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Monday, 13 August 2007

Faith and Freedom to ask the Big Questions #3: So much death and extinction. For what Purpose?

This third in a series of Faith/Science questions Cliff Martin presented for discussion. Please read this introduction first. For previous discussions, see the comments in questions #1 and #2.

As a result of the processes of entropy, millions of species of animal and plant life have become extinct upon our planet. What strange purpose of God would create so much life only to see it die out? Why would there be many times more extinct species than surviving species? Does this suggest anything about life, and God’s purposes?


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
One thing that I’ve found fascinating, is that much of the Christian opposition to evolution is because of “so much wasted death”. Many seem to think that it is evolutionary theory that is the problem. Of course it is not. The fossil record demonstrates that there was suffering and death for many millions of years, and old-earth progressive creationists face the same tough question above as do evolutionary creationists. So, I actually like the fact that this question is asked without saying anything about evolution.

In some ways, this question is a combination of #1 and #2: ie. An unfathomablely long time scale combined with death & decay as part of creation. So some of the same comments from #1 and #2 still apply I think. I guess one aspect that is new is the idea of extinction. What is the point of entire species going extinct? Death doesn’t seem so final or traumatic when progeny continue to live on.

Cliff Martin said...


Within traditional paradigms, I find no satisfying answer to this question. I suppose I am not actually looking for an answer. Perhaps we cannot know. But it does puzzle me that this question fails to puzzle Christians in general.

As you might guess, this question (as are most of the questions in the series) is actually intended to prod us to reevaluate our traditional paradigms. The packaged Christian Metatnarrative that was handed to me as I grew up in the evangelical church attempts no answer, and does not even raise the question. But, if everything we see came into being by acts of “special creation” of a purposeful, all-wise and loving God, then this wake of death, suffering, and extinction prior to the creation of man and thus long before the ruin of sin should raise many questions. Is God not very good at what he does? Was he experimenting, failing more often than not? Or did he create millions of species intending that they should become extinct? Did he create entire families of organisms merely to watch them die out? What could be the purpose of that?

If we assume traditional Christian paradigms, the evidence frankly fits better with atheistic notions of randomness, the universe being the result of forces unguided by a personal Creator.

But what if we assume that the entire course of the cosmos has been a huge struggle against evil, the universe having been set into being with the specific purpose of annihilating evil. What if we assume that entropy, the whole principle of death and decay which is the very engine of the cosmos, were intentionally built into the creation as a way of proving the greater power of life. We might then expect that life would struggle to rise up in the face of such an inhospitable cosmos. We might expect that death would win many battles along the way. We might expect that there would be much suffering and death at the hands of evil and the power of death that pervades the universe.

Perhaps, in the context of this entropic, wild and ruthless universe, the remarkable thing is not death and extinction, but rather that any life should survive at all. The amazing thing would be that life on this planet would actually thrive, and finally develop into spirit beings that would become instruments of the demise of entropy and evil (as Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and 2 Corinthians 5 suggest.) It would truly be amazing that we are here at all (except that, in the eternal wise mind of the Creator, he surely knew that no power of death could ultimately restrain the greater power of Life!).

This does involve a major shift in how we think about the creation. It is a model into which naturalistic evolution fits beautifully. Though (for me, at least) the Scriptures seem to hint at it and even suggest it, we might never have seen it outside of the discoveries of science over the last 100 to 150 years.

And it could be, as I have suggested earlier, that what was unnecessary information for believers for thousands of years, should be brought into greater clarity in the final days of this cosmic battle.

This paradigm shift (though still tentative for me!) has taken me from fearing and battling evolution as a committed YEC for many years, to accepting and then, embracing evolution, to actually being so excited about evolution I can hardly restrain my enthusiasm! Remember, if evolution is true, it was not Darwin’s idea, but God’s!

Steve Martin said...


First, you stuff so much into a single comment that if I wanted to do this justice, I’d need to put more thought into a reply to you than to 3 of my posts. Ah well, I guess I asked for it … :-).

Some quick thoughts first:

1. re: paradigm shift: I like this quote by 19th century Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley: "We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than that, that He can make all things make themselves."

2. re: the packaged Christian meta-narrative: This is definitely an issue for us in the Evangelical world. (See Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”). And it’s not just frustrating that the questions don’t get asked, it’s dangerous. Because when Evangelicals start asking questions (eg. When they enter university), there is a huge risk that they’ll throw out the baby with the bathwater.

3. Re: Was God experimenting and failing? This is why I believe intelligent design (the kind that tries to be “scientific” without reference to a biblical worldview) is dangerous. It puts so much emphasis on the design, that if we really follow the evidence to its logical conclusion, the “intelligent designer” appears to be a cosmic tyrant.

I’m still processing your view that sees the entire history of the universe from the first moment of the Big Bang as a cosmic battle, and although I see how this can fit in with scripture (particularly Romans 8:19-22), I’m still a little uncomfortable with it. I do however agree with the conclusion, that life ultimately wins. The resurrection is the climax of this cosmic story.

BTW, did you get a chance to read the Dembinski essay I referred to earlier? I think he has some similar ideas about God planning “death and decay” for a greater purpose. It’s a different tact that yours (ie. the reason for natural evil is a preemptive strike against human sin) but maybe some similarities. I’d be interested in your reaction to it.

My own view (also tentative) is probably along the lines of John Polkinghorne’s “free process theodicy” – an extention of the “free-will defense” that states a word of freely choosing beings is better than one with only pre-programmed robots. Quoting from “Science and Christian Belief – page 83"

That in his great act of creation, God allows the whole universe to be itself. Each created entity is allowed to behave in accordance with its nature, including the due regularities, which may be part of that nature. God allows the whole universe to be itself. He no more expressedly wills the growth of cancer than he expressedly wills the act of a murderer. He is not the puppet master of either men or matter.

He then goes on to elaborate why this type of universe is better than a universe “where the fire stops 2 inches from the hand” in a capricious sort of way.

So, I think the answer is that "so much death and decay" is necessary for the universe to produce freely-choosing spirt-beings that will freely choose to love God throughout eternity. That answer of course, triggers many more questions.

Cliff Martin said...

"That answer of course, triggers many more questions."

Indeed it does!

Anonymous said...


You have been reading mind again. I was just about post a comment very much in line with yours, but I will try to add something. (BTW - I’ve never read Polkinghorne, but if you have any of his books or articles maybe you can bring them – and a few other resources - with you next week for me to peruse between Settler’s games.)

When I imagine God’s realm pre-creation, I picture the heavenly hosts all worshipping God. They have free will – they can choose to worship God or to not worship God. But the choice is meaningless because the second option is inconceivable.

For me, this is one of the reasons for creation – God wanted to be worshipped by those who willingly chose to worship Him, by those who had a real choice. So He created a place where the two options could be presented, clearly visualized, and actually carried out. A place where one could choose to worship God, or to not worship God but still exist in some manner.

I see death and decay as necessary components of this creation, from both a physical perspective (circle of life and all that) and a spiritual perspective (free will requires two options – life and death). I also think that our perspective on death, decay, pain and suffering is biased to the physical effects, since we are so in tune with our physical beings. As was stated elsewhere, many fear physical death more than spiritual death. Perhaps if we were more in tune with our spiritual beings, we would view physical death, decay, pain and suffering differently. Perhaps then we would better understand why Jesus willing suffered physical pain and death for our sake. He was the only human who was really in tune with both His physical and spiritual beings. His physical pain, suffering and death were necessary, but He could see beyond them, to what really mattered.

I don’t consider physical death, decay, pain and suffering to be direct results of sin nor are they “evil” (but they aren’t “good” either – I think “good” and “evil” is a different discussion). They are requirements for this reality. Life is dependent on death and decay (new plants spring up from dead and decaying organic matter, animals ingest plants and other animals). Life is even dependent on pain and suffering to a degree (I can’t imagine we would live very long if we never felt the pain of the burning flame or hunger or thirst). Unfortunately, having death, decay, pain, and suffering available means they can affect us negatively (suffering the effects of disease or starvation) or be used against us (deliberating killing or inflicting pain). Also, by having the constant visual reminder of life and death around us in God’s revelation to us in the world, we gain a better understanding of God’s revelation to us in His Word. “The wages of sin is death” has little meaning if we have no concept of death. Seeing how horrible physical death and pain and suffering are, we can start to imagine the horror of the spiritual death that awaits us in eternity if we don’t accept the gift of Salvation.

The next reality – the new heaven and new earth – will be much different. So different I can’t even begin to imagine it, but it will be free of death, decay, pain and suffering. Hmm, no death means no more BBQ’d steak or pizza or carrot sticks or beer...I just can’t imagine.


Cliff Martin said...

Jac and Steve,

Jac writes, "... one of the reasons for creation – God wanted to be worshipped by those who willingly chose to worship Him, by those who had a real choice. So He created a place where the two options could be presented ..."

This is a standard theodicy I have heard all my life. Here is why I find it unpalatable.

This view portrays a God who is so desirous of "freely bestowed worship by creatures who could choose otherwise" that he is willing to have 6,000,000 Jews sacrificed on the altar of such worship. You are saying that God considers having a billion or so true worshipers to be of such great value that it justifies unimaginable human and animal suffering through the ages. This does not make sense to me. And it paints God out to be a self absorbed monster. (My language is strong, but that is exactly how this argument strikes me.)

Jac writes, “Life is dependent on death and decay (new plants spring up from dead and decaying organic matter, animals ingest plants and other animals). Life is even dependent on pain and suffering to a degree (I can’t imagine we would live very long if we never felt the pain of the burning flame or hunger or thirst).”

All your comments about death and decay and suffering only make sense within the context of entropy. Life is not dependent upon death and decay except in an entropic universe. You know this. God’s life has never been dependent upon these things. And the life that we shall one day experience “will be free of death, decay, pain and suffering” as you say yourself.

So, I’m not really sure what your point is?

~ Cliff

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your feedback. I’ll try to clarify my point. Basically, death, decay, pain and suffering are requirements for this reality. In this reality, all life forms – the physical organisms that include us – are dependent on death, decay, pain and suffering. Without them, physical life as we currently know it would cease. You said death, decay and suffering only make sense within the context of entropy. Since our present reality is one of entropy, we are therefore in agreement. No entropy = no death / decay / pain / suffering = no universe as we know it. That was my main point, my basic response to Question #3 and #2.

But in addition to the physical requirement for death and decay in this universe, they play a role in free will. Free will requires choice. For there to be real choice, the options must be distinct and conceivable. The results/consequences of the choice must be different and known in advance. Adam and Eve had two options. Follow God’s will or not follow God’s will. If they followed God’s will and avoided the “tree of knowledge”, they would remain in relationship with Him and have access to the “tree of life” and would not die. If they didn’t follow God’s will and ate from the “tree of knowledge”, they would break the relationship with God preventing access to the “tree of life” and they would die. How would they know what it meant to “die” if they could not see death around them? They must have been able to see the discarded rinds of the fruits they ate decay and become compost. They must have watched fallen leaves decay and replenish the soil. They must have seen animals die and their bodies become either food for other animals or decompose and become food for plants. They knew what death was, yet they disobeyed God anyway. The desire to gain the “knowledge” that was forbidden to them, to become as the serpent said “like God”, overwhelmed them and they chose the option that they knew lead to death, and not just their deaths, the deaths of all their descendents.

Free will also must be truly free. We must have the option of choosing a path that is in direct confrontation with God. We must have the ability to go as far as launching an attack against God. Since we can’t touch Him, we go after what He loves the most – this creation. In exercising our free will, we have the option of inflicting pain, suffering, and death on our fellow creatures. Some might call this collateral damage, but that presumes the victims are “innocent” and I don’t think any of us are.

You find this unpalatable, and claim that God must be a monster for allowing so much suffering to occur so He can have true worshippers.

God doesn’t want a single person to be “sacrificed”, nor does He want us to endure pain or suffering. So why doesn’t He intervene and prevent it from happening? Why are the pages of the Old Testament soaked in the blood of so many worshippers? Why do so many suffer today? Is God an uncaring monster?

Isn’t the Bible clear that all of us deserve unimaginable pain and suffering? “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23 “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23a. We all deserve death – eternal death. We all deserve pain and suffering – eternal pain and suffering. The pain, suffering, and eventual death of our physical beings in this reality are but of taste of the eternal fate that awaits us. They are part of the curse outlined in Genesis 3.

“But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23b We are spared the eternal fate we deserve, thanks to Jesus. But we are not spared from physical pain, suffering, and the eventual death of our physical beings. We will all die. We will all experience pain and suffering. This is the consequence of original sin – we don’t have access to the “tree of life” while we exist in these mortal bodies. The timing and manner of our deaths and the degree of our pain and suffering will vary, but each of us will experience pain, suffering, and the death of our physical beings.

What if? What if God intervened and stopped us from killing each other? What if God prevented all pain and suffering? Would we, could we, really appreciate what Jesus did for us by saving us from eternal punishment if we were not constantly reminded of what eternal punishment could be like? Would we turn to Him if there appeared to be no difference whether we did or didn’t? Would there be free will if we were prevented from doing wrong?

The idea that this reality was created as a cosmic battleground for good and evil doesn’t sit well with me. It seems much more cruel than the thought that we are getting what we deserve because we made the wrong choice. The battleground scenario appears to be some kind of chess game, where we are mere pawns, ill-equipped to survive the fight against the enemy, and like the modern day leaders of our countries, God sits back and watches the blood flow without ever getting personally involved on the front line. True, He sent his Son into the battle but that was because it was impossible for us to win without His intervention. I agree there is still a struggle going on, every day, in our personal lives and collectively. But that struggle is a result of free will, it is not the reason we are here. In fact, the Bible tells us that the battle between good and evil is already over, Christ defeated the enemy. If that is true, why are we still fighting? In your response to Ken you indicated the defeat is on going and that it is believers who will finish the job (or did I mis-understand you). I can’t agree with that. Jesus paid our debt and restored the broken relationship with God providing us with eternal life and the promise of resurrection. There is nothing we can do to add to that. Yes evil still exists in our world, and we are called to do what we can to keep it at bay. But we can’t defeat it. That is something God will do at the end of time.


Cliff Martin said...


You comments lead to a host of responses. But the central response is simple. You do not understand where I am coming from at all. Nor could you, for I have not really laid out my thoughts fully. The questions, this on-going discussion, plus my own web blog, will in time fill out my thinking about entropy, purpose, the signficant role we are called to, etc. So I think it best to let that take its course.

However, I will respond on the subject of entropy. Your comments take no notice of the central passage in my thinking, Romans 8. In this chapter, Paul makes it clear that God intentionally subjected all of creation to the principle of entropy, a bondage to decay. But notice two things:

1) He did this "in hope". This suggests that, whatver his purpose, the idea of a creation which is driven by entropy, death, and decay was not his ideal. He hoped then, and copntinues to hope (one must understand the Biblical concept of hope) that creation will some day be set free from entropy.

2) Humankind is central in this coming deliverance. Creation is waiting eagerly for the sons of God to be made manifest (whatever that means ... I have some ideas! ... see also verse 21-23). I did not say or mean to imply that man will "finish the job". I know that to set aside the role of man as insignificant is fashionable among many evengelicals, and it sound so humble. But when I read this passage of Romans 8, I see that faith-filled men and women, finally coming into their fullness in maturity and identity, fulfill a very critical role in the wrapping up of this age. All creation is waiting! Rather than writing us off as passive actors in God's scheme, perhaps we should be asking what it means to step into the glorious freedom of the children of God, what it means to become the manifest sons of God, and what we should be about to accelerate this process!

~ Cliff