Lennox, design, and suffering


[In March 2010 a conference was held in Stockholm featuring well-known Christian apologist John Lennox, and attended by the author, a CMI supporter who lives in Norway. The organizers had requested feedback; the following is adapted with minor editing only from the author’s letter in response.]

Photo Wikipedia.org John Lennox
John Lennox

Dear [conference organizers],

The organizing, speakers, subject, locality, food were all great. Your young team did an excellent job and it was exciting to be there.

But there was something missing. And I fear the result will be that the conference will not have the longed-for impact on secular Sweden.

The missing ingredient is the Bible’s explanation for suffering, an explanation that promises a future physical world of justice at last.

John Lennox was challenged on this, Saturday morning, but said he’d been invited to speak about science not suffering—we needed another conference to deal with that issue. However, he continued, the Bible says that death came through sin. Paul speaks of human death (Romans 5:12 “death came to all men”). John also said, “There is animal suffering but the big question is human suffering.” Because of it, John said, many of his colleagues reject God, even though they see that the fine tuning of the universe is evidence for intelligence.

My comment on John’s answer is that it confirms the fact that suffering is relevant to a Christian conference on science because it is the reason given by many scientists today for rejecting God. And we’re not talking about human suffering alone. In Romans 5, Paul is comparing Jesus with Adam and, indeed, speaks of human death and life; but by Romans 8, Paul shows that the whole of creation is affected, including animals. Luther and Calvin and most evangelical leaders throughout history (until the time of Darwin) understood it this way, as can be seen from the notes on Calvin’s commentary (www.ccel.org; Romans 8:19-23; Isaiah 65:25).

It was animal suffering that was the problem for Darwin. He may not have known what we do today about fine tuning and DNA but what he did know, what anyone can see if they look around them, should surely have been enough to convince him that this world could not have come about by chance. And yet he could not, he said, believe in the good God of the Bible because of the other thing that anyone can see if they look around them: so-called ‘natural evil’. In a letter to Asa Gray, his evangelical theologian friend, Darwin wrote on 22 May 1860,

It was animal suffering that was the problem for Darwin.
“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Why should animal suffering have been a hindrance to faith for Darwin when it was not at all for Luther and Calvin and other great Bible teachers? It was not that they did not care. Evangelicals in the past were pioneers in animal welfare. It was their faith in a future restoration of Eden based on their belief in a literal Genesis as seen in Calvin’s commentaries (mentioned above). The problem for Darwin was that by his time, the majority no longer took Genesis in its plain sense but believed in an old earth. By 1833, when Darwin was on the Beagle reading Lyell’s book Principles of Geology (vol 1), the Church of England had accepted speculation from deists that the universe was millions of years old.1 The many fossils being discovered (‘billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth’) were no longer seen as testimony to Noah’s Flood, God’s judgment on sin, but as telling a different story. If the fossils, showing signs of sickness (including cancer), violence, carnivory and suffering as well as death, were millions of years old, animals must have suffered long before Adam fell.

The god of an old earth is cruel and weak. Violence, sickness and suffering is the only way he knows. If this is what he meant by ‘very good’ on Day Six, what hope is there?

The god of an old earth is cruel and weak. Violence, sickness and suffering is the only way he knows. If this is what he meant by ‘very good’ on Day Six, what hope is there? If this is what brought fruitfulness and progress, why should God suddenly call it sin when it came to Adam, and how could death on a cross be a just penalty if God Himself used this method to create?

So it is because of animal suffering combined with belief in an old earth that Darwin could not accept any evidence of design as a reason to believe in the God of the Bible:

“I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe” as “the result of brute force” but “not believing this [that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designed a cat to play with mice], I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed”.2

Belief in an old earth undermines the Bible’s teaching that Christ, the Creator, will return to restore a perfect creation. According to Big-Bang-to-you teaching, creation was not perfect at the start, so there is no hope of a restoration.

In his letter to Asa Gray, Darwin concludes that

“the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can”.

Darwin is right and this is why we have God’s revelation, the Bible. We don’t need to speculate. We don’t need to worry about why God made cats to be cruel to mice. He didn’t! In Eden they ate plants. When Adam sinned, God cursed the world but promised a Saviour, and one day the cats will once again eat plants, not mice (Isaiah 65:25).Teaching on an old earth comes not from the Bible (which it contradicts) but from human reasoning, and it leads nowhere.

The problem with the Conference debate on the Saturday night is that the Christians (John Lennox and Stefan Gustavsson) argued only from a basis of human reasoning—fine tuning and other such evidence for God and design—rather than commencing their reasoning from revelation. But “faith comes from hearing” (Romans 10). When Peter and Paul preached (also to Gentiles), they taught within a framework of the Old Testament (OT) message of Creation, Fall with Judgment and Restoration. Everything was explained against this background: the Covenant, the sacrificial system, our understanding of the Lord Jesus, who He is and what He came to do. Also the Resurrection of Jesus can only be understood against this OT background, which is why Jesus Himself and the NT writers refer back again and again to the Scriptures—the OT. The whole of the Bible and all of life can be explained in these terms but only if the earth is young. For only then is the creation perfect in the beginning, and the Lord Jesus able to restore it because he is the descendant of Adam, the cause of all the trouble, and still the Son of God.

What makes Jesus unique is that His resurrection was the first fruits of a whole new perfect cosmos, and our reason for believing this is founded squarely upon a literal Genesis.

It was clear in the debate that fine tuning and other evidence of intelligence made little impression on the humanists. However plausible the arguments for design and a Creator God, and however speculative the alternative of a multiverse, they said that if the choice was between God and a riddle they, like Darwin, chose the riddle. Even in the case given by John Lennox of Antony Flew, the former atheist, who was won over by the evidence of design in DNA, he still didn’t believe in the God of the Bible, and has now passed away without, as far as anyone knows, professing saving faith in the Lord Jesus.

Only finally, at the very end of the debate, does John Lennox, when pushed, give another reason for believing in God, which is the Resurrection. But even here he uses arguments from human reasoning rather than God’s revelation, His Word (though he mentions the ‘Logos’). He speaks of the transformed disciples, the grave clothes found intact, the rise of the Church and his own experience. If we compare this to the preaching of the apostles, which is what in fact led to the rise of the Church, we see that they go back to the OT. Yes, the Gospel writers record the grave clothes etc., but within the framework of Creation, Fall and Restoration, and this is what they preach. The reason the Resurrection is central to faith is that not only is it historical but its background in Genesis is historical. The Resurrection is only good news for scientists if death and sin (violence, suffering, earthquakes) did in fact originate with Adam. This is made clear by Professor Ulf Danielsson’s final words,

“I don’t believe in God but I try to do the best I can anyway. What is goodness? Maybe the ultimate goodness would be an atheist sacrificing his life for another human being in secret.”

Indeed, other people have sacrificed their lives and been raised from the dead or gone straight to heaven. What makes Jesus unique is that His resurrection was the first fruits of a whole new perfect cosmos, and our reason for believing this is founded squarely upon a literal Genesis. This is what the Bible teaches. This is what Jesus taught, and the apostles and the Church until the time of Darwin. This is what was missing from the Conference.

The reason I’ve written this long letter is not to criticize, but to appeal to you at your next conference to include a Christian who will give the young Earth perspective.

Yours sincerely
Catherine Olaussen

Published: 2 December 2010


  1. Mortenson, T., The Great Turning Point: The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake—Before Darwin, Master Books, Green Forest, AK, 2004. Return to text.
  2. www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2814 Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Refuting Compromise
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $12.00
Soft cover