Theistic Evolution Pt. 6 – Suffering, the Only Way, and Divine Intervention


The Problem of Suffering

Stanley Rice says the following: “Many people thought of the natural world as God’s vast and orderly garden, full of life. Darwin showed the natural world to be violent and full of death.”  Physicist Pascal Roux illustrates the great weight of theodicy, when he says that “[a]mong the questions which beset our age, that of evil in all its forms is perhaps the most painful and sometimes even the most obsessive.” To “interpret any facts which they find morally difficult as results of the fall” is an easy avenue for Christians to take (Christopher Southgate). This is an avenue that brings no solace when faced with the findings of science which prove that suffering, death, disease, and pain were present from the very beginning of life on earth. Southgate states that in light of theological anthropology and the problem of suffering, “Darwinism provides one of the most important rational elements informing a contemporary hermeneutic.”

In light of this, the following sections will explore the following: firstly, the “only way” argument, which states that this world is the only way which God could have made it; secondly, divine intervention; and thirdly, the suffering God, which has already been touched on in the previous section.

The Only Way

According to the view held by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, evil is a secondary effect, a by-product of evolution. William Pollard and Christopher Southgate agree that the randomness and suffering in the natural world is unavoidable. Pollard states that “all must be allowed to result, whether by the wrong human choice or by truly random occurrence, because to allow any to be preventable by pre-determining human choice, would still be to gut the purpose of the Creation.” He goes on to mention a remark made by Rabbi Steinsaltz: “The Lord says, ‘Get me a thinking creature, I don’t care how.” As Southgate states: “I hold that the sort of universe we have, in which complexity emerges in a process governed by thermodynamic necessity and Darwinian natural selection, and therefore by death, pain, predation, and self-assertion, is the only sort of universe that could give rise to the range, beauty, complexity, and diversity of creatures the Earth has produced.” Natural selection would play the role of a natural mechanism to achieve this end. Natural selection is a costly mechanism. Arthur Peacocke asks whether there was not another way to reach the same ends and states that “there are inherent constraints on how even an omnipotent Creator could bring about the existence of a law-like creation that is to be a cosmos not a chaos, and thus an arena for the free action of self-conscious, reproducing complex entities and for the coming of the fecund variety of living organisms whose existence the Creator delights in.” The possibilities are not endless. There are physical constraints that cannot be passed over. Jack Mahoney explains that “God could do no other than accept the intrinsic characteristics of matter once he has decided to create it in the first place,” and quotes Gerard J. Hughes who has a similar view: “[I]n creating anything physical, as we understand that term, God inevitably creates limited, finite things which have the natures they do, rather than different things altogether. A world containing such limited things is a world in which not everything is still possible. To create is inevitably to decide. The laws of physics do not limit God’s power: they are simply a way of describing the limitations of the universe which God has chosen to create.” By creating, God chooses a certain set of constraints to be put into action.

It is not just recently that theologians have grappled with these kinds of questions. Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the same questions regarding suffering and came to a theodicy which speaks about the balance between good and harm: “Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe.” In this view, the good outbalances the harms. This approach is called a good-harm analysis and may be formulated in three ways:

  1. Property-consequence: a consequence of the existence of good is that there is a possibility of it causing harms.
  2. Developmental: the good can only develop through a process that involves harm as either a possibility or necessity.
  3. Constitutive: the existence of a good is inherently and constitutively inseparable from the experience of harm.

With regard to harm caused by people, the property-consequence approach is used most often, whereas with evolutionary theodicies, the developmental approach is used most often. However, suffering is not just as a result of the natural processes, but also arises through human free will. Animals do not have the same capacities as humans do, and cannot exercise the same amount of free will. In spite of their more limited capacities, animals also experience suffering and pay for the cost of living. Conor Cunningham quotes biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, who states that: “Death was the consequence of the multicellular condition; pain the price of nervous integration; anxiety the price of consciousness.” In this way the whole of life has its part in the ubiquitous experience known as suffering. Southgate points to a concern raised by Wesley Wildman, which is that heaven would then be the best of all possible worlds, so why did God not create heaven and be done with it? The answer given by Southgate is that “though heaven can eternally preserve those selves, subsisting in suffering-free relationship, it could not give rise to them in the first place. Precisely this kind of universe is needed in order for life to evolve and become what it has become thus far.

Divine Intervention


Charles Darwin did not see the hand of God in designing creatures, and neither did he see it in events. His explanation of his stance, in a letter to his friend Asa Gray, states that:

One word more on ‘designed laws’ and ‘undesigned results.’ I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed.

With regard to the immense suffering and pain within the world, theologian and philosopher Austin Farrer poses the question: “Poor limping world, why does not your kind Creator pull the thorn out of your paw?” With regard to the role of chance in the mechanism of evolution, one might see God as:

the master of chance, intervening in a supernatural way, at times of his choosing, to restart, correct, reorientate creation and history when they parted company with his plans. This perspective is still compatible with the emergence of free beings at the heart of creation, but if we push it to extremes, we may end up with the image of a capricious God, and ultimately make creation unintelligible and all human action pointless (Plateaux & Godinot).

Seeing God as the Master of Chance becomes problematic in that it raises serious questions, e.g. why was one person struck by lightning, but another survived? It does make God seem capricious, like an unstable micro manager that might decide to flood a city for no apparent reason. If disasters are not seen as God’s work, the problem still remains as to why God didn’t prevent the disaster or somehow make sure all the people get out safely.  Rudolph Brun states rather unambiguously that:

I cannot agree with any interventions of the Creator into the process of cosmogenesis, not for the origin of human beings, the emergence of life, or even during a few milliseconds at the beginning of the universe, because such supernatural interventions would jeopardize freedom. If God intervened in the creative process, God would also be responsible for not intervening – for accidents, catastrophes, indeed any conceivable evil. If there is manipulation by the Creator at any time during the process of cosmogenesis, then God is to blame for how creation has turned out.

Within theology, there are many different opinions about how God interacts with reality and has interacted in the process of evolution. There are those theologians, like Robert Russell and Nancey Murphy who maintain that God acts at the quantum level, using quantum indeterminacy to steer mutations in a specific direction. Arthur Peacocke sees the action of God as “whole-part constraint” where “the whole constrains the action of the part without violating any natural laws.” Terence L. Nichols proposes “contextual causality” in which that being influenced is the information content by the context of the part being influenced. For him, the ultimate context of the universe is God and the Spirit works by “catalyzing one form of development rather than another” instead of “specifying evolution in all the details”. Theoretical physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne made the following conclusion from the chaos theory: that the processes of the universe are open and thus God can work within them without violating natural laws. Aubrey Moore, Anglo-Catholic priest and one of the first Christian followers of Darwinism, makes the important observation that a theory of God’s occasional intervention implies God’s “ordinary absence.” If God intervenes only occasionally, what is God doing the rest of the time? Why are certain occasions seen as deserving intervention when others are not? Moore goes on to say that “[s]cience has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if he would be thrust out all together, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. … Either God is everywhere present in nature, or he is nowhere.” The observation made by Christopher Southgate is significant here: “…this intervening God inserts modules of complexity into the natural order, but does not seem to intervene to mitigate suffering.” Why, if God can direct evolution, does He/She not direct it in such a way to eliminate the suffering and waste of so many organisms? Why allow something like the ebola virus to evolve? Wesley Wildman seeks to reconcile this apparent dichotomy by arguing that God is the ground of being and can be traced not only in the beauty, but also in the violence of the natural world. Wildman’s God is undeterminable and suffering in nature is “neither evil nor the byproduct of good. It is part of the wellspring of divine creativity in nature, flowing up and out of the abysmal divine depths like molten rock from the yawning mouth of a volcano.” Southgate  rejects Wildman’s option on the ground that God is knowable in Jesus. Bram van de Beek agrees with Southgate when he says that the revelation of God through Jesus Christ is “central” and that all other revelations are orientated around this centre.

The issue of divine intervention comes back to that of the world as an other and God allowing it to be an other, as was touched upon in the section about panentheism. John Haught puts it simply: “genuine love risks allowing plenty of room for the spontaneity of the beloved.” A loved one who is coerced or forced to love is not a real partner in a relationship. If a man keeps his wife chained up in the house so she can’t leave, that isn’t love. She isn’t staying with him because she wants to, she’s staying with him because she has no choice. In the words of Jeffrey Korsmeyer: “God has all the power that a God could have who created a world with creatures who are really free.”

However, there is one event where God did intervene in the natural world, an event in which God stepped “down” into creation. Southgate speaks of the Incarnation as “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil in creation – both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures.” According to Wolfhart Pannenberg, there is one event that proves that God truly is God and that is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.


In the next installment we’ll look at The Suffering God.



Brun R B. 2002. Cosmology, cosmic evolution, and sacramental reality: A Christian         contribution. Zygon 37(1): 175-192.

Cunningham, C. 2010. Darwin’s pious idea: Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong. Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans.

Darwin, C. 1989. Autobiography in Darwin, F (ed.), The life and letters of Charles Darwin. Vol I. New York: D Appleton and Company. 25-86.

Durant, J (ed). 1985. Darwinism and divinity: Essays on evolution and religious belief. Oxford:   Basil Blackwell.

Haught, J F. 2010. Making sense of evolution: Darwin, God, and the drama of life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Mahoney, J. 2011. Christianity in evolution: An exploration. Washington: Georgetown     University Press.

Montenat, C, Plateaux, L & Roux, P. (eds) 1985. How to read the world: Creation in evolution. London: SCM Press.

Nichols, T L. 2002. Evolution: Journey or random walk? Zygon 37(1): 193-210.

Peacocke, A. 1985. Biological evolution and Christian theology – Yesterday and today in Durant, J (ed). Darwinism and divinity: Essays on evolution and religious belief. Oxford:   Basil Blackwell. 101-130

Peters, K E. 2007. Toward an evolutionary Christian theology. Zygon, 42(1): 49-63.

Plateaux, L. & Godinot M. 1985. The origin of life in Montenat, C, Plateaux, L & Roux, P. (eds) How to read the world: Creation in evolution. London: SCM Press. 19-36.

Rice, S A. 2007. Encyclopedia of evolution. New York: Facts on File.

Schaab, G L 2006. A procreative paradigm of the creative suffering of the Triune God:     Implications of Arthur Peacocke’s evolutionary theology. Theological Studies 67: 542-      566.

Southgate, C. 2002. God and evolutionary evil: Theodicy in the light of Darwinism, Zygon 37(4): 01-824.

______2008. The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.

______2011. Re-reading Genesis, John, and Job: A Christian response to Darwinism, Zygon 46(2): 370-395.

Van de Beek, B. 2005. Toeval of schepping? Scheppingstheologie in de context van het modern denken. Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok.


Theological Problems with Creationism Pt. 4 – The Question of Suffering

This post will look at how creationism and Intelligent Design falls short when it comes to the question of suffering. In my mind, the question of suffering is one of the most fundamental questions in theology.

What makes the creationism and Intelligent Design most problematic in a theological sense is the question of suffering. Within the Christian tradition, there is no place for a kind of demiurge or designer other than God. Thus, the only Creator or Intelligent Designer could be the Christian God. In order for God to create by means of evolution, it follows that God would use “the suffering of very many creatures.” The question then follows: If God can intervene to introduce certain elements of complexity, why could God not intervene in the suffering of a myriad of creatures? The philosopher David Hume was brutally direct in stating the problem: “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then evil?” Michael Ruse makes a similar point:

Many vile afflictions are caused by minor changes at the molecular level. The effects multiply, bringing on lifelong pain and suffering. If the designer is around to make the very complex, why doesn’t he take a little time to repair the simple but broken? Either he cannot, in which case wonders how powerful he really is and if he truly has designed the very complex; or he does not, in which case one wonders about his intentions toward the world of life, including humans. Either way, the designer seems not to be something that can be identified with the Christian God, which is the underlying aim of the Intelligent Design theorists.

Biologist Robert Pollack points out that Intelligent Design reduces the suffering in this world to “but a preamble for a world to come, in which a totally new Intelligent Design will provide all the solace, peace, and love of which nature seems so severely depleted.” This reduction does not provide satisfactory answers to the question of suffering. Pollack goes on to say that this view keeps us from acting to do good in the world:

This is why as an article of faith, ‘intelligent design’ is truly powerful, and deeply troubling. As science, it is meaningless: nothing in nature supports it; nothing in nature demands it; nothing we can do will either prove or disprove it. But as a belief, it distracts us from all acts that we – as individuals but more important as families, faiths, nations, and even as a species – can perform in this world, to diminish the catastrophic consequences of natural disasters and human cruelties.

A famous example of the problem of suffering and Intelligent Design is the ichneumonidae wasps that lay their eggs in a living caterpillar. In South Africa there are four genii of the family Ichneumonidae. Osprynchotus species parasite the nests of other wasp species that build nests with mud. Enicospilus species parasite the larvae of noctuid moths. Gabunia species parasite the larvae of long-horn beetles (family Cerambycidae). Theronia species parasitize the larvae and pupae of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (sawflies, wasps, and bees), and Neuroptera (lacewings and antlions). Charles Darwin referred to this specific instance of endoparasitism in a letter to his friend Asa Gray: “There seems to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars…”

I have been (un)fortunate enough to witness the eruption of parasitic wasp larvae (Apanteles acraea from the family Braconidae) with my own eyes. The wasp larvae eat the caterpillar from the inside until they are ready for pupation, at which moment they eat their way out of the still living caterpillar and begin spinning their cocoons on the surface. I have recently began the hobby of caterpillar rearing, where one rears caterpillars, documenting their life history, and then send the results off to a lepidopterist for research. It is an interesting and mostly rewarding hobby with the added value that it benefits science. A cucullia inaequalis caterpillar that I was busy rearing had been parasited without my knowledge and great was the shock when I checked up on it only to find a large number of writhing wasp larvae that were starting to spin their cocoons on the outside of the caterpillar. Their poor host was alive and not paralysed throughout the entire ordeal. You can view the video here and see a photo album here. After they had spun their cocoons, the caterpillar somehow got itself free from under them and started walking around with gaping holes in its soft body. It died a few hours later.


The Pteromalus puparum wasps from the family Pteromalidae parasite final instar caterpillars and then live and pupate within the larva and pupal form of the butterfly or moth. The adult wasp then emerges from the pupa via a small exit hole. Parasitism is almost never immediately fatal to the host, because the parasite requires the host to be alive for as long as it is needed. Most parasite species are highly specialised.

The biologist David Hull states that “The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray.” This is the kind of God that can be deduced from evolution, which, as Hull describes, is “rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror…” David H Bailey adds to this, pointing out the difficulties of creationism and Intelligent Design when it comes to “the many troublesome features of nature, such as pain, disease, violence, and the millions of species that have become extinct.”

The Catholic biologist Francisco Ayala states that “As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design.” Ayala also states that “I do not attribute all this misery, cruelty, and destruction to the specific design of the Creator. … I rather see it as a consequence of the clumsy ways of the evolutionary process.” He claims that it will be good for people who have faith to accept natural selection as being responsible for “the design of organisms, as well as for the dysfunctions, oddities, cruelties, and sadism that pervade the world of life.”



From the previous sections it can be seen that, theologically speaking, creationism and Intelligent Design has certain pitfalls. The two main pitfalls are dishonesty on the part of God and the problem of suffering, which weighs the heavier of the two. The dubious use of the Bible is also a point of concern and the bad science coupled with bad theology is a pock mark on the face of Christianity.


Also See:

10 Astonishing Examples of Bizarre Parasitic Life Cycles

10 Disturbingly Weird Parasites

Parasitism in Forest Ecology


And now something light-hearted…




Ayala, F J. 2009. Charles Darwin: Friend or foe? Word & World 29/1, 19-29.

Daintith, J & Martin, E. (eds.) 2010. Oxford dictionary of science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Darwin, F. (ed). 1898. The life and letters of Charles Darwin. Vol I. New York:  D Appleton and Company.

Griffiths, C, Picker, M & Weaving, A. 2004. Field guide to insects of South Africa. Cape Town: Struik Nature.

Pollack, R. 2007. “Intelligent Design,” natural design, and the problem of meaning in the natural world. Crosscurrents, 125-135.

Ruse, M. 2006. Darwinism and its discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Southgate, C. 2008 The groaning of creation: God, evolution, and the problem of evil. London: Westminster John Knox Press.