Gratuitous Evil & Animal Suffering



(The FreeThinking Theist)


October 11, 2016

A common complaint is that unlike science, philosophy does not make any progress. This is completely false. Philosophers stand on the shoulders of giants and often improve arguments made by great thinkers of the past. Moreover, academics are often sparked by philosophers of yesteryear to craft related, but different, arguments demonstrating the way things are (ultimate reality).

Alvin Plantinga, for example, has been said to possess the “Midas touch!” Every argument he touches seems to turn to gold. He “stood on the shoulders” of Anselm and took his Ontological Argument for the existence of God to new heights. The Ontological Argument was crafted nearly a thousand years ago and it was essentially dismissed as a “charming joke,” until Plantinga skillfully reformulated the argument. Today it is taken quite seriously by many professional philosophers.

Plantinga also dealt the death blow to the “problem of evil.” Scarcely any philosopher in academia today thinks that the existence of moral evil is good reason to not believe in God (it seems many internet atheists have not yet received the memo). I have written extensively as to why the existence of evil actually proves the existence of God (as opposed to atheism), but more importantly, I have demonstrated why God would allow a world suffused with moral evil (click here).

Natural & Gratuitous Evil

Although most philosophers see that moral evil is not a problem for Christian theism, they are not all convinced regarding natural evil. The question is raised: “Why would God create a world suffused with natural and gratuitous evil?”

Natural evil is much different than moral evil. Hitler’s holocaust and Islamic terror are examples of moral evil. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes are examples of natural evil leading to suffering. Although it seems intuitive that humans can learn from and grow after experiencing evil, a very common complaint from atheists regards animal suffering — especially the animals that seem to suffer needlessly! They ask, for example: “What kind of ‘good’ could possibly come from a bunny rabbit suffering in a forrest fire?”

The unanswered question leads many atheists to infer that since we have no explanation as to why God would allow gratuitous and animal suffering from natural evil, then God probably does not exist.

There are two problems with this common objection. First, it completely ignores all of the independent arguments which either deductively or abductively prove the existence of God. Plantinga has written an essay regarding “Two Dozen or So Theistic Arguments” (and he didn’t even include some of the best ones)! This is known as a cumulative case for the existence of God. Since the atheist cannot figure out why God would allow gratuitous evil, this does nothing to refute all of the other arguments that prove God’s existence.

The second problem is that we do have good explanations as to why God would allow gratuitous suffering. Kirk MacGregor has recently published a fantastic article making this case. I do think MacGregor’s case is powerful; however, I would like to stand on his shoulders to make a slightly different case.

A Divine Perspective

When asking why God would create a world suffused with all kinds of evil — including what seems to be gratuitous animal suffering — perhaps we need to consider things from a divine perspective as the Apostle Paul did. Paul explains why a world full of suffering is actually a good thing as these “light momentary afflictions prepare us for eternity” (2 Cor 4:17). That is basically a nice way of saying, “no pain, no gain!”

Consider this: perhaps God created and allows a world suffused with evil, pain, and suffering — even a world that we know is filled with gratuitous animal suffering — to secure the eternal election of the saints without violating human libertarian free will. God does not want to violate human freedom because He desires a true love relationship with each and every human being (Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) so that true love with God — the greatest good a human can experience — can be attained into the infinite future.

It is vital to note the philosophical difference between could, would, and will. With this is mind, consider C.S. Lewis’ famous quote: “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” If that is true, then could it also be said that, “the gates of heaven are locked from the inside?” That is to say, could (is it logically possible) for a person in heaven to freely choose to sin, blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and freely leave to go to hell (even if they never would or will)?

Perhaps, yes, but the question is raised: Even if one could freely choose to leave heaven, why would they want to? That would be an important question to ask. Those in heaven would have experienced the imperfection of our world filled with evil, pain, suffering, and even what seems to be gratuitous evil such as animal suffering. Moreover, they would be in an epistemic position to know that hell was even worse in the absence of God and all that is good.

On top of that, those in heaven would be experiencing a personal relationship with the Maximally Great Being who lavishes them with perfect love and meets every single need with perfection. Heaven is a state of affairs in which there is absolutely zero suffering (gratuitous or otherwise)! Why would a saint in heaven, knowingly — and freely — choose to leave this ultimate paradise and perfect love for the imperfection and horror of hell? They would possess the “knowledge of good and evil” and have personally experienced it through pain, evil, and suffering. They would even be aware of the fact that gratuitous evil and suffering exists on earth. Why would anyone leave a state of affairs which is free from all of this evil and suffering when they have already experienced a world that is suffused with it? Moreover, why would anyone freely choose to leave perfection for a world that is far worse (hell) than the world they have already experienced?

Those in heaven experience maximal greatness. It does not seem as if anyone who has experienced the imperfection of this world and the perfection of the next in heaven, would freely choose to exist in a world that was far worse than the imperfection of the one they just left and already experienced. Perhaps allowing humans to attain this “knowledge of good and evil” (Gen 2:17) is how God can guarantee free creatures will persevere into the infinite future!

This is why bad things happen to “good” people!


God allows us to experience this imperfect world suffused with pain, evil, and suffering to prepare us for the eternity of the next world. After all, Satan, a third of all the angels, Adam, and Eve all took suffering-free worlds for granted; since you and I possess the knowledge of good, evil, and suffering, we will not. Therefore, it is “very good” (Gen 1:31) that God created this imperfect and suffering filled world that we are currently experiencing. It therefore follows that what appears to be gratuitous suffering from our perspective actually serves an eternal purpose!

Bottom Line: Why did God call this world, “very good?” Because He knew it would lead to an “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). God has eternity in mind; we ought to do the same.

Stay reasonable (Philippians 4:5),

Tim Stratton


3 Worlds EnhancedLast year I was helping with a kid’s summer camp in Miami and the elementary school students were asking me why God allows animals to suffer. (This is not only relegated to the philosophers in the ivory tower!) I came up with this diagram on the spot (I should say God gave it to me), and drew it on the white board. I explained that we live in this “middle world” which is a combination of good and bad. This includes “the bad” of animal suffering — even the animals we never see with our own eyes.

I told them that the pain and suffering we experience on earth often leads people to Christ, or brings us closer to Him. So, in these cases (and they are many), it was because of suffering that these individuals came to Christ, and it is only those who know and love Jesus Christ who go to heaven.

I then asked the kids this question: Why would anyone who knows the pain and suffering of earth, and who is now in heaven — where there is absolutely zero pain and suffering and “Everything is Awesome” — ever choose to leave heaven to go to hell? Especially when they know that hell is so much worse than the pain and suffering on earth?

This drawing, along with my explanation made perfect sense to these kiddos.

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About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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