This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Prelapsarian predation, part 1: could it be “very good”?

Were animals bitey before the fall? Or did they only start munching on each other afterwards? In the first part of this series I assess what we can infer from God’s repeated declaration that his creation was “very good”.

The notion of animal death before the fall is anathema to some Christians. This tends to have the effect of producing rather unusual—even fantastic—theories about the prelapsarian state. I don’t have any special problem with unusual or even fantastical theories, because our own credulity is not a good measure of truth. But I am concerned with whether these views are actually read out of Scripture, or whether they are read into it on behalf of other intuitions or beliefs.

Needless to say, constructing weird and wonderful theological models is only worth doing if they are actually true—and if they are false, that’s not only a problem in terms of our obligation to biblical fidelity, but also in terms of apologetics. There’s no sense at all in wasting energy defending nonsense; and there’s a lot of damage that can be done by Christians who promote nonsense.

My cards on the table

For some years I was fairly convinced of the “standard” YEC narrative of a peaceful prelapsarian paradise, which you will not be able to say five times fast. I am now very skeptical of that narrative, but not because I have come to be persuaded by the evidence for evolution or an old earth. I am very unconvinced that the earth is ancient; and even if it is, I don’t think life would have arisen by a process that much resembles the standard evolutionary narrative.

I still consider myself a young earth creationist, broadly speaking. My reasons for doubting the standard YEC narrative are due to what can be deduced from Scripture and the deliverances of reason, as the Westminster divines would have said—not due to any evolutionary concerns.

All that said, when I speak of “creationists” in this series, I am meaning those Christians who hold the standard “3P” YEC view of a peaceful prelapsarian paradise. When I speak of people like me who still think the earth was created recently, deny theistic evolution, but nonetheless think that animal death preceded the fall, I will use the term “predationists”. Because if I cannot be whimsical on my own blog, what is the point, I ask you.

I’m going to start assessing the evidence—creationism versus predationism—by considering what the phrase “very good” in Genesis implies.

“Very good”

The creationist appeal is simple: it is not “very good” for God to create a world in which animals suffer and die.

Not all creationists take this approach—but I wouldn’t start with it if it weren’t common. It is certainly the first place that lay creationists tend to go in a discussion—I suppose as a shortcut for undercutting predationism through an appeal to intuition.

I’ll discuss the notion of animal suffering itself in a later installment of this series; here I want to make a couple of related points about what “very good” does and does not mean, and why this shortcut reflects poorly on creationists’ ability to exegete the texts they rely on.

1. Very good with respect to what?

God’s declarations of goodness in Genesis 1 all come following his creative activities. Now the continual, inexorable emphasis of those activities is his ordering of the world into a functional habitat for man (see ‘How would a Hebrew have pictured Genesis 1?’ for more discussion). In other words, each time God declares something good, he is declaring that it fits the purpose for which he created it. That it serves its function well.

This is obvious when you look at the first example in Genesis—the declaration about light:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:3-4

The light is not morally good. That makes no sense. Certainly this imagery is appropriated by John to represent moral categories, but the light itself is simply light—photonic energy. The reason it is good is because it serves the purpose of letting us see, and it serves it well. God was pleased to set this as a goal, and he is pleased with the way light achieves it.

So when Genesis says that God saw that a part of creation was good, we should read that not as something like:

God saw that it was morally right

…but rather more like:

God saw that it was doing a good job

Now obviously you can’t reject prelapsarian predation by asserting that it cannot do a good job. What would that even mean? There are some goals which predation achieves exceptionally well. Indeed, as I’ll argue in a later installment, it is very plausible, given our knowledge of the intricate balance of both plant and animal death in ecological systems, that predation is the only viable way to create a self-sustaining natural world that even remotely resembles ours. So the lamentably common creationist appeal to the phrase “very good” begs the question. The salient response is simple:

  1. “Very good” in Genesis 1 is an assessment with respect to achieving a functional goal rather than a moral ideal
  2. Predation is very good at achieving certain functional goals
  3. Therefore, to assert that predation is not “very good” requires arguing against those goals being God’s original plan for creation, rather than asserting that it violates some moral intuition

In other words, the typical creationist approach here assumes exactly what it needs to prove. That’s not a great way to start building a doctrine.

2. “Very good” is not perfect

The second argument I encounter plenty often, usually to bolster the first, is an immoderate exaggeration of what Genesis claims about the goodness of creation. I’ve often been told, for example, that death has no place in a perfect creation, or that God made the world as good as it could be. Aside from the obvious conflation of moral and functional goodness, addressed above, the fact is that Genesis simply does not say the creation was perfect. It does not even say it was as good as it could be. God is surprisingly measured in his description of creation’s goodness.

If he had wanted to say creation was perfect, he would have used the Hebrew word tamim. Yet he did not. If he had wanted to say it was superlatively good, he would have used the Hebrew phrase towb m’od m’od—very, very good, as in Numbers 14:7. Yet he did not. He used towb, “good”, with respect to individual creative acts, and towb m’od, “very good”, with respect to their culmination, the completed creation. Clearly God was pleased with the creation; it was functioning exactly as he wished—yet he did not go so far as to say it was “very very good”, let alone “perfect”.

This might seem like a minor point, but I am not inclined to let mishandling of Scripture slide. It is indicative of an incautious mindset. People who do not handle the text carefully, and are quick to go beyond what it says—often without noticing—are not reliable guides to what the text means.

Continued in part 2, on the provision of plants for food

17 comments

  1. Federico

    Very good post! It helped me a lot because I have YEC friends and they say that the garden of Eden was a kind of paradise without animal death. I believe that you are right about it, but what do you think about human death?

    Concerning YEC, do you know any resource or book that defends it with scientific evidence? I guess you have some justification for your belief in a young earth and for your rejection of evolution and an old earth.

    Thank you very much,

    God bless you,

    Federico

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Federico, I think if you say human death occurred before the Fall you basically end up denying passages like 1 Corinthians 15:21 and Romans 5:12. And that in turn basically collapses the gospel by leaving it no origin point. Human death before the Fall also implies more people existed in Genesis 1-3 than just Adam and Eve, which is highly problematic for passages like Genesis 3:20 and Acts 17:26.

    With regard to good resources for YEC, I don’t read many books; I rely more on articles and papers because I am a slow reader! One person who is very good on the science side is Dr Jay Wile. His theology is pretty bad, because despite his agreement with me on this issue his exegesis is pretty bad. But his science is pretty good—I’d start with his Top 5 Reasons for Believing in a Young Earth.

    For the record, I don’t reject evolution. I think the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. But I doubt an ancient earth, and I reject theistic evolution leading up to human beings.

  3. Alan in Arabia

    The top of this article said that it would to take 5 minutes to read. It took me 7 minutes to read and now my chocolate brownies are burnt. I am thinking about becoming an evolutionist to spite Bnonn.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Some people are a little slow.

  5. Remington

    For the record, I’m not committed to prelapsarian predation or the peaceful prelapsarian position. So this is just lazy speculation to see what might stick from an incautious mind:

    Is there a third category of goodness that you may be overlooking? For instance we think that being embodied is a good. It’s not a moral good in the way that charity is, but it also seems to be more than functionally fitting.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I think being embodied is functionally good. We think it is good to be embodied because being embodied is part of our proper function.

    It does not seem good in the same way for an angel to be embodied. Indeed, were an angel to be permanently and irrevocably embodied, that would seem to be bad—we can imagine an angel being punished in that way, a la the ridiculous rock creatures in Noah.

  7. Remington

    Perhaps your statement seems plausible because “functionally good” sneaks in something more than “is doing a good job”. “Is doing a good job” is how you cashed out light being good.

    But if that’s all we mean when we say that being embodied is good, then it seems obvious to me that you’re wrong to say an angel wouldn’t be good as embodied. Do you think angel souls operate less efficiently when embodied?

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    That’s how I cashed out function for light, because the end for which light was created is quite simple. But that doesn’t mean “doing a good job” is going to be an adequate analysis for something like whether angels or people are achieving their designed ends. That the proper function of light can be described simply does not imply that proper function in general is simple :)

  9. Remington

    Then *proper* function sneaks us back into the moral evaluations. After all, these designed ends (for humans and angels) would include moral evaluations too, right? But then doesn’t this, at best, leave open the question of whether animal predation can be thought of as “good”?

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Can you explain how moral evaluations would apply to the proper function of animals?

  11. Remington

    Tossing bunnies on a pike for fun is wrong?

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    But that is a moral evaluation involving people, and their commensurate proper functioning, viz ruling creation in a way that reflects God’s character. Stewarding rather than destroying. Being kind rather than being cruel.

    What you need is an evaluation that morally assesses animals qua predators. Or animals qua sufferers. You’d need to show somehow that a predatory teleology is in some way morally wrong, if not in some deontological sense, then at least in the broad sense of conflicting with God’s character.

  13. Remington

    But the reason we think “humans shouldn’t throw bunnies on pikes for fun” has as much to do with bunnies as it does with humans. After all, we don’t think it’s wrong to throw mud-pies on pikes for fun.

    Anyway, I don’t have any argument off the top of my head for showing that predation is morally wrong. This is, as I said, an incautious speculation. But at least I think we’ve seen that pointing out a functional sense of “good” does not settle the issue.

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    The problem with this is that it may be plausible to cash out the wrongness of throwing bunnies on pikes purely in terms of our own proper functioning. Ie, it is detrimental to our characters to engage in such activities; it is at odds with our creation mandate; etc. In other words, the suffering of the bunnies is not an issue in itself but only an issue as it relates to us.

    This becomes obvious when we think about whether it is wrong for a mummy bunny to eat one of her baby bunnies—something I am told happens on occasion. Obviously the mummy bunny does not sin in so doing, even though we find her actions disturbing. But if even infanticidal cannibalism is not morally wrong for animals, presumably predation in general is not morally wrong for animals.

    That leaves predation being morally wrong in the sense of conflicting with God’s proper function. His character in other words, or his plan for the world. But that seems like a very difficult case to make. Even if it’s true, it’s by no means obviously true the way some creationists make out.

  15. Remington

    >>The problem with this is that it may be plausible to cash out the wrongness of throwing bunnies on pikes purely in terms of our own proper functioning. Ie, it is detrimental to our characters to engage in such activities; it is at odds with our creation mandate; etc.

    I doubt it. Unless there is something of value in the lives of the bunnies then you can’t explain why it’s wrong for us (our characters, our creation mandate) to behave in such a way towards bunnies. Again, that’s just obvious from the fact that the same exact behavior by the same exact agent with mud would be considered fine. So clearly you can’t cash out our judgment without regard to the value/worth of the animal.

    >>This becomes obvious when we think about whether it is wrong for a mummy bunny to eat one of her baby bunnies—something I am told happens on occasion.

    Actually that’s not obvious, since some YEC (and other non-YEC) clearly see something wrong with predation (which a mom bunny eating a baby bunny would classify as).

    >>Obviously the mummy bunny does not sin in so doing, even though we find her actions disturbing.

    But that’s not the sort of goodness/badness some YEC (and other non-YEC) are getting at. They aren’t saying animals have moral responsibility. Unless you want to argue that any sort of goodness had by a sentient life form entails moral culpability of that sentient life. But I don’t see that that argument would be any easier to make than the one some YEC are trying to make.

  16. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    So clearly you can’t cash out our judgment without regard to the value/worth of the animal.

    That wasn’t what I was suggesting. I agree that animals have value. But that’s a separate issue. The fact that something has value doesn’t necessitate that it has unique value and should not be destroyed, which is presumably the kind of reasoning you’d need to show that predation conflicts with animal worth.

    The issue here, surely, is not value but suffering. It is wrong to cause suffering for the sake of suffering. It is wrong to mistreat animals we are supposed to rule as God’s viceroys. It’s wrong to damage our own characters in that way. Etc. And I think we can plausibly cash that out purely in terms of our own characters and relationships, rather than in terms of animal suffering in itself.

    But even if we can’t, there’s a big gap between saying it’s wrong for us to cause animal suffering via bunny pikes for no good reason, to saying that it’s wrong for God to cause animal suffering via predation for the sake of creating a balanced ecology, or whatever end we suspect he had in mind.

    And that’s not even getting into the question of suffering itself, which I’ll assess in a later post.

    Actually that’s not obvious, since some YEC (and other non-YEC) clearly see something wrong with predation (which a mom bunny eating a baby bunny would classify as).

    I meant that it’s obvious the mummy bunny does not sin. Creationists would agree with that, I am fairly sure. No one thinks bunnies are going to hell.

    But that’s not the sort of goodness/badness some YEC (and other non-YEC) are getting at.

    Right, agreed. But then…what are they getting at…?

  17. Samuel Vink

    I’m writing a rebuttal to this. The first post is here: https://vinkdication.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/27/ and I’ll post the rest later. And I hope it’s not too straining for the eyes to read -I had little option.

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…