The Bible doesn’t have much to say about why God created animals, other than to say He did, and gave mankind dominion over them (Genesis 1:26). Whatever His reasons, God (or nature) has chosen not to spare many animals from experiencing pain and suffering. Why?
Human suffering vs. animal suffering
In many ways, the problem of animal suffering is even more problematic than the problem of human suffering, because the standard explanations for evil are worthless when applied to animals.
For example, Christianity teaches us “It’s our own fault we suffer, it is a consequence of sin and the fall of man, and we are all sinners like Adam.” But animals did not sin against God, and therefore should not be punished as equals. They seem to suffer only as collateral damage in a conflict between man and God.
Christianity also teaches us that “Humans must suffer in order to experience free will,” but what is free will to an animal?
Or Christianity reasons, “It’s okay that we suffer, because God will reward us eternally in heaven,” but these animals receive no such reward (more on this below).
And the overwhelming majority of this gratuitous suffering takes place completely outside the view of man. If an animal suffers and no one sees it, is there a good reason to allow it? If not, how shall we excuse our benevolent God from the unreasonable amount of suffering He created?
Do animals feel pain?
If innocent animals suffer, then God is not benevolent, for a benevolent God would seek to eliminate any suffering that wasn’t absolutely necessary. So the theologian is in the unenviable position of having to explain why a good God does bad things. One such explanation is to completely deny that animals feel pain.
17th-century Catholic philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were just like machines, and they could not feel pain because they did not have a spiritual mind (an idea that later became widely accepted).
Professor Bernard Rollin disagrees with them, facetiously recommending that anyone who denies that animals can feel pain should test their hypothesis by using a pair of vice grips to squeeze the balls of a large doberman.
While animals can’t tell us directly that they feel pain, it can be logically inferred through their reactions to it. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on a dog’s toes, you know they respond to pain. Animals vocalize their pain, withdraw from it, and will even change their behavior to avoid it. Animals can also experience the opposite of pain, like a dog who enjoys having his belly rubbed.
We can also infer that animals suffer pain because they share so much of the same anatomy and neurological makeup that we do, and they even respond positively to the same pain relievers we use. All these analogous behaviors and physical similarities make it obvious that animals feel pain. There are also numerous peer-reviewed studies supporting this conclusion.
Speaking from personal experience, I once witnessed a dog get run over by a car, and he yowled in agony for several minutes in much the same way a human would. I can’t look at that evidence and say, “That dog didn’t really experience pain because he has no soul,” or “That would’ve been significantly more painful if he was actually self-aware!” No matter the degree, this dog was clearly capable of experiencing a large amount of pain. And for all we know, not being self-aware (assuming they are not) may make pain even more confusing and stressful.
Is God guilty of animal cruelty?
Many diseases and defects are endemic to specific kinds of animals. It’s almost as if predation and accidents alone were not enough suffering, so God designed specialized bacteria, viruses, parasites and diseases to multiply the suffering of animals.
Take, for example, the Tasmanian Devil we discussed earlier. Even at birth, his odds of dying outnumber his odds of surviving. Those that do survive are more than likely to contract Devil Facial Tumour Disease, a fatal contagious cancer that causes large growths on the devil’s face, making it difficult for them to eat or see, and putting the entire species at risk of extinction.
Why? Have they done something to offend God? Did they eat of the forbidden fruit? Does their suffering help increase their faith? Or help them to experience the full extent of free will?
And there are many other diseases and plagues that are endemic among specific birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, etc. If God crated this world for humans — as some sort of test or necessary experience — then why not just design diseases to target us?
Can we trust a god who abuses animals?
The fact that innocent animals suffer through no fault of their own should be very disconcerting to the faithful, for if God is willing to allow innocence to suffer without cause or reward, why should we believe we are any different?
God is essentially saying, “Sure, I make other innocent things suffer for no reason, but not you! You are different! You may be guilty of sin, but you have a soul! You suffer for a purpose!” Lucky us!
To use a parable: A woman once began dating a handsome man, only to later find out he had a ferocious temper, and had beaten and killed several dogs. He tried to reassure her by saying, “Baby, those were just soulless dogs! I would never do that to you!” But in the end she left him, because even if he never laid a hand on her, she would always fear that he would, and did not want to be with someone who could justify cruelty to innocent creatures.
Do all dogs go to heaven?
We might be able to justify the suffering of animals if we suggest that these animals go to heaven, but most theologians have ruled out this possibility:
“Our souls are rational–theirs aren’t–and ours are rational because they’re spiritual, not material.”
“…if the word ‘soul’ is used to refer to an immortal soul that one day will inhabit heaven or hell, then no, animals may not be said to possess a soul. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn, respecting the instruction on the subject found within the Word of God.”
The Bible does seem to segregate men from the animals:
Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
1 Corinthians 15:39
But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish.
2 Peter 2:12
So it doesn’t matter if a 40-year-old chimpanzee is much smarter and has suffered longer than a 3-day-old baby, if they both die, it’s the human that goes to heaven and the chimpanzee that “perishes.”
What if animals did go to heaven?
Just for kicks, let’s imagine that animals do go to heaven. This raises a lot of interesting questions, like: Would they all go to heaven? Elephants? Horses? Apes? Chimps? Dogs? Cats? Snakes? Rats? Birds? Mice? Mosquitoes? Ants? Gnats? Plants? Amoebas? Bacteria? Or does God draw the line somewhere?
If single celled organisms are allowed into heaven, do all the cells that make up my body go to heaven? Or just the soul they hosted? (Because they have served me well, and I think they deserve a vacation from all my abuse.)
If single celled organisms are not allowed into heaven, how many cells must an animal have before it does qualify for heaven? 10? 1000? 1,000,000?
Or perhaps it’s not a matter of cell count, but intelligence. If that’s the case, is that 40-year-old chimpanzee worth more to God than the 3-day-old baby?
And what about ocean life? Do whales and dolphins go to heaven? How about fish? Even ugly fish? Like the anglerfish? Or do ugly fish go to hell? Does heaven have an ocean for these occupants? Or do they just float around us in heaven? Even the ugly ones? Because I don’t want ugly fish floating around me in heaven.
Finally, what about extinct animals? Will heaven be filled with friendly t-rexs, pteradons and trilobites?
Allowing animals into heaven may help us feel better about their suffering, but it’s not very biblical, and it seems to raise more issues than it solves.
Is God obligated to show us grace?
One more explanation I ran across while researching this question was the Calvinistic idea that animals, like humans, are basically deprived creatures that should feel lucky that God shows them any grace at all. But I would argue that God’s benevolence obligates Him to extend grace to His innocent creations.
The argument of last resort
When all else fails, you can still reason that there is an answer, we just don’t know what it is. This reasoning sounds like this…
We do know that God is just and that when we get to heaven we will find ourselves in complete agreement with His decision on this issue, whatever it may be.
This is like saying, “Never mind that God’s actions are nonsensical and cruel, just keep believing, and when you die, you’ll find there really was a good reason for all those animals to suffer, just as there really was a good reason for God to allow all those children to be raped and murdered! There’s no absurdity God can’t explain! It can all be rationalized and marginalized in the afterlife!”
Assuming we approve of the idea that all nonsense can be explained away in the hereafter, then all religions become equally viable, since all their absurdities (the reasons we object to them) can also be explained away in the afterlife. The reason we reject these other faiths is because we find something about them that we consider illogical, and we rule them out. Likewise, if we find something about Abraham’s God to be illogical, we should rule it (or Him) out.
I can only imagine three scenarios in which one might justify the suffering of animals:
1) Animals don’t actually suffer. They certainly appear to suffer, so if they don’t, we have been deceived.
2) Animals deserve to suffer. Since animals can’t intentionally do evil, the only plausible explanation is to suppose that before they were animals they had the mental capacity to sin. But if animals don’t have immortal souls, this doesn’t seem very likely (and most Christians don’t believe in reincarnation).
3) Animals are rewarded for their suffering. Most Christian theologians have ruled this out, but even if true, God is still evil for making innocent creatures suffer without cause.
Therefore, if God exists, He appears to be a sadist, for He creates suffering because it brings Him pleasure. God was not forced to design animals, or to give them the capacity to suffer, or to design predation or specialized bacteria or viruses or parasites… but He did.
Still… we don’t know what we don’t know, and God may have a good explanation. Assuming He does, He is still guilty of placing us in a deceptive environment, one that leads us to conclude He is evil, for only evil creates innocence and leads it to suffer. We only know what we know, and what He has given us to know is a creation that seems to bare false witness against its good creator, which leads us to incorrect conclusions about imperative matters.
If there is no God, the fact that animals suffer as much as man is nature’s testimony to the fact that she does not distinguish between man and animal. Nature has no mind to respect one and curse the other, they are all the same.
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals.