Is, ought, or enemy?

Resolving human reaction to animal suffering


A partially blind lioness that hunted and brought down a buffalo with the help of another lioness.

I began writing this article in the Olifants rest camp in Kruger National Park; a nature reserve 20,000 sq km (7,000 sq miles) in size, almost as large as Wales in the UK. It is traversed by hundreds of kilometers of roads where, though tens of thousands of people visit every year, one can drive on dirt roads and not see another vehicle for long periods of time. It teems with wildlife and one can come across elephant, zebra, rhinoceros, lion or buffalo around any bend in the road.

One of our remarkable experiences over a few days’ visit was the observation of a giraffe pair trying to coax their youngster across a river in which we subsequently saw some crocodiles furtively hiding. The male and female adults were on the one side waiting for the youngster which after some time, ran about one third of the way into the river, hesitated, turned, and with a kick if its hind legs ran back to the side and up the bank.

Words like cruel and sad are values-laden, implying the opposite of kindness or happiness. How do we philosophically account for that humane, human reaction to suffering? The response that somehow, it should not be this way, that a different, kinder reality would be preferred?

What followed was a fascinating ‘story’ as the father crossed back across the river and tried to gently coax the reticent teenager to the water, hooking the youngster’s neck with his own and nudging him in a direction he was loath to take. The young giraffe continued heading away from the river, looking back as his father headed in the opposite direction along the river bank. Eventually the youngster lost courage and came back to the father. The last we saw they were walking together down the river, presumably looking for a safer place to cross, the mother keeping abreast of them on the opposite bank.

As well as the 150 mammal species, the park hosts 340 tree, 115 reptile, 50 fish and 35 amphibian species. And after a day of game viewing either self-drive or with a park ranger, visitors can relax in any one of a number of camps, each an oasis of green within a sometimes hostile environment.

The park began with the proclamation of a reserve by Paul Kruger the president of the South African Republic (1883–1902). A Christian whose stated goal in establishing the park was “for setting aside certain areas where game could be protected and where nature could remain unspoiled as the Creator made it”1, Kruger did so against much opposition in an era of unrestrained hunting and settlement of land. It today is a trans-frontier park extending into Mozambique in the east and Zimbabwe to the north.

But over the idyll lingers a constant shadow—death! The park in December 2015 was experiencing a severe drought. And so along with the constant killing of prey by predators such as lions, leopards and cheetahs; visitors are faced with other reminders of “nature, red in tooth and claw”. On another occasion, we watched two old lionesses, one blind in the right eye, and the other in the left, stalk a herd of buffalo. We lost sight of them for a few seconds in a river bed amidst a confusion of dust and bellowing and the buffalo herd stomping and staring back in their direction. A buffalo emerged from the bed with one of the lionesses hanging from her nose, and the other latched on to her hindquarters, desperately trying to free herself. Lacking the strength to finish the powerful animal off, they did enough damage to maim her and bring her to the ground. The lionesses then melted into the shade to rest, only to re-emerge every time the buffalo regained her feet and tried to hobble away, once again wrestling her to the ground. We watched for hours as this went on. About five hours later when we returned to the scene, the buffalo was still alive but unable to move out of the scorching sun.

A newborn gnu (wildebeest) calf separated from its mother searches for nourishment.

During a remarkable few days we witnessed hippopotami, sucked into the last moisture available to them, clawing mud from which escape was impossible, either dead or barely hanging on to life; a substantial downpour of rain their only meager chance of escape. In other dwindling water pools, wary antelope thirstily inched their way toward the water infested with crocodiles eyeing them hungrily, the shallow water making it impossible to submerge and surprise their prey.

We came across a leopard guarding a recently born elephant, dead by unknown causes, its entrails in the dust, reserved as a later meal for the leopard once the temperatures cooled. We saw the carcass of a magnificent white rhinoceros surrounded by vultures, killed by human vultures for a culture that believes rhino horn has aphrodisiac and medicinal properties. Possibly the most pathetic sight were the calves separated from their mothers, maybe taken by predators, or unvigilant as they sought respite from the soaring temperatures in the shade of a tree.

One wildebeest (gnu) calf, still with its drying umbilical cord attached, ran along the tarred road for kilometers, bleating for its mother. Each time a car approached, the calf would walk over to it, smell it, try and find a teat on which to quench its thirst, and then run behind the car as it drove off, imprinting a gold Mercedes or a white Golf as its mother. Everyone that observed the calf reacted with sympathy, expressing the hope that it might find its mother, or be adopted by a cow from another herd. All realized that trying to save the calf would be pointless, and against both park rules and nature. All anticipated that it would most likely slowly succumb to exhaustion and thirst, or be quickly put out of its misery by a predator out for an easy meal. Yet that longing for the calf to survive was expressed by most that drove by.

Listening to others who witnessed these examples of death and suffering, the sentiment was regularly expressed that “nature is cruel”, or, “nature is sad”. Words like cruel and sad are values-laden, implying the opposite of kindness or happiness. How do we philosophically account for that humane, human reaction to suffering? The response that somehow, it should not be this way, that a different, kinder reality would be preferred? In the western world, there are three philosophical belief systems from which to rationalize suffering and death.

In the West we continue to enjoy the interest of our Christian inheritance whatever our beliefs. But we are squandering the capital of that inheritance, Biblical Christianity.

The first is atheism, the belief that there is no god. Even atheists like Richard Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, give a tacit nod to the emotion that the world should not be this way, ironically with their arguments against the existence of God. In short, it goes like this;

“If the loving, all powerful God of the Bible exists, why is there so much suffering of both human and animals (natural evil) in the world?”

But for this argument to have merit, the concept of natural evil must have an objective basis. There must be some fixed authority upon which to believe that cruelty, suffering and pain are indeed ‘wrong’ or out of place. But this fixed epistemology can only come from something outside of nature, something transcendent, immortal, metaphysical. In short, God. And so for their argument against the existence of God to have merit, God must exist. This is a logical contradiction that has no resolution within their naturalist axiom. Matter is silent on the problem of moral and natural evil. If nature is all that exists, then words such as ‘cruel’ or ‘suffering’ are without values content. They are meaningless. Nature is pitiless and indifferent. If nature is all there is, then the atheist’s only logical reaction to the problem of pain is silence and dispassion. Suffering, pain and cruelty just exist. And so the emotional response of an atheist to the death or illness of a loved family member, wild gnu calf or pet, is a contradiction of his or her worldview. From an atheistic worldview, to say that “nature is cruel”, carries as much values-content as to say that “nature is brown”. Pain ‘is’, cruelty ‘is’, death ‘is’.

The second western worldview from which to try and answer the problem of suffering is Christianity compromised with evolution. There are many versions of this compromise but all of them have to place animal life, suffering, pain and anguish millions of years before man. The evolutionist interprets the sedimentary layers, many containing fossils, as a record of deep time and the fossil record bears horrible testimony to suffering. And so for a theistic evolutionist, or progressive creationist, animal suffering pre-dates man’s sin. This logically means that God created the world with death and suffering of nephesh, sentient, conscious animals as an intrinsic part of His creation. The scenes I have described above—and worse—have gone on for eons prior to man’s existence in this view. The logical deduction of this is that God meant there to be suffering, carnivory, disease, starvation and death in His creation. They are part of the created order of things and so sympathy and emotions against these phenomena are actually a rebellion against the will of God.

Vultures feed on a rhinoceros that was the victim of human poachers.

A few unsatisfactory attempts have been made by Christian evolutionists to account for this dilemma, possibly the most serious effort that by William Dembski in his book, The End of Christianity, in which it is claimed that God, knowing that man would sin, imputed sin to nature millions of years before Eden and the Fall. Animals therefore suffered the consequences of Adam’s sin for millennia before Adam’s existence. The absurdity and unjustness of this idea is illustrated by the fact that when we mistakenly punish our children for something of which they are innocent, we sometimes make a joke that the punishment is for the next time they disobey. The ‘explanation’ grasps at straws and makes God a moral monster.

An earlier attempt to answer the dilemma of human and animal suffering within a long-age paradigm was made by the brilliant C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. Still ‘giving away the store’ to deep time at this stage of his thinking (1940), Lewis resorts to clever sophistry.2 In his chapter titled Animal Pain, instead of answering the problem of pain, he downplays the sentience and consciousness of animals, questions whether they experience pain as we know it and then goes on a detour dealing with the possible immortality of animals. Instead of answering the problem of suffering, he explains it away. Thus is a great mind blinded by the assumption that naturalism and evolution are true. A Christian evolutionist must respond to pain and suffering by affirming that it is good; it is the way God made things and therefore ought to be so.

Still ‘giving away the store’ to deep time at this stage of his thinking (1940), Lewis resorts to clever sophistry.

To our Christian brethren compromising on the authority of God’s Word, there is a logical, simple solution to the dilemma. One that resolves our reaction against suffering—take God at His Word! Accept the obvious, plain, natural reading of the historical account of creation in Genesis, and the question of suffering, and our reaction to it, and the problem of pain is resolved. It is resolved because the historical account in Genesis is true! And therefore corresponds with our experience. God created a perfect universe, free of sin, suffering, pain and death. The federal head of this universe, our ancestor Adam rebelled against his creator, and death began to reign over conscious, sentient creatures as a consequence. This gives us a basis upon which to understand our instinctive resistance to suffering. When we do so, we are in agreement with God who calls death the “enemy”. In an act of infinite love, God sent His Son to pay the penalty of sin, though He had none of His own—death (as well as spiritual death and separation from His Father, it was a physical death upon the cross that involved cruelty and immense suffering)! And through that sacrifice, a coming restoration; free of tears, pain, suffering and death. And so when we instinctively rebel against suffering, we are in agreement with God. This provides the basis of man’s responsibility to manage this world. To conserve nature and at times to humanely kill. Most of the conservation done in the world emanates from the biblical culture and ‘dominion mandate’ of the Bible, whether those involved acknowledge it or not.3

Fortunately, people often are not consistent with their warped worldview. Atheists, agnostics, compromising and biblical Christians alike react against the suffering of people and soulish animals. But those that reject the plain reading of scripture on origins, do so in contradiction of their worldview. In the West we continue to enjoy the interest of our Christian inheritance whatever our beliefs. But we are squandering the capital of that inheritance, Biblical Christianity. It is not just circumstance that those worldviews which deny a personal, transcendent yet immanent creator God, such as Buddhism, also reject the resistance to suffering which is so familiar to the western mind. “Jesus wept”.

Published: 29 March 2016

References and notes

  1. Labuschagne R.J, 60 years of Kruger Park, Pretoria: National Parks Board of Trustees, 1958, as quoted on the Wikipedia site for the Kruger National Park. Return to text
  2. “The origin of animal suffering could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreating rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men.” Lewis, C. S., The Problem of Pain (Kindle Locations 1456–1458). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2015. Return to text
  3. Ambler, M., Conservation and a biblical approach to nature, October 2012; creation.com/conservation. Return to text

Helpful Resources

Beyond the Shadows
by Dr Carl Wieland
US $7.00
epub (ebook) download
Discovery of Design
by Donald DeYoung & Derrik Hobbs
US $15.00
Soft cover
Exploring the World of Biology
by John Hudson Tiner
US $19.00
Soft cover
World Winding Down
by Carl Wieland
US $12.00
Soft cover
Creation, Fall, Restoration
by Andrew S Kulikovsky
US $24.00
Soft cover
Evolution's Achilles' Heels
by Nine Ph.D. scientists
US $17.00
Soft cover
Evolution's Achilles' Heels
by Nine Ph.D. scientists
US $10.00
epub (ebook) download