Saturday, December 13, 2014

Animal Pain and Hope Beyond Death


Pope Francis has recently made comments suggesting that there is hope for animals beyond death. I thought I would share a paper I wrote for an apologetics class examining what C.S. Lewis and other Christian thinkers write about animal pain and hope beyond death.

Why does God permit suffering? It is a question theologians have grappled with for centuries. A possible suggestion is that suffering is punishment for sin. Another possibility is that God permits us to suffer in order to bring about certain virtues in us, such as resilience and empathy. Such suggestions might contribute something to the understanding of human suffering, but the problem of pain is not a uniquely human problem. What about animals? What can we say, for instance, about a fawn who burns to death in a forest fire? What possible justification could God have for allowing such suffering? Animals cannot be held morally accountable in the same way that humans can, so it cannot be punishment for sin. Nor do animals have the self-consciousness or the sophistication necessary to learn or grow as a result of their suffering. At least in human suffering there is consolation in the hope of a redeemed life beyond the pains of this life. What, if anything, can be said of life after death for animals? Do the animals have any share in the life of the age to come? C.S. Lewis warns that to even ask the question puts one at risk of being dismissed as an “old maid” who is overly preoccupied with her pets. Lewis, however, believes animal immortality to be a legitimate question for theological investigation. He is not alone.  Joseph Hamilton wrote, “Some of the ablest apologists for the Christian religion, have in many instances mooted, and in others confidently advocated, the future life of animals.” In his book, The Problem of Pain, Lewis devotes an entire chapter to exploring the problem of animal pain and the question of whether there is life beyond death for the beast.
Lewis begins his chapter by stating the dilemma outlined above, “So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain or be improved by it.”[1] Lewis claims that through revelation, God has given us some means of coming to terms with the meaning of our own suffering, but he has provided us with a similar glimpse into the ultimate meaning of animal pain. Because of what we understand of the meaning of human suffering, and because of what we know about the goodness of God, we can be confident that animal pain is not a result of cruelty or capriciousness on the part of God. Lewis is correct to point out that, because God has not seen fit to reveal it to us, anything that we say about God’s ultimate intention and purpose for creating animal life and the role that suffering might play in those purposes is speculative. However, reason can provide us with at least a partial glimpse into the meaning of animal pain. We know from our common experience of pain with the animals, that pain is necessary for survival and that it is in that sense a gift. Pain teaches us our limits and shows us what is good and what is bad, what will contribute to our flourishing and what will diminish it. Austin Farrer writes, “Animal existence is beset by goods and evils, things needing to be shunned and things asking to be embraced. But animal action is the shunning of the one, and the embracing of the other; and while the animal survives, it is successful rather than the reverse ... Living is its own justification, its own good.[2]” He continues, “the God of nature gives his animal creatures pains out of love for them, to save their lives ... Again, out of love for them, God moves his creatures to shun their pains and mend their harms, so far as their sense or capacity allows.[3]” The preservation and perpetuation of the species is a natural good, and pain is a necessary part of that process. This of course does not account for the totality of animal suffering, much of which seems needless and meaningless to us. The same can be said for human suffering. We can acknowledge a biological purpose for pain, but there is more to be said.
The question arises: What exactly is it that animals suffer? Do they have the same awareness of their suffering that we as human beings have? Lewis states that we cannot know for sure what animals experience. We can only speculate. Moreover, there are varying levels of sentience in the animal kingdom.  The earth-worm is in a much different category than the gorilla. The gorilla is much closer to us than the earthworm, and has a much higher level of sentience with a more sophisticated nervous system.  Lewis makes a distinction between sentience and consciousness, however. Consciousness is more than a mere awareness of experiences, but implies that the creature has a sense of self that persists beneath and alongside the succession of events that it experiences. Animals, Lewis claims, have sentience but not consciousness. He suggests, “But at least a great deal of what appears to be animal suffering need not be suffering in any real sense. It may be we who have invented the ‘sufferers’ by the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of reading into the beast a self for which there is no real evidence.”[4] Lewis’ contention here, however, is challenged by some recent developments in the science of consciousness. An international group of prominent scientists has recently signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in which they claim that certain sophisticated animals; including all species of mammals, birds, and even octopi, experience conscious awareness similar to that of human beings. "The absence of a neo-cortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states," they write, "Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.”[5] If it can be said that animals have a consciousness similar to our own, it must also be said that their own experience of suffering is at least in some sense like our own.
Lewis also raises the question of how disease and pain entered the animal world. He begins by rejecting the idea of many older theologians that animal, disease, suffering and death could be traced back to the original sin of human beings. He writes, “This now is impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men.”[6]  Keith Miller elaborates,
Creation itself provides overwhelming testimony against a pre-Fall creation without death or pain. Death and pain are more than part of creation; they are woven into its very fabric. Reproduction, the care and protection of offspring, defense, escape from predators, and the pursuit of prey are defining forces that shape the biology and behavior of animal species. Furthermore, the long history of life on Earth clearly demonstrates the existence of death and pain before the advent of humanity. The fossil record documents that the same ecological relationships and organism interactions (e.g., carnivory, parasitism, scavenging, decomposition, disease) we observe today were fundamental aspects of biologic communities throughout Earth history. Hundreds of millions of years of Earth history saw not only the death of individuals, but also the extinction of species and whole taxonomic groups. The view that death and pain in the human creation began with the Fall simply cannot be reconciled with the preserved record of life on Earth.[7]

If the origin of animal pain cannot be attributed to human rebellion, are we then forced to conclude that God himself is the originator of this suffering? Lewis suggest that look further back than the fall of humanity to a prior angelic fall. Lewis writes that it has been widely held throughout the history of the Church that, “…some older and mightier being long since became apostate and is now the emperor of darkness and (significantly) the Lord of this world.”[8] In the biblical story there is an evil personality at work in creation prior to humanity’s fall and is the source of our temptation and deception. Lewis continues, “It seems to me, therefore, a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene: and that when man fell, someone had, indeed, tempted him.[9]” Lewis speculates that this evil power, Satan, may have corrupted animal life and the rest of creation long before the appearance of human beings. Others, while accepting that there is overwhelming scientific evidence for an old earth and death prior to the appearance of human beings, feel uncomfortable with Lewis’ separation of natural evil from the curse brought about by human sin. William Dembski, for instance, proposes that the consequences of the fall extended both forward and backward in time. God foreknew human sin and preemptively brought about its consequences in creation. He writes,
For redemption to effectively deliver humanity from evil therefore requires humanity to be clear as to precisely what it has consented to in rebelling against God and embracing evil. To achieve this clarity humanity must experience the full brunt of the evil that it has set in motion, and this requires that the creation itself fully manifest the consequences of humanity’s rebellion against God.[10]

Dembski’s view is at least as speculative as Lewis’s view, and is perhaps even more novel. While preserving human responsibility for natural evil, it introduces other problems. If God preemptively brought forth creation marred in response to the future sin of human beings, in what sense can it be said to have been created “good?” Lewis at least preserves the idea of a creation originally good. If Lewis denies human responsibility for the origin of animal pain, he does have a place for humanity in its redemption. He writes,
If this hypothesis is worth considering, it is also worth considering whether man, at his first coming into the world, had not already a redemptive function to perform. Man, even now, can do wonders to animals: my cat and dog live together in my house and seem to like it. It may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world, and if he had nit joined the enemy he might have succeeded in doing so to an extent now hardly imaginable.

          Finally Lewis addresses the question of justice and whether or not animals will share in the age to come. Whatever the cause of animal suffering, God has permitted it, what will he ultimately do to set things right? The difficulty, for Lewis, in conceiving of a continued existence for animals on the other side of death is connected with what was said earlier about his contention that animals, while sentient, do not have consciousness or a sense of self—a soul—in  the way that human beings do. What is it that would persist in the resurrection? If what many modern scientists are saying is true, that animals do most likely have consciousness, than there is less difficulty than Lewis supposes. Lewis’ proposal, however, remains compelling. He suggests that just as human beings are understood in their relation to God—being ‘in Christ’—so also animals may be understood in relation to human beings, being somehow ‘in’ their human masters. The tame animal is the animal most occupying its purpose in God’s creation, Animals were created to find their sense of self, the fulfillment of their identity, in human beings. Lewis writes, “If a good sheepdog seems ‘almost human’ that is because a good shepherd has made it so,”[11] He continues, “And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters. And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context.”[12] What Lewis admits is a rather qualified vision of animal immortality in which individual animals find continued existence in and through their relationship to human beings, but this is not the only sense in which Lewis imagines animal life in the age to come. There may be a sense in which the beasts have a kind of corporate immortality in which the essence of “lionness”, for instance, continues in a perfected form.
          The ultimate solution to the problem of both human pain and animal pain will be found in the day of Christ’s return and the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. The letter to the Romans teaches us:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:20-24)

The scriptures suggest that our final redemption will include the redemption of all of creation, which presumably will include animals. Until that time, the meaning of animal suffering remains a mystery to us. George Macdonald, a great influence on Lewis, speaks of the redemption of animals being connected to the realization of our identity as “pure sons of God” in a way that parallels Lewis’ argument. He speaks of a time when the meaning and purpose—the soul—of animal life will no longer be a mystery to us and we will share with these lower creatures in the redemption of God,
The ways of God go down into microscopic depths as well as up to telescopic heights…So with the mind; the ways of God go into the depths yet unrevealed to us. He knows His horses and dogs as we cannot know them, because we are not yet pure sons of God. When through our sonship, as Paul teaches, the redemption of these lower brothers and sisters shall have come, then we shall understand each other better.

Perhaps no one else speaks with such unqualified hope for a cosmic redemption that will include both humans animals together as John Wesley,

May it not answer another end; namely, furnish us with a full answer to a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that never had sinned to be so severely punished? They could not sin, for they were not moral agents. Yet how severely do they suffer! -- yea, many of them, beasts of burden in particular, almost the whole time of their abode on earth; So that they can have no retribution here below. But the objection vanishes away, if we consider that something better remains after death for these poor creatures also; that these, likewise, shall one day be delivered from this bondage of corruption, and shall then receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.

Although the suffering in this world is great, God has overcome the world and promised us that sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to come. God is not indifferent to our pain, he sees us. His eye is also on the sparrow.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1986) 129.
[2] Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1961), 91–3.
[3] Ibid., 74, 92.
[4] Lewis, 133.
[6] Lewis, 133.
[8] Lewis, 134.
[9] Ibid.
[10] William Dembski, “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,”19,29.
[11] Ibid, 139
[12] Ibid, 140

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