals to the common experience of humanity. Most people would try to save the deer from suffering and dying. Most people would also try to stop the rape, beating, and murder of a five-year-old child. Is humanity kinder and more compassionate than God? Now a theist might say, “there are reasons God allows for these things to take place, even if those reasons are a mystery to us.” While Rowe might even concede that there may be a greater good out there, his argument deals with probability. It is more probable that there are no good reasons to let this intense suffering happen, and that it is more probable, given this intense suffering and the amount of it in the world, that a good, omnipotent, and omniscient God does not exist.

Open and Relational Responses to the Evidentialist Problem of Evil

            The evidential argument from evil, being an inductive argument surrounding experience and probability, is a much harder problem for theists to explain. Rowe’s argument could be simplified as such:

Premise 1: Gratuitous evil exists

Premise 2: If God existed, he would prevent gratuitous evil

Conclusion: God does not exist

Gratuitous evil is evil that serves no purpose and could be prevented without a greater good being diminished. This problem is significantly magnified given the natural process of evolution. Regarding this, atheist philosopher Quentin Smith writes, “It seemed to me self-evident that the natural law that animals must savagely kill and devour each other in order to survive was an evil natural law and that the obtaining of this law was sufficient that God did not exist.”[18] Smith argues that God does not have to create a natural law that leads to something inherently evil such as predation.[19] Instead, God could choose to make all of the animals the same except without a carnivorous nature.[20] The problem of animal suffering and natural evil seem to contain many examples of gratuitous evil, whether that be through the process of evolution producing predatory animals or through natural disasters that destroy much and cause unnecessary suffering.

Open and relational theology offers a plethora of responses to the evidentialist problem of evil. For the most part, classical defenses which seek to show flaws in the first premise of Rowe’s argument (i.e., that gratuitous evil exists) can be incorporated into an open and relational framework. However, open and relational theology offers new apologetic arguments that seek to show the compatibility between God and gratuitous evil which undermines the second premise of the argument. Examples of both types of responses will be given along with potential weaknesses.

Skeptical Theism in an Open and Relational Framework

            Skeptical theism is one of the defenses commonly used by theists to undermine the first premise of Rowe’s argument “that gratuitous evil exists.” Nick Takakis defines skeptical theism as, “the view that there exists a great epistemic gulf between God and humanity, so that various aspects of God—such as his will, intentions, and goals—are bound to strike us as mysterious.”[21] This is important because it undermines Rowe’s first point that we can know that there are evils which serve no greater purpose or could be prevented without losing some greater good. Takakis makes the point that Rowe’s argument has a built in assumption that if there were justified goods served by such horrendous evils then one should be able to see or comprehend these goods and since one cannot see or comprehend these goods they, therefore, do not exist.[22] Skeptical theists seek to show that such an assumption is unreasonable. An analogy of a mother taking her child to a doctor can help show the skeptical theist’s perspective. A mother takes a child to a doctor because the child is sick, which prompts the doctor to give the child a shot which causes pain to the child. The child screams as a stranger is stabbing them and their mother is doing nothing to stop it. While this is certainly confusing for the child, the mother understands that the pain is necessary for the greater good of the child’s health. Like the mother, God has reasons why he allows great evils to happen and these evils serve a greater purpose that humanity cannot fully understand yet. An open and relational theist can also use this defense by stating that God does not allow any evil which would undermine a greater purpose or good and therefore unilaterally works to prevent such evils from taking place. Therefore, any evil which does occur is allowed for that greater purpose or good even if we cannot understand what those purposes and goods are.

            Critics of skeptical theism might argue that this view doesn’t fully deal with the evidential problem of evil. While it does argue against the assumption that we can know if a certain evil is actually gratuitous, it raises other problems. For example, Rowe notes that the good parent analogy doesn’t translate well to the God of classical theism.[23] The parent is not all powerful nor all knowing and must sometimes allow pain to happen to their children in order to bring forth a certain good. God, on the other hand, is all powerful and all knowing, which makes Rowe question whether God actually has to allow certain instances of evil to happen in order to get some greater good.[24] For example, does God have to let every evil at Auschwitz happen in order for some greater good to be preserved? Could God not achieve the greater good he desires without those instances of evil happening? There is also the problem of divine hiddenness. Rowe notes that a good parent would do everything possible to be present with their children, assuring them that things will be okay and comforting them with love.[25] However, there are many humans, and probably even animals, who go through horrendous suffering without feeling God’s loving presence during their suffering. Finally, this defense seems to render both human intuition and reason useless and untrustworthy for understanding the problem of evil. This also applies to human reasoning and intuiting regarding animal pain and suffering. Is one really to believe that there is some greater good that comes through, for example, a killer whale playing with a seal before it kills it by launching it 50 feet into the air as its skin starts to separate from its body on impact of the water below? Regarding this argument’s viability for open and relational theology, one might also object that if God cannot know the future as a settled event then God cannot know for sure if certain actions will lead to gratuitous evil or not.

In response to these criticisms, Michael Bergmann makes the point that Rowe is too quick to assume that if God knows of justified goods for each instance of evil that God would therefore not be silent towards creation. He says that God could know of justified goods that permit his silence to a creation who is suffering.[26] In other words, God could have reasons for not being explicitly present with those who are suffering and hurting which would therefore lead to a greater good happening or keep a greater good from being lost. According to Bergmann, the divine silence objection is simply moving the argument back a step since the proponent of the evidentialists argument has to wonder how they could reasonably come to the conclusion that there are no goods which would justify God’s silence in certain instances of evil.[27] Additionally, skeptical theism renders human intuition and reasoning untrustworthy when observing evil and suffering that appears aimless. Regarding this point, Bergmann and others seem to bite the bullet. They believe humanity is not in a place to know whether the goods we currently know of are representative of every good reality has to offer. While the advocate of skeptical theism may have to agree that one cannot know, either intuitively or otherwise, whether a certain kind of evil is gratuitous, they can argue that based on the character and love of God that God would not allow gratuitous evil to occur. The open and relational theist, who advocates for skeptical theism, could also make the case that God does not have to know the future as a settled event to prevent gratuitous evil. If God knows that certain actions and choices have a great possibility of bringing about pointless evil then God, being infinitely wise and omnipotent, could respond in such a way that either those choices will not be made or that those choices will not lead to pointless evil and suffering. However, this does imply that creation does not have the freedom to commit gratuitous evil


Another defense or theodicy that can be given from an open and relational standpoint is a soul-making defense or theodicy. Advocates of this defense or theodicy also normally believe that there are no instances of gratuitous evils. However, there are some versions that do allow for the possibility of gratuitous evil. John Hick is arguably the most well-known advocate of a soul-making theodicy. He organizes this theodicy around the theology of church father Irenaeus and argues that there is a difference between being made in the “image of God,” and being shaped into God’s “likeness.”[28] While mankind is a morally intelligent being capable of knowing and having a relationship with the divine (i.e. being made in the image of God), this is only the beginning of the process towards a deeper existence which reflects, in a finite way, the life of the creator himself.[29] Hick sets this up in contrast to an Augustinian account of original sin and prelapsarian perfection by noting that human beings have never been in a state of prelapsarian perfection according to the natural evolutionary story.[30] Prelapsarian perfection refers to the idea that God originally created a perfect world and perfect humanity from which humanity fell and sin was introduced. Therefore, Hick is making the case that God did not start out creating a perfect world that had no death or sin initially but created a world where humanity could grow and develop into beings made in the image of God and then, ultimately, into the likeness of God.

Using this framework, Hick makes two points for a contemporary theodicy. The first point is that in order for God to create truly free, autonomous individuals, who are in relationship with himself, they must be created at an epistemic distance since a finite creature created directly in God’s own presence would destroy any real freedom that individual had of loving God.[31] In other words, the world which is religiously ambiguous offers the grounds for which a being is free to love God or reject God. Secondly, Hick agrees with critics of the free will defense that God could have created a free being who was, by nature, morally perfect. This being has the freedom to sin but would never choose to do so. For this reason, Hick believes that God didn’t create such a being since it is of more value that a being works hard to make good, right decisions in situations of challenge and hardship rather than making good decisions on the basis of certain values being pre-programmed into one’s very being which would make such decisions easy and second nature.[32] Therefore, the world we live in is suitable for the distance from God one would need to freely choose a relationship with him and is also the world which provides the types of situations that lead to more valuable moral agency and character. In fact, natural evil resulting from natural processes, laws, and regularities might enable the situations from which moral agency and character might be built.

Richard Swinburne notes that in order for a being to make a moral choice one must know whether the outcome of their actions will either lead to a good or negative outcome which can only happen if the world has regularities that made such outcomes consistent in the shared experience of humanity and the wider animal kingdom.[33] This is important since moral agency and moral character development would be impossible in a world where the laws of nature changed when bad consequences were about to befall a creature so that the creature never experienced pain or suffering. Imagine if fire suddenly turned to sulfur right before it was about to burn an animal or a person. There would be no morally right decision when it came to trying to set someone on fire since there would never be a negative consequence for such an action. An individual must have knowledge of a harmful consequence prior to doing the action that causes that consequence in order to be a moral agent in that situation. Swinburne connects this to natural evil when he says that, “There must be natural evils (whether caused by natural processes or brought about accidentally by men) if men are to know how to cause evils themselves or are to prevent evil occurring.”[34] Someone must know that fire burns and causes suffering if one is to make a decision to burn someone. Likewise, one has to know how to stop a fire if one is going to ease suffering. Therefore, without a regulatory universe where natural laws are constant, there would be no moral agency or moral character development. Trent Dougherty goes even further in stating that this world isn’t just the grounds that can develop moral agents, but it is also right for making, in his own words, “saints.”[35]According to Dougherty, saints are beings who are able to reflect the agape love of God and strive to defeat evil through self-sacrifice in service to both others and God.[36]

            While one might argue that this theodicy helps address the problem of evil for human beings, it is unclear how this helps other species of animals who are not human. After all, Hick doesn’t believe that animals have the requisite cognitive power or the power of moral free will in order to fall into the type of soul making that humans do.[37] Trent Dougherty, however, argues that just as God is orienting humanity towards saintliness (deification), so also is he orienting animals towards saintliness as well.[38] He contends that animals do have souls on the basis of scripture, church tradition, and reason and that these souls can be developed just as human souls can.[39] He argues that just as a human infant, who doesn’t have much meaning making power in his or her own life narrative at such a young age, will grow and develop into a being who is capable of moral free will, self-reflection, and who can obtain greater knowledge and greater capacity for love and righteousness, so too can animals grow into creatures of greater cognitive capacity and moral personification and agency.[40] Dougherty maintains that animals, just as humans, will not only be formed in this life but also the afterlife.[41] This would mean that the world is set up for not only human soul-making but also animal soul-making, and that any harm, hardships, or sufferings that occur are there for the purpose of deification and development.

The biggest objection to this view is that there seems to be excessive suffering that extends past the point of soul-making. William Rowe, when critiquing Hick’s theodicy, says as much by stating, “when we look at particular evils, it seems ludicrous to suppose that, had God prevented any one of these evils, someone’s moral and spiritual development would thereby have been prevented or in some way frustrated.”[42] This intuitively makes sense, especially when one considers someone who has a chronic disease which consistently causes them pain. Dougherty, in response to this critique, argues that we have no evidence that such evils occur which either do not lead to the development of heroic and saintly virtue or cannot be defeated and counterbalanced in one’s total existence.[43] Of course this comes with the assumption that deification is the goal of life and that one is still in the process of being made “Christ-like,” even after death. In this regard, Dougherty is using a type of skeptical theism, but a much more nuanced version since it argues for a specific kind of good that the evils in this world help in formulating. An open and relational theologian could argue for the soul-making theodicy given above, but they could add that real moral freedom requires an open future from which possibilities can be actualized for the development of saintly virtues.

Cosmic Fall Theodicy:

            One of the theodicies that allow for the reality of gratuitous evil is what is commonly called “Cosmic-Fall Theodicy,” which is thought to have originated in the works of Augustine. This view proposes that God created creation as good, and that sin is what brought disorder and chaos into both the human world and natural world. This view understands all death, pain, and suffering as a result of either human or angelic sin. This article will deal briefly with both views, since both views can be understood from an open and relational framework. Today many Christians, usually young-earth creationists, believe that all physical pain and death, including animal death, is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. If this is true then natural evil can be understood as not serving a purpose, in and of itself, but is the result of sin. John Calvin expresses this position well in his commentary on Genesis by stating that, “all the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunder, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin.”[44] In other words, pain and suffering are not intrinsic to how God chose to create. Theologian Hans Madueme makes this point clear in his essay on original sin, “there was, in fact, no fragility in God’s original creation… God’s judicial response to the broken commandment—the divine curse of Genesis 3:17—was the power that unleashed the cosmic fall.”[45] According to this view, all evil, even gratuitous evil, is alien to God’s original creation and that the Gospel is God’s victory over that which is a corruption of the prelapsarian creation.

This view, however, runs counter to modern scientific theory regarding not only evolution but also cosmology and geology. According to the scientific data, animal death and pain have been around billions of years before humanity ever stepped on the scene. While it is beyond this paper’s scope to explore all of the scientific evidence for the earth’s age and the process of evolution, these articles by Biologos, a Christian organization which seeks to show the harmony between Christian faith and science, give examples of different converging pieces of evidence for both.[46] In response to this, many young earth creation leaders and apologists have argued that either the scientific data is lacking or the presupposition underlying modern science is faulty.[47] There are also major biblical and theological issues with the view that God created a perfect world which contained no death prior to the fall of humanity. For starters, tov me’od which is translated as “very good” in Genesis does not mean perfect or without death. Ronald Osborn argues that other words could be used instead of “very good” to describe perfection and he give some examples of this, “the book of Leviticus commands that burnt sacrifices be tamim, “without defect” (e.g., Lev 1:3,10;3:1;4:3;5:18;14:10). Elsewhere in Genesis, Noah is said to be tamim or “blameless” (Gen 6:9).”[48] Tamim gives off the impression of something being without blemish, which comes closer to the view that so many young-earth creationists are trying to promote. Tov, like many other words in the Hebrew language, has multiple semantic meanings but given the literary and socio-historical context of Genesis 1, it likely is referring to God bringing order out of non-order.[49] To give an example of this, it is good “tov” that the light exists and brings about the day so that the ancient Israelites could tell time. Good is referencing light’s function in the ordered system which God is bringing and says nothing about light’s ontological state. Tov is about order, not perfection, and nowhere in the text does it state that the original creation was completely ordered. Another major text that is often used to support this type of cosmic fall theodicy is Romans 8:19-22. Madueme argues that, “Paul’s allusion to Genesis 3:17-19 (and 5:29) in Romans 8:19-22 confirms that the cosmic fall was God’s curse on the ground. God subjected creation ‘to futility,’ in ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8:20, 21).”[50] However, there are other ways to understand this text as well. C. John Collins makes the case that the reason creation is groaning has nothing to do with a curse God put on it, but rather because it is the stage for which human and angelic sinfulness and its consequences occur and where divine judgment takes place.[51] Overall, there seems to be no explicit biblical evidence that the prelapsarian creation was perfect and without death. There is also a huge theological problem with this position. How could a good God curse innocent creatures, turning them into predators that kill their fellow creatures, for the sinful choices of Adam and Eve?

            This view works better though in an open and relational framework than a classical theist framework, since the open and relational framework says that God did not know that the Fall would actually happen until it did. This means that God did not create knowing that Adam and Eve would sin and rebel which would lead to hardships and pain for the rest of creation. However, it still must deal with the plethora of other problems that this understanding of a cosmic fall theodicy has.

The other strand of “Cosmic Fall Theodicy,” sees natural evil resulting from angelic sin and rebellion. This view believes that Satan, his demons, and forces of chaos are in warfare with God and that creation is often caught in the crossfire since it is the battlefield of good and evil. C.S. Lewis is probably the most famous theologian to propose this view. He writes, “It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene.”[52] Theologian Greg Boyd, who is arguably the biggest modern proponent of warfare theodicy, agrees with Lewis by arguing, “nature considered alone is indeed impersonal, but in reality it does not exist alone… it is subject to invisible agents who influence it for better or worse. I thus argue that there is no such thing as natural evil. Nature in its present state, I believe, is not as the Creator created it to be.”[53] For Lewis, Boyd, and others who believe spiritual forces are rebelling against God and disrupting the natural order, natural evil is, in fact, moral evil. God cannot unilaterally stop these spiritual beings from disrupting nature, since this would violate his purpose in creating a world where love is real and free, moral choices can be actualized.[54] Boyd and Lewis are arguing that these spiritual agents have free will and are using that freedom to rebel against their creator.

            There are several initial issues with this view that critics raise. Bethany Sollereder points out two potential problems with the view. Firstly, how can God’s creation be called very good if it is corrupted by demonic opposition?[55] Secondly, she argues that the position lacks Biblical support and that the Bible says that predators are included in God’s very good creation as one part of God’s masterpiece.[56] She uses different examples from Job 38:39-41, 41:25; Genesis 1:21; and Psalm 104:21-26, 146:6 to show that these creatures are part of God’s good creation and are not the result of demonic forces.[57] C John Collins shares the conclusion of Bethany’s exegesis of Psalm 104 when he writes, “Even more, this is not simply a reflection of the Genesis account as an event; rather, it celebrates the way that this created order still continues in human experience.”[58] Ronald Osborn offers other criticisms by stating:

while we should not be quick to dismiss the idea of nonhuman rebellious powers sowing destruction in the cosmos over long periods of evolutionary history… the theodicy problem remains very much unresolved since there is no clear answer to the question of how these dark forces originated and why God should have permitted them to wreak such havoc for so long.[59]

The final problem this view suffers from is that angels and demons are supernatural beings whose existence cannot be definitively proven, and any argument that can be used to justify their existence  has a  possible naturalistic counter to it.

            There are, however, potential answers to these criticisms. Firstly, to Sollereder’s point, very good does not mean perfect or without defect or flaw as noted already. It probably refers to the ordering of the world which is in a non-ordered and chaotic state.[60] Terence Frethem also makes the point that good does not mean that God is done with creation once it comes into being.[61] He goes on to argue that, “The command to ‘subdue’ assumes that the earth was not fully developed, that there was not a once-for-all givenness to the creation at the end of the seventh day.”[62] In fact the task of subduing could be considered dangerous, since it is used elsewhere in Scripture to describe warlike conquest.[63] Also, Genesis 1 does not mention predation as part of the ordering God undertakes, but it does mention God providing vegetation for food as good. Natural disasters are also not mentioned as part of the ordering God is doing. While the text certainly assumes that predators are part of the created order and fulfill the good purposes of God as far as filling their respective domains, the text does not indicate that their predatory nature towards other animals is intended by God. Other texts, such as Psalm 104:21-26 and Job 38:39-41, provide a much stronger case that the predatory nature of animals are part of God’s good creation. However, even these texts could be understood from a cosmic fall lens. Scripture affirms, for example, that all of humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23), and that sin is alien to God’s intended purposes for humanity, however humanity is still a creation of God and made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). In Matthew 19:8, Christ affirms that God allows divorce because of humanity’s sinfulness which means God accommodates humanity’s fallen state. Why would God not do the same for predatory animals who have been corrupted by demonic forces, especially since their existence is on the line? These texts, therefore, could be examples of God accommodating the predatory nature of his corrupted creation. There are also several texts that imply that demonic forces are real, rebelling against God, hold the power of death, and are the forces whose influence Jesus came to vanquish.[64] Scripture seems to affirm, then, that demonic influence is real and that God is combating it in the world.

Osborn’s criticisms are harder to deal with. While it is impossible to know why, how, or when Satan and his angels rebelled against God, this does not negate the argument set forward in this defense. His second criticism, however, does deal a blow to this argument if there is no satisfactory answer to it. Why would God allow Satan and his demons to wreak havoc on both the natural and human world for so long? Humanity limits the free will of agents in order to stop greater destruction they might cause once they have already made decisions to do great harm. Why does God not do the same?

There seems to be a couple of possible answers to such a question. The first possible answer is that God tolerates the destructive influence of such agents because he either knows with certainty or hopes that they will be won over by his everlasting love and repent of their evil. This view, associated with Christian universalism, is one that has held support not only in the modern era but also among ancient church theologians and fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.[65] Another possibility is that God cannot immediately terminate their free will or existence and revoke an agent’s self-determination due to creating a world where creatures can exercise great love or great harm. According to Greg Boyd, “Once God gives the gift of self-determination, he has to, within limits, endure its misuse.”[66] He goes on to say that, “The extent to which God must tolerate this, it seems, depends on the potential he originally gave to the agent… The more that is risked, the more that can be gained and lost.”[67] Boyd maintains that it is a necessary consequence of God’s choice to give free will that within their capacity for self-determination that there be an irrevocable potential for great love and/or great harm, which God must let play out once he gives them this freedom.[68] This implies that God will, eventually, terminate their free will and their influence. A final proposal that will be fleshed out later is that God cannot stop the destruction and evil these beings bring on creation single-handedly.[69] Finally, regarding the problem of angelic existence, it is important to note that this defense assumes the truth of a Christian worldview which already affirms belief in the supernatural. It is meant to show that Christianity could internally make sense of gratuitous evil.

Free-Process and Only Way Defenses

Free process defenses argue that God has endowed creation with a freedom to actualize itself and that the processes which give rise to many values in the world are normally intertwined with many disvalues.[70] Bethany Sollereder believes God allows creation to self-actualize out of love for creation, and that certain values God wants, such as mutual love between creatures and between creation and creator, come about through the same evolutionary processes that create disvalues such as selfishness and aggression.[71] Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorn notes that science has revealed that so many values in the world come from the same mechanisms that also give rise to much destruction.[72] Afterall, the same genetic mutations that drive evolutionary fruitfulness are also responsible for cancer. Not only are values and disvalues normally intertwined, it is also possible that this was the only way God could actualize the world with the values he desires. This is commonly called an “only-way” argument which means that God could not have created a world completely free of such disvalues if he wants creation to be free and produce the values he desires. This is intuitive to many scientists and philosophers, including atheistic ones. Philosopher of science and skeptic Michael Ruse writes, “if God was to create through law, then it had to be through Darwinian law. There was no other choice.”[73]

            The biggest critique to such an argument is that one has to wonder why God can’t create a world free of disvalues yet maintains all the values the world has. Couldn’t an omnipotent God do such a thing? Another critique raised against this view would be a question of God’s sovereignty over creation. Can God be sovereign if he does not decide how creation will self-actualize?

Proponents of free-process and only way arguments would make the case that it is logically and scientifically impossible for God to give creation all the values he desires and that creation be free of any disvalues. Values and disvalues are a package deal. Gratuitous evil in the animal and human world would be considered a disvalue alongside all of the values creation produces through the self-actualizing freedom God has given it. This defense easily fits into an open and relational framework, since many open and relational theologians would argue that an open future is one of the features necessary for the kind of freedom God wishes to give creation. In response to the sovereignty critique, one could argue that God does not have to meticulously control something in order to be sovereign over it. God could exercise a looser sovereignty where his plans and purposes come to fruition. If a self-actualizing creation through natural laws is the type of creation God wants then how can one say that God is not sovereign over creation?

Essential Kenosis and the Uncontrolling Love of God

            This view originates with Dr. Thomas Jay Oord and is a purely open and relational option that could not fit in a classical theistic framework. This is a particular version of open and relational theology that starts with God’s nature being uncontrolling love, and that God’s power is persuasive and vulnerable rather than overpowering and coercive.[74] This understanding of God’s power comes from viewing God’s power through the lens of the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus, which is defined by self-giving and other empowering love. In defining kenosis, Oord goes through several definitions and their implications before giving his understanding of kenosis as “self-giving.”[75] God’s power is self-giving, and other-empowering love which is necessary for creaturely life and love.[76] In defining the “essential” part of essential kenosis, Oord says, “Essential kenosis considers the self-giving, others-empowering love of God revealed in Jesus Christ to be logically primary in God’s eternal essence.”[77] This means that love is first and foremost in God’s attributes and every other attribute is seen through the lens of God’s kenotic love. The implication then would be that God does not have any power to coerce or control since that would not be self-giving or others-empowering. Therefore, God cannot control how creation will self-actualize, which means God cannot singlehandedly prevent or stop gratuitous evil from happening within creation. While this is like the free-process defense in many ways, the difference is that most free-process defenses believe God self-limits himself by the choices he makes in how he chooses to create and in what values he wants creation to have. A classic example of God’s absolute versus his ordained power. Oord’s essential kenosis view, on the other hand, makes the point that God is limited by his essence or nature and is therefore incapable of coercing creation in any way. It’s a limit by nature rather than choice. Oord is more comfortable with this since it means that God didn’t merely choose not to intervene when he could have, rather he couldn’t have intervened.[78] This view, because of God not having the power to coerce or control things, seems to lead to several implications about God’s relationship and sovereignty over creation. Firstly, this view implies that God did not create out of nothing, since that would mean that God has the power to 1:) control something to such a degree that he literally brings it, single handedly, into existence, and 2:) unilaterally prevent genuine evil since he could stop that evil by creating something from nothing in order to stop that evil.[79] Another implication is that God does not determine the values of creation unilaterally, nor can God unilaterally prevent disvalues from happening. However, creaturely freedom and agency is contingent on God self-giving and others-empowering love, while God does not need creatures to maintain his existence or agency.[80] In this way, Oord separates himself from some process theology which would say God is codependent on creation for existence.

            While this view certainly allows for the compatibility of a loving God and the reality of gratuitous evil, there have been a few criticisms of the view. The first, and most common, one is that this view of God seems to make God weaker than an average person who can pick up a stick. How can humanity have power to coerce and control things when God does not? Another criticism, especially to the point of God not creating something from nothing, is that it seems to go against Biblical teaching where God seems to coerce or control nature, agents, and even creation as a whole.

            Oord has responded multiple times to each of these problems, however some of those responses will be given here. Regarding the problem of creation seeming to have more power than God, Oord counters that God is an omnipresent spirit without a localized body, which means he is unable to interact with the physical world in the same way we can.[81] Also, our own creaturely freedom is a result of God’s self-giving love. In response to the criticism about creation from nothing, Oord sets out a view called creatio ex chaosmos which is the belief that the creation of our present universe was built from some sort of relative chaos that was left over from a previous universe.[82] He argues that this view is more faithful to the Biblical data in Genesis, and that there are no verses in the Protestant canon that explicitly teach creatio ex nihilo.[83]


            Open and relational theology has major strengths when it comes to responding to the problem of natural evil and animal suffering. Firstly, it can use common answers given by classical theists on the logical and evidential problem of evil, and it can improve on those arguments in ways that classical theism cannot. Secondly, it offers unique responses to both the logical and evidential problem of evil that critique those arguments from different angles. While classical theists typically argue that gratuitous evil doesn’t exist, open and relational theology can make the case that gratuitous evil does not decrease the likelihood of an all-loving God existing. Considering open and relational theology’s capacity to respond to this major subclass of the problem of evil and the problem of evil in general, open and relational theology seems to have an advantage over classical theism when it comes to the problem of evil. If anything, open and relational theology is able to empathize with the skeptic regarding gratuitous evil in a way that would be difficult for classical theism to do since it typically denies the existence of gratuitous evil. Open and relational theology can maintain that God is good and loving in spite of natural evil. It can even be argued that natural evil and animal suffering is a risk of endowing creation with love and freedom.

[1] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859), 490.

[2] Bethany N. Sollereder, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall (New York: Routledge, 2019), 2.

[3] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 107.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 81-94.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 163-164.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Paul Draper, “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), 12, Kindle.

[15] William Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996), 2

[16] Ibid.

[17]Ibid., 3.

[18] Quentin Smith, “An Atheological Argument from Evil Natural Laws,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 29 (1991) 159–74.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Nick Takakis, “The Skeptical Theist Response to Rowe’s Evidential Argument from Evil” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017) 535.

[22] Ibid., 536.

[23] Wlliam Rowe, Daniel Howard Snyder, and Michael Bergmann, “Evil, Evidence, and Skeptical Theism – A Debate” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 137.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Michael Bergmann, “Skeptical Theism and Rowe’s New Evidential Argument from Evil” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 511.

[27] Ibid.

[28] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1978), 212.

[29] Ibid.

[30] John Hick, “Soul-Making Theodicy,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 265.

[31] Ibid., 266.

[32] Ibid., 268.

[33] Richard Swinburne, “Natural Evils and Moral Choice,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 451.

[34] Ibid., 452.

[35] Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy For All Creatures Great and Small (London, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 134.

[36] Ibid.

[37] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 309.

[38] Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain, 142-146.

[39] Ibid., 155-166.

[40] Ibid., 142-143.

[41] Ibid., 155-166.

[42] William Rowe, “Paradox and Promise in Hick’s Theology,” in The Problem of Evil, ed. Michael L. Peterson (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 281.

[43] Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain, 127.

[44] John Calvin, “Commentaries upon the First Book of Moses called Genesis (1554),” in Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Genesis, Part I, trans. J. King (London: Forgotten Books, 1847, 2007), 113.

[45] Hans Madueme, “An Augustinian-Reformed View,” in Original Sin and the Fall: Five Views, ed. J.B. Stump and Chad Meister (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 21.

[46] BioLogos. “What Is the Evidence for Evolution? – Common-Questions.” BioLogos, January 14, 2019. See also BioLogos. “How Are the Ages of the Earth and Universe Calculated? – Common-Questions.” BioLogos, January 10, 2019.

[47] For evidence of this, see Todd Charles Wood, “What About the Whales,” in The Fool and the Heretic (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2019) 151-162. And Ken Ham, “Young-Earth Creationism,” in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2017) 31-38.

[48] Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Academic Press, 2014), 29.

[49] See John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), Kindle Edition, Location 773 of 4501.

[50] Hans Madueme, “An Augustinian-Reformed View,” 17.

[51] C John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2006), 184.

[52] C.S. Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” in Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), 632.

[53] Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2001), 247.

[54] Ibid.,169-171.

[55] Sollereder, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall, 18.

[56] Ibid., 20.

[57] Ibid.

[58] C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4, 86.

[59] Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 150.

[60] John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Kindle Location 773.

[61] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2010), 12.

[62] Ibid., 14.

[63] Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 29.

[64] For All Scriptural References see Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 29-39.

[65] One of the best books showing the history of the doctrine of Apokatastasis (Universal Reconciliation) in the church is by Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, A Larger Hope? Universal Salvation From Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019). More modern defenses of Christian Universalism can be found in Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014) and David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (London: Yale University Press, 2021). It’s important to note that Talbott and Hart do not believe that universal salvation applies to the demonic, however it could apply to them.

[66] Greg Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 181.

[67] Ibid., 182.

[68] Ibid., 185.

[69] Thomas Jay Oord, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (Grasmere, Idaho: SacraSage Press, 2019), 26.

[70] Christopher Southgate, “Free-Process and Only Way Arguments,” in Finding Ourselves After Darwin, ed. Stanley P. Rosenberg (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), 297.

[71] Bethany Sollereder, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall, 6.

[72] John Polkinghorne, Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (London: Yale University Press, 2005), Kindle Location 1431.

[73] Michael Ruse, Darwinism and Its Discontents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 288-89.

[74] Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God, 155.

[75] Ibid.,159.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 160.

[78] Thomas Jay Oord, “An Essential Kenosis View,” in God and the Problem of Evil: 5 Views, ed. Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 96-97.

[79] Thomas Jay Oord, “An Open Theology Doctrine of Creation and Solution to the Problem of Evil,” in Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009), 41.

[80] Ibid., 50.

[81] Thomas Jay Oord, “An Essential Kenosis View,” 114.

[82] Thomas Jay Oord, Creation Made Free, 40-41.

[83] Ibid. See also Oord’s dialogue with Greg Boyd on the Problem of Evil on the Deep Talks YouTube Channel, Timestamp: 59:40,

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