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Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering: A Review of Ron Osborn’s New Book


This is a good book. It opens with an unforgettable story of author Ron Osborn’s childhood witness to three, young female lions feasting on their recent kill of a Cape buffalo. He describes the lions’ chests and muzzles that were soaked in blood and recalls the stench of death in the air. The lions had not yet taken the trouble to drag the buffalo’s carcass out of the vehicle track the family car was following. So they were forced to move around what Osborn now describes as “this scene of beautiful carnage” (p. 12).  His childhood world, Osborn tells us, “was deeply mysterious, untamed, dangerous, beautiful and good… And the danger was part of its goodness and its beauty.”  Indeed, the beauty and goodness are, “inextricably linked to cycles of birth and death, as well as suffering, ferocity and animal predation” (p. 13, emphasis mine).

If we can see the beauty and goodness of lions eviscerating their prey, it will not “ring true” to call this world of ours cursed or evil. “There is a doubleness to all of animal existence… with birth and death, comedy and tragedy, suffering and grandeur, appearing as the interwoven and inseparable aspects of a single reality that defies easy moral categorization.” (p. 14, emphasis mine).

So is there really a problem with animal suffering? Osborn seems to be of a double mind regarding the “doubleness” of animal existence. In his subtitle, there is a problem.  In the text, he formulates it thus:  “Simply stated, the trouble is this:…Why… would a just and loving God… require or permit such a world to exist?” (p. 14).  Now if this is indeed the problem posed by animal suffering, then one must ask whether the reality of animal existence does not permit moral categorization — even if it isn’t easy. And isn’t it the case that animal suffering is, whatever beauty and grandeur there may be accompanying it, an effect of evil? If actual animal existence, with its “inextricably linked cycles of birth and death,” and its “inseparable aspects” of suffering and tragedy,” is beautiful and good, surely it is entirely fitting for a just and loving God to create a world manifesting these forms of beauty and goodness. 

On these terms, animal suffering is not, after all, a problem. What entitles us to this inference? The negativities of an animal’s existence are inseparable from its beauty and goodness. Moreover those negativities do not outweigh the beauty, for if they did such existence would permit easy and negative moral categorization. 

Yet it seems Osborn does not believe that death is truly beautiful and good, for he writes  “…there remains a deep scandal in death and suffering in nature…” (p. 157). The Cross, he says,  denies us any “stoical pact with the cruelties of death as divinely fated necessities of life. Death is the final enemy.” (p. 158). All that we can say of the beauty of life as it is and has been across the entire span of animal existence is that this beauty “…is perhaps the closest we can hope to come to answering the theodicy riddle of animal suffering…” (p. 175).  But the author actually offers something more.

The “more” is modeled on “kenotic” Christology. Such a Christology reveals that “…God’s creative might and sovereign rule are always expressed in harmony with his character revealed in the historical person Jesus, whose way was one of co-suffering humility, nonviolent self-limitation and liberal self-donation.” (p. 162).

Challenging his readers, Osborn asks: “…are we prepared to follow this Creator who… enters into the suffering and contingency of his creation and in so doing redeems it?” (p. 164). Much — or should one say everything — depends on the meaning of that redemption. The author’s final chapter suggests, but does not say, that the redemption of animals will be entrance into Sabbath rest — rest from the violence of nature as we know it. In fact, the final chapter changes the subject from theodicy to the problem of human violation of the creation.

The critical reader will do well to attribute the ambiguity of Osborn’s monograph to his evident humility and courage. Moreover, we ought to recognize that since the problem is animal suffering, the solution is an end to animal suffering and not the discovery of some new way to think about animals and deity.  

If the life of Jesus is actually revelatory of the Creator, then Christology offers us more than a model for improved thought about our world. Instead, that life makes hope for the Sabbath rest of the whole creation rational. It is important to recall that the central affirmation of Christology, in all of its forms (including kenotic ones), is that the Creator really participates in his creation with the precise purpose of overcoming evil and its correlative suffering and death, i.e. to redeem it. God in Christ does not, according to the author of Philippians, reconcile himself to the world. He reconciles the world to himself. (The ultimate vice of theodicy is the reconciliation of God to the world.)  If reconciliation of the world to God is the effect of His self-emptying, then the world will become non-violent.  

The reality of the Cross makes undeniable the full participation of divinity in the literal conditions of the creation. However, it is only the Cross because of the resurrection. Without Easter the cross becomes a potent demand for a stoic pact with the necessity of death. Osborn rejects such accommodation. “There are things under heaven and in the earth,” he writes, “that we should not be at peace with, and the jaws of Behemoth, I would submit, are one”  (p. 157). Jesus Christ makes his rejection plausible. 

It is to be hoped that this thoroughly informed, fair-minded, generous and insightful volume will find a large audience. Necessary brevity makes consideration of a host of fascinating questions the book inspires a task for future conversation.

Osborn, Ronald E., Death before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2014. Available on Amazon. Look for a longer review from Daryll Ward in the next issue of the Spectrum journal.

Daryll Ward is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College in Kettering, Ohio where he has taught since 2002.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in systematic theology.  His scholarly interests focus on questions concerning natural causality and divine action.  Before joining the College he conducted a business ethics consulting practice for 14 years, during which time he served as the volunteer pastor of the Burr Ridge, Illinois Seventh-day Adventist church.  He is the grateful husband of Adele Waller, a retired health care attorney, and the lucky companion of Buckley, their six-month-old yellow Labrador retriever.
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