Remember when March of the Penguins hit theatres? Though family-friendly, the documentary doesn’t shy away from the perils of an emperor penguin’s life. One scene shows a leopard seal snatching up a mother penguin on her way to deliver food to her mate and chick. Her death meant the demise of the chick because starvation would force the father to abandon it.
Life is harsh in the animal kingdom. The question of whether it has always been this way is a topic of much controversy between different creationist perspectives (see part 1 of this series). Did animal death begin before or after sin entered the world? The fossil record provides overwhelming evidence for billions of years of animal death. Old-earth creationists believe this reality was included when God described creation as “very good.” Here’s why:
Predatory behavior maintains balanced ecosystems. Reasons To Believe (RTB) biochemist Fuz Rana explains, “If not checked, exploding herbivore numbers will cause an ecosystem to collapse by over-consuming the primary producers [plants].” Surprisingly, carnivorous behavior is even good for the herbivores themselves. In A Matter of Days, RTB founder Hugh Ross writes, “By removing the sick and the weak from herbivore flocks, carnivores help guard herbivore populations from disease and genetic defects.”
Carnivores are good for humans, too. In general, carnivores make better companions (think Rover and Fluffy). Moreover, Hugh explains that billions of years of animal death, from bacteria to dinosaurs, provided the building blocks for human civilization. “Through that death and decay, God gave humanity enormous biodeposits of sand, limestone, marble, topsoil, coal, oil, and natural gas.”
Still many Christians insist that a loving God couldn’t possibly have intended to include such carnage in the natural realm. Some even argue that if animals died before the fall, then Christ’s atoning work on the cross means nothing. Young-earth creationist James Stambaugh, MDiv, writes on The Institute for Creation Research website:
God took it upon Himself to provide an atonement for the original couple; He took two animals and made clothing….Sin always brings with it death, and this is the first recorded death….a blood sacrifice is only necessary if there is sin….If there was animal death before the fall of man, then God and all those who followed His pattern did useless acts…. If we believe that death has always existed, then we make a mockery of the death of Christ.
If this were indeed the case, then belief in animal death before the Fall would be a very serious compromise of doctrine. However, there are flaws in this interpretation of atonement. Only Jesus’ sacrifice holds the power to redeem. Old Testament animal sacrifices were simply a way to illustrate to the Israelites the horror and cost of sin while also foreshadowing Christ’s atonement. They were not meant to eradicate sins. Animal sacrifices were required every time someone violated God’s law; only Christ’s death offers a one-time, permanent solution. Hugh says, “There is no remission of sin without the shedding of blood—Christ’s blood, not animal blood….Hebrews 10:1–4 explains that the blood of animal sacrifices will not take away sin.”
It seems to me that believing animal death occurred only after sin entered creates a mess of Scripture and science. Changing herbivores into carnivores would require new body parts, functions, and instincts, not to mention equipping prey animals with defense mechanisms. If God stopped creating after day six, how did carnivores come into existence after the Fall? What about the death of plants, bacteria, insects, and such? Where are the criteria for what counts as death or suffering? And the list of problems goes on.
If we step back from the emotion attached to animal death, we can see that animal predation has a place in God’s plan for the universe. As Hugh puts it, “Romans 8 and Revelation 20–21 reveal that one of God’s purposes for our present cosmos is to provide a just-right setting for the permanent and rapid…conquest of human evil.”
Of course, there is a distinction between animal death and human death. With that in mind, this series will be continuing with a look into human diseases.
Resources: RTB offers plenty of resources on this topic. Check out Hugh’s book A Matter of Days or the excellent CD series Life and Death in the Garden of Eden, featuring Hugh Ross, Fuz Rana, and Kenneth Samples in a roundtable discussion with RTB apologists Krista Bontrager and Marj Harman. If you’re interested in seeing how the different creationist camps view this issue, check out The Genesis Debate.