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Is evil a problem for animals? Part III

The following is adapted from an original post on 19 December 2010 at called “Why Southgate’s “co-suffering” Argument Suffers: The Intrusion of the Emotional Problem of Evil in Evolutionary Theodicy.” It is about the emotional Problem of Evil (POE) with regard to animals given a long evolutionary history.

In my recent series I particularly focused on addressing the Problem of Evil (POE) assuming a long evolutionary history of pain, predation, suffering and extinction, etc., (P) and the implied age-old earth. The following post considers the emotional POE of P in Southgate’s theodicy and possibly more appropriate suggestions for such a cause.

The Emotional Problem of Evil

It is clear that Southgate is not strictly responding to an intellectual problem, but rather an emotional problem. He states, “the crux of the problem is . . . the Christian’s struggle with the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering.”[1] [2]

Not a problem of internal logical coherence, and not a problem of probability of evil and suffering as a whole, but a “struggle” with specific instances of suffering. This is exemplified by Fyodor Dostoevesky’s Ivan Karamazov. In response to an innocent child’s suffering, Ivan says, “It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha; I’m just, with the upmost respect, handing him back his ticket.”

The intuition being that if God allowed evil in the world, his goodness is impugned and he is therefore no longer “a God worthy of worship” [3]

In a very real way, as long as there is pain and suffering and death, the emotional POE will remain with us. Christianity is furnished with rich resources to address this problem, theologically, pastorally, and practically.

One such solution offered by Southgate in his compound evolutionary theodicy is his second plank: the “co-suffering” argument. The argument is that God is not one who remains distant, aloft and uncaring, but identifies with the pain of every sentient creature. This argument has two fatal flaws.

  1. To the emotional problem caused by human pain and suffering this is an appropriate response, for Christ enters into our suffering by becoming incarnate and being crucified. However, this is over-reaching as a solution to animal suffering. Christ’s life was an experience as a man identifying with humans (cf. Heb 4:15) and not as non-human animals.
  2. Christ’s co-suffering with us does not explain how God can be good and yet there be evil and suffering in the world. Rather, it provides a balm, removing the sting of being alone facing such a harsh reality. This fact is well and should not be diminished. However, it is not a theodicy for it does not explain why there is evil and suffering. It only addresses the emotional problem caused by P.

Three alternatives for reducing the force of the emotional POE for P would be;

  • It is permissible to speculate that just as the Spirit of God is the helper of humanity and comforter of the redeemed, providing purpose and resolution in the face of adversity, strength and endurance through suffering, so the Spirit of God may similarly help his creatures in the animal kingdom. One example of something that would be a tremendous help is
  • An understanding of Michael Murray’s levels of pain experienced by different animals.
  • Animal extinctions might be reversed in the coming kingdom, either by a creative decree by the Lord similar to the resurrection of human beings, or as part of the restorative kingdom work for humanity during that age.

These strategies are strictly unnecessary. Appealing to emotions is an important part of the task of persuasion – not for testing what is true. They are however available for those seeking to develop a theodicy for the emotional POE.


  1. [1] Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation; God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KE.; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.
  2. Note again how Southgate imposes a moral category of innocence onto animals, all non-moral agent. A dog, for instance, cannot be held morally accountable, for it breaks rules without an awareness of the moral realm of objective facts. A “bad” dog describes one whose behaviour is not fit-for-purpose; a non-moral property. It would be a mistake therefore to conversely consider a dog morally innocent.
  3. [2] Ibid., 10

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