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Evil and the Problem of Suffering in Nature

In traditional Christian theology, suffering and death are the result of human sin stemming from the Fall conceived of as an actual historical event. Though "death" often meant both biological death and spiritual death, the reality of suffering, disease, and death in non-human nature was understood as the consequence of human disobedience to God and the expulsion of humankind from the idyllic life once theirs in the Garden of Eden.

With the rise of Biblical critical scholarship over the past two centuries, and along with it the development of modern science, including geology as well as biology, the historicity of the Fall has been largely abandoned by wide sections of the Christian tradition. The Genesis narrative remains crucially important as focusing our attention on the reality of sin, both the sins of individual people and of social and political institutions, and on the reality of the consequences of sin in terms of the destruction we bring about on humanity and the environment. But as an explanation of the historical origins of sin, the Fall narrative is of much less help. How then do we account for the inevitable and universal fact of human sinfulness?

One approach is to see sinfulness and the capacity to do evil as something which arose sui generis with the evolution of humanity as a distortion of those aspects which distinguish homo sapiens in the context of other early hominids. These include language, imagination, tool making, and all the other aspects related to the phenomena of self-consciousness and moral judgment. Another approach is to embed these aspects of humanity in a long evolutionary pattern of emerging capacities, and to talk about at least a prefiguring of them in earlier mammalian species as well as in other contemporary species, such as dolphins and chimps. But is it appropriate and even sensible to use terms like morality and evil outside the context of human behavior?

While the debate continues among sociobiologists, anthropologists, and so on, some see even physics as having at least a limited bearing on the subject. Clearly the underlying physical characteristics of what we call sinful and evil acts involve dissipation, decay, violence, and so on, and thus entropy. It is then possible to ask whether the laws of thermodynamics are in some way a precondition for the possibility of the slow evolution of those capacities which, at least in humanity, emerge as full-blown sinfulness. Entropy in particular seems to play an ambiguous, multivalent role here.

For example, not only are dissipation, decay, and death processes marked by an increase in entropy. Even the production of order and complexity, of biological novelty, beauty, "design," requires an overall increase in entropy in their underlying physical systems. So we can formulate the question in this way: if God created the universe for the evolution of life and of creatures like us capable of entering into covenant with God, was it necessary to include the laws of thermodynamics in the process? If Murphy and Ellis can talk about a "moral universe", must we also talk about a "thermodynamic universe" in which sin and consequently redemption are included as well? Or does sin remain something both entirely unique to humanity and without any precedent whatsoever, and the pre-human world one of amoral innocence?

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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