God, Evolution and Animal Suffering

Theodicy without a Fall

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Bethany N. Sollereder
Routledge Science and Religion Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , November
     206 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For many Christians, especially those of a strongly Augustinian or Calvinist stripe, one of the most important theological doctrines is commonly known as “the Fall.” Based on influential interpretations of Genesis 1–3 combined with certain Pauline passages, the doctrine of the Fall asserts that the universe created by God was originally perfect, free not only from sin but from death, disease, parasites, and carnivorous predation. So what happened? The doctrine explains that when certain prominent creatures—either angels or humans—rebelled against God, creation—or at least our portion of it—“fell” with them. This produced disorder not only within the creatures themselves (turning them into demons and depraved humans), but also within the biological, geological, meteorological, and even cosmological realms. So, not only are human beings now estranged from God and in need of redemption, but at least our planet, and maybe even the entire cosmos, has deviated radically from God’s original, perfect intention for it. In the volume under review, Sollereder quotes from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis that “[a]ll the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin. Nor is there any other primary cause of diseases” (5).

When Genesis was assumed to be historical and the earth only around 6000 years old, the crucial figures in the Fall narrative were Adam and Eve: it was all their fault. Yet, as the age of the earth was gradually projected further and further back, as Darwinian theories of biological evolution gained credence, and as fossil records revealed millions of years of death and destruction long before humans emerged, Christian theologians were confronted with the uncomfortable reality that our troubled world could no longer be blamed on human sin. So then, whose fault was it? Post-Darwinian theories looked back to a much earlier “Fall”—before the material creation itself, namely the Fall of the Angels. Nevertheless, this angelic rebellion was taken to explain not only what tempted our ancestors to turn away from God, but why cats eat mice rather than rice. All of the things that Calvin blamed on Adam and Eve (which, note, includes frost) were now attributed to primordial satanic corruption. It was unthinkable for such theologians that God might have intended our present world of earthquakes, tsunamis, winter, cancer, flesh-eating bacteria, ticks, tigers, and killer whales, and then created it as an act of love. 

Sollereder rejects all attempts to maintain the Fall narrative as it relates to the non-human world, and thus also rejects the various theological strategies that developed to cope with it, noting “I maintain that the natural world, apart from human sin, is not fallen. By this I mean that the natural world is fit for the purposes of God’s love. I do not mean that it is the best of all possible worlds, or that every instance of suffering is justified by this consideration alone, but that the disvalues in the natural world do not originate from a corruption of the world” (183). She insists that evolution “is God’s process for creating, and it is full of suffering, extinction, untimely death, and disvalue” (185). 

Sollereder’s argument is simultaneously conservative and radical. Since she does not deny that humans are fallen, she does not reject traditional Christian soteriology, affirming “an orthodox model of the Incarnation” (154n112) and that the world is redeemed “in, through, and around Christ” (178). She believes that if God truly loves God’s creatures, such love entails a degree of divine kenosis involving temporality, mutability, and a lack of perfect foreknowledge, but she resists more revisionist views such as process theology and open theism. Yet her argument is radical in that she is convinced that in rejecting a fallen creation we must accept that the natural world, with all of its “disvalues,” including predation, is in fact, intended by God. We can thus blame no one other than God for the world in which we live. Nevertheless, as her subtitle indicates, Sollereder argues that this world does not compromise the goodness of God. And as her main title states, her primary focus is on the suffering of non-human animals in a Darwinian world created by a good God.

This book consists of seven chapters. After an Introduction, chapter 2 argues that the traditional doctrine of the Fall is not as strongly supported by Christian scripture as its advocates maintain. Chapter 3 engages with contemporary advocates of the Fall, particularly as their views relate to evolution and predation. The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters consider the implications of Sollereder’s position for the doctrines of creation, freedom, love, divine action in the world, and redemption, and the book ends with a brief conclusion. One of her most distinctive arguments—and a crucial claim of her theodicy—is for an almost-universal resurrection to everlasting life of every single biological creature that has ever existed. She acknowledges that this is highly speculative, allows for potential rejection of salvation by those with free will, admits that some creatures are so basic that an endless existence may be problematic, and suggests that such resurrected lives may well exist in different temporal and spatial environments.

Sollereder writes clearly and engages with biblical studies, philosophy, theology, and science as she develops her argument. While her primary concern relates to a theodicy for animal suffering, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering makes an important contribution to contemporary debates about creation and eschatology as well. As Sollereder puts it, “[w]ithout redemption, without the completion of God’s work, creation stands without coherence: the story remains unfinished” (156). Whether one agrees with her arguments or not, Sollereder offers a stimulating and provocative experiment in rational theological imagination.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert MacSwain is Associate Professor of Theology at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bethany N. Sollereder is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford in the Faculty of Theology and Religion. She is a fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion and of the Royal Society of Arts.


Bethany Sollereder

Dr MacSwain,
This is a really faithful review of my book. I think you have really captured the audience and intent very well indeed. Thank you for taking the time to read it and write this up!
Best Wishes,
Bethany Sollereder

Robert MacSwain

Bethany, thank you for that reply. I enjoyed reading the book and agree with your primary argument, the implications of which are immense and have yet to be fully acknowledged and grappled with by most Christian theologians. Thank you for helping to focus our attention on the problematic character of "the Fall" when thinking outside the bounds of human nature.


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