The Bible doesn’t say too much about why God created animals, other than to say he did, and gave mankind dominion over them (Genesis 1:26). Whatever his reasons, God obviously chose not to spare animals from 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 many of the standard explanations offered for why humans suffer are worthless when applied to animals.
For example, Christians often say that humans suffer as a consequence of sin, and because we are all sinners. But the animals never sinned against God, and thus they should not be punished as if they share our guilt. They seem to suffer only as collateral damage in a conflict between man and God.
Other Christians say suffering must exist in order for humans to experience the full extent of free will, but what is free will to an animal?
And Christians reason that it’s okay that humans suffer, because God will reward us eternally in heaven, but what eternal reward do animals receive?
Is God guilty of animal cruelty?
What’s so surprising about animal suffering is just how many diseases and defects are endemic to specific kinds of animals. It’s as if predation and accidents alone were not enough suffering, so God had to design specialized bacteria, viruses, parasites, and diseases to multiply the suffering of animals.
Take, for example, the Tasmanian Devil we discussed earlier. Even at birth, poor design ensures that his odds of dying outnumber his odds of surviving. But 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.
But what his this animal done to offend God? Did they eat of the forbidden fruit? Does their suffering help to increase their faith? Or help them to experience the full extent of free will?
If God created this world for humans, why include the animals in our suffering?
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 the innocent to suffer, why should we believe he will reward the guilty?
It’s analogous to dating someone who has a history of abusing animals, but says, “Yes, I admit that I abuse animals, but I would never abuse you! You’re different!”
If the innocent are made to suffer without cause, then God cannot be benevolent, because a benevolent God would never allow suffering that wasn’t absolutely necessary. The believer is in the unenviable position of having to explain why a good God has chosen to extend human suffering to innocent animals, and believers have come up with several justifications.
“Animals don’t feel pain”
17th-century Catholic philosopher René Descartes once argued that animals were just like machines, that did not feel pain because they did not have a spiritual mind (an idea that later became widely accepted).
Professor Bernard Rollin disagrees, and facetiously recommends that anyone who denies animals 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 inferred by their similar reactions to it. If you’ve ever accidentally stepped on a dog’s toes or tail, you know they respond to pain. Animals vocalize their pain, they withdraw from it, and they 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 much of the same anatomy and neurological makeup as humans, and they even respond positively to the same pain relievers we use. These similarities make it obvious that animals do feel pain, and there are numerous peer-reviewed studies that have reached the same conclusion.
Speaking from personal experience, I once witnessed a dog get run over by a car. He laid there in the street, yowling in agony for several minutes (in much the same way a human would). I can’t imagine looking at this dog and saying, “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, that dog was clearly capable of suffering. And for all we know, not being self-aware may have made the pain even more confusing and stressful.
“Maybe animals go to heaven.”
Many Christian theologians have already 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.”
And 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.
What about extinct animals? Will heaven be filled with friendly t-rexs, pteradons, and trilobites?
And finally, even if all animals did go to heaven, no amount of heavenly reparations would change the fact that what God did was wrong. For example, if a man murders a child, no amount of apologies or reparations will ever justify his murder, it will always be wrong. Even if we come to forgive the murder, that doesn’t mean we think murdering children is now okay — his actions were still wrong. Likewise, even if all the animals forgive God for torturing them when they were not guilty, it will always be wrong for God to have done so.
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. And even if God did allow animals into heaven, it doesn’t change the fact that what God did was wrong.
“Humans need animals.”
The majority of animals don’t need to exist to ensure human survival. If life was perfect for animals in Eden, God could’ve left most of them there after evicting Adam.
But even assuming humans can’t exist without animals (and God was unable to design any other alternative), this still doesn’t explain why God didn’t just design all animals as herbivores, to limit their suffering (and constant fear of being hunted). It also doesn’t explain why he would choose to inflict additional kinds of diseases upon them.
“Animals should just be grateful that God didn’t make things worse.”
There is a 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, especially to his innocent creations.
The argument of last resort
Finally, when all else fails, the believer can still claim there is an explanation, even if we 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 seem 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 children to be raped and murdered! There’s just no absurdity God can’t explain! It will all be rationalized and explained once you’re dead.”
As I’ve said before, if we accept that all nonsense can be explained away in the hereafter, then all religions become equally viable, since all their absurdities (the reasons we have come to denounce them) can also be explained away in the afterlife.
I can only imagine a couple scenarios in which one might justify the suffering of animals, but both are problematic.
1) Animals don’t actually suffer. If this is the case, they have certainly be made to appear to suffer, so if they don’t, then 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).
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 be baring false witness against its “good” creator, which leads us to incorrect conclusions about who God is.
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.